Spotlight on Art Nouveau
What we call “Art Nouveau” refers to the style that flourished from the late 1880s to the start of WWI. Often characterized by its use of long, sinuous, organic lines – it was used in architecture, interior design, decorative items, and jewellery as well as in fine art and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create an art form free from the constraints of “Historicism” that had dominated much of the 19th-century. The movement emerged across Europe with differing nuances in style, often with outwardly contradictory influences.
The subsequent popularisation of Art Nouveau in everyday objects needs to be viewed in the context of technological and social change, against a backdrop of industrialisation and the nascence of mass-production. The burgeoning middle classes had a visible presence. Not only was there more money spread among more people, there were also many more ways to spend it. More travel, more entertainment, more newspapers, more books and more fashion. It was as social historians have characterized it, the dawning of the age of material novelties.
Emergence Across Europe and Beyond
It was the Belgian journal L'Art Moderne that first coined the term “Art Nouveau” in the 1880s. Used to describe the work of Les Vingt – a group of painters mostly from France and Belgium who had established an annual exhibition in response to their rejection by the official academic Salons. The name was then popularised by the art gallery Maison de l'Art Nouveau which opened in Paris in 1895. In France however, the style of décor and decorative pieces of the Art Nouveau era is more commonly known as l’Belle Époque.
In Munich, Germany the movement grew from more anti-autocratic origins. In 1892 a group of visual artists broke away from the mainstream Munich Artists' Association which, backed by Prince-Regent Luitpold of Bavaria, dominated the art community. The Association promoted traditional “history painting” in the service of the state and vehemently opposed impressionism, expressionism, and other contemporary trends within the art world. The breakaway group formed the Association of Visual Artists of Munich, which became known as the Munich Secession. One of their key backers (Georg Hirth, a writer and journalist who coined the word "secession" to describe the spirit of the various art movements at the time) went on to establish the Art Nouveau magazine “Jugend” in 1896 – giving rise to the movement’s name in Germany; “Jugendstil”. The Berlin Secession followed in 1898.
In Vienna, the break away from the official art salons steeped in Historicism, took a similar anti-autocratic stance – forming the Vienna Secession in 1897. Founding members of the Secession included Gustav Klimt (president), Koloman Moser and Czech, Alphonse Mucha. By this point Mucha, residing in Paris, had already gained recognition for his Art Nouveau illustrative designs. Within the Secession a division soon emerged between those wanting to give precedence to the fine arts and others who placed equal importance on design and the decorative arts. In 1905, an influential group including Klimt and Moser resigned from the Secession – which continued, but without the creative originality of its earlier period. The style emerging from the Secession in these earlier years gave rise to the term “Secessionist” – the name given to the Art Nouveau movement in Austria. In turn, the Secessionist movement emerging in Vienna influence German Jugendstil.
In Italy, the Art Nouveau style flourishing between circa 1900 to 1914 was linked to the new and exciting furnishings and ornaments seen from Liberty’s Department Store – giving rise to Italian Art Nouveau’s commonly used name; “Stile Liberty”. The 1902 Turin International Exposition was a key event in promoting the Art Nouveau movement – featuring works by designers from around Europe as well as emerging Italian designers. Eager to establish a distinct cultural identity, Stile Liberty became especially popular in cities outside Rome such as Turin and Milan. As with the French and Belgian Art Nouveau, the emerging Stile Liberty took its inspiration from nature but was also influenced by the Baroque style, with more ornament and colour. Other influences also came into prominence, giving rise to a less elaborate variant of Art Nouveau more akin to the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. Italian designers also took inspiration from North Africa and the Middle East – creating an Art Nouveau style distinct from that seen elsewhere in Europe. The most influential designer in this variant of Art Nouveau was Carlo Bugatti (father of Ettore Bugatti, the automobile designer).
Of particular note is Antoni Gaudi’s work in Spain. By 1883 (before the term “Art Nouveau” had been conceived) Gaudi had received and completed several commissions in Barcelona as well as exhibiting at the 1878 Paris World's Fair. Gaudi’s earlier works were influenced in part by Middle Eastern and Oriental arts as well as a touch of the neo-Gothic – but soon evolving into his distinct organic style inspired by nature in which he would build his major works. Gaudí's work is classed as “Modernismo” and is seen as part of the Art Nouveau movement that emerged in Europe. It belongs to this movement because of its quest to innovate as well as the ornamental detail applied to works. Modernismo was active within Spain from circa 1888 to 1911. The movement was mostly centred around the city of Barcelona and is best known for its architectural expression but was also significant in poetry, theatre and the visual arts.
