Art Hash: Fine, Decorative, Design, Photography

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Modernism…Stirred, not Shaken

Modernism, both an aesthetic and a philosophy related to art and design, was the dominant force of creativity throughout much of the twentieth century. With its roots in the fin de siècle, it connotes a conscious effort to develop an entirely new style, unhindered by the past, which appropriately reflects the changes and advances of the modern world. At its heart was a rejection of historicism, naturalism, and revivalism—and an emphasis on inventing something entirely new.  As industrialized technology and creative mechanization increased, designers and artists of both the Continent and America sought to express a fundamental worship of machine and mechanization through form and shape.

In this truly international movement, leaders of Modernism such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and Charles Eames worked fluidly around the world creating a forum without boundary for the exchange of ideas. Additionally, intercontinental expositions of modern decorative arts continued to influence cross-Atlantic thought and design, just as fairs of the past had exposed visitors to new cultural aesthetics. It is this “extra-territorial” nature of Modernism, and indeed the modern world, that sparked, in force, the movement’s reign in American design, particularly in the 1930s and 40s.

American Modernism captured this new world spirit and fascination with technology and machines (which both created and stood as monuments to this new age) through a dedication to the reduction of form and shape, a focus on simplicity, functionality and purpose; smooth surfaces, lack of ornament and historical references, and an emphasis on process. There was also a uniquely American emphasis on streamlining—articulating the aerodynamic qualities of an airplane, for example, on everything from home appliances, to martini shakers and cars.

With a design aesthetic that seemed to say, “don’t look back, we’re modern people in a modern world, streamlined and propelled by new forces around us,” American Modernism found its way to everything from architecture, to industrial design and the decorative arts.  Silver, a medium particularly adept to Modernism’s tenets, showed a new face in the twentieth century—sleek, shiny, and thus with an inherent ability to make the  “simple shapes of modern design [look] especially appropriate”—it was used to produce a number of wonderful pieces that today are symbolic of the movement.

The Frank Smith Silver Co. cocktail pitcher, seen here with accompanying stirrer, is one example of Modern American aesthetics at work. Made in America in the 1940s this pitcher composed of silver and ebony epitomizes the stylistic dictates of Modernism: reduced to simple streamlined forms and smooth surfaces it is without ornament or extraneous embellishment and speaks to function and simplicity without reference to historical ideas.  Resembling in some sense a simple laboratory or medicinal beaker with its emphasis on the circle or tube, it invokes a sense of interchangeable simplicity.  Modernism espoused universality, reproducibility, and attainability; it therefore should not be ignored that the use of ebony (a material popular with luxury-oriented Art Deco, for example) for the handle, base, and stirrer, puts  this item in a realm above that of simple and fungible utilitarianism.

As a cocktail pitcher, this object reflects the great popularity in the 20s, 30s and early 40s for cocktail accessories. Inter-war America pulsated with a vibrant energy—a  sense of excitement and palpable spirit acknowledging that anything was possible in this changing world of streamlined trains and transportation by airplane.  Metropolitan centers such as New York and Chicago embraced the Jazz Age nightlife and celebrated a new world dawning. Prohibition put an end to the bar and lounge cocktail culture of the Roaring Twenties, but the social aspect of this much-appreciated ritual never died. With  Prohibition’s end in 1933, the home-hosted cocktail party became de rigeur and manufacturers responded with a timely proliferation of drink-related accouterments, including shakers and pitchers. Many were made of silver during this time and were a sleek and stylish nod to the prevailing Modern aesthetic.

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2 comments on “Modernism…Stirred, not Shaken

  1. theliteraryman
    February 23, 2012

    Time for a drink! Love this.

    • arthash
      February 23, 2012

      Thank you–It’s always time for a drink somewhere!

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