To close out the anniversary celebration of its 20th year, the Frist Art Museum will take an in-depth look back at the era of its own building with the exhibition “American Art Deco: Designing for the People, 1918-1939.”
Consider it a Frist Art Museum selfie, if you will.
Originally designed as the postal headquarters in 1934, the building itself is a poster child for the art deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s with its varying colors of marble often displayed in geometric shapes and its cast-aluminum doors and grillwork.
Senior Curator Katie Delmez said the timing of this exhibition was intentional to honor and celebrate the historic building that narrowly escaped demolition before being restored and reopened as the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2001.
“Art deco is a style that manifested on this side of the pond most pervasively in architecture,” she said. “We are opening the show with a big graphic of the Chrysler Building. Architecture is hard to include in an exhibition, but we certainly wanted to point out one of the most iconic buildings in the world to remind everyone of that touchstone.”
While art deco is prevalent in architecture, it infiltrated art and life, as well. The style was also highly used in decorative applications that Delmez says many of us have seen in our grandparents’ homes.
“Aside from the broad array of fine arts including paintings, prints, sculptures, furniture, glassware and metalware in this exhibit, we have everyday things like a vacuum cleaner and a radio,” Delmez said. “We wanted to show that this movement is even evident in things meant to be functional in an everyday way.”
Highs and lows – then and now
The exhibition examines not only the glamour and optimism of the 1920s, but also the impact of the Great Depression in the 1930s, which is why art deco is such an important era in global and American art history.
And it isn’t lost on Delmez that there are so many parallels between that period in history and what we are experiencing today.
“The range of works in this exhibition allows audiences to consider both the optimism and glamour of this moment in our nation’s history and the devastation and discrimination that was also prevalent,” she said. “I was struck many times in preparation for this show at how many ways life today is like it was in the 1920s and ’30s. Just like after World War I, we are learning to live with a pandemic that has taken lives. There was racial unrest during this period. The KKK was on the rise and there were many marches in protest of that and in protest of discrimination against African Americans. There were waves of refugees fleeing and immigrants were looking for a better life here in the U.S.
“During the depression, there was much debate about the role of government and infrastructure. Both eras saw new forms of communication. It was the radio then and social media now. There are so many connections between this era and the present moment. I feel like as we a really trying to navigate this moment that seems so unprecedented, I find it somewhat reassuring to think our country has gone through challenges like this before. It has put this moment in perspective.”
Less is more
While art deco reflects the best of times and the worst of times in our history, it also is a nod to a great time of invention during the machine age. Art deco is characterized as streamlined and sleek, free of any fussy ornamentation, which Delmez says stems from the growing interest at the time in modernity and machinery.
“Art deco is very different from its predecessors, which were all about luxury and ornamentation,” she said. “In France, luxury materials were often used, but a key distinction between what was made here versus in France is that items here were made in a similar style, but with less expensive materials. Something would be made of ivory in France, but chrome here, which meant it became more accessible to a middle class. People know art deco and I think it’s because many average folks were able to have an example of something in the art deco style in their home.”
Popular art deco motifs are zig zag patterns, sunbursts, stylized flower sprays (like the top of the Chrysler building in New York City) and radiating circles with triangles. With art deco, Delmez says the straight line became a thing of beauty.
“In many ways, this was a rejection of art nouveaux which was all about the curve,” she said. “There was so much ornamentation prior to art deco, but it shifted and became about geometric forms during this time. Even the human form is depicted as angular and simplified, which is a real departure from the past.”
The Nashville connection
The exhibition features several works by Aaron Douglas, an American artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1930, he came to Nashville from New York to create a series of murals for Fisk University. A decade later, he established the art department at Fisk, where he would teach for the next 26 years.
Delmez thought it would be important to include some of Douglas’ work in this exhibition. She reached out to the Fisk Gallery to explore the possibility of them lending some works from their collection to this exhibition. Twelve items from Fisk are part of the exhibition, which will tour Kansas City and Omaha, Neb., in addition to Nashville.
“Aaron Douglas is a huge part of the story, so I am thrilled that we were able to add some works from Nashville collections to this exhibition for its entire tour,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to highlight Nashville during this time.”
Delmez didn’t stop there. Because this was an era where Americans were on the move thanks to the assembly line, she thought it would be important to add a car to the exhibition.
Thanks to Delmez’s efforts and the generosity of The Dishner Family Collection, the exhibition contains a loaned Ford Model A from 1930 that happens to be in pristine condition.
If you go
What: “American Art Deco: Designing for the People 1918-1939”
Where: Frist Art Museum’s Ingram Gallery, 919 Broadway, Nashville
When: through Jan. 2; hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1-5:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students, free for those 18 and younger
More information: fristartmuseum.org