Deco on Display

Beauty celebrated through bold graphics

With Hoover Dam, its accompanying artwork and the original Las Vegas High School, Southern Nevada boasts prominent examples of large-scale art deco sculpture and architecture. But for those who yearn for art deco on a smaller scale, A Celebration of Erté, showing through December at the Martin Lawrence Gallery, focuses on the work of one of the period’s great artistic masters.

Erté (a.k.a. Romain de Tirtoff) was an influential and prolific artist, illustrator and designer who worked almost continuously until his death in 1990 at age 97. Highlights of this show include gouache-on-paper works, bronze sculptures and serigraph prints. Art deco exemplified the elegance and urban sophistication that were hallmarks of the roaring ’20s Jazz Age. Often referred to as “the Father of Art Deco,” Erté became ubiquitous in high fashion and graphic design. He got his start in 1912 in Paris’ high-fashion circles, and went on to become a regular illustrator of covers for Harper’s Bazaar, and he also worked as a set and costume designer for theater, ballet and opera. In addition, Erté also designed jewelry and interior décor.

The pieces in A Celebration of Erté are a showcase of visual delights that reveal not only the creative trajectory of the artist but also the defining characteristics of art deco.

Art deco was preceded by art nouveau, which was all the rage in Europe and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and was notable for its curvilinear and organic shapes. Art deco, in contrast, emphasized simplified, linear and symmetrical design elements. Erté’s work shows us a perfect balance of masculine and feminine lines melded with dreamlike, decorative and exotic details.

Here are some gems from the show that highlight both the artist’s work and the notable features of art deco:

“The Alphabet Series” (gouache on paper, 21-by-13.75 inches each). The pieces in this playful series feature a nude or nudes in strong, sensuous poses (think Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil), with taut and lyrical outlines that make silhouettes in the shapes of the letters of the alphabet.

“Willow Tree” (bronze sculpture, lost wax-casting method, 5.5-by-12-by-24.75 inches). A slender figure of a woman rises vertically, curving gently like a willow tree. This nymph-like apparition seems to personify a fantasy nature goddess of the Orient with her flowing robes and outstretched arms. The sumptuous colors of her garments in indigo and shimmering gold embody the opulence and theatricality of art deco glamor.

“Fedora Fan” (serigraph with hot-stamping and embossing). This work, which was recently sold, is based on a costume design for a singer in a 1910 Chicago Opera Company production of Giordano’s Fedora. The central figure is an elegant woman (singer Gann Walska) in an embellished pink evening gown holding a circular pink fan, posed like a modern-day red-carpet celebrity. The curvilinear outline of her body and dress against a simple black background creates a stunning composition reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, complemented by Erté’s geometric signature “chop” in the upper right corner.