Art Nouveau - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Art Nouveau
The advent of Art Nouveau - literally "New Art" - can be traced to two distinct influences: the first was the introduction, around 1880, of the British Arts and Crafts movement, which, much like Art Nouveau, was a reaction against the cluttered designs and compositions of Victorian-era decorative art. The second was the current vogue for Japanese art, particularly wood-block prints, that swept up many European artists in the 1880s and 90s, including the likes of Gustav Klimt, Emile Gallé, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Japanese wood-block prints in particular contained floral and bulbous forms, and "whiplash" curves, all key elements of what would eventually become Art Nouveau.
It is difficult to pinpoint the first work(s) of art that officially launched Art Nouveau. Some argue that the patterned, flowing lines and floral backgrounds found in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin represent Art Nouveau's birth, or perhaps even the decorative lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, such as Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891). But most point to the origins in the decorative arts, and in particular to a book jacket by English architect and designer Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo for the 1883 volume Wren's City Churches. The design depicts serpentine stalks of flowers emanating from one flattened pad at the bottom of the page, clearly reminiscent of Japanese-style wood-block prints.
Art Nouveau Exhibitions
Art Nouveau was often most conspicuous at international expositions during its heyday. It enjoyed center stage at five particular fairs: the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelles in Paris; the 1897 Tervueren Exposition in Brussels (where Art Nouveau was largely employed to show off the possibilities of craftsmanship with the exotic woods of the Belgian Congo); the 1902 Turin International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts; and the 1909 Exposition International de l'Est de la France in Nancy. At each of these fairs, the style was dominant in terms of the decorative arts and architecture on display, and in Turin in 1902, Art Nouveau was truly the style of choice of virtually every designer and every nation represented, to the exclusion of any other.
The Regional Names for Art Nouveau
Siegfried Bing, a German merchant and connoisseur of Japanese art living in Paris, opened a shop named L'Art Nouveau in December 1895, which became one of the main purveyors of the style in furniture and the decorative arts. Before long, the store's name became synonymous with the style in France, Britain, and the United States. Art Nouveau's wide popularity throughout Western and Central Europe, however, meant that it went by several different titles. In German-speaking countries, it was generally called Jugendstil (Youth Style), taken from a Munich magazine called Jugend that popularized it. Meanwhile, in Vienna - home to Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and the other founders of the Vienna Secession - it was known as Sezessionsstil (Secession Style). It was also known as Modernismo in Spanish, Modernisme in Catalan, and Stile Floreale (floral style) or Stile Liberty in Italy (the latter after Arthur Liberty's fabric shop in London, which helped popularize the style). In France it was commonly called Modern(e)-Style and occasionally Style Guimard after its most famous practitioner there, the architect Hector Guimard, and in the Netherlands it was usually called Nieuwe Kunst (New Art). Its numerous detractors also gave it several derogatory names: Style Nouille (noodle style) in France, Paling Stijl (eel style) in Belgium, and Bandwurmstil (tapeworm style) in Germany - all names which made playful reference to Art Nouveau's tendency to employ sinuous and flowing lines.
Art Nouveau: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Art Nouveau Graphics and Design
Art Nouveau's ubiquity in the late-19th century must be explained in part by many artists' use of popular and easily reproduced forms, found in the graphic arts. In Germany, Jugendstil artists like Peter Behrens and Hermann Obrist had their work printed on book covers and exhibition catalogs, magazine advertisements and playbills. But this trend was by no means limited to Germany. The English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, perhaps the most controversial Art Nouveau figure due to his combination of the erotic and the macabre, created a number of posters in his brief career that employed graceful and rhythmic lines. Beardsley's highly decorative prints, such as The Peacock Skirt (1894), were both decadent and simple, and represent the most direct link we can identify between Art Nouveau and Japonism/Ukiyo-e prints. In France, the posters and graphic production of Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Victor Prouvé, Théophile Steinlen, and a handful of others popularized the lavish, decadent lifestyle of the belle époque (roughly the era between 1890-1914), usually associated with the seedy cabaret district of Montmartre in northern Paris. Their graphic works used new chromolithographic techniques to promote everything from new technologies like telephones and electric lights to bars, restaurants, nightclubs and even individual performers, evoking the energy and vitality of modern life. In the process, they soon raised the poster from the ranks of the pedestrian advertisement to high art.