By the turn of the century Art Nouveau, in its many forms and names had swept across Europe. It appeared not only in capitals, but also in rapidly growing cities that wanted to establish distinct artistic identities (Turin and Milan in Italy; Glasgow in Scotland; Munich and Darmstadt in Germany), as well as in centres of independence movements (Helsinki in Finland, as part of the Russian Empire).
Louis Comfort Tiffany is often credited for bringing Art Nouveau to North America – also called the “Tiffany Style” in the US. At the 1889 Paris Exposition, Tiffany was said to have been overwhelmed by the glass work of Émile Gallé (the French Art Nouveau artisan) as well as seeing other contemporary artist’s work, such as that by Alphonse Mucha. Tiffany exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago – spreading the Tiffany Style to other cities. By 1894 Tiffany had trademarked “Favrile” which he extended to apply to all of his glass, enamel and pottery. Much of his company's production was in making stained glass windows and Tiffany lamps, but his company also designed a complete range of interior decorations. Tiffany was also commissioned to complete work in Mexico City, however the South American ruling classes of the time tended to follow the European capitals – favouring European Art Nouveau architects and designers to complete works in cities such as Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Mexico City. Art Nouveau arrived late to the Americas, with the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture built after 1905 (more than a decade after Brussels, Paris or Barcelona) but the movement lasted a decade more than in Europe. With minimal involvement in WWI, Art Nouveau endured until the 1920’s.
Little has been said so far about the Art Nouveau movement in Britain, except for mentioning the influence of Arts and Crafts (as well as key figures such as William Morris and Arthur Lasenby Liberty) on the movement across Europe. Because of its roots in Design Reform and the subsequent, and occasionally conflicting movements that emerged (including Aestheticism, and Arts and Crafts) it is difficult to define a specific time in which this ‘new art’ appeared in Britain. This is therefore dealt with later in more detail.
Although often associated only with the decorative arts, Art Nouveau was part of a wider change that unfolded across Europe. The origin of Art Nouveau was actually from the visual arts. It evolved with the primary purpose of challenging the order of the establishment within both the fine and decorative arts. It was among the first of the total styles that became dominant in the design of everything – from hatpins to houses.
Through its architecture, Brussels developed into a centre of innovative Art Nouveau design with the first Art Nouveau houses appearing in 1892 and 1893 – designed by Paul Hankar and Victor Horta respectively. As architects they also designed the interiors. Whilst both were original in their ideas, their designs differed, reflecting the different influences on their Art Nouveau styles. Hankar collaborated with Art Nouveau artists of the era to decorate the facades of his buildings – featuring iron decoration and curling lines in stylised floral patterns which became a characteristic feature of the Art Nouveau style. In contrast Horta focused on revolutionising interior spaces, using emerging materials in innovative ways to create open-plan areas. Between them they designed a number of other buildings from 1895 to c1901, their styles evolving as other influences emerged. Another key Art Nouveau designer was Henry Van de Velde who started designing furniture in 1893 – completing his own house in 1895. Different again from Hankar and Horta, de Velde was strongly influenced by the British designer William Morris. Hankar, Horta and de Velde were hugely influential in the work of other emerging architects and designers, creating a focus for creativity within the new Art Nouveau movement. In 1897, Hankar was also appointed as artistic director for the International Exposition held in Tervuren, near Brussels, which featured works by the major Belgian Art Nouveau artists.
The Art Nouveau movement blossomed in Paris from about 1895 to 1914, capturing the imagination of the public at large at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. It was first introduced to Paris by the Franco-German art dealer and publisher Siegfried Bing, who wanted to break-down barriers between fine art and decorative art. In 1891, he had founded a magazine devoted to the art of Japan – helping to promote “Japonism” in Europe. In 1892, he organized an exhibition of seven artists (among them Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, Édouard Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Eugène Grasset) which included fine art as well as artwork designed solely for decoration. In 1895, Bing opened a new gallery called the Maison de l'Art Nouveau, devoted to works in both the fine and decorative arts. The interior and furniture of the gallery were designed by the Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde. The Maison de l'Art Nouveau showed paintings by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Toulouse-Lautrec, glass by Émile Gallé, jewellery by René Lalique, and posters by Aubrey Beardsley. Though Bing’s gallery is credited with the popularization of the movement and its name, the Art Nouveau style also reached an international audience through the vibrant graphic arts printed in such periodicals as The Studio (London 1893), The Yellow Book (London 1894), Die Jugend (Munich 1896), The Savoy (London 1896), Dekorative Kunst (Munich 1897) and La Plume (Paris 1899).
