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Arts and Crafts in European Schools: Some Comments on the International Exposition in Paris

by George J. Cox - 1926

THE first comment to be made is one deploring the absence of work from American schools or craftsmen. As America did not participate in the Exposition, this omission was inevitable, but it is particularly to be regretted as there was provided an excellent and rare opportunity for comparing American work with that of all the nations of Europe, with the exception of Germany.

THE first comment to be made is one deploring the absence of work from American schools or craftsmen. As America did not participate in the Exposition, this omission was inevitable, but it is particularly to be regretted as there was provided an excellent and rare opportunity for comparing American work with that of all the nations of Europe, with the exception of Germany.

The most salient features of this work, noticeable at even a cursory glance, were the obvious conservatism of British and French methods of instruction; the extremism of the work of the Russian Soviet schools; the hopeful ferment of what, for want of a better word, s termed "Modernism" in the art schools of Central Europe; and finally the extraordinarily fine showing of small countries like Poland and Switzerland.

Judging by examples shown at the recent International Exhibition at the Grand Central Palace, New York, the standards of the work and the methods of training in American schools, as a whole, approximate very much more closely to the Beaux Arts Institutions of France or the Municipal Schools of England than to any of the other schools represented. By the same comparison American schools seem even less affected by the modernist movement, and less given to experiment and adventure, with one exception, which it might seem invidious to name.

This is but a broad generalization and needs qualification, for the work of the two European countries is marked by a more thorough and intensive training of the mature students, and is backed by a very impressive array of sound craft-work of every description. This craft-work is of a range and variety unknown as yet in America, and only approached in metal work, to take one craft, by the Providence, Rhode Island, School of Design.

The French schools were thoroughly and impressively represented, ranging from the Beaux Arts of all the great centers of French art and industry to small private schools, and including the products of national institutions such as Gobelins and Beauvais.

The impression left by their exhibits was such as any student of art instruction or reader of contemporary art magazines might expect. Where tradition had stifled progress, as at Beauvais and Gobelins, and even to some extent still at Sevres, were to be found the most deplorable results of academic and hidebound traditionalism. The tapestries and carpets in particular were marked by an utter absence of taste. Ghastly designs, crudely and vulgarly colored, assaulted the eyes, and the opulent, often questionable, taste of the eighteenth century looked restrained and dignified beside such depravities Happily there were other institutions that very ably sustained the genuine traditions of France, producing carpets, tapestries and rugs of lovely color and of bold and original designs.

Leaving the more technical institutions, the work of the various provincial schools may be described as thorough, and quite adequate for the training of sound craftsmen and artisans. They did not appear at first sight to be peculiarly adapted to the production of those extraordinarily clever and often brilliant and original artists—not far removed from geniuses—who are to-day responsible for the preeminence of France in the decorative as in the fine arts.

This preeminence was undoubtedly emphasized by the preponderating numbers of the French exhibits, but in furniture, meta work, glass, dress, and certain textiles, and notably in ceramics, there was to be observed the same high average of skillful technique backed by fine design, placing France easily first among the nations devoting their energies to the production of the decorative arts. The term is not the happiest that might be selected, suggesting as it does some thing useless or redundant. Art in industry sounds better, for ii was to very necessary industries that all this wealth of creative ability had been applied.

If the connection between the schools and the production of these treasures in metal, wood, pottery, and silk was at times difficult to trace, it was evident that such original genius as is produced by or some might say, in spite of the schools, is readily absorbed by the various art industries of France. Few words of praise can be toe high for the products of such houses as the Maison Lafayette or du Printemps, where general excellence went hand in hand with versatility. In some directions accepted traditions were ruthlessly scrapped; in others the antique was followed with intelligent scrupulosity.

In Faience the influence of the finest pottery of all time, the T'ang Sung and Ming, and the best Korean wares, was magnificently in evidence. Many of the pieces held their own even when compared with the works of the old Chinese masters. Alongside such serious work were to be seen clever adaptations of the abstractions of Picasso and Bracque. Experiments that appeared so solemn and portentous on canvas reappeared upon vases and placques, informed with an amusing and decorative quality entirely sufficient to justify their original conception. Similarly the conscious cult of the primitive and the archaic, so often boring and tedious in the so-called fine arts, here appeared as the natural outcome of the creative artist's struggle with a new and difficult medium.

Of the best furniture shown, as of glass and iron work, it is difficult to speak without the use of superlatives. Even the more commercial products showed a commendable desire for originality, which, if sometimes obtained at the expense of finer qualities, contrasted favorably with the timid clinging to traditional treatments observed in the bulk of English work. On the other hand, the exotic note was often too evident to please American ideas of home furnishing, or to suit the taste, much less the purse of the bourgeois gentilhomme; and here and there the vivacity lapsed into restless incoherence.

It might here be added in parenthesis, that although these comments seem somewhat divorced from an examination of the work of the schools, they bear closely upon an important question debated at the Third International Convention of Art Teachers—"Does Art Training in the Schools Assist Industry to the Extent Demanded of It?" Here assuredly was a practical answer, though the exact articulations between art teacher, creative artist and designer, and manufacturer may remain as obscure as before.

Before leaving the French exhibits, mention must be made of the able and intelligent direction given to the elementary school work of Paris. The exhibit of children's work—unavoidably all too rare in the Exhibition—was of the utmost interest and value to teachers, showing as it did genuine charm and creative ability.

After the large number of exhibits from French schools and the range and brilliancy of the French decorative arts, the British exhibits appeared meager and unenterprising. The impression was further weakened by the very inadequate representation from British schools of art—an absence due to several causes, the chief one, it was suggested, being lack of support from an exhausted and harassed Treasury Department.

What work was shown—a great proportion being ceramics—possessed the merit of good taste combined with unimpeachable craftsmanship. But discriminating taste and technical excellence were too seldom accompanied by a similar amount of creative inspiration. Many of the exhibits appeared precisely similar to those shown at the International Exhibition at Ghent in 1913. Despite the laudable attempt at originality displayed in the design of the British Pavilion, the work inside, like that in the Grand Palais, showed scarcely a sign of the revolt that has swept the schools of art as well as the ateliers of the greater part of Europe during the last fifteen years. Though very little work from the schools was shown, this impression was confirmed by visits to several of the leading schools in England.

Only in the reticent design and exquisite finish of some of the jewelry and silversmithing, in the simple dignity of less expensive furnishings by Heal or Russell, and in some of the less pretentious pottery did there seem any suggestion of British supremacy in the artistic crafts. It is only fair to add that such branches as woodcutting, engraving, and poster design, in which English work reaches a very high standard, had no visible representation in the whole exhibition.

If the national schools of France and England showed but little of the ferment of new ideas in art, the same cannot be said about those of the Soviets. Here was to be found every kind of wild extravagance and perverted originality and an utter contempt for any sort of tradition.

Models of buildings were shown to which access or egress seemed denied to all but gymnasts or burglars. There were models of monuments, made of twisted iron and parchment, utterly unlike anything to which cultured opinion has ever attached the word beauty. One noted strange yet interesting experiments in line and plane movement into which, however, had already crept certain definite formulas, such as the use of spirals, reentering, planes and forced oppositions, to bear witness to the lack of new ideas and the truth of the assertion that originality is but a reflowering of old-established art-forms.

It was a relief to learn that this somewhat diconcerting melange was the work of first year students, and to find more sane and practical applications in the second and third years. Indeed, the model of a Communal Library was, after all this revolutionary excess, an anticlimax in its dull orthodoxy. Just as one was prepared to encounter tetrahedral teacups and spiral soup-plates, it was distressing to find conventional shapes and commonplace decoration in the products of the Soviet potteries. One revolution they had made: the kings and queens in the porcelain sets of chessmen were replaced by male and female proletarians.

The peasant art from Russia, shown next door to the revolutionary art, was hopelessly traditional and banal, yet it appeared healthy and simple by comparison. By a trick of circumstance some of the most tiresome and unimaginative products of industrial "art" from Luxembourg were displayed opposite the perfervid efforts of the Soviet schools. The contrast was instructive and induced a reflection that there may be rare cases when, in the phrase of the colored guide at the crossroads, "both ways are worst"—at least to live with. But to be just to the Soviet school, its "art" was alive. Though tortured and lot a little pathetic,—when one considers the labor and pains that preceded its creation,—it may develop. All this undisciplined intelligence may at some future date crystallize into a sane and healthy style, shorn of its jejune impatience and uncorrupted by outworn traditions. It is an interesting, but to the teacher perhaps an unprofitable, speculation.

It was a relief to turn from the U.R.S.S. exhibits to study the excellent showing of Poland. All grades were well represented. At the bottom the work of the very young appeared as charmingly direct and untutored as that we are accustomed to from the lower grades n the Horace Mann School, and its progress showed a similar line of development. It was rendered the more interesting by the presence of several textiles made from children's designs.

On coming to the products of mature students, there was to be observed a scrupulous and thorough training that left nothing to be desired by a Beaux Arts professor. Anatomical studies and highly finished figure drawings marked the work of the life classes. Careful analysis of the mechanical basis of pattern, experiments in free and geometrical drawing, and exhaustive studies of natural forms were common in classes devoted to design in the industrial arts. With all this was combined a noticeable freedom in the use of the figure when employed in illustration, in painting, or in sculpture, as well as a very praiseworthy modernity in designs for textiles, pottery and woodwork—a modern note which was not strident enough to drown the national characteristics happily blending the various Polish exhibits into a harmonious whole.

Another feature which commended itself to the seeker after information was the well displayed tables, showing by means of photographic illustration and printed paragraph the logical development of the various courses of instruction, and enabling one to grasp with ease and rapidity the scope of the work in the various grades and classes.

After Poland the countries that stand out most prominently are Czecho-Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, and Sweden.

