Art Noveau: Gateway to Our Modern Age

Art Noveau: Gateway to Our Modern Age – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2001

It is often flowery, organic, and it’s flowing forms correspond visually to musical movement. With its roots firmly in the second half of the 19th Century, in all of its various forms and translations, Art Nouveau became the doorway to our modern age. Primarily dating from the 1890’s until the outbreak of World War I (1914), Art Nouveau was the refinement of an aesthetic reaction to the excesses of the industrial revolution’s mirror twin progeny of technological triumphs and deplorable social conditions. Influenced by the clear connection between deep social and economic problems and aesthetics demonstrated by the national comparisons at the various and many world exhibitions, thoughtful individuals saw that though mass production allowed for more inexpensive utensils, tableware and furniture, the continually increasing numbers of resulting products were often decorated in a quasi-historical pastiche or nationalistic kitsch. These mass produced items most often resulted in poor quality, impractical and ill-suited to the living conditions of their intended market— those who lived in cramped often squalid urban dwellings.

Soon after the mid-19th Century, throughout Europe there was a clear outcry for aesthetic reform. This was manifested in a design and artistic sentiment that suggested that there was both a need for better living conditions and for simple, more honest consumer goods for workers. There was also concern that there was a proliferation of ugly eclectic designs that had no bearing on or relationship to the then contemporary technologies and caused reduced economic competitiveness. First in England and later in Germany, reform movements arose to combat not only the deplorable social conditions but at reforming the commercial arts as well. In response to these negative results of industrialization and the aesthetic struggle against historicism, even though political orientation greatly differed between and among groups and individuals, there began to be various philosophies and voices expressed.

The design problem of historicism made itself abundantly clear at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851. Included in the group of most vocal reformers was the eminent and hugely influential artist as well as art and social critic William Morris. He vehemently opposed industrial mass production. He saw the devastating effects of industrialization—environmental pollution, alienating work and poor quality products, as a “devilish capitalistic botch and an enemy of mankind.” To him, aesthetic and social problems were inseparable. He claimed that the answer to social issues was a return to the spirit of the arts approach of the Middle Ages, a time when art and production were closely connected. According to William Morris, during the Middle Ages, artists fashioned articles that were both useful and beautiful. He demanded craftsman like consumer products on the highest aesthetic level. To counter historicism, Morris wanted natural ornaments and materials along with clearly structured forms. Along with the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites (a group of English painters who used the erapredating the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael for inspiration and painted primarily Arthurian themed paintings), Morris, his friend, critic and philosopher John Ruskin and others began what is now referred to as the Arts and Crafts movement. It rejected historicism, encouraged a return to handcrafts, emphasized the relationship of art to design and showed preference for simpler forms from nature. The Arts and Crafts Movement was the precursor to the international Art Nouveau movement or time period.

To be precise, Art Nouveau was not one movement but a number of visually related thematic directions that were created in different countries at different rates in a variety of ways in roughly a twenty year period. Bridging the Belle Epoch and the Edwardian Periods, Art Nouveau took on many names as well as looks. Self-consciously international, Art Nouveau clearly and at times brilliantly drew on cultural and aesthetic sources throughout Europe and the rest of the world. In France and Belgium, it was actually called art nouveau after the furniture house of the same name; in England, it was called “the decorative style;” the German name for it was Jugendstil (youth style) after the magazine “Die Jugend;” the Stile Liberty was the Italian name from the London Regent Street store Liberty; in Austria, it was called Sezessionsstil related to the new thinking in painting and design; in Spain, it was referred to as Modernista.

The most encyclopedic exhibition ever developed on Art Nouveau has just had a spectacular run at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Art Nouveau 1890-1914 was a joint project of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Smithsonian’s National Gallery that demonstrated the depth and breadth of what great institutions can do when they are given the resources and the time to create the highest level of exhibition of objects. The catalogue for the show is a coffee table book of unparalleled beauty and thoughtful in-depth information. Interestingly, the Victoria & Albert Museum (often referred to as the Attic of the Empire) made the brilliantly visionary decision in 1900 to purchase a substantial body of Art Nouveau work at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Though highly controversial at the time, many of those pieces, now most certainly considered masterpieces, were included in this stupendous show.

According to Paul Greenhalgh, the curator of the exhibition and editor of the magnificent catalogue for Art Nouveau 1890-1914, “Art Nouveau was the result of intense and flamboyant activity in the visual arts wishing to change the character of European civilization.” He also suggests that the period could be expanded to be from 1870 to 1914.However, the focus of this exhibit was upon the specific fecund era of those years of creative transition at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Centuries. Greenhalgh states that there were three major sources of Art Nouveau. These he has identified as natural, historical and symbolic. Certainly these were not unusual or new sources in the history of art, but the way in which the sources were approached and explored was. Either individually or in combination, artists and designers strove to produce a truly modern visual language.