In Britain the story starts in the 1830s – the start of the Design Reform movement. Driven by concern that British exports were suffering in the international market, the British government launched a campaign in the 1830s to improve the quality and design of manufactured goods. Thus began a debate that touched all aspects of British life – embracing issues of politics, religion and morality, as well as questions of design and craftsmanship. From this emerged the conflicting ideas of Aestheticism (“art for art sake”, with Henry Cole, Owen Jones and Christopher Dresser as key proponents) and the Arts and Crafts movement (“art for truth’s sake”, based on the ideas of Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin and William Morris, amongst others). The Design Reform movement as well as Aestheticism and, Arts and Crafts all deserving of further account than is given here. The Aesthetic movement reached its height of popularity in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s. Arts and Crafts flourish from the 1880s to the 1920s. Both movements spawning further schools; Aestheticism promoting Japonism and seeding Symbolism, whilst from Arts and Crafts emerged the Glasgow Style and Studio Pottery. Other movements, such as the pre-Raphaelites, had key participants that are written into the narrative of both, depending on which sources you consult! Design Reform thus come to dominate the British histories of 19th- and early 20th-century design.
Ripples from the Design Reform movement also extended into Europe. Japonism, which had swept across Western Europe after Japan opened its borders in 1854, was championed by the Aesthetics and in turn influenced both the fine and decorative arts across Europe. The ideals of Aestheticism were commercialised by the Liberty store in London, which later also popularised Art Nouveau – shaping Stile Liberty within Italy. Arts and Crafts influenced architects and designers in both Italy and Belgium. The Glasgow Style, and in particular Charles Rennie and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh who exhibited their work to the Vienna Secession, influenced Klimt and others. The influence of Symbolism, and particularly the work of Aubrey Beardsley, is still seen in forms associated with Art Nouveau design today. The artists and designers of this ‘new art’ were connected as kindred spirits seeking new art forms to suit a new era – as such, inspiration flowed across borders, into and out of Britain.
For the most part however, Art Nouveau found its way into British homes as an addition – a wallpaper, fabric, decorative or decorated object, perhaps purchased from Liberty and Co. Arthur Lazenby Liberty had opened his first shop in London in 1875. His second store opened in Paris in 1890. Liberty responded to these new ideas and developed a range of designs that we now recognise as Art Nouveau, though he did not use the term. Liberty’s ranges by designers such as Archibald Knox and Oliver Baker proved popular. Other British manufacturers and retailers followed, developing ranges from emerging designers: Foley’s (Shelley) Intarsio range by Frederick Rhead, Minton’s Secessionist range by Leon Victor Solon, Dolton’s Stoneware designs by Eliza Simmance, Frank Butler, Francis Pope, and Mark V Marshall among others, James Macintyre’s designs by William Moorcroft, Powell’s (Whitefriars) art glass, silversmiths such as William Hutton and William Hair Haseler – the list is a long one! In contrast, architects did not embrace the style as enthusiastically as those in Continental Europe, with few complete Art Nouveau buildings created in Britain. The most notable exception to this was in Glasgow where a unique style emerged from a fusion of influences including the Celtic Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Japonism. Its best-known exponent was the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh who designed integrated interiors, complete with furniture and fittings.
Across Europe and beyond, the years around 1900 were marked by an explosion of creativity as a new generation of artists and designers sought to invent a new style to suit a new century. The appearance of this style differed from city to city and from artist to artist – but all were united in a commitment to break from the constraints of earlier periods. The creators of Art Nouveau shared a varied and often contradictory set of principles – looking both to the past and the future, to art for the people and art for art's sake, to social reform and luxurious decadence, to the national and the international. Art Nouveau represented a cultural reform born in a period of social change.
The End of an Era
Despite its international popularisation, Art Nouveau was not for the masses – remaining a luxury art form with a limited customer base. Its loss of popularity has been in turn attributed to the death of Bing in 1905, as well as to the birth of Cubism c1907. Ultimately however, changing social attitudes were in discord with its perceived exclusivity. Art Nouveau declined rapidly with its final demise marked by the outbreak of war in 1914. Its delicate organic curves and graceful imagery gave way to Art Deco – with cleaner, angular, often geometric designs in art and architecture.
Perhaps its most valuable legacy was ending the control that official art institutions had exercised as well as instilling a more open popular attitude to new forms of expression. One particular enduring attitude was about form and function; the form of the object should be express in its function and this function should be expressed through decorative forms. Ornament was thus in the service of expressing form and function. Subsequent movements took this further – emphasising function over form and the complete elimination of superfluous ornamentation.
Art Nouveau experienced a popular revival in the turbulent social and political milieu of the 1960s among a new generation challenging conventional taste and ideas. It is now seen as an important predecessor, if not an integral component, of modernism. I for one am glad that appreciation of Art Nouveau, in its many forms, still endures today.
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