Descending into the entry hall of the Sainsburys Centre’s cavernous underbelly is like sinking your toes into the surf upon the shoreline of a windswept British coast. The world feels different here – it is defined by sunlight and feelings of pleasure, depicting the joys of ease and possibility in simple swathes of flat colour and fine, precise lines. All of these intangible feelings and stylistic trends are key tenets of Art Deco – the movement was officially defined in the 1960s, but refers to the modern and accessible art style that pervaded architecture, art, advertising, fashion and design in every aspect of British life during the 20s and 30s.
Acting Director Ghislaine Wood’s careful curation takes visitors on a whistle-stop tour of Art Deco along Britain’s coast. Wood said herself that the exhibition has somewhat of a ‘regional agenda’ – it is intended to highlight the former glory of British Seaside towns during the height of their desirability, as well as displaying the rich wealth of regional museums and private lenders. The exhibition’s 150 works are firmly situated in Britain’s coastal latitudes, if not in Norfolk and the east coast itself – the section ‘Travelling to the seaside’ explores the joys of rail travel in both independent artwork and commercialised Art Deco adverts, while a notable number of works celebrate the appeal of Britain’s east coast – the ‘sunnier side’.
The exhibition space is in itself immersed in the style of Art Deco – Warm shades of titian sand and seafoam blue are splashed across the entry hall’s walls, complimenting the limited palette of the posters they frame. This collection of six posters, entitled ‘East Coast Joys’ 1-6 respectively, is certainly a standout piece within the exhibition – it’s the first thing you see as you descend into the exhibition space, placed centre stage in minimalist, black frames. This simplicity of framing compliments the flat colours and posterised charm of Tom Purvis’s work – the posters are in fact adverts, commissioned by LNER (London North Eastern Railways). In much the same way as a train’s window reveals fleeting scenes of the landscape, ‘East Coast Joys’ can be viewed as a collection of separate, dream-like scenes, or as a continuous image. It’s characterised by its rich, near Mediterranean palette, depictions of dreamy pastoral bliss and heavy poppy symbolism in ‘East Coast Joys No 1 – Walking Tours’.
In this symbolism we find one of Art Deco’s characteristically subtle nods to the past; the Art Deco movement does not deny the effects of the first world war but leans instead towards glorifying Britain’s bright future as a rapidly changing landscape of social change and mass tourism. The interwar period in Britain was defined by its possibilities – thanks to social mobilisation, a newly emboldened wave of female emancipation and increasingly accessible rail travel, a jaunt to the seaside was now an accessible escape for the masses. British seaside culture became a culture of escapism – of (affordable) pleasure, leisure and glamour. The section ‘Amusements – by day and by night’ explores this newfound escapism, taking visitors on a softly lit orbit around a central display of Art Deco swimwear; the bright lights of Blackpool and amusement rides are explored in ‘Blackpool’, reflecting faintly off the gilded wood and gentle curves of the screen that provides a backdrop for a collection of gorgeous 20’s evening gowns.
Visitors can choose their own focus for this exhibition. Perhaps you choose to pursue the lines of rail travel, bright lights and technological advancement threaded through Art Deco. Perhaps you choose to focus on the women present in the exhibition, as advertised symbols of sex appeal or independent agents of liberated freedom. Perhaps you choose to focus on the land which Art Deco celebrates – in the mimicry of nature’s curves and contrasting sharp lines in everything from simple furniture design to elaborate concrete hotels. ‘Art Deco by the Sea’ invites you into this dream world – to stay awhile, amongst the waves.
‘Art Deco by the Sea’ is running from the 9th of February to 14th of June 2020 and is free to visit for UEA and NUA Student Members.