Summary of Art Nouveau
Generating enthusiasts in the decorative and graphic arts and architecture throughout Europe and beyond, Art Nouveau appeared in a wide variety of strands, and, consequently, it is known by various names, such as the Glasgow Style, or, in the German-speaking world, Jugendstil. Art Nouveau was aimed at modernizing design, seeking to escape the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. Artists drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms resembling the stems and blossoms of plants. The emphasis on linear contours took precedence over color, which was usually represented with hues such as muted greens, browns, yellows, and blues. The movement was committed to abolishing the traditional hierarchy of the arts, which viewed the so-called liberal arts, such as painting and sculpture, as superior to craft-based decorative arts. The style went out of fashion for the most part long before the First World War, paving the way for the development of Art Deco in the 1920s, but it experienced a popular revival in the 1960s, and it is now seen as an important predecessor - if not an integral component - of modernism.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The desire to abandon the historical styles of the 19th century was an important impetus behind Art Nouveau and one that establishes the movement's modernism. Industrial production was, at that point, widespread, and yet the decorative arts were increasingly dominated by poorly-made objects imitating earlier periods. The practitioners of Art Nouveau sought to revive good workmanship, raise the status of craft, and produce genuinely modern design that reflected the utility of the items they were creating.
- The academic system, which dominated art education from the 17th to the 19th century, underpinned the widespread belief that media such as painting and sculpture were superior to crafts such as furniture design and ironwork. The consequence, many believed, was the neglect of good craftsmanship. Art Nouveau artists sought to overturn that belief, aspiring instead to "total works of the arts," the famous Gesamtkunstwerk, that inspired buildings and interiors in which every element worked harmoniously within a related visual vocabulary. In the process, Art Nouveau helped to narrow the gap between the fine and the applied arts, though it is debatable whether this gap has ever been completely closed.
- Many Art Nouveau practitioners felt that earlier design had been excessively ornamental, and in wishing to avoid what they perceived as frivolous decoration, they evolved a belief that the function of an object should dictate its form. In practice this was a somewhat flexible ethos, yet it would be an important part of the style's legacy to later modernist movements, most famously the Bauhaus.
Overview of Art Nouveau
Gustav Klimt famously said, “Enough of censorship…I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it,” – because he was attacked for his work’s swirling erotic forms, he went on pioneer his Gold Period – one of the highlights of Art Nouveau.
Important Art and Artists of Art Nouveau
Mackmurdo's woodcut is an example of the influence of English design, particularly the Arts and Crafts movement, on Art Nouveau. The woodcut as a genre points to the handcrafted, unique quality of the work and the simplicity of Mackmurdo's use of positive and negative space both contribute to this association. Meanwhile, Mackmurdo's abstract-cum-naturalistic forms and the trademark whiplash curves are characteristic of the visual sense of free movement and energy that would eventually define Art Nouveau. The emphasis on the floral and vegetal imagery adorning the cover which refuses any real consonance with the professed subject matter of the book also highlights its purposefully decorative quality, hinting at how Mackmurdo's work is of an experimental nature rather than a definitive, mature example of Art Nouveau. The woodcut proves far more valuable than the actual content, which consists of a rambling, loose description of the architecture of the Baroque London churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Toulouse-Lautrec is one of Art Nouveau's most important graphic artists who were responsible for raising the poster from the realm of advertising ephemera to high art during the 1890s (the same decade that saw the establishment of artistic magazines solely dedicated to this medium). Lautrec and his fellow graphic artists understood that they were innovative, though the stylistic label "Art Nouveau" was probably never applied to them until after Lautrec's death in 1901.
La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge takes the flourish and messiness of a French can-can dancer's dress and breaks it down to a few simple, rhythmic lines, thereby suggesting the sense of movement and space. The flattening of forms to mere outlines with the flat infill of color recalls Art Nouveau's debt to Japanese prints as well as the lighting in such nightclubs that naturally would render the surface details of figures and other objects indistinct. Likewise, the repetitive red lettering of the cabaret's name suggests the pulsating energy of the performances for which dancers like La Goulue (stage name of Louise Weber, one of Lautrec's friends) took center stage.
Beardsley's The Peacock Skirt is an illustration made for Oscar Wilde's 1892 play Salome, based on the Biblical narrative centered on Salome's order to behead and serve on a platter the head of John the Baptist. (Salome was a popular subject for many other Art Nouveau artists, including Victor Prouvé.) Beardsley's Salome is comparatively tame in comparison with some of the illustrator's more erotic and nearly pornographic works. It is a fine example of how many artists influenced by Art Nouveau laid great emphasis on line, often abstracting their figures to produce the fashionable sinuous curves so characteristic of the style. One might also take it as an example of how the formal vocabulary of the style could be used with exuberant excess, a quality that would later attract criticism. The influence of Japonese prints on Art Nouveau is also evident in Beardsley's work in its flattened rendition of form. But this illustration might also be taken as an example of the contemporaneous Aesthetic movement, and in that respect it demonstrates how Art Nouveau overlapped and interacted with various other period styles.
Useful Resources on Art Nouveau
- Art Nouveau: Utopia: Reconciling the Irreconcilable (Taschen)Our PickBy Klaus-Jurgen Sembach
- Art NouveauBy Gabriele Fahr-Becker
- Art Nouveau: An Anthology of Design and Illustration from "The Studio" (Dover Pictorial Archive)
- Art Nouveau (Architecture & Design Library)By Robert Fitzgerald
- Art Nouveau ArchitectureOur PickBy Keiichi Tahara
- Treasures of Art Nouveau: Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Arts in the Gillion Crowet CollectionBy Michel Draguet
- An Art Nouveau Master Remembered in PragueOur PickBy Dinah Spritzer / The New York Times / September 1, 2010
- Guest Column: The Social Agenda of Art NouveauBy Elisabeth Horth / Collectors Weekly / August 21, 2009
- An Art Nouveau Room Thick With WisteriaOur PickBy Carol Vogel / The New York Times / November 23, 2007
- Louis Tiffany's Eclecticism a Harbinger of Art NouveauBy Roberta Smith / Taipei Times / November 30, 2006