The MFAH Goes Back to the Headlong Living of the '20s and '30s With "Deco Nights"

House of Lanvin, Dance Dress
House of Lanvin, Dance Dress
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen. It’s the bounce of a jazz beat through the shimmer of a 1925 night — not the meandering, languorous stuff from later on, but jazz with verve and rhythm. Jazz that demands you dance and drink champagne till dawn. Le jazz hot. So cool.

You can almost hear it as you walk into “Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but not quite — MFAH doesn’t do sound effects for its exhibitions yet. This time maybe it should. It would add one more facet to this glittering little show intended to give us a sense of what it was like — the look and the feel — in those wild, romantic days of flappers and bobs and headlong living. Le show hot. So cool.

“Deco Nights” is not by any means what you’d call a major exhibition — not a diamond as big as the Ritz, to steal a phrase in tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very one who gave The Jazz Age its name. MFAH curators Cindi Strauss, curator for modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, and Christine Gervais, associate curator for decorative arts and Rienzi, don’t overwhelm us with a thousand things, showcasing only 20 or 30 beautiful objects made in Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The show breaks no new ground in our understanding of the Art Deco movement. It is, in fact, something of a prelude to another, splashier show that will open at MFAH in February, “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929-1940,” which sounds like a real doozy. But “Deco Nights” sparkles nonetheless.

I think it’s the dresses, by haute couture legends Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Lanvin, Fortuny and others, that are best. Or is it the perfume bottles, tiny sculpted follies of elegance and vanity with names like Fête de Nuit, Ce Soir ou Jamais, Les Ailes de Paris (Festival of Night, Tonight or Never, Wings of Paris)? Or maybe the photographs by Brassaï, Aaron Siskind and André Kertész, whose “Satiric Dancer” is an angled, upended marvel? No, definitely the dresses. But no need to choose. They’re all here and more.

Of such things I’d like to see much, much more — though the little sort of off-in-the-corner space in the Law Building that’s now devoted to decorative arts could hardly accommodate too much more. I remember a time when this space was the meager museum cafe, back before museum restaurants became almost as important as the art: pretty fab sitting outside on beautiful days in the wisteria-ceilinged garden that’s now accessible only through the Hirsch Library, and hardly used by anyone. (This time the curtains are drawn, to protect fabrics and paper, so you can’t even see it.) Maybe the new building will make room for more extensive gallery space for decorative arts.

One of the best ways to prepare for going to the show, or to keep the party rolling after you’ve been, is to have another look at Fitzgerald’s classic novels and stories from the period, most important, of course, The Great Gatsby, with its parties that last till dawn. A reread of Gatsby, which hinges on cars, will get you ready for “Sculpted in Steel,” too.

“Deco Nights” is also an excuse to re-watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Much of the action of the Jazz Age, even the romantic American part epitomized by Fitzgerald and his irrepressible wife, Zelda, happened in that city.

Art Deco got its name as shorthand for the Paris exposition of 1925, L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. This was the first big world exposition after the ravages, both physical and psychological, of World War I. Europe especially had been devastated, and the impresarios of the Exposition intended to stage an almost theatrical event that would show the world, as well as the traumatized citizens of France, that Paris and the pre-eminence of French culture and design were back — that “life was beginning over again,” to quote once more from Fitzgerald.

People from everywhere flocked to the show — among them the Houston artist Emma Richardson Cherry (1859-1954), who recounted her adventures in her letters home: the wonders of the Exposition, and also the exciting nightlife that she, and her fellow Houstonians visiting Paris that fall, reveled in.

Okay, Cherry and her friends were mature Houston matrons (she was 66 in 1925), so their reveling wasn’t quite so wild as some of the memoirs and movies of the period romanticize — no midnights in Paris for her. Still, there were afternoon teas at the Paris Ritz; bistro dinners of exotic food washed down with wine and alcohol (Prohibition still reigned back home); theater excursions to see the black American sensation (or should it be spelled “sinsation”?) Josephine Baker perform her notorious, semi-nude Banana Dance; and shopping till dropping for everything from the latest Deco home furnishings, to Egyptian revival earbobs in a perfect blue hue at a Rue de Rivoli jeweler, to à la mode frocks, sometimes copied from couture originals like the ones in this show, or avant-garde cadenzas in fabric by the artist Sonia Delaunay.

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If there’s a flaw in “Deco Nights,” aside from there just being too little of it to satisfy my greedy desire to see more Deco delights, it is perhaps that it shows us only the rich, pretty side of the period. There was a not so pretty side, too, but we get no hint of it. No hint beside the sleek chrome “Manhattan” cocktail set by Norman Bel Geddes that all that jazz made the sound track to a deadly dance-a-thon into alcoholism and madness for Fitzgerald and the fragile Zelda. No note on Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann’s elegant cocktail cabinet in rosewood, sharkskin and ivory that the exotic materials came to Paris through the rape of colonies around the world. Or that the mad race of the 1920s, shown in the photographs, ended in the Crash of ’29, plunges from skyscraper windows and the Depression of the 1930s.

This is a perennial problem for art museum exhibitions, which are dedicated mostly to showing the best and most beautiful. There are exceptions — see the powerful video titled “Caquetá” by Colombian artist Miguel Ángel Rojas, and other pieces, in “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America,” right upstairs in the Law Building. Here the beauty draws us in for a jolting look at the not-so-beautiful world that’s always there in every period even if we choose not to look. “Contingent Beauty,” by the way, is one of the most powerful shows I’ve seen in a long time.

The objects in “Deco Nights” give us the beauty but not the jolt — after all, only the rich could afford these things, even when they were new, and what a party-kill to look at the ugly side of the times. That would be a different exhibition, I suppose.

So never mind that Gatsby and his impossible Jazz Age dream die floating in his swimming pool, shot by a cuckold. What an American way to go, and he wasn’t even the guilty man — not guilty of that particular betrayal, anyway. It was the dream that got him, just as it was the obsession and not the whale that doomed Ahab and all those with him. All but one, who lived to tell the tale.

This time the curators at MFAH have stepped up to tell the tale — at least part of it — of the Jazz Age in “Deco Nights,” and the part of it they’ve told is well worth a look. Maybe you’ll even get a glimpse of Gatsby’s fatal yellow roadster, flashing by through the shimmering night to the sound of jazz, on the way to another midnight party.

“Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age”
Through June 5, 2016. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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