February 2018 - Lougheed House

“obliterating the old”. The 1925 Exposition and the “New Style”

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By now, you’ve probably taken at least a quick look at our exciting new exhibit, The Future Looked Bright: Art Deco in Everyday Life. Throughout the late 20s and well into the 40s, Art Deco was an extremely popular aesthetic that invaded nearly every facet of fashionable life.

But where did it come from?

The name “Art Deco” comes from the title of the Parisian Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, one of the largest, most opulent, and arguably the last of the great European exhibitions. Originally conceived in 1912 to take place in 1915, the Exposition was placed on hiatus by the outbreak of WWI. It was nearly a decade before planning began anew, during which time the European design scene underwent a radical transformation. In 1912, the premier aesthetic of the European design world had been Arte Nouveau, a playful, curvilinear style which softened the neoclassical look of the late 19th century into organic forms, experimenting with and exploring European high society’s interest in the new biologiocal sciences, non-linear forms, and sumptuous ostentatiousness. By 1925, the climate had changed; cubism challenged the old art with hard, masculine forms; futurism, an Italian proto-fascist movement, created images that lionized violent cultural “growth” and industrialization; the Bauhaus School demanded that design be sleek, efficient, and reproducible.

Art Deco-style Fada radio, from The Future Looked Bright: Art Deco in Everyday Life, at Lougheed House until April 29, 2018

Clifton hand-painted ceramic Art Deco vase, 1930

The style that emerged at the 1925 Exposition fused avant-garde aesthetics with new forms devised in the factories and workshops: simple, geometric shapes which could be achieved easily with new machinery, used to create simplifications of monumental Greek, Roman and Egyptian forms with elements of Chinese and Japanese style. Though many of the first wave of Deco designers had started their careers in the old Nouveau style, the rhetoric of the day espoused not only the replacement, but the full-on “obliteration” of the old. Le Corbusier, considered one of the first truly modernist designers, perfectly expressed the violence inherent in this conflict of styles, when he said of the Expo, “1925 marks the decisive turning point in the battle between the old and the new. After 1925 the antique lovers will have virtually ended their lives…”

The Exposition housed some of the greatest architectural and industrial achievements of its time. The Grand Palais alone offered 30,000 square meters of exhibition space; from there, the pavilions ran from its entrance, crowded along both banks of the Seine, and continued a total of 1.6 kilometers to the south, ending on the doorstep of Les Invalides. Standing fifteen meters tall, a fountain made entirely of cast glass, designed by René Lalique, encouraged comparisons to the similarly opulent Crystal Palace constructed for the World Exhibition in London in 1851. Pavilions were erected by some of the greatest architects of the era, featuring work by Pierre Patout, Henri Sauvage, and the aforementioned Le Corbusier, commissioned by nations, companies, and even wealthy individuals. One pavillion funded by a wealthy patron, the Hôtel du Collectionneur, housed an entire gallery representing some of the best, and most expensive, work available to private tastes.

Revolution at Home and Abroad

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The year 1917 was one of revolutionary change, both peaceful and violent. Early in the year, the February Revolution forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, marking the end of 196 years of aristocratic rule in Russia. The Russian Civil War followed soon after, beginning with the ousting of the provisional government. Three years of violent conflict would follow, largely between the “Red” and “White” revolutionary armies, but also including numerous other factions and intervening foreign powers.

In November, British Columbia and Ontario joined Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in extending the vote to women, an example Canada’s federal government followed in 1918. Over the past twenty years, Canadian suffragists had been succeeding in incremental expansions of women’s voting rights in Canada; 1917 marked the climax of their largest push for enfranchisement.

A less obvious, economic revolution was also underway in 1917: in July, Sir William Thomas White, a Conservative MP, introduced Canada’s first income tax as a “temporary” war measure. The bill proposed a progressive tax, with brackets between 4% and 25%, according to income.

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