Art Nouveau Architecture
In addition to the graphic and visual arts, any serious discussion of Art Nouveau must consider architecture and the vast influence this had on European culture. In urban hubs such as Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Turin, Barcelona, Antwerp, and Vienna, as well as smaller cities like Nancy and Darmstadt, along with Eastern European locales like Riga, Prague, and Budapest, Art Nouveau architecture prevailed on a grand scale, in both size and appearance, and is still visible today in structures as varied as small row houses to great institutional and commercial buildings. In architecture especially, Art Nouveau was showcased in a wide variety of idioms. Many buildings incorporate a prodigious use of terracotta and colorful tilework. The French ceramicist Alexandre Bigot, for example, made his name largely through the production of terracotta ornament for the facades and fireplaces of Parisian residences and apartment buildings. Other Art Nouveau structures, particularly in France and Belgium (Hector Guimard and Victor Horta were important practitioners), show off the technological possibilities of an iron structure joined by glass panels.
In many areas across Europe, local stone such as yellow limestone or a rocky, random-coursed rural aesthetic with wood trim characterized Art Nouveau residential architecture. And in several cases, a sculptural white stucco skin was used, particularly on Art Nouveau buildings used for exhibitions, such as the pavilions of the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 and Secession Building in Vienna. Even in the United States, the vegetal forms adorning Louis Sullivan's skyscrapers like the Wainwright Building and Chicago Stock Exchange are often counted among the best examples of Art Nouveau's wide architectural scope.
Art Nouveau Furniture and Interior Design
Like the Victorian stylistic revivals and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau was intimately associated with interior decoration at least as much as it was conspicuous on exterior facades. Also like these other styles of the 19th century, Art Nouveau interiors also strove to create a harmonious, coherent environment that left no surface untouched. Furniture design took center stage in this respect, particularly in the production of carved wood that featured sharp, irregular contours, often handcrafted but occasionally manufactured using machines. Furniture makers turned out pieces for every use imaginable: beds, chaises, dining room tables and chairs, armoires, sideboards, and lamp stands. The sinuous curves of the designs often fed off the natural grain of woods and was often permanently installed as wall paneling and molding.
In France, the chief Art Nouveau designers included Louis Majorelle, Emile Gallé, and Eugène Vallin, all based in Nancy; and, Tony Selmersheim, Édouard Colonna and Eugène Gaillard, who worked in Paris - the latter two specifically for Siegfried Bing's shop named L'Art Nouveau (later giving the whole movement its most common name). In Belgium, the whiplash line and reserved, more angular contours can be seen in the designs of Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and Henry van de Velde, who both admired the works of the English Arts & Crafts artists. The Italians Alberto Bugatti and Augustino Lauro were well-known for their forays in the style there. Many such designers moved freely between media, often making them hard to categorize: Majorelle, for example, manufactured his own wooden furniture designs and opened up an ironworking foundry, which also produced many of the metal fittings for the glasswork put out by the Daum Brothers' glassworks.
Painting and "The High Arts"
Few styles can claim to be represented across nearly all forms of visual and material media as thoroughly as Art Nouveau. Besides those who worked mainly in the graphics, architecture, and design, Art Nouveau counts some prominent representatives in painting, such as the Vienna Secessionist Gustav Klimt, known for Hope II and The Kiss (both 1907-08), and Victor Prouvé in France. But Art Nouveau painters were few and far between: Klimt counted virtually no students or followers (Egon Schiele went in the direction of Expressionism), and Prouvé is known equally well as a sculptor and furniture designer. Instead, Art Nouveau was arguably responsible, more than any style in history, for narrowing the gap between the decorative or applied arts (to utilitarian objects) and the fine or purely ornamental arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, which traditionally had been considered more important, purer expressions of artistic talent and skill. (It is debatable, however, as to whether that gap has ever been completely closed.)
Art Nouveau Glasswork and Jewelry
Art Nouveau's reputation for luxury was also evident by its exploitation by some of the best-known glass artists in history. Emile Gallé, the Daum Brothers, Tiffany, and Jacques Gruber all first found renown, at least in part, through their Art Nouveau glass and its applications in many utilitarian forms. Gallé and Daum's firms established their reputations in vase designs and art glass, pioneering new techniques in acid-etched pieces whose sinuously curved, shapely surfaces seemed to flow between translucent hues effortlessly. The Daum Brothers and Tiffany also exploited the artistic possibilities of glass for utilitarian purposes such as lampshades and desk utensils. Both Tiffany and Jacques Gruber, who had trained in Nancy with the Daum Brothers, became specialists in stained glass that celebrated the beauty of the natural world in large-scale luminant panels
In jewelry, René Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Marcel Wolfers created some of the most prized pieces of the turn of the century, producing everything from earrings to necklaces to bracelets to brooches, thereby assuring that Art Nouveau would always be associated with fin-de-siècle luxury, despite the hope that its ubiquity might make it universally accessible.
