Article published in "L'art vivant" in 1925
The toy, at the Decorative Arts, has not been treated as a poor relation. It has been given the honour of building, for itself, a village like a toy that has grown out of all proportion, a toy the size of Pantagruel.
With its yellow and blue paintwork, its central windmill, its small houses pressed against each other, its pavilions which round their backs like large prehistoric beasts that would like to be stroked, it has that simplistic character which suits children and which allows their imagination to construct prodigious phantasmagorias at ease.
Did the toy take advantage of the hospitality thus reserved for it? French ingenuity could embroider as it wished on this charming and fresh theme. What could one not hope for when one had seen, at the very heart of the war, the astonishing exhibition of toys organised at the Pavillon de Marsan. It was bursting with colour, fantasy and that luxury which comes, not from the price of things, but from the wealth of inspiration which presided over the creation. There were then the flamboyant wooden toys, made by the cripples under the direction of J animes and Le Bourgeois... gleaming aviaries of macaws and cockatoos, parades of white or black swans, with wings inflated to form a triumphal carriage for the child-king, rocking horses, elegant as Greek steeds. There were the first dolls of Madame Lazarska, which opened the doors of a new world for this small, mute people... above all, there was an atmosphere of art and fantasy which reigned over everything and which created an accessible paradise before the amazed eyes of the children.
The toy village, it must be said, remains far below that 1916 event. This present assembly lacks sparkle. However, it must be acknowledged that the president of the toy class, Mr. Henry D'Allemagne, was not afraid to facilitate a collaboration with the artists, which was necessary, and for which we cannot be too grateful, because in this exhibition, which was organised under the banner of art, the artists were all too often sacrificed to the interests of powerful commercial firms, which did everything necessary to ensure that, in their own words, the exhibition was not "invaded by the artists".
At the Village dit Jouet, artists and industrialists are side by side, and this proximity is an excellent lesson because it shows how necessary the artist's intervention is to create that essential quality of things: charm. Where the artist has not passed, seduction does not exist; things are dead, the divine breath of life does not make them quiver.
One is seized by spleen in front of these tin, pasteboard and celluloid toys which seem destined to aggravate the mediocrity of the fate of disinherited children. Is it play to amuse oneself with these poor things around which no happy image can grow? No doubt these toys fulfil the essential conditions of commerce, namely a favourable cost price and easy distribution, for the crowd, alas! is difficult to educate and, whatever is done, tends towards the banal and the mediocre. But one wonders what they are doing at a decorative art exhibition and the best thing to do is to close one's eyes when passing in front of the small houses that only house bazaar items or New Year's Day shacks.
One should reserve the right to open one's eyes in front of Beniamin Rabier's Fosse aux Ours, which occupies one of the centre's pavilions. No doubt the artist's intentions are, here again, too industrially realised and the crowd of dolls contemplating the mischievous quadrupeds is rather grey, but through these insufficient performers the artist's verve shines through; he has portrayed with his usual humour the bemused Breton woman, the plump nanny, the leather-worker, the old beau, the schoolboy. And then the bears, the main characters in the scene, force sympathy. The mother bear whipping her offspring, the greedy bear looking for sugar, the lazy bear flattening himself with bliss, the one who, from the top of his tree, glances around mockingly, are excellent animals animated in the manner of Benjamin Rabier, animals that bring joy to children and peace to parents. There is also, in the same vein, a skating rink, a beach, but the interest slips on these groups which lack that touch of fantasy which is essentially necessary to the personal life of the toy.
The modern toy, executed by the mutilated, under the direction of Messrs Mathieussent, André Hellé and Carlègle, is in the tradition of those which appeared at the Pavillon de Marsan... they are wrong to have added nothing to this tradition, and to add nothing is to be impoverished. To their Château de ma poupée, I preferred the very bourgeois Intérieur lorrain presented by the Lunéville manufacturers, There is in this rustic dining room an honesty, a probity which is comforting. Silhouettes in painted wood, rather pretentious, are superfluous, but this Interior is all shining of family virtues. The attention to detail is often delightful: the shiny brass, the flowery earthenware, the crucifix on the fireplace, the cat warming itself, all contribute to creating an atmosphere of serene intimacy in this doll's house that humans would easily live with. Each piece of furniture that decorates this happy home is made with delicate care: the sideboard, the table, the chairs, the clock, the tablecloth, everything is shiny, polished, finely turned and sculpted, it is a conscientious work and the conscience has many merits...
In this toy village, we find old acquaintances: the toy soldiers and the singing birds...
But toy soldiers evolve; they willingly leave the year to return to civilian life; they become aviators, motorists, explorers. We see them, in these new avatars, on their way to the Pole or the Equator. Is this not a sign of the times, heralding the final pacification of peoples?
The songbirds still live in golden cages and I have seen the eyes of little girls widen in admiration at the plumage of the tiny, shimmering hummingbirds, or at friend Jacquot perched on the back of a chair, cap on his head and glasses on his eyes. But in the toy village the songbirds don't sing... Are we to suppose that only at dawn, when the road is deserted, they launch their rolls towards the sky?
