Inspirations: the spirit of deco and the art of the abstract truth

A while ago I spent a delightful few days in Napier, New Zealand, enjoying a weekend celebration of 1930s elite lifestyles, an annual event inspired by the architecture that dominates the centre of town. By design it was more Hollywood fantasy than reality, but that made it all the more fun. An inspiration.

The ‘art deco weekend’ also brought just about every 1930s car in the country into one spot, and that got me thinking. There were hundreds of them, polished, preened and restored. And they were more than just demonstrations of the love their owners had poured into them. Though they were that. They were more than just world automotive history. Though they were that too.

They were art. Art in the sense of abstraction – of the way concepts can be poured into something real, then invoke emotion in the recipient. Perhaps, if the artist is lucky, the intended emotion.

These cars encapsulated the spirit of the early twentieth century, an age of shapes and forms made possible by the wild collision of new thinking, new materials and new demands – particularly the need for genuine streamlining in ever-faster aircraft. That translated into art, it translated back into the everyday on the ground, mingled with infusions of Mayan styling, and lifted everyday objects like cars, tea-cups, buildings, vases, furniture – and everything else it touched – above the mundane. In part it was a product of depression thinking; a rejection of gloom. And ultimately the whole floated on a conscious effort to transcend the nineteenth century – to simplify, to streamline. Literally.

It came out in writing. What is Hemingway, with his sparse style, if not art deco? The styles that emerged in everything from ashtrays to pens to cups to buildings to cars to art were an explicit rejection of art nouveau. Modernism – of which ‘art deco’ was a part – took the new and exalted it.

To me it came together in the cars, because they were art for everyman, art in a real sense; an ultimate expression of the materials of the twentieth century – metal, chrome, glass, rubber and bakelite. Conceptually they carried a vision – accessible to everyday people, even if only as a drive-past glimpse – of hope in an age beset by war and depression.

Suddenly it was 1940…

And isn’t that inspiring?

That relationship between time, society and art hasn’t gone away. And art is an expression of human abstract endeavour – encompassing not just painting, drawing or sculpture, but all the ways in which we can communicate through the abstract. Writing, for instance.

What do you figure?


I’ll be back blogging full-strength from 14 January. Here’s what’s coming in 2013:

– posts on kindness and the positive side of the human condition…with
– some posts on my favourite writers
– some posts on New Zealand scenery and photography
– a systematic how-to series on writing
– some science geek posts
– a short series on history mysteries
– and more

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


8 thoughts on “Inspirations: the spirit of deco and the art of the abstract truth

  1. I’d love to attend the 1930’s celebrations in Napier sometime. It looks absolutely fantastic and I love your photos!

    I’ve always thought that any immersive experience can act as inspiration. One of the best experiences I had was as a teenager when I was part of a 1940’s RAF ground crew military re-enactment squad. We walked an original Hurricane out to present it to tens of thousands at the Wanaka Airshow, with the “Battle of Britain” theme song playing over the loud speakers and a Spitfire flying low overhead. If ever required to write about life on a wartime airfield then I can summon the memories of the smell of aviation fuel, the sound of a Rolls Royce engine and the feeling of that damned black necktie strangling me as I ran for shelter when the Germans flew over.

    Every story teller should immerse themselves into another world once in a while, it opens you up to different ways of thinking. I suspect that for those going to Napier that the immersive experience is as good for the creative mind as the sun is for the body. I’m tied up this Feb, but maybe I’ll pop up in 2014!

    1. I can’t make it this February either, and it’s the 25th anniversary bash too! Maybe 2014. No question that it’s an immersive experience last year – not, I think, of the actual period (which was dire) but of the dreams and hopes of the age – and that, I think, is a far better place to be.

  2. Art Deco is a favorite time period/design style of mine as well. Oddly enough, it is considered the “Golden Age” of Hollywood too. I was never much interested in history until I became an fine arts major in college. In studying the history of art (required classes) I saw how what was going on in world during a specific time period influenced art. I think you are spot on about the car designs during the Art Deco period influencing the designs in buildings and other artifacts of the time.

    1. It’s a fantastic style – particularly because of the way it captures the spirit of an age. I’ve always been fascinated with the ‘moderne’ and ‘streamline’ direction taken in the US 1939-41, essentially cut short by war, but symbolic of a future that ‘might have been’ had humanity not collapsed into its usual dark side. One of the reasons, I think, that cars led the way is because they were always being renewed – the pressure was on to produce a new design every year. Buildings took longer.

      The Napier edition was accidental; an earthquake destroyed the centre city in 1931. Plans to reconstruct it as a grand Spanish Mission-style city – deliberately after Santa Barbara – were foiled by depression penury, and what actually emerged were small deco-style buildings, effectively replacing the old one-for-one. Some of them, for cost reasons, were merely sheds with a deco frontage. Still, a unique collection which was all around me, growing up in Napier in the 1970s – at which time it was dowdy, dated and faded. The revival came (inevitably) after the best of it had been knocked down in the 1980s. What’s left has been preserved, and I was delighted to see, last time i was there, that a new building was going up in exact 1938 style, with a true Mayan-style frieze motif around the exterior. A wonderful homage to a wonderful period.

  3. First time stopping by and I enjoyed this greatly! I think you were spot on to note that beauty is birthed from misery, in this case the aesthetic of these cars from the dejection of war and economic depression. It’s an insight worth investigating, especially with retro styles recirculating nowadays.

    Perhaps I’m just ignorant, but how was NZ affected by the 30’s Depression in the US?

    1. Thank you! And yes, I certainly think there is a good deal to the notion that the ‘retro-deco’ look of today is a reflection of current pressures. The 1930s depression hit New Zealand very heavily, via the United Kingdom connection and by ‘contagion’ with Australia, from early 1931. Although the ‘economic’ side of it was over in about 18 months, and recovery effectively complete by the late 1930s, the moral effect scarred a generation for the rest of their lives. We call them our ‘sugarbag’ years – this was the age when children went hungry and barefoot to school, protected from the rain by sugar sacks. It was very comparable with the US experience.

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