Thursday, September 25, 2008

Art Deco - Melbourne style

Photo: NGV.I’ll put a girdle round about the earth’ 1933 (detail) Napier Waller. Oil on canvas (triptych) 271.0 x 693.0 cm (overall) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The character of the city of Melbourne is defined, to a remarkable degree, by its vernacular architecture rather than by its state or official buildings. (This is one of the reasons why I like it!) Even the World Heritage Site isn't as famous as it could be, while the streetscapes and some suburbs are highly regarded, if not world famous. The architecture of the gold rush era (the 1880s) and Art Deco architecture of the inter-war period are perhaps the most obvious contributors to the city's style, while Federation (1901- ) and modern architecture are also both notable.

This winter's* exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was Art Deco, 1910 - 1939. We were able to visit with our friend Rich before he and Charlotte returned to the land of the long grey cloud (England), and we took my grandmother for a second visit the other day.

It's a great exhibition, perhaps because it's in a very 'Art Deco' city, perhaps because it has a mixture of 'high' and 'low' art, utilitarian but beautiful objects and industrial design, as well as the usual suspects in the decorative arts. Certainly there were some remarkably cheap-looking objects, for all the world like jelly-baby jewellery, which turned out to be by Cartier. Other items which were aesthetically stunning - and mass-produced in plastic - challenged the norms of 'value' and art. Naturally there was a bitter and reactionary review in the paper pointed out to us by a friend; my guess is the nasty little man (Robert Nelson) wasn't comfortable with a flamboyant accessible people's art. (He makes some good points, but the 'noble antecedents' of Bauhaus are bull.) Whatever whittering critics may say it's a popular exhibition, having been put together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK, and been put on show at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto and two other venues in the USA. However it's not a complete 'import' as in Canada and Australia a great effort was clearly made to include local material, some of which was very rare (such as an Australian collectors' badge from the original Paris Arts Décoratif exhibition).

Photo: NGV. Foyer from the Strand Palace Hotel 1930–31. Oliver Bernard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

We'd like to bring you more insight to the exhibition, but sadly not only were cameras not allowed, sketchbooks and pencils were banned. (What?! - Bev) Presumably the risks of retro-industrial espionage loomed large. Ironic, particularly as we had seen and photographed at least one item in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum only a month earlier. (Where photography is permitted.)

'Comet' sculpture, this example seen in the Royal Ontario Museum's permanent Art Deco exhibition. Photo: Bev & James.

One very cool thing, however, is the link to the 'Deco Detectives' website where Art Deco buildings could be added by you, the reader, to a world map. And this gives us a chance to spotlight a local item. Just down the road from our home is a fast-food outlet of infamous name. However the building, formerly the United Kingdom Hotel, is stunning. Here's a photo I took the other day:

Photo: James Kightly.

Intriguingly, the rather silly sign on the top wasn't even originally put there by the junk foodery, but by the previous owners, the Carlton and United Brewer, their logo of the entwined CUB on the disc, the pub name going on the block, the whole revolving. Now it no longer revolves.
Photo: State Library of Victoria. United Kingdom Hotel, 199 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill by Fred M. Day, 1964, Image Number: pi001514

This photo from the State Library of Victoria's website shows what it looked like before the CUB and co had started 'branding' it. (And there are a couple of interior shots of the restaurant and a bedroom here as well. An earlier building is shown here on the Picture Victoria website.)

A bit more searching found this stunning night shot, by Dr. Adam Dimech, one of his great range of Melbourne by night shots on Flickr, well worth a look. (His blog page on Patrick Blanc's creation of a Mur Végétale or 'wall of plants' in a Melbourne shopping centre is also worth looking up.)

We have some gems of Art Deco in the city, so this exhibition is well-housed, if unevenly handled, by the NGV. Melboune - Art Deco styled city.


Photo: NGV. Cord 812 Westchester sedan 1937, in front of Burnham Beeches, Victoria. Private collection, Melbourne. Photo courtesy of Brian Scott.

*Note for our northern hemisphere readers - winter in the southern hemisphere runs through the middle of the year - not over Christmas. And this happens every year down here. Amazing, eh? (Cor blimey! - Bev)


Hels said...

I love the image of the 1937 sedan in front of the 1930s Burnham Beeches. Do you know when the photo was taken?

Taccola said...

Hi Hels,
I don't know exactly, but it was taken as a promotional image probably just before the exhibition was put on, when they had the car available. There's another shot of the car at the house showing the modern 'club permit' number plate. There's another black & white shot of the house in the catalogue for that entry, so the colour one is certainly not a period shot. You could contact the NGV if you need more information.