Art Deco and Art Nouveau Exhibition / Canberra until March 2019

Napier Waller “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth” 1933, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © Estate of Napier Waller

Until 17 March 2019*
Australian Art galleries | Level 1
Free entry

In the 1920s, Australian artists rebelled against the austerity of World War I to create images of an abundant nation filled with strong, youthful figures, capturing the vitalism of a nation reborn.

Technological advancements and urbanisation influenced the emergence of Art Deco: a new aesthetic in art, architecture, design and fashion. Comprised entirely of works selected from our collection, Art Deco presents superb examples of Australian Vitalism, including Rayner Hoff’s architectural frieze Deluge – stampede of the lower gods 1927, Jean Broome-Norton’s Abundance 1934 and Napier Waller’s painting, “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth” 1933, which captures Art Deco’s fascination with the meeting of art, architecture and technology.

Art Deco in design and daily life

The rise of Art Deco as a style in fine art, architecture, design and fashion in the 1920s was largely born from the emergence of modernism and abstraction in the early decades of the twentieth century. Technological advancements such as electricity, telephony, motor cars and air travel, combined with the urbanisation of society, called for a new style that echoed the modernisation of our world.

With its simplified shapes and emphasis on geometry and line, Art Deco provided the right aesthetic for the times. Buildings lost their decorative embellishments, fashion became less structured and corseted, and above all women were enjoying greater freedoms, such as the right to vote and to travel unchaperoned. Thus the image of the stylish independent woman became popular in portraiture and graphic design for posters and advertisements.

Art Deco was an international style. Its popularity was driven by modernist movements in Europe and in America, reaching a crescendo at the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925. Dedicated to ‘modern’ decorative arts, important architects were commissioned to design pavilions inside which visitors found a rich cornucopia of modernist and Art Deco design on display. In Australia, this impetus was expressed in magazines such as The Home, which became a beacon of modern style in Australia, illustrating many of the objects, photographs and advertisements on display in this exhibition.

*Please note that a smaller display of paintings and sculpture from the national collection will remain on display after 17 March while Art Deco prepares to tour regional Australia from May 2019 – August 2020.

Art Deco painting and sculpture

While Art Deco design and popular culture embodied an urbane sophistication, an equally prominent trajectory evolved from an increased interest in theosophy, spirituality and symbolism. Following the incomprehensible anguish of the First World War, artists and patrons looked to metaphysical concepts to make sense of the world. Classical Greek and Roman mythology also provided popular narratives.

In Australia, this style converged with the impulse to depict an abundant and productive nation during its reconstruction following the austerity of the First World War. While depictions of the human form were often stylised and pared back, an archetype of the youthful, strong and fecund individual evolved into a tendency known as ‘Vitalism’. Architectural friezes such as Rayner Hoff’s impressive relief sculpture Deluge – stampede of the lower gods was replete with a morality tale about the perils of tempting fate and offending the gods. Echoing this theme of fecundity and virility, is the striking relief, Abundance, by Jean-Broome Norton.

In Melbourne, Napier Waller’s remarkable architectural mosaic frieze for the Art Deco building Newspaper House in Collins Street, ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth’, was characteristic of the merging of art, architecture and technology at the time. This is the first time since the NGA was opened in 1982 that the large scale canvas cartoons for the mosaic have been shown in Canberra.


International galleries | Level 2
Free entry

Between 1890 and 1910, Art nouveau—the new art—was at its peak in Europe and America and was applied to art, architecture, graphic arts, interior design and the decorative arts. Prominent artists and designers of the movement looked to nature as a key source of inspiration and sought to create beautiful images and objects. Inspired by the inexhaustible forms of the natural world, often incorporating motifs derived from flora and fauna, the Art nouveau style is richly decorative, typified by graceful organic forms and curvilinear and undulating lines.

This display of works in the Art nouveau style is currently in the International galleries. The centre of the room is illuminated with a display of eight Tiffany lamps, seven of which have been generously lent to the NGA by a private collector. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s lamp designs are prime examples of the Art nouveau style and embody his belief that art and everyday objects should be imbued with beauty sourced from nature.

Eugéne Grasset (artistic director) ‘Umbellated Rush’ in La Plante et ses applications ornementales, deuxieme serie [The Plant and its ornamental applications, second series] 1896, pochoir, lithography, Julian Robinson Collection, purchased 1976.

Eugéne Grasset (artistic director) ‘Umbellated Rush’ in La Plante et ses applications ornementales, deuxieme serie [The Plant and its ornamental applications, second series] 1896, pochoir, lithography, Julian Robinson Collection, purchased 1976.

A selection of prints from La Plante et ses applications ornamentals [Plants and their application to ornament] also reveals the almost endless decorative possibilities that can be derived directly from nature. The publication was produced under the direction of Eugéne Grasset, a teacher, artist and pioneer of Art nouveau. The portfolio in two volumes contains 144 plates. A page with delicately drawn botanical illustration of a plant is followed by examples of that plant interpreted into an array of decorative designs and motifs. It includes examples of how these ornamental interpretations could be applied to decorative objects such as fabrics, ceramics, wallpapers, furniture and metalwork.

The graphic arts flourished at this time and it was by way of advertising posters, periodicals, illustrative books and playbills that Art nouveau reached a mass audience and gained widespread appeal. The display also includes posters created by the celebrated artists Emmanuel Orazi and Alphonse Mucha, which capture the spirit of Art nouveau.