Inspired by the 1920's, art deco sculpture is naturalistic, hieratic, stylized, humorous and occasionally erotic. Art Deco sculptures were often exquisitely carved and cunningly designed, a combination so satisfying that it contained within itself a strongly addictive element. Those who bought one then bought another and still another.
In an era when so many of the pompous claims of scribbler-seekers for this or that Great Work of Art have been deflated, the smaller-scale merits of Chryselephantine figures of the twenties and thirties have come into their own. They reflect and incorporate many of the artistic discoveries and preoccupations of the early part of the twentieth century as they were interpreted for the bourgeois sensitivities of the day and as such are a precious link with their time. Unpretentious and certainly highly decorative, they have become accepted far more widely than at the time of their first inception.
Ivory carvings date back to the dawn of mankind. They were so common in the Paleolithic era that the Aurignacian period of the Stone Age is sometimes referred to as the ivory period. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians used ivory both for carving statuettes and amulets as inlays and ornaments for such items as combs or handles of weapons, as well as panels carved in low relief; some of this ivory was itself inlaid with lapis lazuli and set with gold. Carved ivories have been found in Crete and Cyprus, have served Minoan, Hellenic, Etruscan and Roman civilizations. The Chinese have long specialized in very large, intricately conceived and superbly executed compositions of dragons, immortals, great ships and on a more modes scale, doctor's ladies, figures of Kwan Yin goddess of mercy and the occasional erotic group.
In 1897 the colonial section of the Brussels Exhibition, held at the Tervueen Palace, the Salon d'Honneur, or Grand Exhibition Room, was entirely devoted to chryselephantine sculpture. The term Chryselephantine was originally used to describe statues made of gold and ivory in Classical Greece, such as the Olympian Zeus or Phydias' statue of the Athena Parthenos at the Acropolis. The Belgians extended the meaning to encompass an object fashioned in ivory in combination with any other material such as bronze, onyx, marble or wood. The term was even occasionally stretched to refer to any ivory sculpture.
During the 19th Century some sculptors executed highly theatrical, exotic, futuristic figures often based on the more outrageously costumed ballets and music hall acts in Berlin, Munich or Vienna. The two most consistently excessive artists are Gerdago and Gustave Schmidtcassel. Their women make grand gestures, or are caught frozen in mid-step, haughty, hieratic, high-flying and sometimes totally silly, but always spectacular. The bonze is intricately patterned and cold-painted in a variety of forms ranging from the geometric to the floral, each decorated individually so that no two examples of any model are ever found decorated with identical design or colors. In France, Claire-Jeanne-Roberte Colinet executed a number of hieratic and exotic dancing figures in a highly stylized manner, but she eschewed polychromy except for a very occasional touch of color to represent a jewel, preferring her well-carved ivory face, limbs and midriffs to be framed in golden-toned patinated bronze.
One of the most prominent sculptures was Dimitri Chiparus, a Rumanian who came to Paris to study, settled there became a naturalized Frenchman, Gallicised his name to Demetre, married and raised a family there. He was amazingly prolific, working mostly from the firm of Edmond Etling though he also supplied several other editors with models, including those of Arthur Goldscheider, and Les Neveusde J Lehmann, the latter often editing some large, complex designs in association with Etling whose foundry facilities were primitive by comparison with those of LNJL.
Chiparus executed a vast number of sculptures of children, some of which are affecting and charming, but others are hideously and mawkishly sentimental. He also produced a large number of religious sculptures, Pierrots and Comubines. At his best, he produced a considerable body of work, which synthesizes a vast array of influences and sources. Some of his sculptures are based on heroines of the Bible, mythology, literature and folklore, but the majority are dancing figures which strut, pose, pirouette, kick; they wear clothes that sway, envelop, swirl, or hug the body like a second skin. Attempts have been made to associate some of these figures with known stars of the Ballet or music hall: The Sisters is sometimes referred to as the Dolly Sisters, Ballets Russe is sometimes said to represent Nijinsky and Ida Rubenstein, but there is no evidence to support those attributions. Chiparus's sculptures are above all types not individuals.
The return to favor of Chryselephantine sculpture has inevitable produced a pecking order of collectability. The most desirable names are Chiparus and Preiss, the former for his most spectacular sculptures, often quite big, collected in their day by Indian Nawabs and Maharajahs, nowadays by the very lucky or the merely very rich: spectacular statements in otherwise plain or minimalist interiors fashionable in Japan, German or the United States: Preiss for the superlative quality of craft-man-ship allied to a vision which anticipates hyper-realism. Art Deco Chryselephantine sculpture may be differentiated into four basic streams, hieratic, naturalistic, erotic and stylized, although obviously all have some degree of stylization and some artists worked in more then one style.
Chiparus and Colinet are the finest exponents of the style, combining exoticism with a nineteen-twenties mixture of science fiction and visual streamlining. The most important sculptor of the naturalistic stream was Preiss, exceptional as a direct carver as well as in the range of his designs. The actual carving of the ivory is exquisite, graceful, the muscle-tone subtly delineated.