Art and decoration


Decorating: quite an art!

Decorating: a growing focus.

The rise of decorating is remarkable today. Indeed, few households abandon their walls to their original color. Sociologically, we notice that decoration has acquired a new status which is reflected in the development of DIY and furniture stores, dedicated television programs as well as the specialized press.

The growth of decoration is remarkable.

As an example, the Syndicat des éditeurs de la presse magazine lists, for example, 60 magazines for the press devoted to music, but more than 100 titles for the “decoration press”.

Decoration says something about us.

Interior decoration has indeed become democratized and seems to have a double function: to feel at home and to give a portrait of oneself to one’s visitors. Comparable in this to a garment, which seeks to make visible what is not spontaneously visible and thus to externalize interiority, decoration is a business 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 organization.

Decorating, a refuge.

In a new context, that of an accelerated urbanization that is often described as tumultuous, the interior can appear as an intimate refuge escaping the outside world and its potential aggressions (see article on containment).

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 to a mental beyond that decoration suggests.

What place for art objects in decoration?

But what is the place of art objects in our interiors? Should we rejoice in their democratization? Fear the loss of their aura under the effect of their mass reproduction? And besides, since when did the works of art leave the living rooms in direction of the museums? What is, in short, the intimate link that unites art and decoration?

Criticism of reproducibility in Benjamin.

Some authors, such as 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, spreading throughout society in different forms, would risk damaging the work’s sacred character.

The work, under the influence of the original, is a work of art that is not only a work of art, but also a work of art that is a work of art.

The work, under the effect of its reproduction, would lose its aura. And one thinks here of the multiple derivative products offered in the museum stores that we all frequent. Impressionism gives on this point place to the most remarkable detour (cups, T-shirts, umbrellas etc.)

Critique of the critique of reproducibility in Benjamin

Or this nostalgic critique of modernity holds this: the copy would be an impoverishment of the original. Monet’s water lilies, for example, would have invaded our lives to the point of making us, with wear and tear, indifferent to the impressionist genius. We would have to deal with a dissolution of authenticity in the consumption of copies. Yet this elitist critique of mass society deserves an objection. Let us take the case of books for example.

Who would dare to assert 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 floors of our private libraries, will take part in wall decoration? (ne expletive to be deleted perhaps)

Art and decoration: an intimate relationship.

Ornament is the nature of man.

Art and decoration actually rely on an intimate relationship that spans centuries. Jewelry, gardens, frescoes, trinkets, tattoos… ornament is everywhere. And this is not a modern invention, as the religious buildings, the handles of utensils and the walls of caves testify. So much so that any inscribable support, it seems, is a call to ornament. Ornament appears to be a universal component of our cultures.

Some paleontologists indeed consider ornament to be the defining characteristic of homo sapiens. But how to distinguish between art and ornament and should it be?

Overcoming contempt for ornament.

The emergence of the field of aesthetics in the eighteenth actually saw the theory of art supplant the theory of ornament. Over time, ornament was despised by artists who denounced its superficial nature, its lack of depth. One criticizes the stylized forms and the reasons because of their illusory existence, of their seductive character. One also points out “the horror of the void” to which they would come to answer.

Artists fear this decay: real painting is not wallpaper. The field of the ornament discredits what it absorbs. Yet can we oppose the major art of painting, for example, to the minor art of decoration? In the Old Regime, one does not indeed consider that the greatest painters demean themselves by becoming decorators and collaborating with architects!

We could cite 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. (muralism link).

The revenge of the decorative among the impressionists.

The independence of the easel painting and its emancipation from the decorative was valued in the 19th century. Yet a painting hung in the studio is intended to be hung somewhere! This is the reality that the impressionists will face. At the end of the nineteenth century, in fact, the decorative will emancipate itself from the orders and consider that the painting on an easel will fit in a place 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 revitalization 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 Décoration non terminée in 1877. But perhaps the most remarkable case is that of Renoir.


Focus: Renoir and decoration.

Renoir, who began as a painter on Porcelain, then decorated cafes for a living before taking on commissions for individuals. When he exhibited his large-format painting Les grandes baigneuses in 1887, he listed Essai de peinture décorative as a subtitle.

Inspired by a bas-relief (Girardon’s Bath of the Nymphs), the bathers remain in a sense attached to the wall that will receive them. It is the characteristic of the bas-relief. They remind us of this interface role 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. Now from a plastic point of view the 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. “

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