Fabulous Flappers

By Karen Parr-Moody


At GasLamp, one can sometimes find the oft-elusive Flapper Girl figural — with a thorough search. But once discovered, she reveals her fashionably-clad — or scantily-clad  — body, slim and beautiful, a testimony to the radical aesthetic movement of Art Deco.


On the heels of World War I, a mood of escapism pervaded Europe, particularly in France. This attitude opened the floodgates for Art Deco, a movement in which the disciplines of fine art, architecture, fashion and household décor came into stark contrast with those of Victoriana, Art Nouveau, and other previous aesthetic movements. The term Art Deco was coined at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, and it gripped not only Paris, but spread throughout the Western world. 


In part, global excavations inspired Art Deco's design. Particularly, the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt inspired the ziggurat, a stepped pyramid design that became a trademark. Modular furniture and architecture designs with sleek lines became the dernier cri. Another hallmark, aerodynamic streamlining, was inspired by the era's "modern" technology of fast-moving machines, from planes to automobiles.


Another facet of this burgeoning movement was a newfound portrayal of women in sculpture and print. This new woman was in stark contrast not only to the fussiness of the Victorian, but even to the more recently "liberated" Gibson Girl, who spanned the decades from the 1890s to around 1915. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the American woman won the right to vote in all United States elections ... not to mention to bob her hair, smoke a cigarette, drive a car, and wear short(er) skirts. The Flapper was born. With her shingled hair and cupid's bow mouth came a breezy heroine for which artists could feast their imaginations (illustration, above right, by the Russian-born French artist known simply as Erté). 


Portrayed as playful minxes, the Flapper took on multiple guises during the 1920s. These included Salome (of the Biblical "dance of the seven veils"), fairies, swimmers, Greek and Roman goddesses (such as Diana with her bow and dogs), Egyptian goddesses and performers, scarf dancers, and an entire cast of erotic nudes. Dancers were a particularly spirited theme. The influence of Serge Daighilev's Ballet Russes, which took Paris by storm in 1909, cannot be overstated; its exoticism inspired artists in all disciplines, including poet Jean Cocteau, fashion designer Coco Chanel, fine artist Joseph Cornell,  and certainly Demetre H. Chiparus, one of the era's leading sculptors of women. 


Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, the Flapper continued to get more glamorous and more languorous, kicking up her heels and enjoyed life's finer things. The metal lamp seen here, right, is a charming example of the ideas of freedom and exuberance associated with women of the Art Deco period ($110; Showcase S-546). This nude throws back her head with abandon, consistent with the vibrant young society of the 1920s. While fine sculpture had its place during the Art Deco era, female figurals were also found in a variety of household items, including ashtrays, ash stands, candlesticks, vases, bookends, or shades for lamps. This lamp has roots in the Art Deco sculptures done in bronze and ivory by Chiparus, Ferdinand Preiss and Josef Lorenzl, the exquisite glass of Rene Lalique, and the etchings of Erté. 







Also styled into a graceful poses is this nude female figural compote, left ($119.95 Booth B-219). The chrome base was produced by the Farber Brothers firm of New York around 1924; the amber glass globe was provided by Cambridge Glass Company, and can be removed for cleaning. (The Farber Brothers firm, formed in 1915, was well-known for its non-tarnishing chrome holders, with glass inserts used produced by companies including Cambridge, Fenton, Fostoria, Heisey, and Imperial.) This compote is particularly rare. 










Louis Icart, a French artist born in Toulouse, created etchings that reached their height of brilliance during the Art Deco period and gave viewers a picture of the roaring Paris and New York life of the time. He was inspired by the French masters, such as Jean Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard, and also by his wife, Fanny Volmers, an effervescent blond who worked at the fashion house Paquin. Icart's portrayal of women was, in the mode of the era, sensuous and often erotic, but he often imbued his work with an element of humor. For example, in an etching called "In Perfect Harmony," four dogs "sing" to a flaxen-haired heartbreaker in a scene that is a forerunner to 1940s Vargas Girls by Alberto Vargas.


The image, right, shows an Icart homage to Watteau and Fragonard, with its soft, muted lines and a lithesome young lady among the cherry blossoms; it is a close-up detail of a print currently on view at GasLamp ($175; B-201). 





The image, left, is another Icart print, called "Bubbles" ($100; B-201). Its frisky nature is to the point, as the sensuous female perches among the party bubbles. The original "Bubbles" was an etching and aquatint with touches of hand coloring on woven paper, and was made in 1930. Like most of Icart's work, it has been much copied. 


The women of Art Deco possessed either an implied or direct sexuality, and could be teasing or commanding. Today, whether it is a beautiful courtesan cavorting on a pillow, a dancing pixie stretching her body to its natural limits, or a coquettish young girl playing with a spaniel, these women are wrapped up into an irresistible package that makes them fun to find and collect. 

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