25 annés UAM: a visual narrative of French Modernism

“When a man is too curious concerning what went on in past ages, he is apt to remain ignorant of what is taking place in his own day.”

René Descartes, Discourse on the Method

BLIND DATE WITH UAM

In 2018, one of my regular book and exhibition expeditions to Paris coincided with a stunning exhibition that the Centre Pompidou devoted to the UAM (Union des Artistes Modernes – union of modern artists) – one of the most underestimated artistic movements of the 20th century yet one of the widest-reaching movements in the history of 20th centry art that helped to make Paris a world capital of the avant-garde.

ONCE UPON A TIME (around a table) IN PARIS

Springtime of 1929.  Across a round table inside a bistro close to the Pavillon de Marsan (house of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs) sat a group of prominent artists and artisans who defined themselves  “Unité de Choc”.  Like modern knights (and Chevalieresses) of Camelot, these pioneers of French modernism where determined to win the war that opposed les fetichistes de la vieillerie – static and conformist traditionalists who borrowed its themes from the variations of the artistic vocabulary of the 18th century – flower wreaths and fruit baskets – to those who invoked technological innovation, form simplification and accessibility.

The 1934 “Manifesto’ For Modern Art as a Frame for Contemporary Life” states:

” We must rise up against everything that LOOKS rich, against whatever is WELL made, and against ANYTHING INHERITED FROM GRANDMOTHER…Impose will where habit is not invoked…overcome the habit of the eyes.”

 

These group meetings took place in 1929 following the group’s successful first collective exhibition at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs.  Charlotte Perriand guided the rebellion. She summoned the best masters at the table: René Herbst, Robert mallet-Stevens, Francis Jourdain, Héléne Henry, Raymond Templier, Jean Fouquet, Gérard Sandoz, Puyiforcat…  

THE ALL-STARS OF FRENCH MODERNISM

The list of members of UAM during its 28 years of life included several well known names in architecture: Le Corbusier, Andre Lurcat, Mallet-Stevens, Eugene Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, and Georges-Henri Pingusson… Jean Prouvé, Pierre Chareau, sculptors Gustav Miklos and Csaky, Jeweler designers Jean Fouquet and Raymond Templier, master glassmakers Barillet, Le Chevallier and Hanssen. It also included foreign artists such as Eileen Grey and Le Corbusier.

The army included a cohort of sculptors, a legion of leading poster artists of the time – Jean Carlu, Paul Colin, A. M. Cassandre, Francis Bernard and Charles Loupot – and bookbinders whose work was both delicate and revolutionary, like Rose Adler and Pierre Legrain.

With ceramists, photographers, jewellers, silversmiths and typeface designers, the sheer scope of the creative forces involved was huge, all driven by the same goal of expressing the most resolute modernity.

THE “ÉLAN DU MODERNISM” IS IN THE AIR

The adventure of the modern movement was rich and complex. UAM was the inevitable finalization of a series of attempts to depart from the past aesthetic cannons that began more than two decades earlier.  It brought together the best artists and artisans who had invested years in research and experimentation seeking aesthetic, technical and functional innovations in all artistic disciplines: architecture, painting, sculpture, furniture production, textile and jewellery design, bookbinding, graphic and poster design.

Cinema was a visual container of the works of various future members of UAM. The movie era played an essential role after WWI  and into the 1920’s, in the development of modern decoration. Cinema financed and promoted young decorators and designers, providing more effective promotion compared to the publicity provided by expositions or specialized magazines. The architect Robert Mallet-Stevens will conceive architectures and set decorations for approximately 20 productions, involving artists like Léger, Csaku, furniture designers such as Pierre Chareau (creator of the Maison de Verre in Paris) and Francis Jourdain, the extraordinary jeweler Raymond Templier and silversmith Jean Puiforcat, future members of UAM. One of these films, the most emblematic of modern life, is L’Inhumaine (1923) by Marcel L’Herbier (you can find the movie on Youtube, its really beautiful), a sort of visual manifesto of the ideal modernity.

“There is a new spirit abroad, it is the spirit of construction and synthesis, moved by a clear conception of things. Whatever one may think of it, this spirit animates the greater part of human activity today. A great – new – era has begun.”

Le Corbusier, introduction to the first issue of L’Esprit Nouveau

The birth of UAM at the bistro followed the refusal by the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs to allow a second collective exhibition in 1929, despite the positive response to the previous one,  on the assumption that it would be a “Salon within the Salon”.  The more I think about what I learned in these years spent reading biographies and autobiographies is that most of the biggest artistic achievements are the result of overcoming “Great Refusals” by the artistic authorities of the times.

ASSEMBLE RATHER THAN CRAFT

The principles that guided the members of UAM were:

  1. A cooperation between the different domains of plastic art without hierarchy notions of major and minor arts
  2. The defense of a modern aesthetic founded on the use of modern materials and techniques
  3. An alliance with Industry

Iconic examples are René Herbst experimentations with tubular steel (though George Orwell defined as “gaspipe chairs” (sic!)), Jean Prouvé operated with sheet metal combined with plywood, in his 1934 “Standard Chair”; Eileen Gray’s “E-1027” circular table in painted steel and glass. The group shared the belief in factory assembled rather than crafted furniture. They  experimented with industrial materials motivated by social concerns rather than the individual expression that characterized craft production. They addressed the ordinary and the collective rather than individual need.

