Art: A style that never was

    All this is remarkable not only for the many decades that were needed to find a label that stuck to the glass. Just as intriguing, surely, is the immediate success of the new name once it began circulating. It must have spread as fiercely as a cow disease. I can vividly remember going into junk shops in Manchester in the early 1970s and bandying the tag about merrily as I laid out for my very own girl and greyhound. I presume I picked it up from the junk dealers. They must have learnt it from the book. Powerful junk-shop forces would have been at work here. Tons of stuff needed shifting. A catchy cultural tag was needed to shift it. Three decades before the triumph of Nike, we were witnessing the transformative power of successful branding. A tsunami of frustrated desire must have surged through the jumble sales, junk shops and bring-and-buy occasions as Hurricane Deco hit the recycling market.

    Looking back now on these mysterious stylistic developments, it is clear that there was something tawdry and vacuous about the belated selling of art deco. A full-scale historical survey of the style that has arrived at the V&A, and gathers together many telling examples from around the globe, confirms that this tawdriness and emptiness were present from the start. Art deco. A meaningless name. It’s a shortening, of course, of Art Décoratif. Any ornament ever made has a perfect right to this label. The secret of its post-1970s success is that it sounds so elegantly French and historic. The same kinds of aspirational forces that encourage us to pay grotesquely above their value for Louis Vuitton luggage and Chanel No 5 perfume made possible the faux-creative contribution of art deco. As the owner of exactly this luggage and a giver of exactly this perfume, I know what I am talking about here. Art deco — feel the cost.

    To its credit, the V&A knows about it too. An early label in the show describes the 1925 exhibition in which the faux movement was essentially launched, and spells out the situation clearly: “The exhibition aimed to establish Paris as the world centre for shopping.” That was it. Art deco was the original duty-free art style. It recognised the desire of consumers to reach for their pay packets at moments of transportational desire and supplied them with the elegant cultural goodies they needed to satisfy these urges. Once this is recognised about art deco, everything else falls into place.

    Certainly, the chief reason why the tendency took half a century to be christened is immediately obvious. To cater for the tastes of as many buyers as possible, deco had always to be many things to many people. At the cheap and chatty end of its scale, it was the standard look of the golden age of Hollywood glamour, and could be found in the cocktail glasses Ginger Rogers sipped from and the sets danced across by Fred Astaire, as well as the posters selling their films. At the expensive end of its scale, it described the cabinets fashioned out of sharkskin, gold and mahogany in which the countesses of Monte Carlo kept their Cartier emeralds.

    Paintings can be described as art deco. Think of the hilarious Tamara de Lempicka, born in Poland as Maria Gorska — Mary Hill in English — who absconded to Paris and fancied herself up for the sales ahead with a luxurious name change. Ashtrays could be art deco. Railway posters. Cars. Radios. The V&A has included the outboard motor of an American speedboat in the cabinet that opens its show. And there’s a 1940s bacon-slicer at the end. That Christ with outstretched arms who stands above Rio de Janeiro is apparently an example of Argentinian art deco. A giant silver bed from the palace of the Maharajah of Indore is apparently an example of Indian art deco. It travelled to South Africa, Australia, even China. No wonder it took most of a century to come up with a name that might successfully cover all these options. Finding something vague enough was a demanding test of semantic ingenuity. Art deco. It’s perfect.

    In order to look at these matters logically and in some kind of meaningful order, the V&A has had to split the monster up into manageable portions. I cannot, offhand, recall an exhibition that contained quite as many sections and categories as this one. There’s an Argentinian bit, an Indian bit, a Chinese, an Australian. That crucial 1925 shopping exhibition in Paris gets its own focus. Hollywood gets its subsection. Travel, too. The manic subdividing quickly achieves a frantic rhythm that seems to grate against art deco’s own. When the museum loudspeakers play Ain’t Misbehavin’, it feels right. Art deco was slow, luxurious, sexy, decadent, familiar and of the cocktail hour. But when the show jumps about from perch to perch, it feels wrong. Art deco was an eel gliding through milk, wasn’t it, not an angry canary in a cage? As if attempting to follow the geographic spread of deco were not complex enough, the survey tries also to sieve through the main stylistic ingredients that went into the recipe. The show categorises itself into chaos trying to sort these out. Basically, with deco, as the song says, anything went. It absorbed Japanese influences, ancient Greek, Egyptian, African. There were elements of art nouveau to it. Of folk art. Of cubism. Suprematism. Most isms going. It stole some of its angularity from the ziggurats of the Aztecs, and when more was needed, it fast-forwarded a millennium to the age of speed and took extra bits from the futurists. This gargantuan mass of influences was crushed up into a precious pulp by the purveyors of luxury goods and refashioned as 1920s jewellery, 1930s clothes, 1940s films, hotel foyers, luxury liners and the rest.

    You will want to know if any of this ever added up to something with an outline. Was there ever anything in existence deserving of the all-embracing kenning of art deco? No, I don’t think there was. What the V&A exhibition proves instead is that there were perhaps two trends that succeeded each other and overlapped a lot. Taken individually, each might pass for a style movement. Let’s call them Art Deco Sr and Jr for now.

    Art Deco Sr was a French creation that sought to achieve for the 1920s and 1930s what the Louis XVI look had done for the 1780s, which is to say: create a coherent decorative style, reserved exclusively for the rich, that peered self-consciously backwards for its inspiration, delighted in precious and handmade materials, and seemed to be set off by the social darkness around it in the same way that a black background sets off a diamond. Most of the objects I drooled over in this show were the products of these urges: an early flapper dress, by Jeanne Paquin, of cream silk with dragons on it; something peach-coloured by Jean Patou that made a woman look like a Greek column, complete with trompe l’oeil fluting, created out of sequins and beaded crepe. Wow.

    Art Deco Jr was a tinny American alter- native that delighted in many of the opposite forces. The precious materials, the mature range of influences, the intrinsic French elegance, were dispensed with and replaced by a fondness for plastics and a desire to streamline. Art Deco Sr looked backwards, to finer design times. Art Deco Jr looked forwards, to us. The Oscars remain Art Deco Jr. The difference between these approaches can be summed up as the difference between a Cartier vanity case fashioned exquisitely from gold, platinum, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and onyx, in the shape of an Egyptian sarcophagus, and a Wurlitzer jukebox.