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Essential Art Deco    by Ghislaine Wood order for
Essential Art Deco
by Ghislaine Wood
Order:  USA  Can
Bulfinch, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have never been very sure about what the term Art Deco encompasses. Essential Art Deco went a long way towards clarifying this for me. It explains the artistic movement in its historical context and through examples. The author tells us that it is 'the style of an age of extremes', from the roaring twenties to the Depression. She also calls it eclectic and exotic, traditional and modern, nationalistic and worldwide, and tells us that it defies attempts at constraint.

The 86 color photographs in the book provoked extreme reactions in me. I would love to own some pieces, while I give others a definite thumbs down (I'm afraid I've never appreciated Cubist). The Art Deco style manifests in architecture (such as in the Chrysler Building and the Eiffel Tower); in cigarette lighters and pencil sharpeners; in fabrics; in paintings and sculpture; in stained glass and bookbindings; in clocks and carpets; in masks and wallhangings. It was big in Hollywood. It absorbed a fascination with the skyscraper, 'the most evocative icon of the modern age.'

The movement was fuelled by modernization and machine production ('the imagery of the mechanized world') but also by the past, many designers wishing to 'modernize tradition rather than abandon it.' Some designs were driven by the emerging need for machine production, but Art Deco also reflected archaeological discoveries like King Tut's tomb, which 'fuelled a romantic fascination with the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Meso-America.' Some pieces look clumsy to my modern eye, but others remain striking with a bold, exotic look. The movement's last phase was Streamlining which became a style that 'represented the vibrancy and mass appeal of American culture world-wide.'

Ghislaine Wood tells us that though Art Deco saw its culmination in the 'rampant consumerism and individualism' of the 1939 New York World's Fair, it is still very much with us today. The book ends with a timeline that takes us from Marinettti's Manifesto of Futurism in 1909 up to the beginning of WW II in 1939, placing Art Deco milestones alongside world events. If you ever wondered about this particular artistic movement, then turn the pages of Essential Art Deco to be simultaneously energized and enlightened.

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