belgian art nouveau
french art nouveau
spanish art nouveau
the glasgow school
Art nouveau was a style in the visual arts that flourished in the major urban centers of Europe between 1890 and 1914. Originating in Great Britain, Belgium, and France, the style was quickly adopted by avant-garde artists and craftsmen throughout Europe, who adapted the genre by incorporating elements from their own national, historical, and ethnic heritages. Art nouveau, or "the new art," was a reaction to what its advocates regarded as an uninspired copying of past architectural styles referred to as historicism. In opposition to the neoclassicism that dominated architecture in the mid-nineteenth century, art nouveau designers replaced straight lines and symmetry with asymmetrical curves. They sought to integrate form and decoration, using motifs from the natural world, including plants (especially flowers and stems), animals (particularly sea creatures and insects), and the human body (especially women's faces). These elements were not copied directly from nature, however, but were highly stylized. The most common line used in art nouveau was a sinuous, asymmetrical curve that could resemble a tight whiplash or a slightly curved flower stem, giving rise to one label for Belgian art nouveau—the stem style. But certain art nouveau practitioners, notably Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) in Scotland and Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956) in Austria, favored rectilinear forms that prefigured twentieth-century art and architecture.
Art nouveau theorists and practitioners sought to break down what they regarded as an artificial dichotomy between the arts and crafts or industrial arts. Many art nouveau artists learned crafts such as weaving, furniture making, ceramics, and metalwork, and elevated these crafts by infusing them with modern design elements. Art nouveau architects and designers sought to create what they termed Gesamtkunstwerk— a total work of art—in which all elements—exterior, interior, furniture, fixtures, lighting, wallpaper, floor coverings, stair railings, and even plates, door knobs and street numbers—were designed to make a harmonious and coherent stylistic statement.
An instantly recognizable style, art nouveau was nevertheless full of contradictions. While it was an international style, practitioners in various countries developed such distinctive styles that different terms arose to describe art nouveau manifestations in individual countries, for example, Secession in Austria and Germany, modernismo in Spain, Jugend (Youth) in Finland, Stile Floreale (Floral Style) in Italy, as well as the somewhat derisive "art métro" in France. While some art nouveau designers and entrepreneurs sought to bring soundly designed objects to working- and middle-class households, many art nouveau works were individual creations made of the highest quality materials by skilled craftsmen, and therefore available only to the very wealthy. While borrowing peasant motifs and craft techniques, art nouveau was an urban phenomenon catering to an urban clientele. Although art nouveau celebrated the female form and face, women were sometimes portrayed as sinister—Salomé and Medusa being frequent subjects of art nouveau imagery. And while art nouveau designers looked to their countries' artistic past to create works of art that reflected their regional and national heritage, art nouveau theorists and the public at large considered the style to be thoroughly modern.
Even in its heyday, the new art had its detractors. One critic referred to it as "ornamental hell," another as "chaos in design." Others saw it as reflective of the anxiety and nervousness of the era, condemning it as decadent, subversive, or merely kitsch.
As a modern style that broke with artistic tradition, art nouveau was initially proselytized by theorists in art journals. Henry van de Velde (1863–1957), a self-trained Belgian architect and designer, wrote a pamphlet entitled Déblaiement d'art (A clean sweep for art) in 1894, in which he called for crafts to be put on an equal footing with fine art. Siegfried Bing, a German art collector and dealer, opened a gallery in Paris in 1895 called L'Art Nouveau, providing a name for the new style as well as an important distribution center for the new art.
Major international expositions served as important vehicles for the dissemination of art nouveau design. An estimated 170 million people visited the nine international expositions that featured art nouveau buildings, interiors, and objects between 1897 and 1908. The Brussels Exposition Universelle of 1897, the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, and the Prima Exposizione d'arte Decorativa in Turin in 1902, among other international expositions, brought art nouveau architectural styles, art works, and objets d'art to a curious public. Leading art nouveau architects, interior designers, furniture makers, glass and ceramic manufacturers, and textile designers created pavilions that expressed the Gesamtkunstwerk ethic as well as their own nation's variant of the new art. Companies displaying their goods at these expositions, such as Liberty of London and Gallé and Daum of France, produced, marketed, and sold art nouveau–inspired products to a mass market, and by 1900 art nouveau had become mainstream. In addition to sponsoring international exhibitions, some governments encouraged modern design through support of colleges of industrial design and the establishment of craft museums, which became important vehicles for the diffusion of national art nouveau styles.