The modernity of Vienna and Prague was as self-evident as the revolutionary character of the Soviet schools, but here the explosive material was obviously under control. In Professor Cizek's classes mature students coordinated their experiments in line, tone, plane, and color with a thorough study of drawing. The exhibits shown were of a very high level of excellence and well repaid close study. They were unfortunately overcrowded and badly displayed, a fault that characterized the work of the Wiener Werkstadtt and other institutions shown in the Austrian Pavilion.

It was interesting to observe that the students could elect to study with some one professor and complete the whole of their training under him. Professors Cizek, Steinhof, Mallina, and Boelin showed exhibits of their students' works, ranging from almost orthodox studies of plant-form, pattern design, and masterly anatomical drawings, to intricate experiments in abstract design and provocative cartoons, in which the human or animal form served merely as a point of departure. In pottery the experimentation seemed hardly so uniformly successful, and the examples of plastic work were not convincing. But in certain textile designs, in silver work, and in colored enamels, as well as in wood cuts and linoleum prints, there were many fine achievements—many indeed were extraordinarily powerful and compelling.

Although far too modern for the majority of tastes, much of this work is of lasting worth and of great originality and promise. Ii certainly cannot be dismissed so easily as the Soviet experiments This part of Europe seems destined to play in the arts the role o: interpreter or intermediary between the extremists of the East and the conservatives of the West, a role requiring intelligence and tact as well as creative ability and great technical skill—qualities apparently common along the upper Danube.

In contrast with the overcrowding of the Austrian and Czechoslovak exhibits, the work from Zurich, Basle, and other Swiss schools was displayed with great skill and taste. After the movement and unrest of Vienna and Prague, this orderly restraint appeared almost cold and formal, but there was nothing conventional or dull about it. The posters were thoroughly modern and effective. The printing maintained a high level. There appeared a style and distinction about the designs for labels, trademarks, wrappers, etc., that suggested a close contact with German sources—as did similar work from Holland. The latter country showed interesting bookbinding and praiseworthy, if cautious, essays in the modern manner.

The Belgium exhibition was disappointing, and that from Spain negligible; while Sweden had concentrated upon models and photos of the new Town Hall at Stockholm, a rather bleak but quite impressive building set on the water side.

The Italian exhibit was so violent in color that it repelled close inspection, but a glance was sufficient to convince any one that Italian designers have broken with the past. Very obviously the incubus of the acanthus-cum-amorini "arabesque" has been thrown off; yet it s to be hoped that the new ideal is but a passing phase.

The most tragic results of the craving for change, unsupported by a sound, critical faculty in the selection of new paths, were to be seen in the exhibits of decorative arts from Japan. Much of the rubbish shown was commercial knickknackery, frankly designed to snare the vulgar tripper; the sort of thing usually associated with the Levantine peddler. It would be unfair to assume that it represents the national trend in art education in Japan, or even the average commercial product.

It was bad enough to realize that this tawdry mass of decorative "art" came from the land that inspired Fenollosa and Dow, but it was a matter for tears to find, in the small section devoted to school work, object drawing, still life, and designs that in their mongrel traits managed to combine the worst of East and West.

The lessons to be learned from an examination of the school work shown in the Paris Exposition are, primarily, for the professional art teacher, as the term is understood in Europe. All the courses are designed for the production of artists and craftsmen, and the work of the non-technical art teacher is scarcely represented. The work of children in the grades was hardly noticeable among the mass of work by mature students. That from Professor Cizek's children's classes had been seen already in New York, and this work, together with some from Poland, and the admirable showing of the Parisian schools comprised the total of the elementary work. One omission which seemed startling to a trans-Atlantic observer was the apparent lack of provision in the various schools for courses on art appreciation for professional students, and of any attempt to educate the non-professional student in aesthetics. The result of this is seen here, and there is an unfortunate tendency on the part of boards of directors and general managers to neglect standards of taste, with the result that much splendid craftsmanship has been misspent on things that are aesthetically indefensible. But the pressure of international competition will provide a cure, for there is a very evident conviction in the progressive countries of Europe that those great industries into which art enters so closely—textiles, ceramics, furniture, metal work—can only survive and prosper if they are fed by a constant supply of well-trained and intelligent craftsmen, directed by men of unimpeachable taste.

Professor Richards, the author of Art in Industry, has been appointed to make a thorough investigation of the Exhibition. His report should prove of the greatest service and help to solve some of the questions agitating both educators and manufacturers. It is safe to predict that his recommendations will include the suggestion that, to enable the American manufacturer to hold his own against foreign competition in the decorative arts, American art industries must be provided with a steady supply of well-trained craftsmen.

This will be true, and even self-evident. But the American decorative arts will need something more, a something that, in France at least, seems supplied along with sound training and governmental encouragement,—and that is an intelligent clientele endowed with sufficient taste and courage to buy fine modern products, instead of a timorous wealthy class that takes refuge from thought by pur­chasing antiques, or copies and restorations of dead and ancient art.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 27 Number 7, 1926, p. 617-617
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5913, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:43:32 AM

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