Not often does an art movement come along which manifests itself so thoroughly in almost every area of design; Art Nouveau, however, fast became one such style at the turn of the 19th century. Its characteristics were pliable enough to apply to everything from the visual arts to architecture, furniture to interior design. Originating mainly in France with Alphonse Mucha, Hector Guimard and René Lalique, and in Germany with the magazine Jugend, Art Nouveau quickly grew in popularity, first in Europe then on a global scale as well. Organic forms are fundamental to this style, be it plant-inspired structures, flowing curvilinear forms or ethereal motifs.
The German art dealer Samuel Bing opened a new gallery in Paris in 1895, Maison de l’Art Nouveau, to focus exclusively on modern art, installations, furniture and objects. The up-and-coming style he chose to showcase wasn’t yet known as Art Nouveau, but the name stuck after some exemplary pieces were unveiled at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. In the meantime, Munich’s art and lifestyle magazine Jugend began promoting the style in Germany, where it began to be known as Jugendstil. Art Nouveau was in many ways a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the increasing industrial impetus throughout Europe. With objects starting to become mass-produced and machine-made, some artists wanted to regain higher craftsmanship and delicate forms in everyday objects. Others, on the other hand, embraced the new aesthetic possibilities which technology such as cast iron presented for the decorative arts. Growing European interest in the flat, illustration-like style and organic forms of Japanese wood block prints also contributed to the development of this style.
Due to how quickly it spread to all corners of Europe and North America, Art Nouveau soon had very diverse characteristics, manifesting itself with slight differences in every country. Decoration and artistic unity were crucial to its philosophy; the idea was that every item, however ordinary or decorative, could be elevated to the realm of fine art. Through this Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, one could experience art unconfined to paintings or sculptures, but in textiles, buildings, jewellery and even cutlery too. Complex, entwining borders and spidery, delicate typography were abundant. Nature was the single most important source of inspiration, and line the foremost principle of design with which to celebrate it. Often, spiritual and pantheistic elements were also incorporated, such as goddess-like female figures and mythological creatures. In architecture, smooth curves instead of symmetric angles prevailed, making doors or walls look more “grown” rather than carved into stone.
Works of Art Nouveau
Two examples typical of the Art Nouveau moment, which demonstrate the scope and reach of this style well, are Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s advertising poster for the play Gismonda at Paris’s Théâtre de la Renaissance. Gaudí’s work was instrumental in promoting Art Nouveau in Spain, and the eccentric yet beautiful façade of Casa Batlló, with its irregular oval windows, floral designs and otherworldly turrets is a bold mixture of both this movement and Gaudi’s own personal style. Chaotic colours, mosaics, skeletal columns and a disregard for straight lines abound both in the exterior and interior architecture. Although he faced much criticism for the impracticality and excessively imaginative nature of his structures, he is considered a pioneer of Modernist and Art Nouveau architecture today.
Similarly influential was Alphonse Mucha to this movement – indeed, what comes to mind nowadays when “Art Nouveau” is mentioned is more often than not those Bohemian-looking iconic Parisian posters advertising champagne and absinthe. He did draw lithographed posters, but mostly of women, nymph and goddess-like in neo-classical garb, such as the 1895 Gismonda poster. An advertisement for the new play opening in Paris featuring Sarah Bernhardt, the poster was an immediate success; this novel and attractive style was even called Le Style Mucha at first. With its ethereal figure, nature motifs and curvy typography, the poster is one of the first and still popular icons of Art Nouveau.
Evolution and Continuation
Although many Art Nouveau building are now protected by UNESCO and celebrated for showing the extent of human creativity and imagination, as with all art movements this one also eventually fell out of favour as the tastes of Europe moved further into the 20th century. With the approach of WWI, the rather simpler, bold, and industrial looks of Modernism and Art Deco were preferred over the complexity and organicism of Art Nouveau. It was, however, definitely a bridge from the Neoclassicism of the 19th century to Modernism: two highly different styles that Art Nouveau managed to marry. The movement’s innovative use of iron, glass, ceramic and the technology to shape them took these materials out of the realms of craft and industry and into that of art. It went on to influence other styles like the German Bauhaus movement of the ’20s and ’30s, and its philosophy of integrating art into the everyday object is still a thought that could hold relevance and potential in the mass-produced designs of today.
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