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Art Movement: Art Nouveau

Updated on April 14, 2013

Art Nouveau is a late-19th-century art movement, rather than a style, that evolved differently in different countries, with the single purpose of defeating the established order in the fine and applied arts. The many disparate modern styles emerging under the label included the austere rectilinearity of Charles Rennie Mackintosh; the vigorous sinuosities of Hector Guimard and Victor Horta; the checkerboard geometry of Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser; the floriated profusions of Émile Gallé, Louis Majorelle, and Louis Comfort Tiffany; and the idiosyncratic designs of the isolated Catalan, Antoni Gaudí. Art Nouveau was known in German-speaking countries as Jugendstil ("youth style," after Jugend, the Munich-based art journal); in Spain as modernismo; and in Italy as stile floreale and stile Liberty (after the English retail store Liberty of London, which promoted the style).

For Western civilization the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century spurred liberal reformers such as William Morris in England to urge that humankind return to its roots as the means to redress the situation. Handcraftsmanship was honorable and spiritually uplifting, in sharp contrast to the social evils wrought by the machine.

By the 1890s the isolated groups of graphic artists and artisans in Europe who had rallied around Morris's reformist banner had settled on a new decorative vernacular through which to express their quest for a new style, one by which the creative pastiche and mediocrity of the closing century could finally be swept away. The central decorative source, as well as theme, of this "new art," or art nouveau (the name derived from Siegfried Bing's Paris shop, La Maison de l'Art Nouveau), was nature, interpreted either in a realistic or stylistic manner. Two other major themes, treated either singly or in combination with nature, were woman and the line, the latter charged with power and grace and often as light as air, as in the whiplash curvilinear configurations that unified the Brussels residences of Horta and Guimard's Paris Métro entrances.

Art Nouveau Winter Garden
Art Nouveau Winter Garden | Source

The belle epoque woman played a dominant role in fin-de-siècle decorative art, her languid, sensual, or melancholy expression captured for posterity at the Paris salons in the lithographs of Alphonse Mucha, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and T. Privat-Livemont, and in a host of bronze and terracotta bibelots and statuettes cast by the period's foremost founders in large editions for the new bourgeoisie. Whether interpreted as nymph, naiad, or any number of mythological or other characters, the circa 1900 "maiden" was rooted in the symbolist movement in art and literature some 20 years earlier. The art nouveau woman's role was allegorical, though still symbolic; she now personified ideas such as faith, truth, and progress.

But the new movement's preeminent source of artistic inspiration was nature herself, captured in microscopic detail in the glass and jewelry confections of Gallé and René Lalique, and with subtle abstractions in the carved foliage serving as decorative accents on the furniture of Majorelle and Eugène Gaillard. Every element of nature, however small or seemingly insignificant—such as the calyx, pistil, and stamen—was subjected to close artistic scrutiny, and no species was considered too humble to be transformed into an objet d'art. Even the lowliest farmyard plant was elevated briefly to art's decorative pantheon, as were dragonflies, moths, beetles, bats, seahorses, and other creatures of the air, night, and sea.

Japonisme was the second source that had an immense impact on art nouveau's growth. The opening of Japan to the West followed the treaty signed by the United States and Japan in 1854, after which Japanese goods—including ceramics, enamel wares, fans, masks, kimonos, and screens—flooded the capitals of Europe. The inspiration that Japanese artists drew from nature was quickly assimilated by their Western counterparts into their own artistic repertoire. Bamboos, carp, wisteria, cherry blossoms, and water lilies, for example, gained prominence in Western design, as did compositional devices used by Japanese printmakers, such as silhouetting, flattened perspectives, and block colors rendered in a muted palette.

Art nouveau reached its apogee at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, remaining fashionable for another five years, after which its popularity fell precipitously. The critics who had been the first to hail its arrival as a bona-fide panacea for the malaise inflicting so much of Victorian decorative arts were the first to turn on it, in particular for its disregard of the basic principles of good design, above all that an object's ornamentation must always remain subservient to its design. Logic, it was argued, was being sacrificed to a sensational, but momentary, type of beauty.

World War I formally brought the curtain down on the belle epoque and its art nouveau movement, although the latter had been in retreat at the Paris salons for several years. In fact, the short-lived, spontaneous movement played the role of an "anti" or "spoiler," which in theory if not practice helped to discard the outmoded aesthetic conventions of 19th-century society and to clear the way for the events that followed with such alacrity after 1918. As such, art nouveau remains a valid and vital cul-de-sac leading off from the historical mainstream of art and architecture.


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