Recent noteworthy publications that are a pleasure to read and a delight to behold
French Art Deco by Jared Goss (Metropolitan Museum of Art, distr. Yale University Press). 280 pp., color and b/w illus.
As an artistic term, art deco is one of the most misunderstood. “Art Deco is commonly referred to as a ‘style,’ a designation that suggests specific shared characteristics,” observes scholar and former Metropolitan Museum of Art associate curator Jared Goss. “The diversity of expression, however, precludes conceptual unity. More accurate, perhaps, would be ‘movement’ or ‘idiom.’” Goss is by no means the first author to wade into the deco fray, but his focus lends his book distinction. Taking his cue from the Met installation Masterpieces of Art Deco, which he organized, and which was on view from August 2009 through January 2011, he has addressed the subject from the viewpoint of the French works and designers represented in the museum’s own collection.
France is essentially the birthplace of art deco, as Goss explains, and the Met began collecting French examples in 1922, while they were still relatively new. The initial impetus was a $10,000 gift that year from Edward C. Moore Jr. earmarked for the purchase of “examples (of only the finest quality) of the modern decorative arts of America and Europe.” Moore, son of the chief designer at Tiffany and Company from 1868 to 1891, continued to make annual $10,000 gifts through 1926, and Goss’s book shows how the Met used the funds, eventually purchasing important works by such designers as René Lalique, Jean Puiforcat, Armand-Albert Rateau, and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, among others.
This comprehensive volume also spotlights designers whose names are not so widely familiar, such as René Crevel, Marcel Goupy, Henri Rapin, and Séraphin Soudbinine. Apart from the pleasure readers will experience while examining the many works illustrated in splendid new photography—and often contextualized in historic photos of original settings—one of the book’s attractions as a reference work is its clear organization. Following the historical overview, each chapter is devoted to a single designer, in roughly alphabetical order, with discussions of their work as well as detailed catalogue entries for the specific objects illustrated.
Kem Weber: Designer and Architect by Christopher Long (Yale University Press). 304 pp., color and b/w illus.
When Kem Weber died in an Ojai, California, retirement home in 1963, he was a forgotten figure. But from the 1920s through the early 1950s the Berlin-born Weber was at the center of American modernist design, especially the distinctive modernism that flourished in Southern California. Such architectural features as broad expanses of curved glass for storefronts and a restrained vocabulary of vertical and horizontal planes distinguished Weber’s designs, among the most famous of these being the buildings he designed for Walt Disney Studios in Burbank in the 1940s and the interiors for the Bixby house in Kansas City, Missouri (1936–1937). As a furniture designer, Weber embraced swept-back lines, a low center of gravity, and smooth, aerodynamic motifs in his cantilevered Air Line chair, in the planar wood surfaces of his Fleetwood designs for the Mueller Furniture Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in a line of chrome-plated tubular steel furniture for the Lloyd Manufacturing Company of Menominee, Michigan.
Born Karl Emanuel Martin Weber in Berlin in 1889, he had been an indifferent academic student with a proclivity for fashioning things with his hands, so his parents apprenticed him to an important cabinetmaker. Weber thrived in the rigorous atmosphere of glue pots and hand tools and progressed from there to the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule). He quickly caught the eye of the school’s new director, Bruno Paul, who subsequently assigned Weber to design the German pavilion at the 1910 Exposition Universelle at Brussels. Paul engaged him thereafter to work in his own office, sending him to San Francisco in 1914 to supervise the German exhibits at the Panama-Pacific Exposition scheduled for 1915. With the outbreak of war in Europe a few weeks after his arrival, Weber was stranded in what would prove to be his new home. He Americanized his name and took American citizenship in 1924. After serving as art director for the Barker Brothers furnishing store in Los Angeles Weber established his own studio in Hollywood, designing commercial and industrial products as well as buildings and motion picture sets. His modernist productions exerted a profound influence on what came to be seen as the relaxed California style of that time.
This first major account of Weber’s life and career represents considerable new research into the designer’s family archives by Christopher Long, professor and chair of history/theory at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and author of previous studies of Adolf Loos and Paul T. Frankl. Engagingly written and vividly illustrated, the book underscores Weber’s philosophy that design was not conceived for its own sake in an academic vacuum but in response to the demands of modern life.
Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850 by Linda Eaton (Monacelli Press). 384 pp., color and b/w illus.
Possibly the clearest proof of a classic reference work’s enduring value is a major revision to preserve its essentials while reflecting ongoing scholarship. Florence M. Montgomery’s great 1970 study, Printed Textiles, is just such a work, examining and documenting the Winterthur Museum’s extraordinarily rich collection of cotton and linen fabrics that were at the heart of an immensely lucrative Anglo-American trade between 1700 and 1850. Part monograph, part catalogue, it has served as a sourcebook for historians and as a source of inspiration for designers for more than forty years.
