SCULPTURED ART DECO FIGURES
Sleek and streamlined figurines in bronze, cast metals and ivory are among the most evocative, and most collectable,
of all artefacts made between the wars.
Interior design in the art deco period had a tendency to be far more streamlined and geometrical than it was welcoming and cosy. Something was needed to soften the sometimes stark lines of modern furniture. The female form was just the thing; a sculpted figure on a side table or in the centre of the mantelpiece gave everything a human touch.
Naked or draped ladies had long been used for decorative purposes, of course. However, the women of the 1920s and 1930s had finally escaped the hothouse atmosphere of fragile womanhood and were free to work and play with vigour. In the same way, the sculpted figures were likely to be actually doing something rather than just lolling about looking decorous and useless. The ladies were depicted dancing, enjoying sports or, if they must be at rest, at least smoking a cigarette.
The artists, mainly French and German, were not that interested in depicting the female form as it really was. Art deco women had impossibly long limbs that held elegant poses. Their chests and backsides were small, but perfectly formed.
Sculptors took their inspiration from the loose-limbed American night-club artist, Josephine Baker, from Diaghilev's ballerinas and the uninhibited dancing of Isadora Duncan and friends. Film and sports stars were also used as models. Sonja Henie, the skater-cum-movie star, and the flier Amy Johnson, for instance, both represented the new ideal of an active, out-there-and-getting-on-with-it woman.
Of course, women were not the only subject for bronze models, although they were by far the most popular. Stylized sculptures of elegant and speedy animals such as panthers and gazelles also suited the deco style.
Lithe, lissom and impossibly lean, the women modelled in bronze by art deco sculptors danced, pranced and posed in attitudes that expressed all the vitality and the worship of health and youth that characterized the inter-war years.
The sculptured figures produced in the 1920s and 1930s were never meant to be cheap. They were aimed at the fairly well-heeled, fashion-conscious classes. However, a good piece will have increased in price a hundredfold since it was made.
One reason for their collectability is their rarity. You will seldom see one offered for sale except in a specialist shop or at a fine arts auction. In the 1950s, the inter-war years were looked back on as wilfully careless, rather than carefree times, and many symbols of
pre-war frivolity were thrown out. Even those that were simply tossed into the attic suffered, and if they're still there, they're likely to be damaged. Besides, they were made in limited numbers, and mainly in France and Germany, so the war ended their production.
Cheaper imitations were made at the time, using the plastic, ivorine, rather than ivory. These are becoming collectable in their own right and
are considerably cheaper than pieces by the truly famous names such as Preiss and Kassler, Claire Colinet and Dmitri Chiparus. The chryselephantine figures of the
French based designer, Dmitri Chiparus, fetch very high prices.
If a piece is good-looking, intact, but not ascribed to a particular artist, this should be reflected in the price. Because they are so collectable, forgeries and reproductions are rife. Most artists signed their work on the base and a common trick of the unscrupulous is to fix a reproduction or forgery onto a genuine, undamaged base.
There are safeguards against this; the best one is to get to know your stuff. Read as much as you can and look at and handle as many genuine pieces as the dealer will allow. Always buy from a reputable dealer; there are very few genuine bargains in this field.
Always check carefully that the piece is undamaged. Small bits of equipment may be broken off or missing, especially on models of sporting and outdoor subjects.
Beware of repainting. This may have been done to disguise faults or camouflage the age of a piece. Another guide to age is that ivory tends to dry and crack as it ages, especially in a dry atmosphere, but plastic pieces do not.