But just as art nouveau became omnipresent, it became déclassé among the most avant-garde artists and art theorists, who now favored simple, functional design and eschewed what they considered to be the decorative excesses of the new style. The career paths of two Belgian architects are emblematic: after creating the first art nouveau building in 1893, Victor Horta (1861–1947) returned to a more geometric classical style in Belgium's Art Deco pavilion for the 1925 Exposition Internationale in Paris, while Henry Van de Velde went on to become an early exponent of the International Style, designing a streamlined steel and glass pavilion for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1937.
Many of art nouveau's noteworthy buildings and interiors were built for universal expositions, and so were by their nature temporary. In the twentieth century, many art nouveau buildings succumbed to the ravages of war or urban renewal (for example, the Maison du Peuple, designed by Horta, and most of the Paris métro entrances designed by Hector Guimard). But the style enjoyed renewed popularity at the turn of the next century, and many surviving art nouveau buildings have been restored and turned into showpieces, attracting thousands of visitors who marvel at the elegance, audacity, and individuality of art nouveau designers.
Art nouveau designers took inspiration from a variety of sources. The Japanese woodblock prints admired by the French impressionists also influenced art nouveau artists, who appreciated the Japanese emphasis on line, the predominance of flat, unshaded blocks of color, and the use of empty space. The Japanese treatment of nature, including minute renderings of animals and plants, as well as a penchant for asymmetrical composition, appealed to art nouveau designers. The whiplash curve, a hallmark of art nouveau, was a common feature of Japanese, as well as Islamic art, another source of inspiration. The arabesque, or teardrop curve, found repeatedly in Islamic art, was adopted and modified in art nouveau, as was the Moorish "horseshoe" arch.
European trends in art and literature, including spiritualism and symbolism, influenced many art nouveau designers. New discoveries in medicine, including theories about the subconscious and hypnotism, were also reflected in art nouveau works, especially in France.
The English Arts and Crafts movement, which sought to eliminate the dichotomy between fine art and crafts, served as a philosophical point of departure for art nouveau designers. The socialist credo of improving the lives of common people through art was adapted by some, but not all, art nouveau adherents, some of whom preferred the aestheticism championed by James Whistler and Oscar Wilde, who advocated "art for art's sake." In 1893, the icon of English art nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), created a sensation at the age of twenty-one with publication of his macabre, and at times sinister, drawings that illustrated editions of Oscar Wilde's play Salomé and Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Beardsley, who had tuberculosis and died at the age of twenty-six, published his trademark black and white ink drawings widely in avant-garde English art journals. His work was ultimately viewed as decadent by English observers—one critic remarked on its "diabolic beauty"—but he continued to be lionized in art nouveau circles on the Continent.
In the same year Beardsley published his first drawings, Victor Horta, a Belgian architect, designed Tassel House, the first art nouveau building, which exhibited the sinuous whiplash curve in its mosaic floors, wall decoration, and iron railings. Horta went on to design many private homes and several department stores and shops in Brussels, using stained-glass skylights to provide soft natural light, as well as electric light fixtures shaped like exquisite flowers or starbursts. He sought to create housing for workers that was light and airy and designed the Maison du Peuple for the Union of Socialist Workers in which he used iron as the supporting structure for a wall of glass, prefiguring modern architecture's use of the curtain wall. The building was demolished in 1962.
Henry van de Velde, an art nouveau theorist and architect, was heavily influenced by William Morris and socialist art theory. He designed across the spectrum of the visual arts, including architecture, metalwork, textiles, posters, furniture, and clothing. He designed virtually every aspect of his own house in Brussels, including furniture, decorations, silverware, and his wife's clothing.
Philippe Wolfers (1858–1929), a metalworker and jeweler, worked extensively with ivory, encouraged by King Leopold II, who sought to promote trade with the Congo. Wolfers created a disturbing interpretation of nature in his silver, ivory, and onyx sculpture entitled Civilization and Barbary, which depicts a swan doing battle with a serpent.
