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Art Deco Exhibition at The New York Public Library Showcases Rarely Seen Prints and Posters
Poster design by Otto Morach. Photomechanical print from Publicité; présenté par A.-M. Cassandre (Paris, 1929). The New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Art and Architecture Collection.

NEW YORK, NY.- A New York Public Library exhibition explores the rich history, legacy and influences behind Art Deco, a style which visually captured the fascinating decades of the 1920s and 1930s and signaled the birth of our contemporary concept of modernism. Art Deco Design: Rhythm and Verve will be on view at The New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from September 12, 2008 to January 11, 2009. Admission is free.

The vivid objects on display demonstrate how Art Deco, a style associated with movement and abstraction, was able to unify modern art and industrial purpose. Included in the exhibition are lushly produced artist portfolios; richly colored prints, and advertisements that cleverly reflect popular culture. Representative examples are an Otto Morach poster that typifies the period’s fascination with skyscrapers and automobiles, Gaston Charlet’s intricate and vibrant textile designs, a folk art illustration of a woman and a fawn by A. Schadrine, and famed pochoir artist E.A. Séguy’s prints of insects and flora. Most of the items are from the Library’s Art and Architecture Collection.

A selection of toe-tapping tunes by iconic songsters George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and others from the 1920s and 1930s will also greet visitors to the gallery. Just as the Art Deco style crossed the Atlantic to inspire New World building and decoration, so this innovative music infused new energy into a war-weary Europe.

“Art Deco design shared with the music of its time, the Jazz Age, a feeling of high-spirited hedonism,” said Paula Baxter, curator of the Art and Architecture Collection at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. “The images in the exhibition show how design in the era of the flapper moved to the beat of syncopated rhythms and inspired improvisation.”

The exhibition offers a reappraisal of the style’s most notable features and its often-overlooked legacy to modern art. Starting with key Art Nouveau designs that reveal the origins of the Art Deco impulse, the exhibition presents developing traits that move through the 1920s and into the next decade. Aspects of the style’s legacy can be seen in the first volume of the significant art journal Verve (1937-60), a review of art and literature, and in the pioneering works of Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), an avant-garde painter and designer whose brightly colored and geometrically shaped creations demonstrate the union of fine art and commercial design aesthetics. Much of this exhibition also shows the Art Deco version of the pochoir technique, a labor-intensive hand-coloring process involving the use of stencil plates.

Art Deco (1919-1939) was an international decorative style, not an artistic movement; it received its name only recently, in 1968. The style first developed in France, and gained momentum internationally through a government-sponsored exposition held in Paris in 1925 which attracted over 16 million viewers. The exciting array of works on display highlighted a variety of avant-garde and playful artistic methods. After 1925, designs reflected the rapid artistic and technological innovations of the period between the two world wars, incorporating chic elegance, varied historical and national imagery, and Machine Age forms into a vibrant decorative style. Art Deco exemplified lavish expenditure, crass commercialism, and the quickening speed of contemporary life summed up in the Futurist credo “Speed is beauty.”

At the style’s height, between 1924 through 1934, Art Deco captured the carefree modernist spirit of those decades, aided by the inspired improvisation of American jazz. Its designs brought to life 1920s gaiety, bathtub gin, cocktails, commercial radio, and Prohibition, along with 1930s intensity. In the years leading to World War II, the style’s lightheartedness began to look markedly out of place. Although Art Deco eventually waned, its legacy can be seen in the reconciliation of art and the machine. Translated to America, Art Deco’s geometric forms and streamlined shapes, and rich sculptural relief details contributed to architectural feats like the Chrysler Building, Radio City Music Hall, and Rockefeller Center. Art Deco design reminds us of two remarkable decades when modernity itself was a new and exciting concept.

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