Cubism as a Catalyst in Design

Whoever said Cubism was just an early 20th-century phenomenon? Certainly Picasso led the pack with his vibrant abstract works in the early 1900s. But after the intellectual fencing had run its course and popular culture cast an eye on the avante-garde, the "spirit" of Cubism trickled down into the decorative arts.

French designers took the cue, and before long, furniture and fashion began to show up with a new look that harks back to the works of Cubist painters.

The Portland Museum of Art in Maine presents an exhibition that clearly illustrates this exquisite borrowing process: 'Picasso, Braque, Leger and the Cubist Spirit, 1919-1939.' In an effort to dispel the perception that Cubism was only a pre-World War I phenomenon, it features more than 100 works by Cubists and Cubism-inspired artists who worked in France between the wars.

During that time, Cubism's influence on the decorative arts showed up nearly everywhere. As curator Kenneth Wayne writes, "This new aesthetic pervaded design in all of its manifestations: architecture, furniture, objects, textiles, graphics, jewelry, and even movie sets and costumes. In the abundant writings of commentators between the wars, there is repeated reference to one decisive catalyst in this development: Cubism."

"What began as a rarefied pictorial style became a popular language," Mr. Wayne sums up.

Fashion designer Sonia Delaunay is a prime example. Her colorful geometric-patterned dresses were the rage in the mid-1920s. Her contrasting colors and mixed materials attracted the likes of Gloria Swanson and other celebrities who flew off to Paris to buy them.

In the Portland show, onlookers can see - side-by-side in some cases - how Cubism's ideals translated from painted canvas into sculpture, artful furniture, such as boxy side tables and chairs, as well as lamps, vases, and clocks with the geometric aesthetic.

More than 20,000 people have seen the exhibit which lasts until Oct. 20. It set a new "first month" record, unseating Andrew Wyeth's "Helga" exhibit in 1993.

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