As Winterthur’s current director of collections and senior curator of textiles, Linda Eaton has filled Montgomery’s shoes admirably, availing herself of four decades of new scholarship in the field as well as the latest developments in curatorship and conservation science. Beginning with an overview of “The British Calico Printing Industry,” the book’s six chapters thoroughly cover the salient topics in this field, from “British Trade with North America” and “The Use of Printed Furnitures in America [i.e. furnishing fabrics, from upholstery to curtains and bed hangings]” to a study contextualizing the professional experience of innumerable fabric designers whose names went unrecorded. The chapter titled “Textile Printing in America” addresses the problems of attribution, while possibly the most fascinating of all is “The Chemistry and Technology of Calico Printing.” After reading this, you will never be able to take an antique bolt of printed cloth for granted.
The catalogue following these chapters is a visual delight, depicting in detail almost four hundred examples from the Winterthur collection. Many were printed in black-and-white in Montgomery’s original book. All are in full color here, with detailed captions. Computer technology has been employed in a few instances to supply “virtual” restorations of missing elements—but those who prefer such objects unenhanced are directed to the museum’s online database.
This is a splendid addition to the field of material culture, and as such it offers an Anglo-American complement to Amelia Peck’s Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue, Interwoven Globe: the Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 (2013).
Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague by Sally Metzler (Metropolitan Museum of Art, distr. Yale University Press). 380 pp., color and b/w illus.
In the general realm of Renaissance art, the name Bartholomeus Spranger (1546– 1611) has not been one to spring immediately to mind. Although the Antwerp-born Spranger had been grounded in the traditions of Netherlandish landscape painting during his apprenticeship there, his subsequent studies with the Croatian-born painter Giulio Clovio (friend and master of El Greco) added a new dimension and finesse to his work, which caught the eye of his first patron, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. As a painter, draftsman, and etcher, Spranger became a preeminent mannerist, who enjoyed one of the most successful international careers of his day. After his death, however, Spranger’s oeuvre, with its lush, often lustful mythological subjects, its paradoxes, its political and sacred allegories, and arcane mannerist symbolism was increasingly misunderstood by critics and historians. Such a handy and authoritative reference work as Joachim Fernau’s Praeger Encyclopedia of Old Masters (1959) has acknowledged that Spranger’s “distinctive style had an enormous influence on his contemporaries through his engravings” while summarily dismissing that style as “a mixture of Correggio, Parmigianino, empty rhetoric and polite pornography.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague is the first major reexamination of his work, and as such it reveals the fascinating qualities of Spranger’s art that led to his successive positions as court painter to Pope Pius V in Rome, to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna, and to Maximilian’s imperial successor, Rudolf II in Prague.
This companion volume by the show’s curator Sally Metzler is the first Spranger monograph in English. Metzler, an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University, delves into the artist’s life in the opening chapter, discussing in detail his sojourns in Paris, Milan, Parma, and Rome and the contacts he made, climbing the professional ladder, tracking how the style of Parmigianino, which first influenced Spranger, gradually changed under the influence of Clovio, known as the “Croatian Michelangelo” and regarded as the greatest illuminator of the high Renaissance. Thereafter she discusses Spranger’s continuing development in answer to the demands of his illustrious patrons—from drawing an entire Passion series for Pius V to the range of erotic mythological fantasies and increasingly powerful works for Rudolf, progressing from allegories of love to those of imperial might as war clouds loomed.
The book is subtitled “the complete works” and the catalogue proper is divided into four sections, devoted to Spranger’s paintings, his drawings, his etchings, and finally the engravings of Spranger’s works by others. There are more than 230 catalogue entries, each discussed in full. This is as complete a reference work as one could wish for on an artist whose time has come again.
Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901, ed. Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, Michael Hatt (Yale Center for British Art/Yale University Press). 448 pp., color and b/w illus.
As sumptuous as its subject, this hefty tome was produced as the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition, which will be en route from the Yale Center for British Art to Tate Britain by the time we go to press.
But if the exhibition itself provided the opportunity to view important, imaginative, even somewhat outlandish works from private collections to which the public rarely if ever has access, the book takes the story even further. First of all, as monumental sculpture is heavy and fragile, a number of important works to be exhibited at the Tate but not brought to Yale are discussed in detail in the book, among them John Gibson’s marble Hylas Surprised by the Naiades, Raffaele Monti’s marble Veiled Vestal Virgin, John Bell’s painted cast-iron Eagle Slayer, and Frederic, Lord Leighton’s bronze Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The range of mediums in just these four works hints at one of the discussions central to the book’s narrative, the Victorian thrill of invention and technology placed at the service of art and beauty.
Although the book is about the sculpture and its sculptors per se, equally important is its thorough investigation of the social and aesthetic climate in which this work flourished as well as the industries that fostered the proliferation of sculpture in such abundance. Illustrated by magnificent photography are works by such iconic figures as Bertel Thorvaldsen, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Sir Alfred Gilbert, and Edward Onslow Ford; by such names deserving greater familiarity as Thomas Wilkinson Wallis, Sir George Frampton, and Harry Bates; and in a range of materials including gemstones, precious metals, ceramic, and wax. The essays by a distinguished group of scholars address every aspect of this fascinating art form, from the great public monuments erected throughout Great Britain and its former empire to the production of bronze and marble reductions of statuary and reproductions in parian porcelain to decorate household rooms, and even medallions and cameos in hardstone and shell for personal use.
British sculpture reached the double apogee of realism and fantasy during the high Victorian age and this book encompasses the subject in all its majesty and rhetorical allure.