Art Nouveau was a vibrant but short-lived phenomenon that flourished but from 1890 to
1910 and touched on all the visual arts. Fashion and furniture, pots and paintings, books
and buildings, no object was too small or too large, too precious or too ordinary, to be
shaped by the designer working according to the ideals—moral and social as well as
Entries A–F 129
aesthetic—associated with the Art Nouveau, even though these ideals were never
codified in a coherent manifesto and were inflected according to the place wherein they
were practiced.
Although historians may question the extent, chronologically and geographically, as
well as the very validity of an Art Nouveau style, several characteristics that bind its
representatives together may be credibly summarized: first, a desire to avoid the
historicism so dominant during the 19th century, using as inspiration Nature in all its
fertility and heterogeneity; second, an emphasis on the expressive power of form and
color and an aspiration to refine and elevate the material world; third, a determination to
erase the distinction between the fine and the applied arts, between the designer and the
craftsperson, between art and every-day life; and fourth, a willingness to experiment with
materials, transforming the character of traditional ones, like stone, stained glass, and
mosaic, and inventing new uses and shapes for recently developed ones, above all cast
and wrought iron. In architecture and the decorative arts, there is a heightened
appreciation of the role of ornament, but ornament that was novel in its formal character
and was not merely applied to, but integrated with, structure.
If there were influences from the distant past in time and space, they did not lead to
the imitative revivals so typical of the 19th century. Although Japanese, Islamic, and
Javanese art, medieval architecture, and rococo interiors were studied, the lessons learned
were assimilated into a creative synthesis intended to respond to the dawning of the new
century. More immediate sources were the critic-theorists of the Gothic Revival, notably
John Ruskin (1819–1900) and E.E.Viollet-le-Duc (1814–79), and figures associated with
the English Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements, such as William Morris (1834–
96). If their goals were at times interpreted in contradictory ways, the social and
professional reforms these thinkers embraced anticipated many aspects of the positive
revolution in design accomplished under Art Nouveau’s aegis.
The drive to embrace the new and to break from the past is embodied in the very
names that designate this fin-de-s iècle phenomenon: Modern Style in France, Jugendstil in Germany, Modernismo in Spain, Nieuwe Kuns t in the
Netherlands, stil modern in Russia, and Art Nouveau in English-speaking lands. Its antiacademic
stance is embodied in the term Secess ions til, used in Austria and Eastern Europe. The two Italian
designations identify sources: s tilo Liberty, suggesting both the quest for freedom and the English
influence (the shop, Liberty’s of London, was one of the earliest purveyors of goods that
appealed to Art Nouveau sensibilities), and s tilo floreale, implying formal genesis in the world of
plants. Its detractors may have dubbed it the Vermicelli-s tijl (Netherlands) or the Spook Style (Great
Britain), but these epithets did not prevent its widespread adoption.
Art Nouveau was at once international and regional. The principles of originality,
organic integrity, and symbolic employment of ornament were translated according to
national traditions. Especially in Scandinavia, Scotland, Switzerland, Russia, and Eastern
Europe, National Romanticism was a component of Art Nouveau, and stylized peasant
and vernacular motifs as well as the memory of local medieval buildings flavored its
productions. Yet another principle of differentiation is whether the language is
predominately curvilinear or rectilinear. In Belgium, France, and Spain, the curvilinear
branch, where symmetry and repetition were assiduously avoided and sinuous vegetal
shapes informed both structure and ornament, held sway; the rectilinear, where geometry
controlled the stylization of natural forms, was preponderant in the Netherlands, the
Austro-Hungarian empire, Scotland, and the United States. Nevertheless, one can
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 130
instantly recognize in the particular national or local permutations the visual and tactile
elements associated with the Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau architects sought the challenge of unprecedented building types, like
rapid transit stations and department stores, and did not confine their commissions to
domestic architecture, although private houses—Hill House, Helensborough (1902–04)
by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928); the David Gamble house in Pasadena
(1908) by Greene and Greene (Charles Sumner [1868–1957] and Henry Mather [1870–
1954])—and blocks of flats—Castel Beranger, Paris (1895–97) by Hector Guimard
(1967–1942); Majolikahaus, Vienna (1898–99) by Otto Wagner (1841–1918)—provide
some of the most noteworthy examples. Thus, the Paris Metro employed Guimard, and
the Viennese Stadtbahn commissioned Wagner to create appropriate structures for this
most contemporary of urban facilities. La Samaritaine, Paris (1903–05) by Frantz
Jourdain (1847–1935) and Carson, Pirie, Scott, Chicago (1899–1904) by Louis Sullivan
(1856–1924) testify to Art Nouveau’s commercial attraction for shoppers.

