Those Jazzy Ironworks, and Other News


On the Shelf

Rose Iron Works, Muse with Violin Screen (detail), 1930. (Image via Hyperallergic, courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art, on Loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections. © Rose Iron Works Collections. Photo by Howard Agriesti.)


  • When we think of the Jazz Age, we think of the hairstyles, the fashions, the … jazz. You’d think the world was nothing but highball glasses and long, langorous cigarette holders. But who among us pauses to remember the zoning regulations of the Jazz Age? Who dares to stop and consider the period’s sideboards, bookcases, coffee services, and ironworks? I will tell you who: the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum. Their new exhibition, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” aims to transcend the clichés of flapperdom by focusing on less celebrated objects and designs. At last, the vases and daybeds of the 1920s will get their fifteen minutes of fame. Allison Meier writes, “Many of the featured designers were immigrating from Europe, or having their creations imported to the United States. Others were Americans who went abroad to study and train, picking up tubular metal techniques at the Bauhaus in Germany or ideas for bold hues from De Stijl in the Netherlands … British designer Wells Coates’s green, circular Bakelite radio, one of the manufacturing innovations being spread to the new middle class, rests on German designer Kem Weber’s sage-hued, streamlined sideboard, which was also intended for serial production. Russian-born craftsman Samuel Yellin’s curling wrought iron fire screen mingles with Lorentz Kleiser’s monumental tapestry showing Newark’s transformation from an indigenous village to an orderly town, both pieces demonstrating the endurance of historical European aesthetics. A towering ‘Skyscraper Bookcase’ of California redwood with black lacquer, all designed by Austrian émigré Paul Frankl, incorporates the zoning-enforced architectural setbacks of the new skyscrapers, something which Erik Magnussen’s Cubic coffee service with its silver angles does on a smaller scale.”
  • Not unrelatedly: the Bloomsbury Group’s Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant once designed a lavish, 140-piece dinner set, and now you can see it. (You cannot eat off of it, unless you buy it.) As Francesca Wade writes, the set emerged from a deep depression; Kenneth and Jane Clark had visited Grant in 1932, and found him in the dumps. “ In an attempt to revive his interest in decorative art,’ [Kenneth] writes in his autobiography, ‘we asked him and Vanessa to paint us a dinner service.’ Two years later, Bell and Grant presented Clark with 140 pieces, including 50 Wedgwood plates illustrated with portraits of famous women from history—twelve writers, twelve queens, twelve beauties, and twelve dancers or actresses, and one of each of the artists, painted by the other. ‘It ought to please the feminists,’ Bell wrote, offhandedly, to Roger Fry. The service vanished in the 1980s, last seen in the Normandy home of Clark’s second wife, who was presumed to have sold it. Anyone interested in it has had to make do with black-and-white photographs in which many of the plates are stacked up, their faces hidden. But it recently resurfaced in the collection of an undisclosed European collector, who has now put it up for sale. It was displayed by Piano Nobile at the Masterpiece fair this month, and will be shown in the autumn at their London gallery.”

  • Colin Dickey has stuffed dead squirrels on the mind, and it’s all Sebald’s fault: “I had begun to think about squirrels because of their fleeting appearances throughout W. G. Sebald’s AusterlitzThe novel, the author’s last before his untimely death, in 2001, is filled with depictions and discussions of a variety of animals … Walking through the deserted town of Terezín, he comes upon a window display in an antiques store, where he sees a ‘stuffed squirrel, already moth-eaten here and there, perched on the stump of a branch in a showcase the size of a shoebox, which had its beady button eye implacably fixed on me, and whose Czech name—veverka—I now recalled like the name of a long-lost friend.’ But just as this moment of naming the squirrel in his mother tongue offers a brief connection to the past, so it is quickly dispelled. The taxidermied creature remains a cipher. ‘What … was the meaning of veverka,’ Austerlitz asks himself, ‘the squirrel forever perched in the same position,’ stranded amongst the other trinkets and curios, ‘objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction,’ objects lost in time and oblivious to the history of the nearby crematorium?”
  • Anna Summers remembers a visit to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “Petrushevskaya’s family was declared ‘enemies of the people’ by Stalin; she grew up sleeping under a dinner table in her grandfather’s bedsit. Her prose, poetry, and plays feature as their subjects bedraggled single mothers, impoverished old people, orphans, cross-dressers, and alcoholics. The publication of her work was banned until the late nineteen-eighties, but even before then, the real-life subjects of her fiction found ways to read her work and to show their gratitude. Petrushevskaya, now a household name, continues to live modestly, in Moscow, on what she makes from publishing and, for most of the last decade, from touring; since around 2000, she has performed as a professional cabaret singer … Under her gaze, my sense of decorum melted away; I suddenly understood why the women pilgrims had flocked to her. Almost without meaning to, I found myself telling her my own tale of marital crisis. Petrushevskaya transformed: storytelling is her trade, and here was a woman with a story that she had encountered in every possible version and put to paper dozens of times. Plays and small talk were forgotten. An exhausted old woman was replaced by a goddess of wisdom.”
  • Stuart Jeffries, meanwhile, wonders why Russians continue to be depicted in pop culture as nothing other than loutish mobsters: “You’ll find Russian bears everywhere on TV and movies these days—and not just under the bowler hat. Many shows now seem to have a tough Russkie with mob connections, ideally played by a non-Russian actor, to up the narrative ante … Twenty-first-century Russians rarely break out of the psychotic stereotype on Western TV or cinema … If Russians have always figured as fall guys in Western TV dramas and movies, the main difference between the 1980s and now is that then they were political thugs trying to take down the West with espionage; now they’re criminal ones.”