Back to Brochures

ART NOUVEAU IN EUROPE

The approaching millennium–our own fin de siècle–provides a timely occasion to examine, a century later, the phenomenon of Art Nouveau(1). Comprised of a brilliant and wildly diverse array of designs, the movement dates roughly from 1880 to 1910, yet the nine years, from 1895 to 1904, represent the critical period of important output. It includes a wide spectrum of individual and city-center styles (Glasgow, Brussels, Paris, Nancy, Barcelona, Munich, Darmstadt, Vienna and Prague), ranging from the elongated silhouettes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School to the stylized floriations of the Paris School and the naturaliste elements found in the School of Nancy–the movement's epicenter–in eastern France.

European Art Nouveau evolved quite differently in numerous countries in the late 19th century with the primary purpose of challenging the established order within the applied and fine arts. One aspect young artists and designers found particularly objectionable was the unwillingness of the official art institutions in many European countries to accommodate exhibitions of the decorative or applied arts. Throughout Europe in the 1880s and '90s artists formed societies in opposition to the ruling institutions. The new groups arranged exhibitions which not only featured modern painting and sculpture but also furniture, ceramics, glassware, metalwork, textiles and jewelry. It is this spirit of revolt which ties together all styles and movements commonly associated with Modernism; it is also the underlying theme of the Norwest collection. From the British Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War II, it was this single purpose that fired a collective imagination and quickly took hold in Europe. The term Modernism applies to those forward-looking architects, designers and craftsmen who managed to escape Historicism, the tyranny of previous historical styles. Centuries of servitude to revivalist design in form and decoration were forever liberated by their ground-breaking visions. While Art Nouveau overlapped the more rustic Arts and Crafts Movement, it was Art Nouveau which not only introduced a new, international design vocabulary, but became the first popular 20th-century art movement.

Art Nouveau, in particular, marked a rebellion against the historically eclectic aspects of Victorian art. It found its principal forms in nature: flora and fauna (marine as well as terrestrial) of every species. Flowers, clinging vines and tendrils, leafage of every variety, gourd-forms, exotic marine life (including jellyfish and anemones)(2), even insects were respectfully rendered–a whole botanical and zoological garden of writhing forms. Gardens being immensely popular as exaltations of nature, evoked inspired designs. Blossoms and tendrils became frozen in space, as if plant food had been fed to furniture. This abandon for the organic was clearly injected into the style. Beyond the naturalistic imagery especially prevalent with the School of Nancy which was based on a thorough analysis of plant morphology, artists also used nature to symbolize a state of mind or an intellectual concept. There were many associations between Art Nouveau and the Symbolist movement in art, literature and drama. For some, Symbolism represented the thought of 1900 while Art Nouveau was its gesture.

The adjectives so often used to describe Art Nouveau elements: sinuous, curvilinear, tendrilous, undulating, arabesque, whiplash, serpentine, florid and sensuous capture the style's plasticity of form. How best to avoid the right angle and the straight line seemed to be a supreme preoccupation of those architects, artists and artisans identified with the movement (3). It was among the first of the total styles dominating the design of everything, from architectural interiors to hatpins. The era's "new psychology" identified neurasthenia as the characteristic modern condition and located its cause in the stressful conditions of urban life. Withdrawal to a private interior space could be seen as a way to soothe frazzled nerves. The Art Nouveau interior, luxuriously appointed, took on a therapeutic function beneficial to an individual's interior psychological state. Art Nouveau artists responded especially well to exotic materials, such as semi-precious stones, rare woods, ivories and enamels. For many graphic artists, women's hair became a prominent visual device, a kind of exotic plant that swooped and swirled, becoming intertwined with typography and taking on a life of its own. In fact, Art Nouveau popularized a new feminine chic seen in the work of Alphonse Mucha and Raoul Larche(4) among others. The emerging female psyche and the emancipation of women is well expressed in bicycle posters where carefree girls revel in new-found mobility.

