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Exhibition Review Style over substance

Art Deco borrowed from Bauhaus and Soviet Constructivism but ignored their core social commitment, writes CHRISTINE LINDEY

Exhibition I Art Deco by the Sea,
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

AS WE face winter’s gloom, how lovely to dwell on the sunlit seaside pleasures of warmer days.

The Laing Art Gallery’s exhibition, Art Deco by the Sea, conveys these through drawings, paintings, photographs, fashion, plates, furniture, ceramics and textiles from the 1920s and 1930s.

Originating in France, this sleek new style signified fun, sophistication, modernity and a rejection of fusty, claustrophobic Victorian and Edwardian times.

The gladly grasped modernity was most concentrated in seaside resorts, partly because these offered an equivalently updated loosening of restrictive etiquettes and moeurs.

Some councils understood that seaside architecture and town planning could signify modernity and sophistication as much as the Jantzen swimsuits and head-clinging rubber swimming hats which exposed body contours and flesh for all to see.

The sleek curves and lines and wide expanses of metal framed windows of new pleasure palaces exemplified by Erich Mendelssohn and Serge Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea have stood the test of time.

It still looks modern and remains the main attraction of this otherwise placid little town.

The railways offered accessibility, including day return tickets, which opened up the coast to working-class families as well as to middle-class holidays.

And modernist railway posters promoted the freedom and fresh air of coastal walks and the sensory treats offered by beaches, seaside hotels and pleasure palaces.

Septimus Scott’s railway poster design for Cleethorpes, c1930,  epitomises modernity; it hints at sexual pleasure but adds wholesome childhood fun and healthy fresh air and sunshine.

The beautiful young woman sports a daringly cropped permanent wave, bleached platinum blonde like the film star Jean Harlow’s and she wears her skirt just below the knee which would scandalise her mother for whom a glimpse of stocking was considered shocking.

As in modern art, the primary colours red, yellow and blue sing out against black and white. All is fresh, optimistic and positive.

Yet railway posters were mostly populated by energetic, middle-class folk, as in Andrew Johnson’s North Berwick, it’s Quicker by Rail in which young, slender and elegantly attired golfers gaze out to sea with the devastatingly complacent sense of entitlement of their social class.

The mainstream genre paintings which abounded in the interwar years also idealised their subjects.

The three young women walkers portrayed by James Walker Tucker’s Hiking carry heavy, stuffed haversacks as effortlessly as small handbags; their highly polished shoes are not scuffed and the pertly positioned berets indicate a lack of physical exertion, despite the women having presumably climbed up a steep hill to the vantage point from which they overlook an idyllic landscape.

That this land is unmarred by any sign of the manual labour which created and maintains it adds to the escapism of the scene, despite being painted in a meticulously detailed realist style.

Paintings, drawings and especially photographs also exposed the realities of massively crowed beaches mostly populated by working-class day-trippers granted this freedom by an (albeit limited) growth of paid holidays.  

The black-and-white photographs of South Shield Beach convey the unassuming postures of the visitors massed on the beach with the numerous children common to families of the day.

The adults bare the weather in suits, coats, hats and shoes with not a swimsuit or swim hat in sight.

Standing about rather aimlessly imbibing the sea air, they show the reality that the English weather was hardly the Riviera despite the sunlit promises offered by advertisements.

The mass influx of visitors transformed coastal town economies so that some councillors were keen to modernise and promote their resorts.

But class resistance from some residents was fierce.

In 1936 the Architectural Review reported that councils were divided and “retired business men or civil servants (and the trades who serve them) [who] view with intense disfavour their seaside Kensington degenerating into Blackpool.”

Thomas Martine Ronaldson’s painting Summer (1929-32) perhaps best epitomises the modernity of the era without fanfare, despite being in a traditional style.

Neither idealised nor shabby, the sunburnt young woman sports the practical rubber hat of a genuine swimmer, with her simply cut modern swimsuit making a marked contrast to the clumsy prewar bathing outfits.

Her gaze is inward, melancholic and perhaps shy as she avoids engaging with ours, but looks downwards and sideways.

Without striving to express modernity as such, the painting paradoxically epitomises the era’s feminist battles for freedom, neither sexualised nor prudish, the woman quietly claims the right to just be herself.

The Art Deco style expressed the desire to reject the fusty, fussy styles of the recent past.

At best it was progressive, but its concern with pure style often lacked substance; it borrowed from the Bauhaus and Soviet Constructivism while ignoring their core social commitment.

Until February 27 2021.


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