Art nouveau in France was spearheaded by Hector Guimard (1867–1942), a Parisian architect who designed apartment buildings and houses that combined the use of new materials and building techniques with archetypal art nouveau decoration for a middle-class clientele. Guimard designed furniture, dinner plates, garden fixtures, door hardware, and even street numbers with sinuous, organic lines. He also designed the entrances for
the Paris metro, pioneering the use of prefabricated components. The tall, overarching light fixtures of some metro stops resembled insect eyes, and covered entrances combined iron and glass to create for subway passengers the sensation of emerging from a starburst. Other French designers, including Georges DeFeure (1868–1928) and Émile Gallé (1846–1904), created furniture and interiors that reinterpreted the French rococo style of the eighteenth century, using gilded wood, floral motifs, and luxurious silks in designs with restrained and elegant curves.
Parisian jewelers combined new techniques with art nouveau subjects, including flowers and insects, to create startling works of art. René Lalique (1860–1945) developed new techniques of enameling metal and molding glass and used opals and ivory extensively. He reinterpreted natural forms, especially exotic flowers and insects, in audacious and elegant necklaces, brooches, and hair ornaments. His corsage ornament, consisting of a dragonfly metamorphosing into a woman, considered an icon of art nouveau, created a stir when it was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
Art nouveau design also flourished in Nancy, in eastern France, where Louis Majorelle (1859–1926) and others created elegant inlaid wood furniture that featured vegetal decoration in the classic asymmetrical art nouveau curve. Nancy was also the center of a thriving art nouveau art glass industry. Gallé designed ceramic and glass vases that gained a worldwide reputation for elegance, uniqueness, and craftsmanship. He took many motifs from nature, including marine animals, insects, flowers, bats, and beetles, portraying them with Japanese overtones. The Daum brothers produced art glass with clear colors, utilizing many technical advances, including pate-de-verre (a technique using a paste of crushed colored glass to create dramatic effects). In 1901, art nouveau artists and entrepreneurs created the École de Nancy, a society devoted to promoting the arts in industry, which encouraged the creation of high-quality, commercially viable art nouveau products over its twenty-year lifespan.
Several sources of support served to make art nouveau a semi-official style in France in the first decade of the twentieth century. Officials of the Third Republic viewed art nouveau's embrace of eighteenth-century rococo elements as the expression of a distinctly French national style. The government sponsored the Exposition Universelle of 1900 and financed construction of the Paris metro, both showpieces of art nouveau style, and supported the creation of a national museum to showcase French crafts.
In Spain, art nouveau architecture was centered in Barcelona, a major industrial center with an active and forward-looking business class. Spanish art nouveau bifurcated into two opposing strains: modernismo, which combined expressive symbolism, local traditions and crafts, and modern technology, and the singular architecture of Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). Modernismo's main practitioner was Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1849–1923), who designed the auditorium of the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Santa Creu Hospital.
Modernismo was overshadowed by Gaudí, who detested the new style and modern civilization in general. Although his early designs were eclectic, using elements from Moorish architecture and local traditions such as colorful ceramic tiles, his later work, especially the Sagrada Familia temple, reflected a modern treatment of Gothic design.
Scottish art nouveau was created largely by two couples: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, and her sister, Frances Macdonald and her husband, Herbert McNair. Their art took inspiration from spiritualism and symbolism, and favored rectilinear lines over the asymmetrical curves of other art nouveau styles. Mackintosh and Macdonald designed many tearooms, such as Miss Cranston's, which featured white paneled walls, simple stained glass windows, and high-backed chairs. Their austere, white interiors have been interpreted as an escape from the intensely urban, gritty world of late nineteenth-century Glasgow. Macintosh also designed Hill House, an austere, fortress-like house, and the Glasgow School of Art, a brownstone edifice with metal detailing.
