As English speaking and English writing people, we tend to hear more about the brief American Experience in this war and we are familiar with the British anti-war poetry and the legend of the well-born and the well-bred, the flower of English manhood dying on the battlefields of Flanders, alongside their colonial allies. But it was the French who suffered the most during the Great War. The battles were fought on French soil, on the border shared with the Belgians. German strategic plan for winning the war was to bleed France white, to fight the war until there were no French men left to block the way to Paris. The exsanguination tactic worked quite well—the French lost the most men of any nation—but Germany also bled itself in the effort, and, unsupported by allies, was forced to surrender. 

When one asks the question: why did the French surrender to the Germans in 1940, one has only to look at the statistics of loss to realize that the nation would have done anything to survive, gone to any lengths to save its new generation of young men, now so precious to its uncertain future. But in the 1920s in France, the future was unknown, Germany had been vanquished, and it was finally time to celebrate. The decade of the années folles was the jazz age in Paris, the years of the new woman in France, the time of the Lost Generation, nomadic and unsettled, presided over by Gertrude Stein the expatriate American poet. Behind the fun was caution, for, despite its exuberance, the mood was conservative, regardless of the presence of modernity, the gaze was firmly fixed to the past. 

It is out of the odd paradox of post-war modernism and the retrospective mindset among the French that the glittering and commercial spectacle of the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris emerged in all its glitter and glory. Taking advantage of good weather, the Exhibition opened in April and closed in October, attracting thousands of visitors, most of whom were delighted with the expanse of commodities crafted in the name of all that was modern. However, there was the radical modern, represented by the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau by Le Corbusier, tucked away behind the Grand Palais in obscurity, and the Soviet Pavillon by Konstantin Meinikov. And then there was the other version of the modern that was precisely the opposite of radical, which was later termed “moderne,” an appellation of light mockery, or Modern Light. Named Art Deco, much later, this version of modernism between the wars was exuberantly decorative and ostentatiously ornamental. That said it was the “Moderne” that dazzled and thrilled the crowds; it was the Moderne that cemented the French reputation for being the queen of the decorative arts, the arbiter of luxury goods, the seer of all things fashionable. 

The history of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes might have been very different if the exhibitions had been planned with a different criteria for exhibiting. It had been the custom for expositions or fairs of this kind to be named “universal,” but the assumptions of the nineteenth century had drowned in the mud of Flanders. After the War, the term was “international,” acknowledging the prevailing mood of nationalism. Another major change that was made in 1925 was to eliminate the time-honored custom of exhibiting the fine arts. If the traditional display of painting had been allowed, the public would have seen–in the French section at least–a late Cubism and a mild classicism–a rather weak brew of conservative and tamed avant-garde. With the absence of Cubism as painting, whether historic or contemporary, the 1925 Exhibition in Paris cemented Cubism as a style suitable for applied art.

In practice, the Exposition was notable for its rejection of industrial design and modern architecture, despite its long and unwieldy name. Like Germany, France has a housing shortage and, like Germany, the nation needed to modernize its infrastructure; but unlike Germany, Holland and even Russia, France decided to reject the future for an exploration of a contradiction in terms, a historicized modernism. This modernity, like Baudelaire’s modernity of the 1860s, was expressed safely, through fashion and style. This modernity was drained of any threat and was safe and positive. Lacking any philosophical or theoretical underpinnings, Art Deco was, nevertheless expansive and inclusive and open-minded, accepting ancient Egypt and American culture, cashing in on the discovery of the tomb of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 and turning the engineering triumph of an ocean liner into a decorative poster. Closer to home, Art Deco sampled the Wiener Werkstätte designers, especially Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, gave a nod to Russian Constructivism, and repurposed Cubism to its own ends.

An accessible accumulative style of quotations and appropriation, Art Deco is perhaps best understood through the artists who represented it, not necessarily the fine artists—that would be the Cubists or the post-Cubists—but via the works of the decorative and applied artisans, the graphic artists, and the interior designers. As for the architects, the best examples of Art Deco architecture were in New York, but in Paris, some remarkable temporary buildings at the Fair, built for the French exhibits introduced the French stance on decorative and ornamental art to the rest of the world. The Fair was a frank and unapologetic trade fair for French merchandise, especially luxury goods and consumer goods of great style and the undeniable Gallic flair for the chic. 

