You might find it odd to see an elephant holding up a thousand flowers with its trunk. That’s the theme of this little Art Deco lamp, sent by DS. She writes that this little piece (91/2”) was a gift from her dad to her mom one anniversary in 1954. She has lit it every night since. She believes her dad bought it at Dane's Lamp Shop in Santa Barbara.
The globe shade is a good example of glass millefiori, one of the oldest decorative glass techniques known. A glass bead millefiori, called a mosaic bead, was found in the 7th century Anglo Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. The ancient technique of millefiori was then lost to the world until rediscovered in the 18th century.
Here’s the technique: tiny glass rods pulled lengthwise are bound together, making a glass sheaf or cane, and the multicolored rod ends show up when the sheaf is heated, pulled, and then cut diagonally. By the 19th century these rough canes were made in glass houses in Italy, France and England for export to the US to make little pieces of art like DS’s lamp. These rods could be blown into that globe shape or heated together to make paperweights and vases.
One of the great things I love about writing on material culture is the chance to see beyond the object into the tenor, mood, and philosophy of the time in which the object was made. The 1920’s was an era of the machine, progress, movement, skyscrapers, exoticism, travel, the wealthy, the City, and the spirit of fun. That spirit of adventure took many forms, not the least of which was drugs, booze and sex. Somehow, Nature and the Wild were things to be tamed. Mountains were conquered. This is the era of the National Park, the African safari, the establishment of a Zoo in each large city.
You may notice that the elephant who stars in this lamp is tame: he is balancing a ball, as in a circus act. The idea of nature, tamed, was a theme dearly beloved in the Art Deco period. Animals were an artistic trope of the period, especially those that could be rendered as sleek, massive, or geometric. Often in sculpture, the balance of power was equal between the man and the beast. This was not the case in Classical sculpture that had a healthy belief in the superiority of the natural world.
We learn much about the design of an era when we look at the lines and shapes popular in previous periods. In this case, Art Nouveau predated Art Deco. Art Nouveau's qualities were asymmetrical and organic: a favorite theme of the Nouveau period was the flowing–haired fairy-creature, whose scanty clothing catches on wild landscape features as she frolics. The favorite female of the art deco period is the elegantly lean, beautifully dressed urban lady leading an arched-back animal on a leash. Gone is naturalism: symmetry and mass and strong masculine geometric forms prevail. Mass is flattened. This is the era of early Cubism, dynamically seeing the world as geometry. This is the era of Bauhaus design, the novel uses of glass and concrete.
The world is tamed in Art Deco: Elephants balance on balls, muscular men restrain wild horses. Skyscrapers rise to unheard of heights. Trains break speed records. Cars race across continents. Boxing is the sport of choice. A famous sculpture of the period shows a buff Hercules recumbent holding a panther at bay by its throat. Gazelles, jaguars and Borzoi dogs likewise were tamed by sleek tall sophisticated urbanites. The leash, the balancing act, the playful but nasty imp, the snake charmer, the seductress all point to (human) control of nature in sculptural form.
DS’s lamp plays upon the theme of balance: the tame elephant balances a ball of light, and similar millefiori lamps feature a patinated metal Harlequin imp-girl kicking that ball. Another popular model shows two nude arched-back females facing outwards balancing the ball between the smalls of backs. All these models featured a marble plinth: marble was the stone of choice, slick and shiny.
And the idea of a lamp itself was also a creative experiment in the late 1920’s. Indoor electric lighting was rather a novel feature, so lamp designers became adventuresome with the concept of a lamp.
Ds's little beloved lamp is a period piece that is emblematic of this era as well as the innovative use of electricity as an element of an art piece. The value is $300.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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