“Revolutionary politics, revolutionary art, and, oh, the revolutionary mind, is the dullest thing on earth. When we open a ‘revolutionary’ review, or read a ‘revolutionary’ speech, we yawn our heads off. It is true, there is nothing else. Everything is correctly, monotonously, dishearteningly ‘revolutionary’. What a stupid word! What a stale fuss! A really good, out-and-out, 'reactionary’ journal is, at first, like a breath of fresh air in the midst of this turbulent, pretentious, childish optimism. A royalist publication is worth its weight in gold. Catholicism, we feel, is essential to our health. We fly to the past—anywhere out of this suspended animation of this so smugly 'revolutionary’ present.” — Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
“The world in which Advertisement dwells is a one-day world. It is
necessarily a plane universe, without depth. Upon this Time lays down
discontinuous entities, side by side; each day, each temporal entity, complete
in itself, with no perspectives, no fundamental exterior reference at all. In this
way the structure of human life is entirely transformed, where and in so far
as this intensive technique gets a psychologic ascendancy. The average man is
invited to slice his life into a series of one-day lives, regulated by the clock of
fashion. The human being is no longer the unit. He becomes the containing
frame for a generation or sequence of ephemerides, roughly organized into
what he calls his ‘personality.’ Or the highly organized human mind finds its
natural organic unity degraded into a worm-like extension, composed of a
segmented, equally-distributed, accentless life.”
Led by the wonderful blossoming of fashion design, portrayals of the figure (especially females, of course) became more and more stylized through the 1920s.
George Barbier’s illustrations took on more and more the style of Art Deco, yet his figures were based in carefully observed drawing. Despite his celebrity, his figures were beginning to look old-fashioned by the time he died in 1932
Barbier fashion figure drawings
The style of his younger colleague Erte became much more hardcore Deco, and his figures were that much more stylized than Barbier’s.
The central features of Art Deco are rich colours, austere elegance, lavish ornament, geometric forms and hard-edged motifs like zigzags, chevrons and sunbursts. Symmetry replaced the asymmetrical composition of Art Nouveau. The drawings of Erte (real name Romain de Tirtoff) embody the style at its height.
These stylized figures in impossible poses were turning up as sculptures, figurines and relief motifs all over the place.
All this time, Fine Art had been following a parallel course with the Cubist revolution of Picasso and Braque. Some fine artists such as Wyndham Lewis and Tamara de Lempicka were really almost graphic artists:
Wyndham Lewis Figure drawing
Wyndham Lewis Red Duet
Tamara de Lempicka 1927
Art Deco tended to dehumanise figures. Often they look more like robots…
Fritz Lang’s famous film Metropolis (1927) is a Deco fantasy set in a futuristic Deco city and does indeed feature a robot.
Here’s another Deco figure, looking as if made from the same cold, hard materials as the typeface, factory and machinery around it:
Poster for Utrecht Industries Fair 1930
World War II saw the end of Art Deco. In a new age of austerity, it was seen as inappropriately elegant and luxurious. For my generation growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, both Art Deco and Art Nouveau seemed old-fashioned. Only at the end of the 1960s did we start looking back again. An exhibition at the V&A in 1966 revived interest in Aubrey Beardsley, and certainly influenced my own development as an illustrator. By the 1970s a Deco revival was in full swing, epitomised by the London department store Biba.