A Beginner's Guide to Art Nouveau
The Winds of Change Bring in Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau style occurred during the last quarter of the 19th century and evolved from Aestheticism and the Art and Crafts Movement.
The revolution occurred because many artists and designers were disenchanted and bored with the fussiness of Victorian art, design, style and fashion.
New design and style ideas appeared in many different areas of Victorian life, and designers continued to search for ways to reflect the changing world of the late 19th century. In Britain, in the last quarter of the century, international trade was more important than it had ever been. At the same time, there was a consciousness, particularly among artists and designers, that this was a new, modern age which should be reflected in their work; they needed a 'new art' or, as the French say, "Art Nouveau."
This was not a purely British movement but was seen worldwide in Europe, Australia, the USA, Canada and Japan.
From Classical to Eastern and Folk Influences
Art Nouveau was a conscious attempt at modernism and a departure from traditional Victorian forms of design, most of which looked back to the past for inspiration.
Designers rejected the inspiration of classical European art and instead looked to Japanese, Celtic and other folk art as a basis for their work. This can be seen in works by artists such as Gustav Klimt. Typical motifs come from nature: flowers, insects and birds. Lines curve and wind, straight lines were scorned by Art Nouveau designers.
Symbolism is important in the designs. For example a leaf may be just a leaf or perhaps it is part of the female body. Designers used forms from the natural world in ways that suggested they might represent human limbs. They used traditional materials like wood, glass, and pewter.
A movie on DVD about Siegfried Bing, the man largely responsible for promoting Art Nouveau. His gallery in Paris displayed work by some of the movement's most famous exponents like William Morris and Louis Comfort Tiffany.
A Ragbag of Different Styles?
It is only comparatively recently that Art Nouveau was accepted as a 'style' and accorded any real recognition. It had been seen as a collection of different styles with little in common except, perhaps, a taste for excess and flamboyant decoration.
Not only is there no consensus on the exact definition or characteristics of Art Nouveau, there is even some argument over the period it covered although generally it is thought to be from the 1890s to about 1910.
Art Nouveau was not universally acclaimed, particularly in England. Many critics of the period saw it as decadent and self indulgent. For example, the sculptor, Sir Alfred Gilbert who created Eros in Piccadilly Circus, said "L'Art Nouveau, forsooth! Absolute nonsense! It belongs to the young lady's seminary and the duffer's paradise..." This was not untypical of the feelings of the time.
The Role of the Liberty Store
In London, the famous Liberty department store had been instrumental in encouraging and promoting Arts and Crafts.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty, its proprietor, knew many of the designers and, in the 1890s, promoted Art Nouveau in both the London and Paris stores. Indeed, in Italy, Art Nouveau was known as Stile Liberty so synonymous was Liberty & Co with the style.
Liberty sold work by designers like Lindsay P. Butterfield, who produced textiles and wallpaper, and Archibald Knox who designed across a wide range from pewter and jewellery to carpets and clocks.
Two Great Art Nouveau Designers
Many gifted designers embraced Art Nouveau but two of the greatest must be René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany, both renowned for their designs in glass and jewellery.
Louis Comfort Tiffany is perhaps best known for his lamps and smaller glass objects. Some of his most stunning work in glass, however, was on a much bigger scale.
Examples can be seen in the Tiffany Chapel, reassembled at the Morse Museum of American Art in Florida. Constructed using Favrile glass (Tiffany's own invention), the reredos or altar wall shows a bunch of grapes between two peacocks over which hovers an enormous crown. The chapel also contains leaded windows by Tiffany.
Much of Lalique's Art Nouveau jewellery is exquisitely delicate, and depicts natural forms like flowers, leaves and seed pods. Unusually for a jewellery designer of the time, Lalique's pieces often had relatively little intrinsic value because he did not often use large gemstones in his work. He refined the use of glass in jewellery, not as imitation diamonds or other precious stones, but as a painter uses paint. This technique continued into vases, statuettes, car mascots and glass panels.
Poppy Necklace by René Lalique
Antoni Gaudi - Art Nouveau Architect
Antoni Gaudi in Spain is probably one of the most controversial Art Nouveau designers. The keynotes of his architecture were fluid lines and extravagant exterior decoration much of it done by using a mixture of applied materials to the outside walls.
His best known building is the cathedral, Temple de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, which he started in 1882 and he worked on for over forty years until his death in 1926. Since then, other architects have taken over the project in an effort to finish it. This has been made more difficult because the original plans were destroyed by anarchists in the 1930s. Now, the estimated finishing date is in 2026 but many people will be surprised if it is completed by then.
Gaudi's use of applying materials to the walls gives it an organic appearance. In some places it looks like melted wax or some kind of primordial plant. The whole building is so unexpected and extraordinary that it is now one of Spain's most popular visitor attractions.
Gaudi's Temple de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain
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© 2009 Carol Fisher