An Introduction To ‘Art Nouveau’

Art Blog, Featured | 07 Dec, 2012

Art Nouveau was an artistic movement which began around the middle of the 19th century and had a style forming influence on all areas of artistic life till approximately 1910.

The naming and ascribing of individual works varied. In England it was originally called Modern Style, in France, where they wished to express the fact that the new art came from English cultural circles, Style Moderne. In Holland the movement was called Nieuwe Kunst until the term L’Art Nouveau became accepted everywhere outside Germany where the style retained the name Jugendstil. The name Art Nouveau had its origins in the name of an art gallery close to the legendary Passage de l’Opera which was opened in 1895 by the Hamburg-born Siegfried Bing. The opening of the gallery was proclaimed by a very effective poster of the new style designed by Felix Vallotton. The term which had been adopted in Germany, Jugendstil, took its name from the title of the review Jugend which had dedicated itself to this style.

The term Art Nouveau was at first just used in the area of applied art, in painting it can only be recognised looking back historically and then only hesitantly.

The characteristic elements of Art Nouveau are the emphasis of ornamentation, the strong stylization with rhythmic exaggeration of the form and the dominance of line. In this context, the clear relationship to Gothic art has often been mentioned. In fact there are a great many parallels between the two styles, in basic as well as in decoration. It should be remembered, of course, that the artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were very aware of the art and the intellectual historical assessments of the Gothic art and its characteristic style.

The climbing ornamental plant is the most important decorative element in the new art. The long female figures in flowing robes, dancers or standing figures beside extremely elegant animals such as swans or cranes are expression of style and time. The representation of realistic workers, for example, which was matter-of-course for the Expressionists, is unknown in Art Nouveau. At the most the represented figures are occupied with a task. But here the task is not important, rather the way the person looks.

In the area of arts-and –crafts as well as in architecture and interior design the new style was introduced with a consciousness of good craftsmanship so that often an especially good symbiosis of a new, aesthetically pleasing form was created with functionality and suitable use of material. Well-designed objects for daily use ranked high in people’s lives up to the 1920s. Functionality and material logic were the main dictates for the Art Nouveau designers. Art Nouveau was an attempt to create a common mandatory canon of form which was to become a new spirit seeking lifestyle without the stylistic weight and outer expression of previous developments in art.

At first the style was an expression of a new mental attitude. Sincerity was the basis of this new way of thinking. The magazine Jugend was sub-titled Wochenschrift fur Kultur und Leben (Weekly review for culture and life), and this reflected the fact that the thoughts and wishes of all the artists and authors were focused in all directions. Followers of the movement wished to have a reforming influence of all areas of life and intellect. Emanating from the weltanschauung, the various applied arts, literature, dance, theatre as well as crafts, architecture, book design, cultivated living and design for objects for everyday use were seen as a general synopsis.

Admittedly the demand for a total effect was a basis for the downfall of the movement. The power was not strong enough for a complete reform on life on all levels. What the spiritual leaders in literature, art and crafts created were objects which, because of their unconditional quality, could only be made for an elite minority. Only a small, rich circle could afford books from Insel, glasses from Galle, interiors from Peter Behrens. However, industrial mass production avidly grabbed at Art Nouveau ornamentation which for a short time gave a false impression of good design in an industrial world which lacked quality. An ornamental epidemic began. Within a few decades Art Nouveau inundated people’s lives so much that the willingness to accept it was exhausted, especially as it was used in increasingly senseless ways. Eventually a critic wrote. “You can’t go out in the street anymore without bumping your head against the spiral ornament of an Art Nouveau candelabrum.” The surrogates from the anonymous industrial manufacture led the style ad absurdum and ruined it with overpowering decoration.

In a satirical article by Gumppenburg in the review Jugend, the increase in the production of sham was heavily criticised, “Recently the Jugend came to the dear God in Heaven with such a long face. The Lord never hated that type of person and accepted it quite well and asked how it was getting on, how many subscribers it had, whether it had been imprisoned and so on and finally why it was so angry – Dear God, said the Jugend, my good reputation is being destroyed! Or rather it is being misused. The people on Earth are making the most outrageous objects from plaster, tin, glass, paper, cardboard, leather, zinc and whatever you like and more or less put them on my bill. They call every pot which has a hideous stylized lily or a female with a ridiculous hairstyle or an orchid Jugendstil. They call it Jugendstil when any cigarette packet or casket or a photograph frame has a grotesque figure pressed, stuck or painted onto it, which is half human or half ornament and as distorted as possible. Every wallpaper, every tie material, every cotton cloth whose pattern is half hideous, half Japanese, is Jugendstil. The chairs on which you cannot sit, the cupboards in which you cannot put anything, glasses which you cannot drink from, spoons which you cannot eat from are all called Jugendstil.  It’s enough to drive you mad. Surely I don’t just imagine that I discovered the new style: I have only nurtured and promoted it with my modest means. And now should I bear the cost for all the misunderstandings and abuse, for all the corruption by crude mass production industry which only produces Jugendstil because Rococo patterns do not sell. The fellows overlook the fact that I have brought to life a wealth of good and beautiful things for which I gladly accept the term Jugendstil. I am fed up! I have had enough! I am getting out of it – I will have myself renamed.”

