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Dancing The Ballets Russes, Jewish Art Deco At The MFA, Boston

Art Deco: 1910-1939
August 22, 2004-January 9, 2005
The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA),

It stands at 120 feet by 720 feet, and it weighs one million pounds. It employs half of a million square feet of lumber, and the nails alone weigh a quarter of a million pounds. It housed five thousand animals on site, for a total of twenty thousand pounds of hay per day, and a whole lot more of manure. No, it’s not Noah’s ark. It is the set design to Cecil B. DeMilles 1956 film “The Ten Commandments.”

The Exodus story reader distinctly senses an absence of set design. The Midrashic texts speak of a shrewdly placed doorway idol and of rods that transmutate into serpents. The narrative sprinkles a few pyramids here and a Nile River over there, but architecture and interior design are surprisingly not in attendance. DeMille’s set design introduces this backdrop into the text, and it does so with an Art Deco lens.

Art Deco refers to an eclectic hodgepodge of borrowed styles that permeated the architecture, fine arts, interior design and textiles in the 1920’s and 30’s, and it is the subject of Art Deco: 1910-1939 at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. The MFA exhibit explores Deco’s influences, both very modern – Cubism, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism and various influences of mechanization – as well as the quite classical – ancient Mayan, Egyptian and others. According to the official website of the Art Deco Society of New York (ADSNY), “Unlike any other artistic movement, before or since, Art Deco became a worldwide phenomenon leaving its imprint on everything from buildings to bobby pins.” I don’t know if I agree with the magnitude of the Society’s estimation, but certainly Deco has shaped modernity to a very large extent.

What, then, does Art Deco have to do with the Jews, you ask? Ultimately, Deco is about an internationalist and cosmopolitan experience – two sins from which, at the beginning of the century, the Jews always found themselves suffering. Deco is about a smorgasbord of aesthetic and cultural influences, cast as skyscrapers and car hood ornaments, purses and necklaces, bowls and hats. To me though, Deco asks: What is the price of assimilation, and is it really worth it?

Deco forces a wide array of cultural icons – and they are just that, monolithic icons, rather than particularly deep subject matter – through a homogenizing “meat grinder” by taking icons and making them mechanical, industrial and modern. The “meat” preparation is hardly complete; after salting the meat, boning it and stripping it of all the interesting variations in its surface, the Decoists make it artistic.

Deco would have everyone bow down to the machine – the slick, jazzy, cool, aesthetic, smooth, flowing mechanized forms – and it loved toying with scale, whether Mayan stone statues, Japanese or Greek icons. Deco super-sized everything, casting tiny men at the foot of the megalopolis as ants beneath the Empire State Building. After all, how does one compare the sloppiness of human handwriting and brush strokes to the perfect, uniformity of the machine? Empty vessels, with no human hand nearby, are indicative of the object of Deco’s interest.

The Decoists generated this alien, inhuman feeling in art by speaking in a common, but theatrical language. Everything was given glitter and shine, rendering it superficial with a vocabulary that served as a mask that buried devastating evil beneath its surface. Deco provided a venue by which Jews could involve themselves in the arts – it was the first movement in which Jews enlisted en masse, as artists, entrepreneurs, businessmen, designers and film makers – and join “polite society,” but this freedom came at the price of the ever developing reality of the Holocaust in Europe.

The groovy and cool language had no room for exploring real decadence; after all, Deco did not grant an open stage to all cultures. Egypt, Greece, Peloponnesus, Mesopotamia and Japan were “in” but Jews and Gypsies were “out.” Ironically, the movement that seemed to endorse funkiness, preserved everything but.

This discussion remains independent of the question of whether Jacques Lipschitz and Leon Bakst created art in the Deco style. Certainly there were Jews in the Deco movement. Born Lev Samoilovich Rosenberg (1866-1924), Bakst studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He left after authorities expressed disapproval of his casting an entire troupe of Jews in a Madonna scene that he painted. He changed his career to costume and set design, working for the grand duke Vladimir. Most notably for our purposes, Bakst worked in France in 1908 with Sergei Diaghilev, designing sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, for which Marc Chagall was also engaged as a set and costume designer. Bakst rallied a Russian iconography, an almost mosaic quality, in his work that recalls the Suprematism employed by Jewish, Russian painter El Lissitzsky (1890-1941).

The MFA exhibit also features Jacques Lipschitz’s Mantelpiece and Andirons (1928), which contains a series of forms that resemble dogs leaping after birds in a flowing movement that certainly has a Decoist feeling. But artists will always be artists, and they invariably paint in whatever style happens to exist at the time. What’s important is that what they provide is substance, not merely decoration.

Clearly, when I say that Jews influenced Deco to a large extent, I do not dare argue that they created it, but certainly the times dictated the psychological freedom to be able to shed one’s cultural identity and to play out one’s traditional iconography on the grand set of Deco. The Deco movement represented a departure from the more Euro-centric Art Nouveau (largely popular in the 1880’s and 1890’s) in that it broke down the hegemony of the European art scene by bringing New York to center stage.

Nouveau was a fin de siècle Austrian and German movement. Its champions, Klimt and Beardsley, were too precious and too concerned with art for the Decoists, who wanted a more techno-quality (think of the difference between the names “Deco” and “Art Nouveau”).

Joining hands with the after effects of the Haskalah, which encouraged freethinking Jews to question many of their basic assumptions, Nouveau and Deco were very much products of the contemporary, cultural zeitgeist. In a time where Suprematism and Constructivism found themselves under intense fire (literally) from Stalin and from the Nazis, and where Chagall found himself censored and Malevich was forced to return to naturalistic portraits and to abandon his Suprematism, Jews – and especially Jewish artists ? had to leave their particular cultural identity.

To make a difference in the art world, they had to come out of the shtetl, and come out they did, joining the modernist movement in theater, film, painting and forging Hollywood in a very real sense. Deco ate them up, and offered them membership to a global community whose charter was mechanization, superficiality, theatricality and most important, safety from engaging any real issues.

The Art Deco trend took all the indigenous forms, industrialized them, and made a common ground between cultures previously separated aesthetically in the past. It was a universal language, though hardly a melting pot, for it rarely threw everything in the same mixture.

DeMille very appropriately stuffs his “Ten Commandments” set with tremendous flowing curtains and waving reeds, elaborate belts, necklaces and headdresses. He finds a happy marriage between the Biblical tale of the Exodus and the Art Deco set, a connection that works mostly because Art Deco forged a neo-Egyptian vocabulary.

Ancient Egyptian art achieved a specific type of stylization and idealization, which simultaneously flattened the pictorial space (mostly by presenting different perspectives at the same time, in a move that resembles Cubism in theory, though in practice it flattens where Cubism finds depth) and offered elaborate designs and details. Egyptian figures typically feature a profile head, supported by shoulders that face the viewer head on, thighs that approach a three quarter view and feet that appear in profile.

This idealized view of how the body should look, coupled with the decorativeness of the forms manifests itself in the Deco model as well. Abstract Expressionism would later try to break out of the icon-oriented Deco shell, to infuse it with “soul”. In short, they tried to buy back the Jews’ cultural spirit, which they had all but sold in exchange for a flashy, smooth, sleek 1935 Auburn 851 Speedster.

I gratefully acknowledge my art teacher, Tom Barron’s valuable input at the exhibit and thereafter.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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