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Wednesday, July 11, 2001


Where dreams of the future met the feminine zeitgeist

According to a song popular during World War l, every cloud has a silver lining. In the case of that exercise in mechanized butchery, the silver lining may have been the improvement in women's social position. With so many men going off to fight and die in the trenches, women played a key role by replacing them in a range of vital industries, making it difficult to deny them the vote when peace returned.

Clock by Louis Sue and Andre Mare(C) ADAGP, PARIS & APG-JAPAN/JAA, TOKYO, 2001
Copper vase by L'Orfevrerie ChristoflePHOTO COURTESY OF ISETAN MUSEUM OF ART

These twin trends of mechanization and female suffrage were also important in Art Deco, the dominant design movement of the postwar period, whose sleek, modern style cast its spell over the plastic arts from architecture and furniture to jewelry and accessories.

Some beautiful examples of Art Deco items can be seen in the vases, furniture and knickknacks of the Sonnabend Collection on show at the Isetan Gallery in Shinjuku.

My initial encounter with Art Deco was through the set designs of the 1930s television series "Buck Rogers," which I watched in the 1980s. The spark-spluttering spaceships and exaggerated Machiavellian mannerisms of Ming the Merciless in those old SF shorts permanently colored my perceptions, making the futurism of Art Deco seem mildly absurd.

Indeed, some of the items on display fit right into this Flash Gordon universe, albeit with a great deal more class. A 1920s copper vase with silver overlays by L'Orfevrerie Christofle looks like a sinister Martian pod, while a large, late-'20s five-panel screen with gold and silver overlays by Pierre Legrain looks like it could easily serve as a radiation shield.

Emphasizing geometric elements, exulting in industrial processes, and embracing new techniques and materials, Art Deco often has an inhuman feel. In this show, though, there are also many items of exquisite charm on display, especially the glass works of Rene Lalique (1860-1945), the French designer whose career reveals the links between Art Deco and Art Nouveau.

Lalique pieces like "Vase -- Spirals" (1930), with its strong, abstract geometry and heavy stylization, are typical Art Deco. But other works like "Clock -- Two Doves" (1926), showing a design in milky opalescent glass of two doves canoodling among cherry blossoms, clearly owe more to the lush, decorative aesthetic that was Art Nouveau.

At first glance the difference between Art Deco and its precursor seems to be that the newer style was more masculine. However, it must be remembered that most of the items here were bought by or for women, so, whatever the initial impression, female taste was the dominant factor. This apparent contradiction may arise because the 1920s was perhaps the most revolutionary period in modern history. Beside the technological and scientific advances of that time, the Great War (1914-18) had swept away most of the old empires and many outmoded social and political ideas based on religion and tradition.

In consequence, perhaps the most significant change was in the new way women perceived themselves.

So it is that items of jewelry, such as a thick silver bracelet by Jean Fouquet from 1925, and a Celtic-influenced hammered silver, brass-and-copper brooch by Jean Despres, have an almost Amazonian feeling, as if women had come to see themselves as warriors. Items like these attest to a newfound confidence in keeping with the modernist zeitgeist.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dramatic 1928 dressing table in burl Amboyna wood veneers and tulipwood by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann.

The intimacy of the average piece of bedroom furniture is blown away by a design more in keeping with a piece of high-class office furniture. Between two cylindrical side tables topped with alabaster, an intimidating 189-cm mirror thrusts upward, giving a sense of power.

The fatal flaw of Art Deco was that it invoked too strongly a Brave New World populated by an elite race of strong, lithe, beautiful individuals. The average person sitting in front of so sleek and elegant a mirror couldn't help feeling a bit meek and humble.

"Art Deco from the Sonnabend Collection," until July 22 at the Isetan Museum of Art, Isetan Dept. Store 8F, Shinjuku, Tokyo, (03) 3352-1111. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission 1,000 yen, students 700 yen.

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