Figurative Abstraction and Description: Art Deco
I am working with seniors in illustration as they craft senior projects. Typically I work with them in the fall, in a course focused on visual development. During that time, I confess, I am often relentless about the realization of form: the difference between the almost-there thing, and the one that takes our breath away. Having been gone in the fall, now I am playing a little bit of catch up, especially with those students who integrate design and image-making, bringing an abstract sensibility to representation. This is territory I adore, both as a practitioner and a critic. I have written about it often.
I have a group of students whose work tends to a "designed picture" sensibility. I was talking with one of them, Monika, who is working on a contemporary bestiary based on Greek mythology. In our discussion I reached for examples to convey the refinement that her very spirited sketch concepts could achieve. As it happened, without thinking about it I suggested she look at two sources from the 1910s and 20s: the illustrator and type designer Eric Gill, and the illustrator Coles Phillips–he of the "fadeaway girl."
Monika emailed later to say that Phillips seemed relevant to her; Gill maybe not so much.
I realize now that I suggested Gill in response to the whiff of art deco running through her sketches. Phillips' work is grounded in precise observation; what became known as art deco (primarily after the fact) often relies on significant amounts of abstraction.
Here, for reference, an ensemble of works which make use of stylization (to greater and lesser degrees) in the representation of the figure as means to an end: a designed picture.
I can understand Monika's reticence about Eric Gill. His refinement sometimes comes at a cost, when he tumbles into his own mannerisme moderne. But the rigor of his radical two-dimensionality, and the integration of illustration and letterform, remains exemplary. His The Four Gospels imbues those books with visual grandeur to match the King James translation in which they are delivered.
The sculptor Paul Manship, a Minnesotan by birth, assimilated ancient sculpture and repurposed archaic forms in a modern idiom. The formality of gesture and focus on positive/negative visual profile remain arresting.
Manship came to be associated with art deco. In some senses the "movement" might better be thought of as a grab bag of modern-ish formal responses with roots in Art Nouveau and a friendly sort of cubism. Sometimes, as in Manship's Acteon #1, (below right) one rues certain narrative histrionics and gestural performance.
An intimate form of emphatic two-dimensionality may be found in the works of the Reeses, Emily Shaw and Walter O., whom I have lately enjoyed researching. Flatness has rarely come with a lighter touch, which I attribute to Emily's watercolor work (speculation on my part, but not unfounded).
Note, Fall 2016: I have written a longer piece on the Reeses, available here (on the Illo History section of this site).
Some well-managed linework from an ad selling corsets, "guaranteed not to rust, break or tear."
Back to scultpure. Alongside Acteon, I recall that Paul Manship's most famous work is Prometheus, the gold fellow who presides over iceskating at Rockefeller Center (1934). The art deco visual programme at "The Rock" is a landmark in American variations on a French style.
Next, two bas-reliefs from the decorative program at Rockefeller Center.
Lee Lawrie, working in the 1930s, embraces an increasingly stylized, muscular interpretation of figurative form. Taken as a set, Manship's Acteon and Lawrie's Wisdom and Progress grow hortatory, like art over a loudspeaker.
Nonetheless, in their recently restored form, the two Lawries are handsome things. And they provide additional case studies in negotiating the competing agendas of description and abstraction in representing the human figure.