Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Femmes Fatales

Eric Knowles gets misty eyed remembering our grandmothers and what they were up to 80 years ago.

It had been the war to end all wars and with the advent of a new decade the mood of the western world slowly but surely felt able to embrace a rekindled optimism. The new decade heralded a brighter tomorrow that demanded casting off the old and welcoming the new. And if your name just happened to be Millie this was your cue to become 'thoroughly modern'.

Enter the 1920s, the decade that was to roar until the Wall Street crash of 1929 brought the party to an abrupt end. But the victors in the Flanders mud returned home to a Britain much changed from the Blighty they had left behind in 1914. The war effort had made it necessary for women to play their part in the munitions factories and other previously male dominated industries; nothing less than total female emancipation was expected in return. Women wanted the right to vote, and got it, albeit in stages.

In terms of expectations, the women of 1920 were far removed from the relatively submissive women of 1900. Not only was the decade of the 1920s the age of optimism, it was also the age of jazz, which in turn prompted our thoroughly modern Millie to 'raise her skirts and bob her hair'. The change in fashion was essential for any would-be flapper in order to move her feet more deftly whilst dancing to the sensual sound of a Tango or perhaps the more upbeat tempo demanded by the Charleston or Black Bottom. This was the age of speed and luxury travel, where technological advances enabled the population of the western world to get there faster, whether by rail, road, sea or by air. This was the age of Hollywood and glamour, of swashbuckling heroes such as Rudolf Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks who helped to swell the coffers of Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Warner and Cecil B. De Mille.

If you seek a reminder of this age of streamlined sophistication, then look no further than to the bronze and bronze and ivory figures produced during the 1920s and 1930s. Lithe limbed, scantily draped or fully nude young women poised in theatrical or athletic gestures, found their way into the modern interiors of the aspiring middle and upper class homes. Further down the social scale, figures cast in spelter, an alloy primarily consisting of zinc, or even painted plaster, were snapped up by those keen to be seen as being in step with the relatively well to do.

The bronze and ivory figure was very much the top drawer during the Art Deco years of the 1920s and 30s. Their popularity appears to have disappeared into the gathering war clouds of 1939 only to re-emerge during the early 1970s, having endured a post-war period during which many were derided as 'kitsch' or at best of dubious artistic merit. The reappraisal of all things 'Deco' during the 1970s was coupled with new research and literature, all of which helped to provide a better understanding of the period. The importance of the bronze and ivory figure was recognized and confirmed by its rapid escalation in value.

Subject matter was quite often related to the sculptor responsible. The work of Claire Jeanne Roberte Colinet regularly incorporates theatrical themes personified by her Dancers of the World series. Dancers, including the likes of the great Nijinsky partnered with Ida Rubinstein, figured strongly in the repertoire of Dimiti (later Demetre) Chiparus. Many of his ladies were depicted in distinctive futuristic attire with a fondness for contour hugging body suits, skull caps and ankle-length skirts with razor sharp pleats. Each and every one of his dancers would not have looked out of place in a 'Flash Gordon' episode or Fritz Langs' Orwellian silent movie Metropolis.

The keynote themes associated with the works of Bruno Zach range from the sensual into the blatantly erotic. Clad in black leather suits or revealing lingerie, Zach's women are often depicted in assertive stances that imply a readiness for bedroom athletics, but only on their terms. Anatomical perfection is the benchmark of Ferdinand Preiss's catalogue of figures. Preiss added to the realism of his figures by using facial tinting that can sometimes lend an eerie element to the finished work.

The sculptor's output encompassed an extensive variety of subjects that reflected not only theatre dancers and classical subjects, but also included sportsmen and women and distinct personalities of the age such as the aviator Amy Johnson and the actress Ada May modelled holding aloft a clear celluloid ball and titled Lighter than Air.

A recurring feature amongst many of Preiss's figures is their strong Aryan appearance that echoes the pre-war Germany of mass rallies and the quest for athletic perfection which also encompassed youth and beauty.

The art of the bronze and ivory figure attracted the talents of several other notable, as well as many less well known, sculptors of the age. Value tends to be dependent on the importance of the sculptor, subject matter, size, condition and the merits of the base, with Brazilian green onyx a firm favourite. Unsightly facial cracks to an ivory head can drastically reduce value, as will excessive wear or the polishing away into oblivion of the intended patination. The market has also had to contend with a deluge of blatant fakes. The majority tend to be of dismal quality, being made using bronzed white metal and ivory coloured plastic. There are, however, some incredibly clever fakes that make use of well cast bronze and ivory limbs, the latter being expertly carved. So do be careful out there.

The legacy of the period bronze and ivory figure has to be its ability to capture the spirit of its age. This age of elegance is now gone but, thanks to such talented sculptors as Preiss Chiparus and Zach, it is not forgotten.


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