Art nouveau is the final of grand styles in western art (along with gothic, renaissance, baroque, classicism, rococo) that emerged in the end of the 19th cent. and involved all kinds of art – architecture, painting, sculpture, decorative arts etc. It started shaping up near 1890s, when artists undertook an attempt to break up with the principles they considered obsolete and too conservative. Painters and sculptors finally got rid of antiquity as permanently prevailing ideal, architects and designers gave up imitating old styles.
The term art nouveau first appeared in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne in the 1881 and became widely spread in France also. The style got different names in various countries. In Belgium, it was called Style nouille or Style coup de fouet. In Germany, it was called after the popular journal Die Jugend – Jugendstil or “young style”. In Italy, it was known as Arte nuova, Stile floreale, or La Stile Liberty. In Austro-Hungarian Empire the epoch was defined as the Sezessionstil. In Russia Stil’ modern became popular in two main centers – Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Connoisseurs of art in the USA knew art nouveau as “Tiffany Style” after prominent master of decorative arts and stained glass Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Art nouveau was totally the result of the fin de siècle mentality defined, on one hand by dismay and spiritual fatigue, crisis of ideals, skepticism and ironic attitude towards itself, and insistent search for a new “grand style” and elimination of distinctions between mass and elite art – on the other hand. This led to ambiguous results. Oeuvre of the most outstanding artists of the epoch sometimes demonstrated connivance to bourgeoisie, vulgar tastes and, at the same time, it gives us samples of exquisite mysticism and elegance that now were accessible for a wider audience. This inconsistency was the core of art nouveau and predetermined its inclination for everything fantastic, unusual, sometimes morbid and repulsive. Analogic situation, expressed in different artistic means, was observed during Mannerism in the late 17th cent. – also a transitional epoch.
But perception of this style as merely refined and luscious one would be too narrow and unobjective. End of the 19th cent. witnessed a true industrial revolution. Art nouveau didn’t use solely opals and semiprecious stones, animal horns and ivory (though they were doubtlessly common), but also new materials – iron, reinforced concrete in combination with glass.
Art nouveau was allegorically called by one critic “a sigh of a dying century”. But it also marked a beginning of new art. So, the artists of avant-garde tried to overcome it, yet, kept on using some of its attainments that had forestall future cultural progress.
The sources of art nouveau were various – from the late flamboyant Gothic to rococo and even Celtic art of Ireland and Scotland. But a direct predecessor of its artistic ideas was the Arts & Crafts movement, that flourished in Great Britain in 1880s. Its main ideologist was John Ruskin, who believed in the supremacy of hand-made objects over mass-produced. His conceptions inspired William Morris, who wanted to create not consumer goods, but highly unique artistic things.
Big impact was caused by the acquaintance of Europe with eastern art, Japanese one in particular. Delicate plasticism of lines, local coloring of Japanese prints largely impressed western masters. They adopted from oriental visual language their most recognizable traits and motifs – images of sea-waves, swan-neck, languishing female figures with loose hair, graceful hands and flowing draperies.
When talking about style of the end of the 19th cent., it’s really tricky to describe features of separate kinds of art. Creators guided by the idea Gesamtkunstwerk (german for total work of art) were striving for synthesis of arts. One of the main mottos of art nouveau – “Back to nature” – was proclaimed by Belgian painter and architect Henri van de Velde. He believed that natural evolution of artistic thought, not interrupted by artificial attempts of retrospection, always led to introduction of a new original style. Van de Velde aimed at demonstrating the feeling of beauty in all its entirety, from painting and graphics to designing of buildings, interiors (in fact, it was art nouveau, when the term “design” started being used in its contemporary meaning), furniture, book-cover etc. It became a key principle of art nouveau. Corresponding to the love for ornamentation of the “new style”, architects were forced to elaborate their projects wholly, to the last detail.
Art nouveau evolutionized rapidly, what can be clearly observed by the example of van de Velde’s legacy. He started from painting, but then gave it up and dedicated himself to the aesthetics of curvilinear forms, “whiplash” lines. Just in a couple of years he diverged from ornamentalism, which seemed an essential part of art nouveau, and tried to create forms without over-decorativeness. Then, surprisingly, winding lines disappeared at all, replaced by right angles, circles and squares. This geometric submovement was mastered in works by Joseph Hoffmann – a member of “Wiener Werkstätte” (Viennese workshops).