During this period a series of ambitious world expositions provided venues by which the finest that all countries could offer were given their largest public exposure–spectacles of progress and modernity. Between the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle de Paris (best remembered for the Eiffel Tower and its glorification of the machine) and the 1910 Exposition in Brussels, there were nine such world's fairs (the Norwest collection presently features seven known works or models exhibited in the l900 Exposition alone). The l900 Paris Exposition Universelle represented the very apogee of the Art Nouveau movement and it was the most influential in legitimizing the style. Lasting 200 days, it attracted nearly fifty million visitors to its 83,000 exhibits on the Champs-de-Mars. The 1902 Turin Exposition and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis were equally important in unveiling and advancing extremely avant-garde works for their time. These international gatherings stimulated considerable demand for the new art and greatly helped to promote domestic industry. Another source of incalculable impact in Art Nouveau's evolution was Japonisme, which became the rage in fashionable Western society following the 1854 treaty between America and Japan. Western artists drew on a host of compositional devices used by their Japanese counterparts. Many imitators emerged, in both the fine arts and applied arts; in fact, a profound Oriental influence can be seen in virtually every discipline within the Art Nouveau movement.

Among Japan's most enthusiastic proselytizers were Siegfried Bing, Julius Meier-Graefe and Arthur Lasenby Liberty, all merchants who were destined later to play key roles in the dissemination and marketing of the Art Nouveau movement in the decorative arts. Bing, a naturalized Frenchman from Hamburg, moved to Paris where he first established an emporium for Japanese imports and then expanded into his gallery, Maison de L'Art Nouveau, from which the name Art Nouveau derives. Before receiving its final name Art Nouveau (the new art)(5), the French called it Moderne, the Spanish Modernismo(6), the British Liberty Style, the Germans and Central Europe Jugendstil (youthful style)(7), the Italians Stile Liberty or Stile Floreale. Bing also published a journal, Le Japon Artistique,(8) which included articles on all aspects of Japanese life. Another German, the art critic Meier-Graefe, was an entrepreneur and patron similar to Bing. Being a devotee of modern art, he sought to apply it in a coherent manner to every aspect of interior design. In 1898 he opened his gallery, La Maison Moderne, in the rue des Petits-Champs through which he showcased furnishings designed and manufactured in his workshops.

Likewise, Liberty did virtually the same with his London shop. It became a status symbol for Europe's fashion elite, helped considerably to spread the message, and legitimized the new movement's curvilinear grammar of ornament. Especially notable under Liberty's patronage was the remarkably advanced metalwork of Archibald Knox in both his silver(Cymric) and pewter(Tudric) lines. While aspiring to modernity, most European countries were searching also for a national style, one that drew upon emblems of heritage and could serve as the country's unique expression of Art Nouveau. Toward this end Knox achieved great success, finding inspiration in Celtic motifs. Consistently throughout, the glorification of craftmanship–handmade and machine-aided–provided a shared foundation for the European Art Nouveau movement.

Today, it is a rare and refined aesthetic that compares to the marvels of such artist-designers as René Lalique, Emile Gallé and Hector Guimard. While many went on to pursue illustrious careers in other modernist styles, the Art Nouveau sensibility and genius vanished, first challenged by the tensions of a new century and soon after forgotten in the mayhem of the first world war. Fortunately, we still have with us a large body of work that is among the most accessible and enduring of the modernist era.

David Ryan
Director, Arts Program, Norwest Corporation
Adjunct Curator of Design, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

NOTES:

l) Those wishing to read further on the subject are encouraged to obtain the new paperback, Art Nouveau, by Alaistair Duncan published by Thames and Hudson, London, 1994, a recent edition to its World of Art series. Mr. Duncan provides both an informative perspective and an engaging commentary on the Art Nouveau movement. (Back)

2) Some designers used motifs from marine biology to express the Darwinian theory of evolution. (Back)

3) The Belgian architect Victor Horta designed some of his buildings so that they appear to have no single vertical plumb in their construction. (Back)

4) Larche's series of gilt-bronze lamps celebrated the American dancer, Löie Fuller, whose colorful performances at the Folies Berg¸re were a source of inspiration to many writers, artists and designers. (Back)

5) The emphasis on new reflected the impact of the theory of evolution expounded by Charles Darwin and supported by anyone who claimed to hold advanced opinions. The New Spirit was the title of a book of essays by the English critic Havelock Ellis, published in 1890, in which he reviewed the progress of the literary and philosophical assault on the old culture. (Back)

6) The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí who designed the Church of the Sagrada Famiglia (a cathedral yet to be completed), the Casa Milà, and numerous other celebrated buildings in Barcelona, was a style unto himself. (Back)

7) Jugendstil is a name derived from Jugend, an avant-garde arts magazine founded in Munich in 1896, known for its advanced graphics and typography. (Back)

8) In the first issue of Le Japon Artistique, Bing described an art nouveau which would have a deep and lasting effect on Western design. (Back)

 



Back to Brochures