Estelle Arielle Bouchet reminisces about the artistic movements, escapist attitudes and sense of decadent abandon that defined a new kind of creativity in the decades after the First World War. Might something similar come out of this crisis to boost fashion, literature and art once again?
Beyond the world’s painful reality, a way out exists, in another world, an escapist voyage. Such is surrealism: the uncertain and extraordinary universe of Eluard, Desnos, Soupault, and many others, who, after World War I, were desperate for the rebirth of dreaming and of the new.
Like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, the artist appeals to his right to recreate a new world based in France of the winding trenches, of women widowed before they became mothers, of the smell of blood and destruction. It means peering into the “Je est un autre” (I am another) so dear to Rimbaud, in order to invent a new world that allows us to be born again. A world that can express itself through a new art. An art made of flowers, babyish plumpness and lovers’ curves: Art Deco. This impulsive need to create life out of the emptiness of the war in Europe from 1914-1918 and later in the US during the stock market crash of 1929, leads artists to long for a parallel world.
It’s a time of Dadaism, a time of automatic writing, where words are hidden like streams rushing past the old roots of rational and bourgeois thought.
The twenties and thirties make up a great artistic moment, completely against ignorance and savagery, and committed to life. In a dark economic and social context, artists build a world that is alive and colorful. In “La Rûche,” on the hills of Montparnasse, they recreate the world. The building that Eiffel designed for the Exposition Universelle in 1900, from that moment on, was a sanctuary for all the starving artists that went on to become the greatest geniuses in modern painting.
Among these, Chagall, exiled from a dying Russia, concentrated on the mysticism of his Jewish origins. Every work of art in his collection was made with intense passion and zeal. But the ‘30s were radically different, even in painting. After 1925, Picasso changed everything with his masterpiece: he would paint unarmed, violent pictures that depict scenes of shapeless and convulsing creatures, all this breeding unconquerable and hysterical rage. The influence of surrealist poets is expressed in painting, through the desire to represent the personal inner hell of the artist.
The Far East and the esoteric are in fashion because they make the“other world” auspicious to creation and dreams. Women become magnificent pharaoh-like vestals. Silhouettes taken from Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” purified of all excess fat, incredibly long-limbed and refined, dance the fast-paced Charleston until the early morning, fitting in with the “babies.” All this refers to modern figures like Nicole Kidman’s icy chic style. Haircuts are severe, but hats and dresses are beset by novelty: tiaras and precious stones are spread over fabrics and hairstyles. Poiret is aware of his glory and scatters the seeds of a new aesthetic canon that is still alive today. Fashion promotes an androgynous woman and the implication of liberty in movement,such as eliminating corsets, while daring to wear pants, and so forth.Gabrielle Chanel, a few years later, would include the pseudo-feminist – the Diva of Modern Times – in her repertoire, finally freed from the conventional dress shirt. This kind of woman has a good time and can laugh without inhibitions, she bets big money on Monte Carlo’s green felt and she is given over to images of shameless eroticism.
A new feminine freedom is found in the emblematic character of Polish painter Tamara Lempicka. The artist lived her life and her loves as she pleased, placing her personal and artistic creation above traditional feminine virtues. Summoned by Rufus Bush, she went to New York in 1929 to paint his fiancée’s portrait. The result was the portrait of an intensely modern woman, that reminds the viewer of Prada’s muses and, because of its play on restraint and curves, perfectly incarnates the Art Deco age. Art Deco gave life to design, which today holds an important place in the international artistic scene. It’s a time of playfulness and light-heartedness. Starting out full of superficiality, it’s an edict to stay aloof, something we find predominantly in today’s modern society as well: couples are not serious, there is no true love, yes to sex but no to love.
Glances are fringed with eyeliner, and the elegant woman hides behind her cigarette smoke. She is mysterious and her perfume sometimes takes on the poisonous fragrance of “Fracas” by Robert Piguet, just as today’s Dior offers “Midnight Poison,” but a fragrance that is very far from a Dioresque lily of the valley worn by our grandmothers! Neo-Classicism can be found in the desire for a festive eternity. Some artists, however, concentrate on the uneasiness of the age. The theme of naked feminism is added to a general desire to return to simplicity. As if reacting to the motioning allegorical figure meant to pass on knowledge in the nineteenth century, the feminine figure has reached the peacefulness and fullness of form of an ageless Venus. In Parisian homes, one can fall in love with Renè Lalique’s transparencies. It is all built upon a subtle play on light and shadow, on dream and reality. Fantasy is preferred to elegance, the baroque to sombre, fun to chastity, as long as no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Visions foreboding the drama of the Second World War? A diverse and uncertain climate that reflects the 2009 we live in and that animates madly virtual world capitals, anthems to multi-ethnic culture and a profound need for world peace. All this in a light-hearted age that can be seen in the humanitarian battles for Tibet and the fight for human rights.
Estelle Arielle Bouchet, CEO, EAB Press