One of the main tendencies of art nouveau was stylization – not historicism of Romantic epoch, but rather submitting all compositional elements to one framebase: historical or national styles, elements of folk or primitive art, floral or geometrical motifs, or constructions of new materials. In each case artists searched for harmonious combinations of image and surface.
Trimming during this period gained self-sufficiency and got detached from the construction. This originated whimsicality of patterns that often “ruined” the tectonics of an object. But behind this superficial artistry rationalism was hidden. Applying of cast iron in architecture led to spreading of new building types, like universal markets, public libraries, etc. Dwellings were projected considering their functional zonation. The entrance to the Porte Dauphine metro station by Hector Guimard is the triumph of constructive accuracy and exquisiteness.
Though function determined form, it didn’t repress it. It’s enough to look at the facades of art nouveau buildings, laid with tiles, with roundish, sometimes amazingly twisted doorways or window openings with forged grates. Architects perceived wall not only as a constructive and static element, but often interpreted it in sculptural manner. The houses and palaces, designed by Antonio Gaudi are the most incredible incarnation of this trend. Traces of medieval reminiscences and surrealistic atmosphere of catholic mysticism made such monuments as Sagrada Familia true masterpieces of architectural art.
Expansion of mass production required advertisement. So, colorful posters flooded the streets and newspapers of the industrialized world. Very soon public started praising their artistic value. Increased popularity stimulated the attention of gallery-owners and art critics. One of the graphic geniuses of the Fin de siècle was Alphonse Mucha. His postcards, illustrations, posters were the quintessence of the “La Belle Époque” (Beautiful epoch) style, valued for the vivid colors, sensuality, daring compositions and an emphasized concern for realistic details.
The factor that prompted the printing industry was inventing of chromolithography in the middle of the 19th cent. It allowed making images in lush, bright tints, making graphics truly eye-catching. Apart from chromolithography, traditional stone lithography and wood engraving was still in use. Eugene Grasset received acknowledgment as a master of delectable prints.
Another sphere that was revived since rococo epoch, was book illustration. Accentuating on the two-dimensionless of their pictures, artists were employing the whole potential of silhouette. Influence of Japanese engravings is pretty obvious in sometimes defiant, dainty and erotic ink illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. Works of Walter Crane were much more buoyant, but both illustrators expressed the fanciful spirit of art nouveau.
Art nouveau was the first period, when graphic art predominated over painting. Nevertheless, the latter managed to work out an independent artistic system. One of its branches was characterized by paradoxical combination of decorative schematicism, flat, “carpet-like” patterned backgrounds and thoroughly modeled, close to sculptural, rendering of figures and foreground. Female characters were in the center of attention – in allegorical compositions, portraits and genre scenes. Painting heritage of Gustav Klimt is the most relevant example of this trend.
It’s important to mention a major artistic movement that, if not directly, associates with art nouveau. It’s Pre-raphaelite brotherhood was a group of young artists in Great Britain that formatted in 1848. Its members (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and others) manifested their desire to change not only principle of art but its role in the society as well. Tired from austerity of academism, they looked back to the art of Quattrocento, art before Raphael – Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Perugino etc. Vigorous color palette amplified the truthfulness and deep understanding of nature on their canvases.
They practically didn’t create landscapes and still lives, preferring portraits, genre scenes and especially historical painting. In Biblical or mythological subjects Pre-raphaelites searched not for didacticism and pathos, but poeticism. For adding them more tangible effect they worked with models or reproduced observations from every-day life. Masters believed Beauty was the only purpose of art. Since 1860s the brotherhood went through a new period, as Rossetti presented a series of voluptuous pieces. Although Pre-raphaelites were largely drained by 1890s, their direction was preserved advanced during art nouveau epoch.
Art nouveau style achieved its highest point in 1900s, but was soon quickly forgotten, as rapidly changing world now required new visual language: architects searched for lucidity and laconism of shapes and demonstrated more interest in mechanization of production than in hand-work. Reach decoration went out of fashion replaced by geometrization and was revived only fifty years later.
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