UAM’S EXHIBITIONS – UPS AND DOWNS

The group organized its first exhibition as a compact group in 1930 at the Pavillon de Marsan in 107 Rue de Rivoli, Paris. The importance of UAM artists during the modernist era lies on their mission to reform the fundamental principles of design and redefine the designer’s role in developing elementary geometric forms as well as standardization and the use of interchangeable parts rather than crafts manufacture. The idea of a synthesis of the arts will dominate the movement: subjecting form to function, binding art to industry and placing it at the service of everyone, not just an élite. Their “social militantism” earned them the accusation of being a pro-Soviet body.

“Aesthetic beauty is derived from form alone. We like balance, logic and purity. In our dwellings, we prefer light to shade and joyous hues to gloomy colors. We want to offer the mind and the eyes a rest after the exhausting hustle and bustle of our days. We believe we can aesthetically combine practical accoutrements with a psychological atmosphere, thereby creating something that expresses the occupant’s personality (gender, activities and tastes) rather than his or her social or financial status.” Louis Cheronnet ( from THE MODERN TASTE – ART DECO IN PARIS 1910-1935)

The dramatic effects of the american Great Depression also had an enormous impact overseas. Nontheless, the first UAM expo in 1930 at the Pavillon Marsan was a success in terms of visitors: 33,000 recorded. Difficutlies were encountered in the following expo in 1931 but again in 1932, despite the ferocious attack of bolschevism, of proposing a “universal mechanization”, “dreadful nudism” and a “clinical style”, the Expo reaches another success.

UAM never completely achieved a separation from the tradition of decorative arts. Chéronnet himself will confirm the aim to re-unite applied and pure art.

“Once again, we believe that the primary aim of the new aesthetics is to combine the mino and mjor arts.”

UAM’S CONTRADICTIONS

More importantly, they never resolved, at least until after WWII, the contradiction between aesthetically valuable design and industrial mass production. At the time, one excluded the other. Beauty (or quality?)  is not cheap. Not with the technological processes of the time but is it so different today? Cheronnet admitted that UAM designers would inevitably be working for an elite in most cases. He was right.

Until the post-war years, when reconstruction necessities and the development of a consumer society demanded innovative approaches, UAM suffered the difficulty in creating efficient partnerships with industrial manufacturers, capable of producing their works in series. This entailed the elevated prices of their works that were therefore considered by the critique affordable only by rich bourgeois. A contradiction to UAM’s principles of social art and the unification of art and industry. This contradiction emerges particularly in the last UAM Exhibition of 1933.

The incapability to create profitable partnership with manufacturers, severs UAM’s financial power. UAM will not afford another exhibition and will rely on participating in other collective events such as the first oExposition de l’Habitation that will exhibit, in its three editions, affordable products in series designed by Le Corbusier, Chareau, Lurcat, Barbe, Sognot and Mallet-Stevens alongside architecture models and photographs.

THE ESPRIT NOUVEAUX AND OCEAN LINERS

Another important event was the “Exposition du Paquebot” at the Salon D’Automne in 1934 where Herbst, Mallet-Stevens, Pingusson, Chareau, and the team Gascoin-Prouvè present furnished ocean liner cabins as example of the “house of the future” envisioned by Le Corbusier:

The Ocean Liner is the first stage to the realization of a world organized according to the Esprit Nouveau.

Rene Herbst 1st class boat cabin for OTUA competition – 1934

The creation of these modernist cabins is  the result of the first cooperation between UAM and Industry that centers around steel as metal component offering a better resistance to heat.

FORMES UTILES

From 1949 to 1956, a direct by-product, a “daughter association” of the UAM movement shone her individual light in the modernist years. Its goal was to value industry and manufacturers engaged in improving and modernising everyday objects. Its existance was exposed regularly with an individual stand at the Salon des arts mènagers.

Quoting (my personal translation from french) from the book 25 ANNEES UAM – LES FORMES UTILES – 1930-1955

“The formes utiles (useful forms) are beautiful because the exact and pure balance between funtion, structure and form is the condition of Beauty. Nothing in a useful form can be modified in its organic form without breaking this balance, just like a human being cannot be modified in its organic form withour losing its life. The useful forms are TRUE forms, they clarily affirm the function, the destination of the object and the features of the material: any imitation of a materia by another is lie and poorness…”.

A VERY SPECIAL BOOK

The little attention attributed internationally to this group is unexplainable if we take into consideration that it was one of the most longlasting movements that grouped together the most important personalities in architecture, applied, visual and decorative arts. The years following the end of WWI witnessed a burgeoning interest in collective exhibitions in the applied arts. UAM artists and artisans influenced modernist design as much as the Wiener Werkstatte and the Bauhaus did before them. The two books that best describe the movement’s activities are the catalogue of the 2018 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and an extremely rare book, from which all black and white images published here are extracted, that was published in 1956 celebrating UAM’s 25th anniversary: “25 annees UAM – Les Formes Utiles – 1930-1955” that features, besides 110 pages of black and white photographs, the entire text of the “Manifest Pour l’Art Moderne”. An extraordinary read for the modernist enthusiast, the scholar, researcher, or passionate collector.

Title: 25 ANNEES UAM – LES FORMES UTILES – 1930-1955
Limited edition – printed in 1500 copies.
Publisher : Editions du Salon des Arts Ménagers – Paris – 1956
Pages: 148
Price: € 275,00
Language: French
Condition: used, in good condition.

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