For example, the French Syndicat des éditeurs de la presse magazine lists 60 magazines for the music press, but over 100 titles for the “decoration press”.
Decoration says something about us.
Interior decoration has indeed become more democratic and seems to have a double function: to feel at home and to give a portrait of oneself to visitors. Comparable in this respect to clothing, which seeks to make visible what is not spontaneously visible and therefore to externalise interiority, decoration is a visiting card.
Exotic, austere, dreamlike, eccentric, erudite, etc., the decoration that corresponds to us is the one that, in part, resembles us and says something about ourselves, our interests, our culture. The act of decorating is therefore an art of selection and organisation.
Decoration, a home sanctuary.
In a new context, that of an accelerated urbanisation that is often described as tumultuous, the interior can appear as an intimate refuge from the outside world and its potential aggressions (see article on confinement).
Understood as a “private sanctuary”, our interior calls for decoration as the echo and support of our psychological interiority. The decorative work is the means of a subjective withdrawal. The domestic setting then appears as the place of escape towards a mental beyond that decoration suggests.
What place for art objects in decoration?
But what is the place of art objects in our homes? Should we rejoice in their democratization? Or should we fear the loss of their aura as a result of their mass reproduction? And besides, since when have works of art left the living room and gone to museums? What, in short, is the intimate link between art and decoration?
Benjamin’s critique of reproducibility.
Some authors, like Walter Benjamin, have contrasted the original, unique and authentic painting with its reproduction. The original, exhibited in the museum, would indeed call for concentration and contemplation, whereas its copy, disseminated in society in various forms, would risk damaging the work’s sacred character.
The work, through its reproduction, would lose its aura. And we are thinking here of the many derivative products offered in the museum shops that we all frequent. Impressionism gives rise to the most remarkable diversion on this point (cups, T-shirts, umbrellas, etc.).
Critique of Benjamin’s critique of reproducibility.
This nostalgic critique of modernity is based on the following: copying is an impoverishment of the original. Monet’s water lilies, for example, would have invaded our lives to the point of making us indifferent to the genius of the Impressionists. We would be dealing with a dissolution of authenticity in the consumption of copies. Yet this elitist critique of mass society deserves an objection. Take the case of books, for example.
Who would dare to claim that the printing press has destroyed literature? Is it not, on the contrary, the condition for its development? Why should we fear that works of art, like the books carefully lined up on the shelves of our private libraries, will take part in the decoration of the walls? (an expletive to be deleted perhaps).
Ornament is a human attribute.
Art and decoration are actually based on an intimate relationship that goes back several centuries. Jewellery, gardens, frescoes, knick-knacks, tattoos… ornament is everywhere. And this is not a modern invention, as religious buildings, utensil handles and cave walls testify. So much so that every inscribable support, it seems, is a call for ornament. Ornamentation appears to be a universal component of our cultures.
Some palaeontologists consider ornament to be a characteristic of Homo sapiens. But how can we distinguish between art and ornament, and should we?
The emergence of the field of aesthetics in the 18th century saw the theory of art supplant the theory of ornament. Over time, ornament was despised by artists who denounced its superficial character and lack of depth. Stylized forms and motifs were criticized for their illusory existence and their seductive character. They also point to the “horror of emptiness” to which they respond.
Artists fear this decay: real painting is not wallpaper. The field of ornament discredits what it absorbs. But can we oppose the major art of painting, for example, to the minor art of decoration? In the Ancien Régime, the greatest painters were not considered to be demeaning themselves by becoming decorators and collaborating with architects!
We could mention the “great decorations”, the frescoes of which the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo is an illustrious example. The work then responds to a commission and bends to the requirements of a specific space (link to muralism).
The revenge of the decorative with the Impressionists.
In the 19th century, the independence of the easel painting and its emancipation from decorative art were valued. However, the purpose of a painting hung in a studio is to be hung somewhere! This is the reality that the Impressionists had to face. At the end of the 19th century, decorative art was going to emancipate itself from commissions and envisage that the painting on an easel would be placed in a place that was not yet determined in the manner of a decoration.
The painting is created in the studio but it will not remain there. There is a revitalisation of the ornamental character of art in several Impressionist artists such as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Caillebotte, Morisot and Cézanne. Monet’s Déjeuner, for example, was originally titled Panneau décoratif and his painting Les Dindons was labelled Unfinished work in 1877. But perhaps the most remarkable case is that of Renoir.
Focus: Renoir and decoration.
Renoir, who started out as a painter on porcelain, went on to decorate cafés to earn a living before taking on commissions for individuals. When he exhibited his large-format painting “Les grandes baigneuses” in 1887, he included the subtitle Essai de peinture décorative.
Inspired by a bas-relief (Girardon’s Bath of the Nymphs), the bathers remain in a sense attached to the wall on which they will be placed. This is the nature of bas-relief. They recall the role of interface between the bare wall and the inhabited room, they extract themselves from the plane to make themselves visible but without detaching themselves from it. Dega and Morisot also worked in relief. From a plastic point of view, relief is in essence dependent on the wall.
This closeness, which is in fact largely ignored by the exhibitions, is moreover an argument of the critics of the Impressionist exhibition of 1877, who reproach them for being “decorators who have a feeling for the great masses” and who denounce what “will never be anything but a decorative school, that is to say, secondary.”
Faced with this, Renoir wrote: “Everyone today is concerned with the painting, but everyone absolutely leaves out an art that was the French glory and no longer exists today. I mean the decorative art. That is why I believe it is useful to do everything possible to raise this art which has fallen to the bottom. I will try to do so.” For Renoir everything that is affixed to a primary form is ornamental. A window in a house, flowers on a cup, a painting on a wall.
Thus the art object, carefully chosen and invested, has its rightful place in our interiors. This is, in short, what Monet wrote confiding in Roger Marx: “One moment the temptation came to me to employ in the decoration of a living room this theme of the water lilies : transported along the walls, enveloping all the walls with its unity, it would have provided the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave without horizon and without shore; nerves overworked by work would have relaxed there […] and, to whom would have lived in it, this room would have offered the asylum of a peaceful meditation in the center of a flowered aquarium. “