Finally, let us honour the queens of this kingdom, the dolls who adorn the village with their radiant graces, their fairy-like elegance.
It is still the exhibition of Mrs. Lazarska who, in this field, wins in abundance and fantasy. This artist has the devil in her body... Everything is good for her to give life to her creatures... with a rag of sackcloth and a ball of string, she could improvise an empress. Shavings of cellophane make hair, bits of furniture fringe, braids, heterogeneous ribbons are transformed under her fingers into royal finery, into apotheosis. Her virtuosity is sparkling and inexhaustible.
This formula of the rag doll is very happily exploited. Mrs. Consuclo Fould presents a Portrait des fées, of a poetic fantasy, her dolls are of a delicate, meticulous, patiently finished work. Miss Louise Deverin has mixed in A rising street in Marseille, the most comical characters. Javanese dancers stand next to beautiful veiled "hanoum", negroes, whose bellies are pierced with pins and used as balls, twist themselves into grimacing contortions, a fishmonger presents her stall, which will delight little girls who like to play shop. There are many ideas here which, if the artist had wider means of execution, could be very beneficial to the rejuvenation of toys.
In three other houses, the cloth doll called, it seems, the salon doll, also triumphs. They are the sumptuous dolls of Mrs Rouxel: A ball in Venice, and the more innocent dolls perhaps but not less sumptuous of Mrs Jeanne de Kasparck: A costumed throw in a park. Mme Rouxel's dolls are obviously rather perverse dolls, nostalgic and Baudelairean dolls; they have ravishing and often morbid faces, exquisitely made up, their perfect hands are the hands of beautiful idlers. Yes, living-room dolls, rather than nursery dolls. Little girls are already inclined enough to coquetry that they should not be given such seductive and frivolous people for companions. It would be teaching them a little too early to handle rimmel and grapes. But in the hearts of twenty-year-olds the little girl still slumbers, and that is why young women like to sit in their cosy-corner with these friends who are discreet confidants.
Mme de Kasparek's dolls are more reassuring. They are no less elegant; gold is mixed not only with their costumes but with the silk of their hair. They are festive dolls, dolls that have joy and, if one may say so, joie de vivre in their whole person.
But the most astonishing of these creatures of gold and silk are the dolls of M. Wladimir de Morawski, visions of dreams, hallucinating silhouettes that are never forgotten... A certain Marsian divinity, with green hair made of wooden pearls similar to sour grapes, equipped with disproportionate arms, adorned with jewels, is of the most audacious, of the most demonic fantasy. Lille is not to be recommended for the nursery either, but parents have the right to play with dolls.
No doubt one can stop here and there at a few other little houses, but what one encounters there is in no way different from what is presented to us in the Christmas gift sales at the end of each year.
If we want to find, in the toy section, some other picturesque notes, we must go and look for them in the foreign sections. Italy, in the Grand-Palais, has very expressive cloth dolls which are often full of joviality and mischief. They will not terrorise little girls but will evoke in their eyes characters from fantastic tales; the pumpkin doll is inimitable, the elegant Second Empire doll seems to have escaped from a book by Hine de Ségur, the old Calabrian woman is, in herself, a story of brigands. Sardinia exhibits some popular toys that are pleasantly naive.
Russia, in changing its regime, has not changed its traditions much. The Russian dolls that fit together are still made on the same model. Other dolls have only changed their faces. After being made in the image of the Czars, they are made in the image of the aces of the Revolution. The gods change but the cult remains.
The nation that seems to take the greatest care in making toys, man's first friend, is Czechoslovakia. In the Czechoslovakian Pavilion, which contains so many exquisite things, and in particular lace of prodigious finesse, toys occupy a large place. They are wooden toys, gaily illuminated and joyfully mocking. There is a Saint Nicholas between the Angel and the Devil that you would like to have at your bedside. There are naive families of ducks, rabbits, hens and chicks, there are turtles walking under yew trees, railways and houses of disarming candour. All these toys are friendly and healthy. They seem to be created by happy parents for happy children.
Also to be noted in the same pavilion are the toys made of wooden beads strung in brass, and these beads and brass are enough to give rise to an astonishing bestiary. The spider crab meets the snake, the owl is next to the parrot, and the parrot is magnificent with its spread wings and ruffled tail.
This expression of joy in the toy is so natural to this good-natured people that one is almost tempted to classify in this order the delightful painted glassworks of Hile Zdenka Braunerova, whose chimerical beasts seem to be the aristocratic and superior sisters of the toy beasts reserved for childhood. Miss Braunerova's fragile animals are delicate toys for grown-ups, toys that can be caressed with the eyes and that provide those who look at them with the kind of amiable entertainment, the salutary distraction that is precisely what toys should provide.
No doubt there are still other toys hidden in the complicated labyrinth of the Decorative Arts. Let us hope, if there is one, that some amusing revelation is in store, for in all that I saw I did not come across the new idea, the spark of the find that would promise our children memorable presents capable of fixing forever in their memory the date of the 1925 Exhibition as that of a magnificent event of which, later on, they would still talk about it at the corner of the radiator, to their grandchildren.