Art deco building from the 1920s

Art Deco: A Literary Style?

Professor Maria Rubins’ inaugural lecture explored the concept, one which she herself coined, of Art Deco literature. Traditionally associated with the visual arts, Professor Rubins posits that the Art Deco movement of the early twentieth century also seeped into literature, as can be seen in the work of, among others, Victor Marguerite and Irene Némirovsky.  

The Art Deco movement is distinct to the 1920s, the decade which F Scott Fitzgerald diagnosed as ‘the most expensive orgy in history’. The carefree, libidinous style emphasised the eclectic, hedonistic and beautiful, as society reeled from the loss of philosophical, ethical, and religious as a result of the tragedies of the First World War.  

Cinema plays a central role in this phenomena. Though originally perceived as a threat to literature, promising mass production and commercialism, thus containing the potential to destroy the individual thought necessary for literature, certain authors instead used it as a model.

Their writing is distinctly cinematic, with accentuated descriptions of features and gestures replacing the introspective psychology of 19th century writing. Other tropes typical of the style include that of the business or sports novel, starring eccentric charlatans as their protagonists, often with non-Western origins, and suffused with racial clichés and stereotypes.

Alongside this protagonist stands the heroine. She is most typically exemplified in Victor Margueritte’s novel La Garçonne (‘The Tomboy’; ‘The Girl-Boy’; ‘The Flapper’), as a bisexual, bohemian, independent woman, picking up typically masculine traits whilst simultaneously sustaining her femininity and sexuality.  For a clearer idea of this ideal, Art Deco woman, I would recommend looking at Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker, or Schad’s Sonja.

The women shown in these portraits are depicted alone, in cafés, smoking or drinking. Unlike similar portraits from the 19th century, they are not prostitutes – they are independent, free-thinking women. Ideas of high and low culture were, therefore, undermined, along with the growth of the bohemian middle class.  

Professor Rubins emphasises the role of the newly-arrived Jewish refugees in Tel Aviv in the development of this style. Whilst it was emerging throughout the Western world – as can be seen in the extensive writings of French writers such as Marguerite, it was in Tel Aviv that it was able to thrive.

The city was seemingly without any history, having only been founded in 1909, whilst simultaneously existing on the crossroads of civilisations, combining aspects of the traditional Jewish shtetl, the European metropolis, and the Arab, Middle Eastern city. Jewish poet Leah Goldberg wrote of the city as ‘a speck of Europe in the middle of Asia’. This melting pot epitomised many of the values of Art Deco, providing the perfect backdrop for its literary development.  

Facilitated by Hebrew grammar, in which ‘city’ is a feminine noun, Tel Aviv was consistently portrayed as a woman. Specifically, Tel Aviv took on the role of a muscular, sporty woman – complying with the Art Deco ideas of womanhood, in which the cult of physical health reigned supreme. It was, for example, portrayed as Diana in Natan Alterman’s Little Tel Aviv  reminiscent of the Roman goddess of the hunt, the Moon, and fertility. Much as the Art Deco ideal of the woman centred around liberation and bohemianism, Tel Aviv’s atmosphere as a city strived to emulate this. Café culture was central to this, creating a home for Jewish eccentrics and artists in which to experiment with form and style, away from the rising fascism and anti-semitism in Europe. 

Art Deco literature therefore stretched from French prose to Hebrew poetry, engulfing Europe at a time when the dominant ideology was trying to crush these sentiments. Driven by Jewish émigrés such as Némirovsky, Alterman, and Goldberg, it is clear that the concepts surrounding Art Deco made just as much of an indent on the literature of the time, and ever since, as they did on the visual arts and cinema.  

Professor Rubins masterfully guided the audience through this working of the concept, and I would like to thank her for a hugely enjoyable lecture, and congratulate her on her new position within SSEES.

Watch the recording

By Ada Wordsworth, Fourth Year Russian Studies BA, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Post photo by McGill Library on Unsplash

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