Melbourne: Art for the everyday

By Nicole Curin-Birch

There was hardly a more glamorous time during the 20th century than the decades sandwiched between World Wars I and II. It was an era when Hollywood movies reigned, jazz took over the gramophone, women danced the night away in their flapper dresses and everyone traversed the globe on luxury liners.

Gone were the restrictions and austerity of wartime. Instead, a new aesthetic was born - Art Deco - a movement that allowed people to celebrate the very fact they had made it through to the other side.

And it was a style that took the world by storm. From Paris to New York, London to Shanghai and even all the way down to Australia and New Zealand, Art Deco inspired architecture, fashion, jewellery and even toasters. The fascination with this style has hardly let up since.

Which is why next week when the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne opens its doors for its most ambitious exhibition of the year, Art Deco: 1910-1939, upwards of 150,000 people are expected to attend.

The exhibition, originally staged in London by the Victoria and Albert Museum, showcases more than 300 exponents of the Art Deco genre ranging from precious Cartier jewels and Chanel gowns to Empire State Building-shaped radios and an extremely elegant meat slicer. There's even a rare 1937 Cord Westchester sedan of which only 3000 were built. This entered the gallery after being driven through the sculpture garden, across a moat and through an opening where two windows had been removed to make way.

But the Cord isn't the only ambitious installation. Two weeks were spent painstakingly re-erecting the fragile former foyer of London's Strand Palace Hotel. A masterpiece crafted from glass and marble, the foyer was saved from the wrecking ball by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when the hotel was earmarked for demolition in 1969.

Being Australia's most cultural city it makes sense for Melbourne to be selected as the only Southern Hemisphere venue for this travelling exhibition. And to make it more relevant to the locals, a wide range of Australian and New Zealand exhibits have been sourced.

A stunning 1932 watercolour by Doris Tutill combines a whare, tiki and a sunburst pattern, and remember those old tea sets emblazoned with a Maori design? Well, the original takes pride of place in the exhibition, too.

The NGV's deputy director Frances Lindsay says this combining of indigenous design elements with glamorous deco was considered thoroughly chic at the time and reflected a newfound interest in the exotic.

"When Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered in Egypt in 1922 the whole world went mad for anything Egyptian and this trickled through to deco. We see turquoise and gold jewellery, clothing decorated with scarab patterns and sculpture and fabric designs based on hieroglyphic prints, but all done with a deco twist," she says.

Indeed a great deal of the exhibition concerns deco's various roots.

Who would have thought the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a deco design, would have been inspired by the pre-Colombian architecture of the Incan temple Machu Picchu in Peru?

"The step-like formation of the Incan pyramids has been replicated and used as the base for the columns holding up the sunburst frame of the bridge," says Lindsay.

This formation was also used around the war memorial at the Auckland Museum.

Lindsay credits the cinema for spreading the Art Deco message globally.

"It didn't really matter how poor people were or where they were; they could generally scrape together a few cents to go and see a Hollywood movie and when they saw those films they really wanted to emulate the beautiful clothes, set designs and objects projected on screen. It was really the beginning of the communication age, which is why we find deco pieces all over the world."

The era also marked a new freedom and liberation for women. For the first time they were out there working in previously male-dominated industries and, of course, they needed a new wardrobe to match.

The gowns on show are divine. One creation is so heavily beaded with a dragon design that it has to be displayed lying flat, and there is a dark violet silk Lanvin gown that wouldn't look out of place on the red carpet right now.

It girls of the time such as the celebrated performer Josephine Baker would have wiped the floor with the Lindsays and Britneys of today. Can you imagine either of them being able to drive through the streets of Paris in their convertibles wearing a full-length evening gown and accompanied by a pet cheetah without looking stark raving mad? Baker did that daily.

However, deco wasn't just for high society. Everyday objects such as toasters, radios and tea cups also got the deco treatment, making it a truly democratic style in keeping with the egalitarian times.

But it will be the big ticket items that most people will be flocking to see. The jewels, the gowns, the sculptures and the artworks by celebrated painter Tamara De Lempicka, all of which have been presented in a truly fabulous way with accompanying floor talks and seminars.

And if you find yourself in Melbourne on a Wednesday, the Deco After Dark evenings can't be missed. Visitors will be treated to performances by swing musicians, flapper dancers, Fred and Ginger impersonators and a floor talk with accompanying food and wine.

If you're a deco fan or just a lover or fashion, furniture and even toasters, this exhibition is not to be missed.

Art Deco: 1910-1939 runs at the National Gallery of Victoria (International) in Melbourne from June 28 to October 5. Adult A$22 ($27.47)/ Concession A$18/Family A$60. Visit

The Sofitel in Melbourne is offering an Art Deco package for visitors which includes overnight accommodation for two, two tickets to the show, two classic cocktails and valet car parking from A$349. Visit

is a walking tour that travels to galleries, artists' studios and artist-run initiative spaces hidden in Melbourne's buildings and laneways. Run by artist Bernadette Alibrando, the tours operate every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon in all weather conditions and take about three hours (with an extra hour of cheese and wine after the walk).

July 30 to August 3 will feature more than 80 selected galleries from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Melbourne Art fair is the leading trade fair and public exposition of contemporary visual art in the region.

Discover beautiful kimono and accessories from the glory days of Japan. This exhibition, highlighting the wealth and prosperity of the Edo and Meiji periods (1850-1900), is showing exclusively at the Immigration Museum. This runs until September 15 and costs A$6 for adults, children are free.

The elegant Cowen Gallery features a display of 150 works of art from the Library's Pictures Collection, from early scenes of Melbourne to contemporary portraits. The library Is worth visiting for its beauty alone. Open daily and entry is free.

- NZ Herald

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