How art deco stripped nudity of eroticism

by

Special To The Japan Times

When the Teien Museum of Art reopened late last year, after a period of refurbishment and expansion, the exhibition held was no real test for either the main building or the newly added annex. The art of Rei Naito was so minimalist that it seemed as though it was hardly there.

For the second show since the reopening, the Teien is again avoiding a real test. Its latest exhibition, “Fantaisie Merveilleuse: Classicism in French Art Deco,” is so aesthetically aligned with the style and look of the Teien — itself an art deco building — that the art can only complement what is already there.

For a real challenge the museum will probably have to wait for April’s “Masks — Beauty of the Spirits” exhibition, which will adorn its walls with an eclectic array of masks from various tribal and traditional societies.

The present exhibition, however, is a must-see for anyone interested in the art deco style. As signaled by the tagline “Classicism in French Art Deco,” the premise of the exhibition is to explore the influence of the classical style, normally associated with ancient Greece and Rome, on art deco.

It might be news to some that such an antique element could be at work in what is routinely viewed as a particularly modernist and avant-garde style, but the 1920s, when the art deco style arose, and the 1930s, when it predominated, were times of elegant rebuttal to many of the wilder, revolutionary tendencies unleashed at the start of the 20th century.

Much of this was political, with a fear of Communism and Red Terror prompting a return to older, traditional ideas and forms, but with a sense that these, too, had to recognize and incorporate modernity in some way. In its most extreme form, this tendency — both political and aesthetic — manifested itself in Fascism, which had a massive impact across Europe, so much so that it could even be said to have affected Soviet Russia in the triumph of Stalinism over Trotskyism and the favoring of Soviet Realism over more avant-garde artistic expressions, such as Constructivism.

Politically, France, the center of the art deco movement, never went fascist, but nor was it immune to the general zeitgeist. The paintings and sculpture at this exhibition have more than a hint of something analogous.

Perhaps the most obvious example at the exhibition is Raymond Delamarre’s “Model for the Suez Canal Defense Monument” (1930). These two austere, allegorical angel figures in limestone served as studies for the large-scale monument, which stands sphinx-like next to the Suez Canal, commemorating the defense of the waterway by a mainly British Indian army against an attack by a German Turkish force almost exactly 100 years ago. With their sleek lines and bulky proportions, Delamarre’s models invoke a spirit of 20th-century totalitarian art that would not be out of place in North Korea.

Alongside the streamlining of forms that characterise art deco, another element that evokes both the classical age, as well as certain totalitarian regimes, is the emphasis on healthy, unashamed, de-eroticized nudity.

At the time, nudism was something of a minor religion in places such as Germany, where the Freikorperkultur (Free Body Culture) of the 1920s had been coopted by the Nazis, and was expressed in such projects as Leni Riefenstahl’s movie “Olympia” (1938), which was certainly daring in its presentation of near naked bodies. French art deco shared this love of idealized nudity, as we see in Rene Lalique’s decorative clock motif for “Night and Day” (1926), where the crystal glass emphasizes the purity of the nude male and female forms.

Alongside these and other stridently naked figures, Andre Derain’s fleshy oil painting “Bather” (1925) and “Eve” (ca. 1923), a voluptuous drypoint engraving by Alfred Auguste Janniot, seem like throwbacks to older, eroticized views of the female form. Derain evokes a sense of voyeurism by presenting his nude from a sly side angle.

But art deco’s tendency to streamline and de-eroticize can also dehumanize. The precision of Jean Theodore Dupas’ “Woman in a Red Dress” (1927) and Louis Billotey’s “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia” (1935) create almost enameled surfaces rather than canvases, populated by doll-like figures rather than people.

However, the greatest painter here, Eugene-Robert Pougheon, manages to find a solution in his masterpiece “The Serpent” (before 1930). This has all the sleek lines, clear contrasts, and “purist” nudity of the art deco style, but the stylization does not allow the scene to freeze into elegant rigidity.

Instead, Pougheon maintains the fluidity of the scene by introducing elements of humor and dynamism. The “serpent” is the lithe body of the central figure, whose slim, serpentine curves scare the horses placed behind her, who then rear up, energizing the scene.

“Fantaisie Merveilleuse: Classicism in French Art Deco” at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs till April 7; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Feb. 25, March 11, March 25 and Jun. 28. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp