Purity of Line

French Silver in the 1930s

Jean Després designs in silver have become a symbol of the conceptual artistic capabilities within the medium and an icon for the design aesthetic explored in European Modernism of the 1930s. His complex works encapsulated a generation’s ethics of design in the stark geometric forms informed by the graceful simplicity of the handcrafted luxurious materials of their predecessors.

Jean Després loathed ‘non-functional art.’ Born and raised in Burgundy during the height of Art Nouveau and Art Deco design, the artist understood the tableware tradition of his native region. Food and drink were an integral part of the culture, and that attention to function and use is clear in Després’ design.

The radical evolution seen in French decorative arts in the 1930s was equally marked in the medium of silver. With increased availability and the decreased cost of silver in the immediate post WWI era, artisans began to return to the medium after many years spent executing works alternatively in pewter. As early as the 1925 Exposition of Arts Décoratifs in Paris, silver works were transforming into a more modern aesthetic, leaving behind the ornamentation that had dominated the early 20th century period. Lead by artists such as Jean Puiforcat and Jean Després, changes became even more widespread in the 1930s.

Silversmiths, like many other artisans of the 1930s, were heavily influenced by the Cubist ideology that was changing the fine arts world around them. In Després’ work of the first half of the 1930s one begins to see emergent aesthetic transformations that reflect the en vogue artistic concepts of the decade. His silver was dominated by the interplay of flat surfaces and strict angularity. It is also during the late 1920s and early 1930s that Després began to introduce other materials in his inventive silver designs, such as exotic woods and ivory that further added to the richness of his aesthetic.

By the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Moderne in Paris, Deprés had again experienced a further evolution in his silver designs. At this venue his works showed a renewed interested in rounded shaping and combined the hand-hammered and spherical design elements that would dominate his most mature designs for the next decade. The catalogue for the silver portion of the 1937 exhibition announced this altered aesthetic by stating “Cubism, which had killed off the art of the chisel, has now died in its own turn.”

The present lots are extraordinary examples of Després’ experimentation in this evolutionary 1930s period in silver. Després was a highly skilled silversmith and the subtleties and perfection in form achieved in these pieces are a testament to his mastery of the medium. There is a clear linearity and purity of line that dominate and is elegantly contrasted by the martèle finish reminding the viewing of the handcrafted detailing of this work. Each of the elements of the tea service is boldly bisected by rigid geometric planes that make clear the Cubist influence and show equal attention to both the vertical and horizontal planes. Continuing the bold contrasts are the circular forms selected for the finials that offset the angularity achieved in the body of each of the service pieces. Després introduced a richly figured rosewood in the handles of the teapot that heightened the luxurious undertones relayed within the medium, and provided the necessary insulation for use. Each element expresses a number of beautiful juxtapositions, none more significant than that of a finite material and infinite viewer through reflection and undulation. These designs are severely simple, yet relay a nobility and vibrancy in their sophisticated detailing.

Jean Després’ works in silver are extraordinary objects that encapsulate his unique and stylish vision. There is an achievement of elegant simplicity only possible in the works of true master craftsman. In its volume there is a harmony, and in its execution there is perfection. The purity of line and dynamic form express the modernity in these intricate objects of functionality.