Even Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann began his work of fundamental importance, Stilwende, which appeared in 1941 and was meant to draw the general public’s attention to the basics of Art Nouveau, with the word “The vision which we have when we hear the term Art Nouveau is ludicrous and hideous: plant type worms entwine remodelled sofas, impossible masses of hair from concavely pressed woman’s heads form an ashtray, and several waterlilies have succeeded in moving onto coloured tiled stoves.” In another part of the book he writes about the spread of Art Nouveau, “It was as lovely as a famous play how the flood rolled up in large lies, whose crashing impact crushed the decay, the outmoded and indolent. When it ebbed and flowed back sparkling, it left on the beachalgae, jellyfish and foul smelling seaweed: those are the rests which we have today. Only a few know the world which is not dissimilar to that in crystal depths of the ocean which they belong to from a distance, as misunderstood, cheapened industrialised travesties of courageous artisitic thoughts.”

Forty years later these dreadful visions are gone. Young people today see Art Nouveau as a discovery. And time shows that the dominance of the style has an effect on the future. The Art Nouveau movement became a main inspiration for modern art. In the Art Nouveau years are the beginnings of all tendencies to spiritual awakening which give people in the 20th century hope for inner development.

Peter Behrens wrote, “Now we have an indication that the new style will come, not emanating from the old which is partly there already, at least in the beginning. Certainly we will have to keep our eyes open and have a cheerful desire and belief in the beautiful, then we will recognise that something is happening which corresponds more deeply to our life than those sought after, bizarre forms which appear ‘modern’ on the surface but are mostly just loose commodities from people who quickly make novelty a way of earning money. What is coming has an inner effect and is neither randomly invented nor playfully put together from the established forms.”

The Art Nouvea era was also the beginning of what has been described as exhibition art. The democratisation of art made the artist an economic factor. Traditional ties of artists to a patron from the ruling classes gradually disappeared (artists were increasingly only sponsored from above). The ties to the Church as a client had been broken earlier. Art had to seek a market.

Also successful artists whose abilities and connections had helped them to a public (and paid) office had to distinguish themselves just to keep their posts, all others needed the establishment of a public to achieve fame and with this a livelihood.

This making of a public came about, on the one hand, through officially organised exhibitions such as the World Exhibition where the applied arts and the arts and crafts were well represented. It was formed by unions of like-minded artists who organised their Salons and so created a mouthpiece to a wide section of the public.

Besides this there were also various reviews and magazines, and last but not least the private initiatives of friends of the arts who were also merchants who helped artists to achieve fame by exhibiting their works in their galleries.

“This exhibition art, as it was already called around 1900, resulted from an institutionalised dialogue between producers and consumers: beside such a state of affairs, exhibitions also enabled an emotional relationship between ‘exhibitionist’ art and ‘voyeurist’ observer (because on one hand they did not force to buy and on the other hand there was an accumulation of many individual objects for sale).” (Simon)

Apart from the magazines which were especially close to Art Nouveau such as Pan, Jugend, Insel, Simplizissimus and Ver Sacrum, there were a great deal of reviews in Germany which dealt with Art Nouveau in comprehensive articles – admittedly also critical in part.

A wider circle of readers interested in interior design and  questions of good taste were, above all, catered for in magazines and reviews such as Dekorative Kunst, Deutsche Die Zukunft, Die Zeit, Die Gegenwart or Die neue Rundschau dealt less with artisitic themes, but when they did, their opinions were respected. And finally there was also a series of – widely distributed – reviews such as Der Kunstwart which was read in conservative circles and which tended more towards folk art (sometimes also to “national” art). They only very occasionally advertised Art Nouveau artists or parts of their work. But on the whole it can be said that the magazines had a considerable influence on the spread of the new art.

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