Whether named “Jugendstil” in German, “Stile Liberty” in Italian or “Modernisme” in Catalan, the Art Nouveau period captured the hearts and minds of many in the late 19th and early 20th century. Here we take a deep dive into the movement, looking at its origins and principles, key artists and works of Art Nouveau and the legacy it has left behind in art, advertising and architecture.
What is Art Nouveau?
Originating in France, Germany and eventually influencing most of Europe, Art Nouveau flourished between 1890-1910 and was borne out of the desire amongst many artists to stop looking backwards into history for inspiration. Practitioners of Art Nouveau had an ambitious aim to abolish the hierarchy of the arts which gave premium to painting and sculpture. Art Nouveau pioneers sought to tear down the traditional distinctions between fine arts and applied arts, giving merit to good workmanship in the fields of architecture, furniture, jewellery, glass arts, metal works and graphic arts. Pioneers of Art Nouveau viewed earlier design as excessively ornamental, and instead looked to create a marriage of function and form in their work. Artists aimed to modernise design and look to the natural world and geometric forms for inspiration- and in many cases the result is breathtaking.
What are the key characteristics of Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau can be best characterised as a decorative art movement taking inspiration from the delicate and beautiful lines of the natural world. The intricacy of natural objects such as flower stalks, insect wings, and vines provides a rhythm and undulating structure to many key pieces of the movement. The linear contours of such objects take centre stage, artwork of the period characteristically possessing a sinuous sense of movement and flowing design. Colour gives way to form and structure of the work, with muted shades of greens, yellows, blues and plums being favoured. Although Art Nouveau sought to take a fresh approach to design, the movement has undeniable roots in the Arts and Crafts era and the work of William Morris (1834-1896), as well as giving a nod to the flowing lines of Aestheticism.
Key to the Art Nouveau movement is the fusion of ornament and structure, the two elements working in tandem to create a unified piece. Art Nouveau practitioners tap into nature, utilising sinewy vines to become staircase bannisters, the overlapping wings of a butterfly forming the structure of a bracelet, or the stem and head of a tulip transforming into a delicate lamp. Hector Guimard’s (1867-1942) cast iron and glass plant-like vines that form the entrance structure of the Paris Métro are stunning examples of the period.
Which artists are integral to the Art Nouveau movement?
In keeping with the aims of the pioneers of Art Nouveau, true masters of the class come from a variety of fields. Coined by many as the father of Art Nouveau, the impact of Czech painter, illustrator and graphic artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) cannot be underestimated. His works, often featuring his muse Sarah Bernhardt or other beautiful women established him as at the forefront of the movement, his stylized commercial advertisement posters bringing the movement to the masses.
Artists such as Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) elevated advertising to the level of fine art with a selection of advertising posters such as the Moulin Roughe: La Goulue (1891) amongst his extensive collection of works. This work had an influence on British artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) who went on to produce the most controversial pieces of the movement, renown for his use of dark imagery, erotica and the grotesque. The free flowing lines of world revered Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) provide stunning examples of architecture in Art Nouveau period, the symphony of nature and geometry evident in the iconic Basílica de la Sagrada Família. Victor Horta (1861-1947) was another of the most influential architects of Art Nouveau, his Hôtel Tassel (1892–1893) is an iconic work of the time.
The design and architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is the embodiment of the integration of art and architecture of the time. The energy and expressive use of line in the fine art works of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) captures the spirit of the Art Nouveau movement, evident in his most famous work The Kiss currently available in the Smith and Partner gallery.
Moulin Roughe: La Goulue by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1891)
The pervasive nature of the movement meant that Art Nouveau influences were found in everything, from furniture to fabrics and everything in between. Art Nouveau inspired ideas in large companies such as Tiffany & Co, who created iconic glass lamps synonymous with the movement. Jewellers such as René Lalique (1860-1945), embodied the very essence of French Art Nouveau, his use of often fragile materials, particularly moulded glass and enamel being classed as trailblazing. Commercial advertising and jumped upon art nouveau and bought it to the masses, with theatrical posters and typography having a huge impact on graphic design.
Why did Art Nouveau fall out of fashion?
The fall of Art Nouveau was as fast as its rise and by 1910 was considered old-fashioned and outdated. The onset of World War One called for Europe to shun the delicate romanticism of the period and give way to sleeker and streamlined art that gave the impression of power and strength. Art Deco also reflected a societal shift and depicted a sense of speed and capitalism borne out of an increase in technology and the expansion of the travel industry. The rigid geometrical patterns of Art Deco showed a desire for glamour and power which rang the death knell for the fluid, decorative nature of Art Nouveau.
1960s saw a revival of Art Nouveau thanks to some major exhibitions of key works such as that at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Art Nouveau has proven to be more than a brief trend and lays a credible claim as the grandfather to the incredibly popular Pop Art and Op Art movements of the 1960s. Its influences can still be seen in modern typography, advertising and interior design.