Art Nouveau (French for 'new art') is an international style of art,
architecture and design that peaked in popularity at the beginning of
the 20th century (1880-1914) and is characterized by highly-stylized,
flowing, curvilinear designs often incorporating floral and other plant-inspired
motifs. More localized terms for the phenomenon of self-consciously radical,
somewhat mannered reformist chic that formed a prelude to 20th-century
modernism include Jugendstil in Germany and the Netherlands and skønvirke
in Denmark, named after the avant-garde periodical Jugend ('Youth'), M?oda
Polska ('Young Poland' style) in Poland, and Sezessionsstil ('Secessionism')
in Vienna, where forward-looking artists and designers seceded from the
mainstream salon exhibitions to exhibit on their own work in more congenial
In Russia, the movement revolved around the art magazine Mir iskusstva
('World of Art'), which spawned the revolutionary Ballets Russes. In Italy,
Stile Liberty was named for the London shop, Liberty & Co, which distributed
modern design emanating from the Arts and Crafts movement, a sign both
of the Art Nouveau's commercial aspect and the 'imported' character that
it always retained in Italy.
In Spain, the movement was centred in Barcelona and was known as modernisme,
with the architect Antoni Gaudí as the most noteworthy practitioner.
Art Nouveau was also a force in Eastern Europe, with the influence of
Alfons Mucha in Prague and Moravia (part of the modern Czech Republic)
and Latvian Romanticism (Riga, the capital of Latvia, is home to over
800 Art Nouveau buildings). The entrances to the Paris Metro designed
by Hector Guimard in 1899 and 1900 are famous examples of Art Nouveau.
History of Art Nouveau
Though Art Nouveau climaxed in the years 1892 to 1902, the first stirrings
of an Art Nouveau movement can be recognized in the 1880s, in a handful
of progressive designs such as the architect-designer Arthur Mackmurdo's
book cover design for his essay on the city churches of Sir Christopher
Wren, published in 1883. Some free-flowing wrought iron from the 1880s
could also be adduced, or some flat floral textile designs, most of which
owed some impetus to patterns of High Victorian design.
The name 'Art Nouveau' derived from the name of a shop in Paris, Maison
de l'Art Nouveau, at the time run by Siegfried Bing, that showcased objects
that followed this approach to design.
A high point in the evolution of Art Nouveau was the Exposition Universelle
of 1900 in Paris, in which the 'modern style' triumphed in every medium.
It probably reached its apogee, however, at the Esposizione Internazionale
d'Arte Decorativa Moderna of 1902 in Turin, Italy, where designers exhibited
from almost every European country where Art Nouveau flourished. Art Nouveau
made use of many technological innovations of the late 19th century, especially
the broad use of exposed iron and large, irregularly shaped pieces of
glass in architecture. By the start of the First World War, however, the
highly stylized nature of Art Nouveau design which itself was expensive
to produce began to be dropped in favor of more streamlined, rectilinear
modernism that was cheaper and thought to be more faithful to the rough,
plain, industrial aesthetic that became Art Deco.
Character of Art Nouveau
Dynamic, undulating, and flowing, with curved 'whiplash' lines of syncopated
rhythm, characterized much of Art Nouveau. Another feature is the use
of hyperbolas and parabolas. Conventional mouldings seem to spring to
life and 'grow' into plant-derived forms.
As an art movement it has affinities with the Pre-Raphaelites and the
Symbolism (arts) movement, and artists like Aubrey Beardsley, Alfons Mucha,
Edward Burne-Jones, Gustav Klimt, and Jan Toorop could be classed in more
than one of these styles. Unlike Symbolist painting, however, Art Nouveau
has a distinctive visual look; and unlike the backward-looking Pre-Raphaelites,
Art Nouveau artists quickly used new materials, machined surfaces, and
abstraction in the service of pure design.
Art Nouveau in architecture and interior design eschewed the eclectic
revival styles of the Victorian era. Though Art Nouveau designers selected
and 'modernized' some of the more abstract elements of Rococo style, such
as flame and shell textures, they also advocated the use of highly stylized
organic forms as a source of inspiration, expanding the 'natural' repertoire
to embrace seaweed, grasses, and insects.
Japanese wood-block prints, with their curved lines, patterned surfaces,
contrasting voids, and flatness of visual plane, also inspired Art Nouveau.
Some line and curve patterns became graphic clichés that were later
found in works of artists from all parts of the world.
Art Nouveau did not negate the machine as the Arts and Crafts Movement
did, but used it to its advantage. For sculpture, the principal materials
employed were glass and wrought iron, leading to sculptural qualities
even in architecture.
Art Nouveau is considered a 'total' style, meaning that it encompasses
a hierarchy of scales in design architecture; interior design;
decorative arts including jewelery, furniture, textiles, household silver
and other utensils, and lighting; and the range of visual arts. (See Hierarchy
Art Nouveau media
Two-dimensional Art Nouveau pieces were painted, drawn, and printed in
popular forms such as advertisements, posters, labels, magazines, and
Glass making was an area in which the style found tremendous expression
for example, the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York and
Émile Gallé and the Daum brothers in Nancy, France.
Jewelery of the Art Nouveau period revitalized the jeweler's art, with
nature as the principal source of inspiration, complemented by new levels
of virtuosity in enameling and the introduction of new materials, such
as opals and semi-precious stones. The widespread interest in Japanese
art, and the more specialized enthusiasm for Japanese metalworking skills,
fostered new themes and approaches to ornament.
For the previous two centuries, the emphasis in fine jewelery had been
on gemstones, particularly on the diamond, and the jeweler or goldsmith
had been principally concerned with providing settings for their advantage.
With Art Nouveau, a different type of jewelery emerged, motivated by the
artist-designer rather than the jeweler as setter of precious stones.
Mikhail Vrubel. Demon Seated in a Garden, 1890
Mikhail Vrubel. Demon Seated in a Garden, 1890
The jewelers of Paris and Brussels defined Art Nouveau in jewelery, and
in these cities it achieved the most renown. Contemporary French critics
were united in acknowledging that jewelery was undergoing a radical transformation,
and that the French designer-jeweler-glassmaker René Lalique was
at its heart. Lalique glorified nature in jewelery, extending the repertoire
to include new aspects of nature dragonflies or grasses
inspired by his encounter with Japanese art.
The jewelers were keen to establish the new style in a noble tradition,
and for this they looked back to the Renaissance, with its jewels of sculpted
and enameled gold, and its acceptance of jewelers as artists rather than
craftsmen. In most of the enameled work of the period precious stones
receded. Diamonds were usually given subsidiary roles, used alongside
less familiar materials such as moulded glass, horn and ivory.
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