A Line Around Thoughts

Art Nouveau – 1890 – 1905

Cover Design of Wren’s City Churches, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, 1883, woodcut print on handmade paper

Art Nouveau appeared in a wide variety of strands and styles generating enthusiasts in decorative arts and architecture throughout Europe and beyond. The aim was modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had been popular in the past. Artists were inspired from both organic and geometric forms evolving into designs that united flowing, natural forms resembling stems and blossoms in an elegant manner. The linear influence too precedence over colour. The movement was committed to eliminating the traditional hierarchy within the arts, which viewed painting and sculpture as superior to craft-based decorative art. During the First World War Art Nouveau went out of fashion paving the way for the Art Deco movement of the 1920s. It experienced a revival in the 1960s and it now seen as an important predecessor of modernism.

La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, 1891, lithograph. Currently located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

The desire to abandon the historical styles of the 19th century was the impetus behind Art Nouveau and the establishment of modernism. Industrialization was widespread but decorative art was dominated by poorly crafted imitations of objects from earlier times. Art Nouveau practitioners sought to revive quality workmanship, raising the status of craft and producing genuinely innovative ideas in a modern design that reflected the utility of the items they created.

The academic system that dominated art education from the 17th to the 19th century underpinned the belief that media such as painting, drawing and sculpture were superior to decorative arts and crafts such as design and ironwork. This led to the neglect of good craftmanship. Art Nouveau sort to overturn that belief aspiring to the total works of art that inspired buildings and interiors in which every element worked in a visual harmony. Art Nouveau helped to narrow the gap between fine and applied art. Practitioners moved from frivolous decoration to the function of an object. This was an important part of the movement’s legacy to later modernist movements, particularly Bauhaus.

The Dancer’s Reward, Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, linocut. Currently housed in a private collection

Art Nouveau can be traced to two distinctive influences: firstly, the introduction of the British Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction against the cluttered design and composition of Victorian-era decorative art. Secondly, the vogue for Japanese art such as wood-block prints, that swept European art in the 1880s and 90s.

Entrances to Paris Subway Stations, Hector Guimard, 1900. Paris, France

Pinpointing the exact works of art that launched Art Nouveau is difficult. Some say the patterned, flowing lines and floral backgrounds in the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin are the birth of Art Nouveau, others argue for the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, while others point to the decorative arts of Mackmurdo.

Art Nouveau was most conspicuous at international expositions. In particular the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelles in Paris, the 1897 Tervueren Exposition in Brussels, the 1902 Turin International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts and the 1909 Exposition International de l’Est de la France in Nancy. The style was dominant in terms of the decorative arts and architecture and in Turin in 1902, Art Nouveau was the style of choice of virtually every designer and nature represented.

Bagnères de Luchon, Fêtes des Fleurs, Jules Cheret, 1890, poster

In December 1895 Siegfried Bing, a connoisseur of Japanese art living in Pars, opened L’Art Nouveau, which became the main outlet of Art Nouveau furniture and decorative arts. The store’s name was synonymous with the Art Nouveau style in France, Britain and the United States. However as the style was popular throughout Western and Central Europe it went by several names such as Jugendstil in German speaking countries, Sezessionsstil in Vienna, Modernismo in Spain, Modernisme in Catalan and so on. The many detractors gave it several derogatory names, all of which made playful reference to Art Nouveau’s employment of sinuous and flowing lines.

The ubiquity of Art Nouveau int the late-19th century is explained, at least in part, by the many artists using the popular and easily reproduced forms found in the graphic arts. Even the work of the most controversial artist of Art Nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, employed the graceful and rhythmic lines that associated with Art Nouveau. This elegant styling popularized the elegant, lavish, and decadent lifestyle of the belle époque.

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1907, oil on canvas. Currently located at Belvedere, Vienna, Austria

In addition to the graphic and visual arts the Art Nouveau architecture had a vast influence on European culture. In the urban hubs of Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, and Barcelona as well as many other cities Art Nouveau architecture prevailed on a grand scale, in both size and appearance, and it can still be seen today in structures and buildings, from residential houses to institutional and commercial buildings. In architecture Art Nouveau was seen in a wide variety of idioms. Buildings incorporating a prodigious use of terracotta and colourful tilework ornamentation of facades and fireplaces of Parisian residences and apartment buildings, for example, and the showcasing the technical possibilities of iron structures joined by glass in France and Belgium.

Art Nouveau was intimately associated with interior design as much as it was conspicuous on exterior facades. It strove to create a harmonious, coherent environment that touched every surface. Furnishings took centre stage, particularly carved wood that featured sharp, irregular contours, mostly handcrafted but some using machinery. From beds and chaises to tables and chairs, furniture makers created pieces for every use possible and imaginable. The natural grain of the woods fed the sinuous curves of the designs.

Very few art styles can be seen across nearly all forms of visual and material media as Art Nouveau. In addition to graphics, architecture and design. It is responsible, more than any other style or movement for narrowing the gap between the decorative and the applied arts, although it is debateable whether that gap has ever been completely closed.

The luxury and indulgence of Art Nouveau was evident in its exploitation of the best glass artists in history, including Gallé, the Daum brothers, Tiffany and Gruber. The Gallé and Daum firms established their reputations in vase design ad art glass with pioneering techniques in acid-etching that seemed to flow effortlessly between translucent hues. Tiffany and Gruber were specialists in stained glass that celebrated the natural beauty of the world in large Luminant panels. In jewellery , Lalique, Tiffany and Wolfers created some of the most prized pieces of the time, from earrings to necklaces to bracelets to brooches, assuring that Art Nouveau would always be seen as fin-de-siècle luxury instead of the intended ubiquity of being universally accessible.

Magnolia and Irises, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1908, stained glass. Currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

The rise of Art Nouveau occurred as retailing expanded to attract a mass audience. It featured in many of the major urban department established during the late-19th century including Wertheim’s in Berlin, the Magasins Reunis in Nancy and Pris’ La Samararitine. Art Nouveau was also market aggressively by the most famous design outlets of the time. Many Art Nouveau designers made their names work exclusively for these retailers before progressing to their own directions.

©JG Farmer 2019

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