Nature was the most important of the three sources. Nature was a key aspect to 19th Century society and culture. Nineteenth Century exploration and discovery of new plants and animals, continual medical and scientific breakthroughs and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory which linked humans to nature in a significantly deterministic way all made nature a universal aspect to 19th Century culture. Historical interpretation was used to explore the basic forms and design threads found in historical sources. These threads were then woven into a more modern visual fabric. The period was ripe with all kinds of spiritualism as well, and symbols were abundant to draw from for icons, images and themes.

The strategy of Art Nouveau was to be a reaction against previous styles while providing visual alternatives to other movements. As Curator Greenhalgh suggests, “Most regions added local ingredients to the stylistic mix that was Art Nouveau. The Dutch made use of Indonesian forms and the Belgians came to embrace Africa,…..The Germans and the Austrians made use of the Biedermeier style. Traditional baronial architecture inspired the Scots…..Norwegians and several other Nordic nations made use of Viking art, while various British, Irish and American designers were inspired by the Celts. These inflections gave variety to the style…..From within the European tradition, practitioners drew on Classicism , the Baroque, Rococo and Gothic Revival styles and folk art. From outside, the art of the Islamic nations, China and Japan were brought to bear.” In other words, Art Nouveau was inclusive, reactive, interpretive and highly eclectic. Yet, when we see a piece from the period, we almost immediately know that it is Art Nouveau. This is due to a universality of visual translation, craftsmanship and aesthetic intent.

The exhibition and catalogue focused upon various materials that were creatively integrated into the art and design process. The Age of Paper focused upon the flowering of the poster, a commercial art form refined and developed during the 1890’s that became a part of the cultural fabric of any town or city. Influenced by recently discovered Japanese prints, American circus posters and new technologies, the French designer and printer Jules Cheret was the father of this form. The Czech designer Alphonse Mucha was the quintessential Art Nouveau artist. The colorful Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s body of work must also be included as among the great graphics of the period as well. German Peter Behrens’ famous “The Kiss” was reissued during the hippie 1960’s as an icon of the generation of the original’s grandchildren.

Wood, textiles, ceramics, glass and metal craft were also the focus of other areas of the exhibition. Each of the great practitioners of their craft have been included in the exhibition. Spectacular furniture by Hector Guimard, August Thonet, Josef Hoffmann and Henry van deVelde, Richard Riemerschmid and Louis Marjorelle illustrate the extent of design ideas, quality of craftsmanship and sheer beauty of wood. New textile design was exemplified by works by Hermann Obrist, Henry van de Velde, Chris Lebeau, Otto Eckmann as well as Josef Hoffmann. Ceramics and stoneware ranging from pieces by the Sevres factory to a piece by Paul Gauguin to examples of American Rookwood to porcelain by Ernest Chaplet to Dutch earthenware by Weduwe N.S.A. Brantjes all signified the Art Nouveau diversity and range. The glass category was best exemplified by the work of outstanding French master Emile Galle, the two Daum brothers who founded Daum Nancy and the elegant American Louis Comfort Tiffany. Metal craft ranged from Mr. Eiffle’s Tower of 1889 to details of Belgian Victor Horta’s most sleek and beautifully detailed house to Frenchman Hector Guimard’s Metro gateway to Englishman C.R. Ashbee’s decanter. Great examples of jewelry sprinkled throughout the exhibit were the miniature detailing of each of the other crafts.

The exhibition was divided up into often startlingly beautiful country by country examples of Art Nouveau. Beginning with the English “New Art,” As the first nation to embrace the Industrial Revolution, its citizens were the first Europeans to experience its consequences both good and bad. The class gap widened still further as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantic reformers (the Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin, William Morris, etc.) were the major supports of the New Art. Their counter party were the post-Enlightenments Rationalists, a group of pragmatic individuals who embraced new technologies and believed that humanity would be reinvented by scientific achievement. However, they were significantly responsible for creating the environment in which the development of a new direction in visual art and design could take place.

Examples of Art Nouveau design took place in English prints and books as early as the 1880’s. Graphic artist and designer Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942) is considered to be one of the first Art Nouveau practitioners. His flat patterned designs were the precursors to much of what followed in the graphic and ornamental interpretations of Art Nouveau. Aubrey Beardsley was another graphic artist whose work was as much “diabolic” as graphic. Arthur Lasenby Liberty, founder of the Liberty of London store, was perhaps the greatest influence upon international Art Nouveau design. Early on, he commissioned artists, architects and designers to create textiles, furniture and decorative goods including metalwork, glass, jewelry and even clothing. This entrepreneur was responsible for connecting the art Nouveau aesthetic philosophy to the commercial marketplace.