Various paradoxes complicate the definition of Art Nouveau. Fantastic
elements have led commentators to dub its disciples “irrational,” yet many of the architects were rationalist in their sophisticated approach to
technology, just as most were motivated by a wish to democratize society. Some of its
acolytes were fiercely individualistic, yet others worked cooperatively in communes and
workshops. Its products frequently were extravagantly luxurious and made to order for
rich patrons, yet many were mass-produced, and the vocabulary, as manifested in posters,
tableware, and textiles, appealed markedly to popular taste. The antagonism between the
machine-made and the handcrafted that raged during the 19th century was to some extent
reconciled in the Art Nouveau.
It was one of the first movements to be disseminated via specialized periodicals that
enhanced its reach: Van Nu en Straks (Brussels-Antwerp, 1892), The Studio (London, 1893), Pan (Berlin, 1895), Dekorative Kunst
(Munich, 1897), Deuts che Kuns t und Dekoration (Darmstadt, 1897), L’Art Decorati f (Paris, 1898), and Ver Sacrum (Vienna, 1898) are only a
few of the magazines that proselytized for Art Nouveau architecture and design.
The concept of the Ges amtkunstwerk (total work of art) was more potent than at any time since the
18th century. Thus, designers and artisans in many media played a crucial role, although
the architect, who controlled the overall setting, was especially powerful. One of the most
striking cases is the Belgian, Henri van de Velde (1863–1957), who began his career as a
painter and in 1895, at his home in Uccle, established an influential decorating enterprise.
He designed not only the building but everything within: furniture, table settings,
wallpaper, lighting fixtures, tapestries—even his wife’s clothing. Van de Velde went on
to provide Samuel Bing, the entrepreneur whose Parisian shop was called “Art Nouveau,”
with many of his trend-setting furnishings. A member of the avant-garde Belgian
organization, Les Vingt (Les XX), which had ties to French symbolism and the English Arts and
Crafts, Van de Velde was an important link between the various groups that fed into Art
Nouveau; in 1897 he moved to Germany and helped to crystallize the nascent Jugends til. His
career illustrates the cosmopolitan character of Art Nouveau.
One of the engines for the rapid spread of the Art Nouveau was the international
exhibition. The expositions at Paris in 1900 and Turin in 1902, where almost every
pavilion and its contents proclaimed Art Nouveau’s ascendency, may be considered the
high point of the movement. Other means of dissemination were the schools and
museums of the applied arts founded during the late 19th century, educating artisans and
the general public about the significance of the built environment. The Folkwang
Museum in Hagen, Germany, and the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna
followed the lead of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, established in the wake of
the first international (Crystal Palace) exposition, of 1851, to display decorative arts
worthy of emulation.
A curiosity of the movement was the tendency for some of its adherents, including
patrons, to launch workshops, firms, and even communities of like-minded souls. The Vereinigte Werks tätten für Ku ns t
und Handwerk (Munich, 1897), The Interior, (Amsterdam, 1900), and the Wiener Werks tätte (Vienna, 1903) all produced
decorative objects based on Art Nouveau principles. Colonies where artists could jointly
pursue the ideal of the Ges amtkunstwerk were initiated including the Künstlerkolonie at Darmstadt, Germany, where Grand
Duke Ernst of Hesse in 1899 invited a number of designers to live and work.
Arguably the birthplace of mature Art Nouveau is Brussels, and the figure
most associated with its brilliance is Victor Horta. His Tassel House
(1893) is widely accepted as the first example of Art Nouveau
architecture: the sinuous curves of the organic two- and three-dimensional
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 132
ornament and the artful blending of masonry and metal, tile and stained
glass, were imitated throughout the continent. Horta’s greatest work, the
Maison de Peuple (1895–99; demolished), demonstrated the popular
aspect of the style. Not only could wealthy industrialists indulge their taste
for it, but their employees too recognized that it evoked their aspirations.
Thus the Belgium Social Democratic Workers’ Party elected the Art
Nouveau as the appropriate language for its new headquarters. The
striking building, emblazoned with the names of Karl Marx and other
socialists, seems to grow from its hilly site, its contours undulating as if to
conform to contextual dictates. The iron frame used in combination with
brick and stone permits a free plan with spaces of varied heights and
dimensions, perfect for accommodating the program’s differing functions,
revealed on the exterior through the individualized fenestration; nothing is
regular or repetitive. The main door resembles a mysterious cave or mouth
that draws one into its recesses, empathy being a quality exploited by
many Art Nouveau architects.

Comparable in terms of naturalistic appearance, irregular footprint, and bold exploration
of kinesthetic and emotional responses to form and space are the Casa Mila (1906–10) in
Barcelona by Antonio Gaudí, and the Humbert de Romans building in Paris (1897–1901;
destroyed) by Guimard. Like the Belgian, the Catalan and the Frenchman were indebted
to Viollet-le-Duc, especially his projects using the new material of iron, but where Viollet
Entries A–F 133
was still in thrall to his Gothic sources, this later trio subsumes them into a totally novel
vocabulary derived from flora and fauna. The devout Gaudí believed that “nature is
God’s architect” (Collins, 1960), whereas Guimard saw Nature as “a great book from
which to derive inspiration,” replacing the archaeological tomes of the revivalists.
The more rectilinear version of Art Nouveau retains nature as the basic source of
imagery but emphasizes the geometric substructure underlying organic forms, as
described with particular insight by the German theorist Gottfried Semper (1803–79), and
symmetry is not rejected. Works by H.P.Berlage, Wagner, Olbrich, and Josef Hoffmann
belong in this camp, as do those by designers in Britain and the United States with roots
directly in the Arts and Crafts movement (e.g., C.R.Ashbee, Mackintosh, Charles
Harrison Townsend, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the brothers Greene). Right angles and
straight lines prevail, the stylized decorative motifs are less intuitive and more cerebral,
and metal structure, although occasionally present, is subordinated to more conventional
materials like wood, stone, and brick, the latter often plastered.
Most of the architects of High Art Nouveau turned away from the style by the end of
the first decade of the 20th century, those from the curvilinear branch toward
Expressionism, those practicing the rectilinear version toward modernism or
academicism; in France and Austria, the Art Nouveau smoothly metamorphosed into Art
Deco. In the second half of the 20th century, sporadic Art Nouveau revivals have
occurred. Short its reign may have been, but Art Nouveau’s spell endures.

No comments:

Popular Posts