In Munich, young artists broke away from the established artists' association to form their own organization in 1892. They called their headquarters the Secession building, giving rise to the designation for their style of art nouveau. Also termed Jugendstil (Young Style), German art nouveau took its inspiration from symbolism and natural forms. Otto Eckmann (1865–1902), a printmaker and furniture and textile designer heavily influenced by Japanese prints, designed the "Five Swans" tapestry. Hermann Obrist (1862–1927) created vibrant embroidery designs, including the iconic "whiplash," evoking nature in an abstract fashion. August Endell (1871–1925) designed the Elvira Studio, with its extravagant seahorse-like motif. The facade was removed by the Nazis, who considered it decadent, and the building itself was destroyed in World War II.
In Vienna, young artists took a lead from their German counterparts, withdrawing from the established artists' organization to form their own society in 1897. Their headquarters, designed by Josef Maria Olbrich (1867–1908), featured a white rectilinear facade decorated with gold floral motifs. Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) exhibited his painting Pallas Athene at the opening of the Secession building. The dark portrayal of a Greek goddess suggests the power and threat of femininity, a common theme in Klimt's work. Josef Hoffmann designed furniture and houses with bold straight lines punctuated by void spaces. In his Palais Stoclet in Brussels, commissioned by a wealthy Belgian, every detail—wallpaper, carpets, silverware, furniture, and lighting—was designed to create a streamlined Gesamtkunstwerk. Hoffmann and Koloman Moser (1868–1919), an illustrator and textile designer, founded the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) in 1903 to elevate middle-class taste by producing soundly designed and luxurious hand-crafted furniture, wallpaper, textiles, jewelry, clothing, and tableware.
In Hungary, art nouveau designers sought to create a distinct national style by incorporating elements from peasant art, especially weaving. The Gödöllő Workshops, a colony of artists and designers outside of Budapest, produced leather work, stained glass, furniture, and tapestries inspired by peasant designs. Ödön Lechner (1845–1919?) used brick faced with glazed tile and wrought ironwork in his design for the Museum of Applied Arts. The iron and glass canopy was meant to suggest the tents of semi-nomadic Magyar tribes, and the notched arches were derived from Mogul art. He also used motifs borrowed from the Hungarian countryside, including bees and tulips, the latter regarded as a symbol of Hungarian identity. Craftsmen at the Zsolnay ceramics factory created sophisticated ceramics using an iridescent metal glaze called Eozin that produced brilliant and variegated colors.
In Prague, modern trends from abroad combined with influences from Czech peasant culture to create a varied and eclectic art nouveau style. The Municipal House, commissioned by Prague's city government, was intended to represent Czech identity, and included art works by leading Czech artists and craftsmen. Czech textile factories produced carpets designed by artists such as Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939) and Josef Maria Olbrich, and an artists' cooperative created glass, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, and textiles in art nouveau styles. After 1900, Czech designers moved away from French influences to adopt a more geometric style. Jan Kotěra (1871–1923), an influential art professor, advocated the primacy of function over decoration. He designed a strikingly simple crystal glass punch bowl and glasses for the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. His later furniture and architecture emphasized cube-like forms and prefigured Art Deco and cubist styles.
In Finland, the Jugend style was spearheaded by Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) and his associates Herman Gesellius (1874–1916) and Armas Lindgren (1874–1929), whose architecture firm was known as G. S. and L. The Finnish Pavilion they designed for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle resembled a Finnish country church, with rough stone, a large semi-circular entrance, a horizontal band of windows, a shingle roof, and a stocky tower crowned with folk-inspired motifs. The firm went on to win the competition to design the National Museum, a restrained granite and wood structure that housed Finnish archaeological, historical, and ethnographic collections. In 1900 Saarinen designed the Suur-Merijoki Farm. The home's interior, which featured vivid colors and abstract folk motifs, had built-in furniture, tiles, stained glass, tapestries, and ryijy rugs, all carefully designed to create a harmonious whole. The partners then designed Hvitträsk, a residential complex and studio that housed their three families until the partnership broke up in 1905.
In Moscow, stil modern (as art nouveau was known) artists sought to fuse international influences and native folk motifs. Fyodor Shekhtel (1859–1926), Russia's leading art nouveau architect, transformed the Moscow railway station, creating a hat-like roof above the entrance reminiscent of a northern Russian church. He later designed a house that successfully fused modern and traditional elements: the interior featured a dramatic staircase that resembled a cascading waterfall while the exterior presented more sedate rectangular lines, with a mosaic border of orchids below the roof line.
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