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Art Nouveau versus Art Deco: New art style rises from ashes of war

Coin World profiles the continuous change of European and American medallic art in 19th, 20th centuries
By , Coin World
Published : 06/23/14
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Editor’s note: In his July monthly Coin World cover feature, noted medal expert David T. Alexander traces the path of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco design movements through the beautiful designs of European and American art medals. This is one of a series of articles from this feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com. 

Read other posts in the series: 

A new, harsh direction

German medallic art took off in a new and increasingly harsh direction that attempted to capture the impersonal vastness of a war being mercilessly fought on several fronts and continents. Artists including Karl Goetz, Ludwig Gies and Arnold Zadikow created a new and harshly realistic genre that separated Germany from the next artistic movement that would soon transform French medallic art. 

Transitional designs foreshadowing another dramatic shift in the French art of the medal included two notable medals by Pierre Alexandre Morlon (born 1878, died 1951). Merci! (that is, “Thanks!”) is a plaquette reflecting the nightmare trench warfare on the Western Front. It shows a surprised and delighted French Poilu (rifleman) in full uniform and helmet receiving a kiss from Marianne, the spirit of France, clad in a diaphanous garment.

Far more warlike but retaining Art Nouveaux overtones is Morlon’s 1921 Char d’Assaut (meaning “Tank”) showing a bare-breasted Marianne flying with naked sword, urging forward a clumsy early tank lumbering across No Man’s Land. Both of these designs show the earliest evidence of the arrival of the next artistic transformation, Art Deco.

A new direction in art style

This term has been attributed to the great architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier (born 1887, died 1965) and his influential journal, L’Esprit nouveau. It referred specifically to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), which set the direction for postwar French — and ultimately, world — art.

This new direction is clear on the 60-millimeter octagonal bronze medal of this trend-setting expo, designed by Paris Mint artist Pierre Turin (1881, died 1968), who quickly emerged as one of the supreme masters of Art Deco. Its obverse bore a muse seated on clouds bearing a huge basket of flowers, dropping blossoms in a straight line toward the earth below; the reverse presented a five-line expo inscription in sans-serif lettering over a rich growth of flowering plants.

Art historians such as Bevis Hillier give Art Deco far more ancient roots, including forms of pre-modern art from all over the world. One influential advocate of such remote origins was the late Bernard Davis, president-director of the Miami Museum of Modern Art (died 1973), whose institutional collection traced the origins of modern art to pre-historic, aboriginal and primitive arts.

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