Retailing and Corporate Identity
Art Nouveau rose to prominence at the same time that retailing expanded to attract a truly mass audience. It was featured prominently by many of the major urban department stores established during the late-19th century, including La Samaritaine in Paris, Wertheim's in Berlin, and the Magasins Reunis in Nancy. Furthermore, it was marketed aggressively by some of the most famous design outlets of the period, beginning with Siegfried Bing's shop L'Art Nouveau in Paris, which remained a bastion of the dissemination of the style until its closure in 1905 shortly after Bing's death. His was far from the only store in the city to specialize in Art Nouveau interiors and furniture.
Meanwhile, Liberty & Co. was the major distributor of the style's objects in Britain and to Italy, where Liberty's name became nearly synonymous with the style as a result. Many Art Nouveau designers made their names working exclusively for these retailers before moving in other directions. The architect Peter Behrens, for example, designed virtually everything from tea kettles to book covers to advertising posters to exhibition pavilions' interiors to utensils and furniture, eventually becoming the first industrial designer when in 1907 he was put in charge of all design work for AEG (Allgemeine Elektrisitats-Gesellschaft, the German General Electric).
Later Developments - After Art Nouveau
If Art Nouveau quickly took Europe by storm in the last five years of the 19th century, artists, designers and architects abandoned it just as quickly in the first decade of the 20th century. Although many of its practitioners had made the doctrine that "form should follow function" central to their ethos, some designers tended to be lavish in their use of decoration, and the style began to be criticized for being overly elaborate. In a sense, as the style matured, it started to revert to the very habits it had scorned, and a growing number of opponents began to charge that rather than renewing design, it had merely swapped the old for the superficially new. Even using new mass-production methods, the intensive craftsmanship involved in much Art Nouveau design kept it from becoming truly accessible to a mass audience, as its exponents had initially hoped it might. In some cases, such as in Darmstadt, lax international copyright laws also prevented artists from monetarily benefitting from their designs.
Art Nouveau's association with exhibitions also soon contributed its undoing. To begin with, most of the fair buildings themselves were temporary structures that were torn down immediately after the event closed. But more importantly, the expositions themselves, though held under the guise of promoting education, international understanding, and peace, instead tended to fuel rivalry and competition among nations due to the inherently comparative nature of display. Many countries, including France and Belgium, considered Art Nouveau as potential contenders for the title of "national style," before charges of Art Nouveau's foreign origins or subversive political undertones (in France, it was variously associated with Belgian designers and German merchants, and was sometimes the style used in Socialist buildings) turned public opinion against it. With a few notable exceptions where it enjoyed a committed circle of dedicated local patrons, by 1910 Art Nouveau had vanished from the European design landscape.
From Wiener Werkstätte to Art Deco
Art Nouveau's death began in Germany and Austria, where designers such as Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffmann, and Koloman Moser began to turn towards a sparer, more severely geometric aesthetic as early as 1903. That year, many designers formerly associated with the Vienna Secession founded the collective known as the Wiener Werkstätte, whose preference for starkly angular and rectilinear forms recalled a more precise, industrially-inspired aesthetic that omitted any overt references to nature. This reification of the machine-made qualities of design was underscored in 1907 by two key events: the installation of Behrens as AEG's chief of all corporate design, from buildings to products to advertising, making him the world's first industrial designer; and the founding of the German Werkbund, the formal alliance between industrialists and designers that increasingly attempted to define a system of product types based on standardization. Combined with a newfound respect for classicism, inspired in part by the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and given an official blessing by the City Beautiful movement in the United States, this machine-inspired aesthetic would eventually develop, in the aftermath of World War I, into the style that we now belatedly call Art Deco. Its distinctly commercial character was expressed most succinctly at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, the event which would, in the 1960s, give Art Deco its name.
Despite its brief life, Art Nouveau would prove influential in the 1960s and '70s to designers wishing to break free of the confining, austere, impersonal, and increasingly minimal aesthetic that prevailed in the graphic arts. The free-flowing, uncontrolled linear qualities of Art Nouveau became an inspiration for artists such as Peter Max, whose evocation of a dreamy, psychedelic alternative experience recalls the imaginative, ephemeral, and free-flowing aesthetic world of the turn of the century.
Always recognized from the start as an important step in the development of modernism in both art and architecture, today Art Nouveau is understood less as a transitional bridge between art periods as it is an expression of the style, spirit, and intellectual thought of a certain time frame, centered around 1900. In its search to establish a truly modern aesthetic, it became the defining visual language for a fleeting moment of the age.