The contribution of France to Art Nouveau was immense. The most important French centers of Art Nouveau were Paris and Nancy. The smaller city, Nancy actually had the greatest significance. The outstanding glass artists, Emile and A. Daum, were located in Nancy. The School of Nancy was the center for the richest of floral and symbolic aspects of Art Nouveau. The bowls, vases and pitchers integrated floral details-, the furniture bore symbolic meaning. Galle and Daum produced certainly the most famous and unusually beautiful and delicate glass work of the entire Art Nouveau Movement with the possible exception of perhaps the pieces of the American master Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The School of Nancy, founded by Galle in 1886 produced industrially manufactured goods as well as individual artistic pieces. Galle was joined by cabinetmakers Eugene Valin and Louis Marjorelle as well as the goldsmith artist Victor Prouve. Paris had no particular school of Art Nouveau, however the great Hector Guimard was the best representative of the city’s creative spirit. Other notable designers were cabinetmakers Alexandre Charpentier and Louis Majorelle. Guimard designed many pieces, but he is best known for the wonderful Paris Metro entrances that visually and physically demonstrate the union of modern technology to design. Each gateway “grows” like plant stems up to the roof beams that resemble transparent open umbrellas.

The Germany Jugendstil situated itself somewhere between the objective-constructive and the folk art handicraft directions. It was marked by reformist thought and theories and an effort to advance the competitiveness of German products. Munich produced art-orienteddesigner/architects Hermann Obrist and August Endell who had a Gothic orientation to their work. Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957) was one of the most important German designers who founded workshops and worked with other eminent designers at The German Werkbund. Peter Behrens was the most influential German designer of all. Multitalented and an excellent administrator, he set the pattern for the profession and practice of modern industrial design.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his Glasgow colleagues developed a highly influential geometric patterning style influenced by ancient Celtic symbolism and design. Ironically, Mackintosh’s influence was more seen in the development the Vienna Secessionist group (including Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Ofto Wagner) who in-turn indirectly influenced Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and more directly the Bauhaus than any major design in the British isles.

Certainly there were great designers and craftsman from Belgium. Preeminent among these was architect/designer/artist Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) who advised the Weimar court, co-founded the German Werkbund and influenced design in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. The architect and interior designer Victor Horta was also a Belgium master. The Modernista movement in Spain was mostly manifested in architecture. Controversial architect Antonio Gaudi was the major figure here. Art Nouveau turned baroque in its interpretation in Italy (Liberty Style). Agostino Lauro and Raimondo d’Aronco are two major Italian figures. More uniquely, designer Carlo Bugafti expressed an artistically extravagant approach that included Asian influences and most expensive materials.

There were also fine architectural examples in Prague and Budapest with later flowering of glass and ceramics in Czechoslovakia. Other wonderful work was created in Finland during the period as well. The major Finnish designer was Eliel Saarinen who architecture, interiors and furniture with a Viking-inspired design iconography.

This exhibition is a monumental expression of the visual talent, creativity and inspired craftsmanship of the pioneers of this modern aesthetic period. The truly brilliant organization of this exhibit is a reflection of the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the curatorial staff involved. This was the greatest display of these objects ever presented. However, with no reflection on this exemplary exhibition, there should be a critical overview of the Art Nouveau movement. With all the beauty and variety that was Art Nouveau, all and all Art Nouveau must be considered mostly as a failure as a reform movement. While the aesthetic rebellion and reaction to historicism and poor quality mass produced products was justifiable and even admirable, Art Nouveau was in many respects highly regressive and probably delayed the development of much of modern industrial design. Though Art Nouveau certainly fostered the creation of dynamic new ornamentation, led to a better feel for architectural space and certainly sought to instill by design a more conscious relationship between materials and simpler forms, it was actually more of a step back into the past.

The reasons are many. Probably most importantly, most Art Nouveau designers considered themselves artists and rejected industrial mass production. They sought an alternative in the reform of handwork and thus handicrafts, but what occurred was something else. The artist guilds, associations or workshops patterned themselves after medieval models and operated as highly elite aesthetic cults. The old academies that ruled the artistic and aesthetic roosts in various countries were replaced by “new” academies ( It could be suggested that patterns of historicism were substituted by patterns of vegetation!) that were run by “new” artists and designers just as single-minded and narrow. Primarily, all that Art Nouveau accomplished was to replace one kind of handcrafted ornamentation for another. In the long run, the Art Nouveau luxury objects, jewelry and furniture were still only affordable by the well-to-do. By about 1910, the once new and provocative visual language of Art Nouveau virtually disappeared. The First World War marked a clear end of the movement. The geometric direction of the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School and the related Vienna Secession group’s works led in a straight line to Russian Constructivism, the Bauhaus design Philosophy and Art Deco.

Overall, what Art Nouveau left as a legacy was the will to reform and the positive turn toward industry as a partner in the design process. Perhaps, what we most learn from all this is that great design can only enhance the quality of life, and design cannot necessarily reform the world.

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