THE H&A GUIDE TO ART NOUVEAU
THE RISE AND FALL OF AN INTERNATIONAL DESIGN MOVEMENT
An exploration of the rich and varied designs that de!ned this "amboyant era
From 'whiplash' curves and elegant female forms to geometric shapes and nostalgic revivals, Ellie Tennant explores the rich gallimaufry of designs that emerged in the exciting art nouveau era
When we hear the words art nouveau (new art), most of us picture the beautiful dreamy maidens and botanical embellishments on the paintings and posters produced by Czech designer Alphonse Mucha in Paris, or the colourful leaded glass table lamps made by Louis Comfort Ti !any’s "rm. If we take a closer look at the world of design in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, it soon
‘In Britain, artists, architects and designers were looking to preceding movements, such as Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism.’
becomes clear that these iconic examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. The turn of the century was a period of unrivalled creativity, when a new international art and design movement emerged – a fusion of many threads, voices, styles and ideas, all in #uencing one another.
An Organic Evolution
‘At the beginning of the 20th century there was a cultural moment when people began to search for some kind of new expression,’ says Dr Robyne Calvert, Mackintosh Research Fellow at The Glasgow School of Art. ‘Although art nouveau was referred to in French and Belgian artistic journals from the late 1870s, the term was not popularised until 1895, when German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his gallery Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris.’
The art nouveau movement gathered pace following the groundbreaking exhibition Exposition Universelle, Paris, in 1900, which featured paintings, sculptures, ceramics and architecture in this modern, exciting style. The exhibition was a crowning moment for master jeweller René Lalique, who dazzled the crowds with his intricate, beautifully wrought pieces, displayed on a stand resplendent with curving, bronze "gures. ‘Art nouveau didn’t just come out of nowhere,’ explains Robyne. ‘In Britain, artists, architects and designers were looking to preceding movements, such as Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. Using organic forms as a basis for design emerged out of the Arts and Cra $s movement, taking inspiration from the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris.’
A Victorian sourcebook called The Grammar of Ornament: A Visual Reference of Form and Colour in Architecture and the Decorative Arts
waves on the design scene at this time, too. ‘ It was a pa!ern guide to ornamentation from all over the world, looking at natural themes from Middle Eastern countries, Japan, China and Morocco,’ reveals Robyne. ‘In the run-up to the art nouveau era, many designers responded to that.’
The Universal Appeal of Nature
While interpretations of art nouveau did di "er slightly from designer to designer and country to country, the basic philosophy was the same for all: nature was the source of inspiration. As a result, the art nouveau ‘ look’ typically featured sinuous lines, #owing organic shapes based on botanical forms, natural colours such as peacock-blue, earth-brown or sage-green, decorative #ora and fauna – such as water lilies, dragon # ies and birds – and ornate ‘whiplash’ curves.
Designers at this time were brave and o$en broke new ground. For example, ceramicist- cum-pharmacist Ernest Bussière experimented with chemicals to create new textures and glazes on his vases. Shapes in graphics, ceramics, sculptures, buildings, metalware and furniture designs tended to be organic, while simultaneously very
stylised. ‘ What’s interesting about art nouveau is that other countries gave it di !erent names, but they were all strands of the same movement,’ explains Robyne. ‘ The Germans called it Jugendstil (Youth Style), while the Austrians called it Sezessionstil, because it was popularised by the artists of the Vienna Secession art movement (formed in 1897 and led by Gustav Klimt). In Italy, it was referred to as
Stile Liberty.’ While some suggest this is because it was inspired by English department store Liberty of London, others, including Robyne, think the Italian term probably has more to do with freedom.
