Elena Izcue: When Art Déco Meets the Ancient Andes

Front cover by Elena Izcue for Manco Capac: Leyenda Nacional para las Escuelas de Chiclin (1923)

Elena Izcue (1889 – 1970), Art Déco artist and teacher, found inspiration in the archaeological textiles and ceramics of Peru. From collaborating with Elsa Schiaparelli to being supported by the greatest museum curators of her time, Elena managed to bridge ancient Andean art with the bustling innovation of the roaring 20’s.

Decorative arts at the forefront of artistic innovation

From the arches of steel of the Chrysler Building to the staggered verticals of the cabinets of Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, the Art Déco style of the roaring 20’s is often associated with the growing industrialization of Europe and the United States. Quite far, then, from the colorful textiles and ceramics of ancient Peru. The illustrator and educator Elena Izcue (Lima, 1889 – 1970), however, found in the archaeological heritage of her country the imbricated patterns and geometric lines that could inspire a deeply Andean iteration of Art Déco.

As its name indicates, the Art Déco movement emerged from the field of decorative arts, in particular interior design, textile, and jewelry. Since the second half of the 19th century, decorative arts had been increasingly integrated into the larger artistic cannon, now considered integral counterparts to supposedly more noble genres like painting and sculpture. Already decades prior to Art Déco, many advocated the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art” that would integrate multiple media in one cohesive ensemble.

Elena Izcue, “Estudio de motivo Nasca” (1922) Watercolor on paper, 20.7 x 25.6 cm, Museo de Arte de Lima 2015.15.663

Elena Izcue and the idea of a national Peruvian art

Expanding the role of decorative arts was the enterprise in which Elena Izcue took part, by drawing up an inventory of ancient Andean motifs in the 1920s to be used by artists, industrial designers, and children alike. Her work was supported by major anthropologists and specialists of Andean art at the time, in particular Rafael Larco Herrera who sponsored the publication of Elena’s school book, El Arte Peruano en la Escuela, Larco writes:

“Miss Elena Izcue who has extracted from ancient national civilization the precious elements which she presents in this book to Peruvian schools, and of which advantageous profit may be made industrially, has followed the noble and generous impulses of an artist, a professor and a Peruvian animated by the love of her country”[1]

Exercise page taken from Izcue, Elena. El Arte Peruano en la Escuela, vol. 1, Editorial Excelsior, Paris, 1926.

Patriotism, industrial development, and children education, all were deeply intertwined in the role attributed to the arts as catalyst of social cohesion and enlightenment at the time. Let us not be fooled, however—such ambition was very much aimed to a certain class of the population, and in many ways, ethnographic Art Déco is whitewashed non-European art. In her drawing manual for Peruvian children, Elena praises drawing as a mean to “establish a principle of education founded on order and harmony which automatically produce beauty.” Rather than acknowledging specific groups, practices, and cultures, motifs are taken out of context to illustrate a faceless, nameless Peruvian past.[2]

Elena in Paris

Together with her twin sister, Elena left for Paris in 1927, where she received training in drawing, painting, and printmaking. She then produced in her own workshop works such as printed textiles and collaborated with fashion designers, among which Elsa Schiaparelli can be found. After a couple of travels to New York, the Izcue sisters returned to Peru in 1939 as Europe was on the verge of World War II. Out of touch with the country she had left twelve years prior, Elena’s career faded together with the Art Déco movement.

Elena Izcue, “Fabric sample with pre-Columbian inspired designs” (c. 1928-1936) Hand-printed natural silk, Denver Art Museum, 2016.303.

With the turn of the 20th century, Elena Izcue has become herself a national symbol for Peru, as she managed to bring ancient Andean art to the Parisian stage, was celebrated by museum curators and anthropologists, and her work was glorified as a public service made to her fellow Peruvians. Today, almost a hundred years after her career peaked, Elena continues to inspire fashion designers.

[1] Rafael Larco Herrera, El Arte Peruano en la Escuela, vol. 1, Editorial Excelsior, Paris, 1926, A.

[2] Izcue, Elena. Ibid, XI.

More information

Izcue, Elena. El Arte Peruano en la Escuela, vol. 1, Editorial Excelsior, Paris, 1926.

“Elena Izcue: Lima – Paris, Années 30”, exhibition catalogue co-published by musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac / Flammarion, 2008.

Majluf, Natalia, and Luis Eduardo Wuffarden. Elena Izcue: El Arte Precolombino En La Vida Moderna. Lima: Museo de Arte de Lima : Fundación Telefónica, 1999.

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