Art Deco, in its eclectic way, signified “modern” and in doing so also signaled that old styles were now outmoded. This signal educated the potential buyer as to what to purchase next. The most succinct description of current trends was made by the painter, Charles Dufresne, who explained the difference twenty-five years had made to French design: “L’art de 1900 fut l’art du domaine de la fantaisie, celui de 1925 est du domaine de la raison.” Indeed, the Fair marked the low point and eclipse for Art Nouveau and the advertisement of Art Deco, the new synthetic style of applied art, marked by, not by nature but by the machine. 

Years passed, another War intervened, and post-World War II aesthetic judgments rejected the decorative and rejoiced in the abstract. It was not until the 1960s, a decade beloved for its Youth quake styles, neon colors, curvilinear psychedelic designs and a new appreciation for the decorative, that this exhibition was revisited and renamed: ART DECO. By the 1960s and the definitive volume by Bevis Hiller, modern architecture had long since been winnowed out from its original surroundings and now reigned supreme as the International Style, while the prevailing style of the 1920s had slid into oblivion and disapproval. Since the sixties, Art Deco has been named and understood as an important style, which was not to be disparaged, but was to be appreciated on its own terms which were part of its time, those few fragile years between the Wars.

In the 1920s, many women who found success, however, limited, and recognition, however brief, did so in new fields, unclaimed and unguarded by their male counterparts. But, to make the point that there are always exceptions which prove the rule, there were women who trespassed into male territories and not only succeeded but also introduced objects now considered hallmarks of Art Deco. Architect Eileen Gray and painter Tamara De Lempicka were famous in their own time, but history forgot them and left these artists in the dusty archives. In their own time, both women were well known but after the Second World War, they fell into oblivion, victims of the prevailing sexism of the second half of the twentieth century. When these women were resurrected, so to speak, it was a different age that sought to highlight rather than ignore or downplay their respective sexualities. Gray and Lempicka had lovers of both genders during the decades when women were allowed to be openly lesbian in Paris and Berlin. In Germany, the coming of the Nazis ended sexual freedom, and, in France, the German occupation sent non-heterosexuals underground. 

But in the 1920s, Paris was a haven for American and British women who were persecuted in their own countries for being lesbians. The British author of the famous lesbian manifesto and novel, The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall lived in Paris, as did the American poet Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney from Ohio. Stein and Barney opened their homes as salons, hosting intellectuals, artists, writers in Paris. Stein lived most of her life with Alice B. Toklas and Barney was partners with the American artist, Romaine Brooks. Brooks did a well-known portrait of Lady Una Troubridge in a tuxedo, sporting a monocle. The accessory was the sign of what Colette called a “mannish woman,” who frequented the lesbian club Le Monocle where women wore very short bobs and usually wore male clothing. 

However, wearing an Eaton crop did not necessarily a lesbian make, for many women took advantage of post war liberation and wore trousers and bobbed their hair and smoked cigarettes. The masculine look popular in the twenties had labels, “hard-boiled flapper,” “boyette,” “boy-girl,” but Radclyffe Hall never wore trousers in public and women who cross dressed were part of the larger Bohemian culture in which lesbians came and went without much notice. Lesbians and lesbian couples were an important part of Parisian intellectual life. American Sylvia Beach, owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company, lived with Adrienne Monnier, who also had a book store across the street. Some of these women were able to establish themselves as independent due to their personal wealth, such as Romaine Brooks, others, like Lempicka had to work hard for a living. However, it can be said that many of these high achievers came from socially established families and their decisions to “come out,” as it were in such a public manner, speaks of class privilege. 

Trained as a painter, Eileen Gray was from a high ranking Irish family and her upbringing apparently gave her the gift of self-confidence that encouraged her to delve into furniture design and architectural design after a fine art education at Slade School of Fine Art in London. Although buffeted by social norms, many of these women are known today because of their courage and determination to live their lives as they saw fit and insisted on making art with the aplomb of an aristocrat—and Tamara de Lempicka was from a noble East European family, exiled In Paris. Here, in this city of light, exiles and of the Lost Generation, it was acceptable for lesbians to express their lives and their emotions through their art, whether that manifestation was a house or a painting. This freedom was a unique situation, not to be repeated, until the next century when homosexuality was not only accepted but also legal. In fact, the twenty-first century discussion of these artists has sought to re-examine their work in relation to their unconventional lifestyles, and recent scholarship is now examining their work as reflections of their gender and sexuality.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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