CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


“Ranking Decoration”

Session 2 The Rank of Art

 Washington University in St. Louis


In the era of art history, roughly the last 250 years, the status of decoration and the status of art have sometimes shifted uneasily against one another. In Western traditions, the decorative arts and decoration have usually ranked well below “fine art” in esteem and cultural importance. Well-known episodes in the history of late 19th- and early 20th-century European art reveal a prominent place for the decorative arts in advanced artistic theory and practice. The concept of decoration was recruited to disrupt conventional definitions of art through a resistance to easel painting and its representational function. Expressions of ideas of the decorative took two principal and apparently contradictory forms: mural painting of elevated subjects for public or institutional settings; and decorative art objects intended for the domestic interior. Both genres were transformed and integrated into more general practice by successive generations of avant-garde artists intent to challenge standard institutional conventions in the fine arts. Such artists as Paul Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, and Henri Matisse actively participated in practices of decoration less for their own sakes than to advance a broader agenda of disruptive engagement with conventional categories.


John Klein is Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, USA, where he teaches courses in a variety of topics including the history of portraiture, modern art and war, decoration in modernist theory and practice, the history and theory of art museums, Dada and Surrealism, and modern sculpture. He is an internationally known specialist in the art of Henri Matisse. His first book, Matisse Portraits (Yale, 2001), considered the social implications of the transaction between a modern artist and a sitter in making a portrait; with a similar focus he has published shorter studies of the portraits of Félix Vallotton, Kees Van Dongen, the French Fauve painters, and other modern artists. Several of Klein's many articles and book chapters on Matisse focus on the artist's travel to Tahiti and its artistic aftermath, especially the delayed expression of his Polynesian experiences in his late, large-scale paper cut-outs. In turn this led to the third major aspect of Klein's interest in Matisse's work: the late decorations including stained glass windows, ceramic tile murals, tapestries and other fabric compositions, and work in other materials destined for architectural settings. His book on this subject, The Essential Quality of Art: Matisse's Late Decorations, will be published by Yale University Press in 2017. Klein's next book will be a historical and cultural study of national portrait galleries, inquiring into the conditions of their foundation in the context of changing nationalist priorities.