By Jennifer McClain
The Malden art galleries at the Malden Public Library have another surprise for us: modern art sculptures by Erté, considered the “true father of art deco.” This speaks volumes to the breadth and depth of the collection at the Malden Public Library’s galleries. The sculptures are displayed in the Ryder Gallery. The sculptures are Justice and Peace, both bronzes completed in 1984. The Library purchased them both in 1992.
The art collection is purchased through a trust fund created by Elisha Slade Converse. As the founder of the Boston Rubber Shoe Company and first mayor of Malden, he donated several sums of money during his lifetime and at the time of his death that could be only used for the purchase of art for the Malden Public LIbrary.
Erté was born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in St Petersburg, Russia. He was Ukrainian, Russian, and French and used the pseudonym of the French pronunciation of his initials, Erté.
The diversity of his nationality is reflected in the diversity of his art. Sculpture was only one of the arts that he created during his long life. Erté designed fashion, jewelry, graphic arts, costume and set design for film, theater, and opera and interior design. Even when he chose a single medium he seemed to be combining several art forms like painting and stage design or sculpture and fashion. “The stage has to be like a whole picture,” he said. “If I made only the costumes it would be like one did the background in a painting, another the figures.”
His work as a designer began when he moved to Paris in 1912. He became famous in the 1920’s in large part due to work based on “fantasy,” including 240 magazine covers for Harper’s Bazaar. He also designed covers for Vogue, Lady’s Home Journal and many others. He also designed clothes for many famous women including Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford, Mata Hari, and Lillian Gish to name a few.
Erté was in life a lot like his work. All of his pieces are flowery and big on detail. His life was large and elaborate. In 1982, if you went to the Erté exhibit at the Dyansen Gallery in Soho you could see his gold lame’ costume. This costume Erté wore to the Paris Opera Ball and not only did he wear it he lined it with real flowers. “That night, the huge cape I designed was completely lined with fresh red roses which I tossed, one by one, at my audience as I descended the grand staircase,” he told Time magazine in 1982.
In the 1960’s, a resurgence of art deco became an era for his jewelry and sculptures. Most scholars agree that the term art deco came from L’Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes which was held in Paris in 1925. The themes for this expo were defined as: progress, modernity and the present. Or as the entry form stated: “Works admitted to the exposition must be those of modern inspiration and of genuine originality, executed by artists, artisans, manufacturers, model makers and publishers, in keeping with the demands of modern decoration and industrial art.”
The Erté “Peace” sculpture owned by the Malden Public Library fits that description even though it was created many years later. A figure is standing on a rock with entwined hands adorning it appearing as working hands upon a rock that could be used for building. The modernity of the figure lies not only in its dress but its seemingly meld of female and male characteristics. Also, the way the figure holds a knife could be saying something about our modern interpretation of peace juxtaposed with the dove, our present and past symbol of peace.
The figure in the “Justice” sculpture is dressed in a feminine style but has many male characteristics, such as the narrow hips and the long, strong face. You see the hand is used in this sculpture too at the end of the staff. Hands are what make us human but a severed hand seems to suggest manufacturing. Industrialization has allowed us to make machines that do what our hands can’t. At the top of the “Justice” sculptures head appears a tea kettle or Aladdin’s lamp. Where people used to carry baskets of fruit here is a manufactured product not from the land but from industry.
As you look through the vast stores of Erté’s sculptures you find many representations of modern forefronts and natural backdrops. “Brown Boot 1974” for example has the industrially created shoe in modern style against a park with very verdant trees. He was obviously obsessed with the modern ideal of beauty and with each figure trying to define it. Many of the sculptures and prints are of women very elaborately dressed and unrealistically svelte.
It is a fitting choice that the Malden Public Library chose to display these two sculptures together. “Peace without justice is tyranny,” says William Allen White, a writer and newspaper owner. The power of knowledge is the core tenet of public libraries. Not only do these sculptures represent together the ideals of the public library they also bring the collection modernity.
The Malden Public Library owns a varied collection of artwork, which is housed in three art galleries, in the Converse Memorial building. For more information, visit the library’s website.