FRENCH ART DECO ANTIQUE METALWORK: JEAN DESPRES & CLAUDIUS LINOSSIER
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Jean Despres is a unique case in the history of French metalwork between the two world wars. He belongs to a group of artists who were strongly displeased with the first major international exposition of decorative arts – the huge Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels
Modernes - which was held in Paris in 1925. It was this exposition that gave Art Deco its name.
Among Despres's cohorts were the architects Le Corbusier and Robert
Mallet-Stevens, the silver designer Jean Puiforcat, the sculptor Gustave Miklos and others. Despite differences, they had one common fascination: the structural forms of the industrial world. This may seem natural for architects who were interested in the new building techniques. But in
Despres's case the attraction to the mechanical world of modern industry is almost a paradox. By training, Despres was a craftsman who loved wielding his tools. As a young man he executed pieces for a silversmith whose name he will not disclose - presumably in an academic style. A great admirer of ancient cultures, Despres would spend hours gazing at the porcelain of China's Sung Dynasty or the carvings of Greece, Babylon and Assyria. All that should have led to extreme conservatism. What may have turned the scales in the opposite direction appears to have been his wartime experience.
By 1917 he was designing engines for military aircraft; the discovery of industrial lines and shapes had a profound impact on him. Despres's early fling with art had been in painting. In 1914 he was a great admirer of Georges Braque. Cubism prepared him to assimilate the abstraction of industrial design, but he went further than any of his fellow artists. Instead of interpreting classical ornaments in a Cubist-influenced style, as did the
Art Deco craftsmen, he went straight to abstraction. Despite his professed interest in past civilizations, his metalwork is completely cut off from the French decorative tradition. His objects are probably among the first to show a break with the European past.
The interesting thing about Despres is that he never went through an experimental period, as most artists do in the early stages of their careers. First he worked as the hired jobman of other artists. Then he turned to his own creative work with his aesthetic vision fully matured. He first exhibited under his own name in 1929, and a year later he was already doing some of his most advanced objects.
For example, on a cylindrical kettle he did around 1930, he has not made the slightest concession to ornamentation. There is not so much as a trace of the motifs of earlier periods. This is pure abstraction, faintly echoing Cubism. The angular rings around the body are derived from industrial machinery.
In his jewelry, the modernity is even more striking. Between 1930 and 1934 he was doing brooches, pendants and necklaces that look avant-garde by the standards of 1979. He created the first jewels suited to the industrial age. All along he retains a sense of proportion that is admirable. A silver-gilt brooch he has given us is a masterpiece in balance.
In spite his revolutionary concepts, Despres remained relatively unknown. He is what we call in this country a "provincial." He spent the better part of his life at Avallon in Burgundy. Although he spent some time in the capital - around 1934, he ran a gallery near the Champs Elysees for a while - he could not be bothered to ingratiate himself with the intellectual avant-garde and dance to the tune of trendsetters. Soon he was back in his hometown, where he still made a good living running a jewelry and silver shop. There is no better way to be overlooked by Parisians.
Another contemporary metalwork artsist was Claudius Linossier. Linossier is aesthetically the opposite of that of Despres. He was not a revolutionary, sweeping aside the Art Deco movement; he was a leading figure of that school. As such, he belongs to the tail end of the centuries-old tradition of French decorative arts. His shapes are often borrowed from the past. For example, around 1923 he created a metal dish with an octagonal rim, derived from the neo-Greek repertoire that came into fashion in the 1800s and lasted well into the nineteenth century. His vessels always make use of decorative motifs. However modern-looking they may be, that very fact emphasizes the aesthetic link with traditional decorative arts. His innovations were mostly of a technical order: he used new alloys such as a ferronickel (a mixture of iron, copper, zinc and nickel) in varying proportions to achieve a wide range of colors for inlaying. And he devised new inlaying techniques. However much he may have drawn his inspiration from the same sources as other Art Deco craftsmen, the actual outcome remains strikingly original.
Like Jean Dunand, Claudius Linossier is a great figure of Art Deco metalworking. The difference is that Dunand was a cafe-society figure in Paris, while Linossier hammered away in far-off Lyons. He was highly regarded by art critics, but he failed to make it because he did not have the backing of those who were "with it." Lyons people followed his work closely, but Parisians did not. Linossier may not have broken with tradition in the way that Despres did, but he will loom larger as a key figure in the transition between the end of the western classical Greek tradition of fine arts and our modern world. Linossier’s creations fit surprisingly well into our contemporary setting.
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