Whatever the source of this phrase, there’s no doubt that Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s store was a key champion of art nouveau design, employing the likes of Archibald Knox and Jessie M King to design a pioneering range of metalware pieces, including nostalgic Cymric (Celtic Revival) designs. ‘At this time, many countries were coming into their own, searching for their romanticised pasts to draw upon,’ says Robyne. Liberty had contacts in many major cities, so the British ‘take’ on art nouveau – heavily in "uenced by, and overlapping with, the Arts and Cra #s movement – spread worldwide. Liberty’s products were wri$en about in in "uential publications such as The Studio magazine and Der Moderne Stil and were bought by museum curators from Sweden to Vienna. ‘ Fabrics at Liberty featured the "owing
botanical forms common to art nouveau, but they seem a li!le more solid than in continental designs and have strong Arts and Cra "s and Japanese in #uences,’ says Anna Buruma, Liberty London’s in-house Archivist. Sco ish Leaders ‘Glasgow was particularly important for the development of design during the art nouveau era,’ says Robyne. ‘In 1900, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and others from The Glasgow School of Art showed at the eighth Secession exhibition in Vienna. Mackintosh in #uenced the Secessionists.’ A couple of years later, in 1902, Mackintosh showed in a ‘Sco!ish Section’ at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, reaching an even larger audience. ‘ International exhibitions were incredibly important at this time,’ explains Robyne. ‘ They were the places where you could go and see what was new – in industry and in design and architecture. A "er exhibitions, new designs were wri!en about in international art magazines and periodicals, so the reach was huge.’
Unlike the #owing, ornate designs of most art nouveau artists and architects, Mackintosh’s work featured bold, geometric shapes and basic forms alongside the more organic motifs. His innovative furniture, stained glass, architecture and interior decoration designs elevated Mackintosh to a unique position. ‘In many ways, he was ahead of his time. Some of his work is a bit like the much later art deco style,’ says Robyne. ‘ For example, his bold,
‘At its best, art nouveau is pure perfection of proportion and form.’
geometric, black- and-yellow interior scheme at 78 Derngate in Northampton.’
When the First World War broke out, art nouveau faded fast. This highly decorative, celebratory style was suddenly completely out of step with the international mood. ‘ There is a vitality to art nouveau,’ says Robyne. ‘ War was huge and horrible and had a tremendous impact on any kind of creative or artistic movement – especially one that was a celebration of life. People weren’t feeling overly positive, so it’s di $cult for anything to
!ourish at a moment like that. Also, during the First World War, resources were scarce. Nobody was going to go around gilding everything.’
Today, the market for art nouveau antiques is alive and well. Dealer Gavin Morgan, of Morgan Strickland Decorative Arts, says part of the appeal is the vast array of styles within the art nouveau bracket: ‘ There’s something for everyone, from the restrained geometry of the Austrian Secession and Mackintosh to the full-blown, over-the-top French pieces,’ he explains.
Art nouveau pieces command a huge range of prices, too. ‘ Metalware "gures in pewter or silver-plate by German "rm WMF are highly collectable because they were made in reasonably large numbers, so they’re not prohibitively expensive,’ explains Gavin. At the other end of the scale, items by Hector Guimard (who designed the sinuous, stylised ironwork Paris Métro station entrances) or Ti #any lamps can fetch huge sums. ‘ With Ti #any lamps, the sky is pre$y much the limit,’ says Gavin. ‘ For the most average of lamps, you’re looking at in excess of £10,000 and rare examples can go for hundreds of thousands.’ The most valuable Ti #any lamp ever sold reached $2.8m at a Christie’s auction in 1998.
So, in essence, what is it that makes art nouveau such an enduringly appealing style? ‘At its best, art nouveau is pure perfection of proportion and form,’ believes Gavin. ‘ You really don’t get much be$er than that.’
(published in 1856 by Owen Jones) was still making
FROM TOP LEFT Table with art nouveau border at Nuffield Place, Oxon; this art nouveau marquetry mahogany and leaded glass showcase sold at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2005 for 660; art nouveau fireplace, £980, for sale at L’Atelier Natalia Willmott; detail of a cabinet by Rennie Mackintosh at The Glasgow School of Art.
FROM TOP A brass ‘harp’ gas pendant of art nouveau design in a passage at The Argory, County Armagh; art nouveau figural bronze lamp with Loetz glass shade by Claude Bonnefond; light fitting at The Hill House (Helensburgh), considered to be Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic masterpiece; a ‘Surprise’ wall bracket above Captain Shelton’s bed at The Argory.
Detail on a chair designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. BELOW Art nouveau rose panel at Mackintosh’s Hill House.