Literally translated as ‘new art’, the Art Nouveau influence spanned roughly thirty years, from 1890 to 1919, shocking the Victorians and Edwardians in forms of diverted self expressionism. Greatly influencing Western architecture, textiles, metalwork and interior design, this period was fanciful, sensual, playful and sensitive in its use of feminine flowing curvilinear lines and exquisite depiction of the female form.
While seemingly shameless and unimportant to the Victorians and excessively emotional to the Edwardians, its appeal was to a new generation excited to celebrate the non-conformist style of the day fed by environmental and social pressures. Such pressures included finding a style suitable for the industrial age, as opposed to applying past styles to contemporary works such as the academically trained architects of the ‘Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts’ were doing.
While the epitome of Edwardian jewelry was luxury, detail, abundance, expense, richness and specifically platinum and diamonds, the Art Nouveau period was more about making more with less. Gold was used in most instances, with pastel colored inexpensive stones to accentuate as opposed to dominate the jewelry. Opals, aquamarines, amethyst, topaz, peridot, demantoid green garnets, moonstones and chalcedony were popular choices while a baroque pearl often hung below a pendant or earrings in accent. Horn and ivory were stained in soft tints and polished to eye-catching effect.
Adopting some of the Japanese influx of art, taking England by storm, enamel effects were being discovered and revived such as cloisonne, champleve, plique-a-jour and pate-de-verre. The subjects of these art forms ranged from the flaunting of feminine freedom and eroticism to human, vegetal and animal forms in sensual consummation and alluring suggestiveness. From mystical tales came griffins and serpents slithering across gold bracelets and around the necks of those exposing themselves to a brave new world.
From the undiscovered Middle East, Egyptian scarabs and beetles embraced rings and pendants teasing flesh with richly worked gold images. Aesthetic butterflies and dragonflies, bees and peacocks graced pins and brooches, with devout use of their intricate forms. Unknown things of the night threatened to reveal their dark forms as bats and owls swooped over necklaces and incorporated their form in hollow bangles. Natural cycles of life were depicted by buds, pods, blooms and withering blossoms.
Spring and summer were expressed in tones of pink through purple and mauve, lavender and indigo, stemmed with verdant greens. Rich reds and oranges touched by earth tones depicted autumn while winter was a cool blue with silver overtones. Art Nouveau energy was tugging at Victorian and Edwardian self assurance, asserting an ambiguity that unnerved the wealthy classes.
Kick-started by Japanese Art, the Art Nouveau movement was known as The ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement or the Liberty Style in England, which was at that time, the most powerful military and economic center of the world. Much of the enigmatic form and color of Art Nouveau is related to the spirit of symbolism and greatly influenced by the Celts with their interesting knots, curved lines and geometric interfacing, designers.
Charles Ashbee promoted Art Nouveau’s famous peacock motif while Arthur Lazenbury Liberty’s shops opened in London and Paris offering outlets for the ‘modern style’. Liberty translated the esoteric designs into jewelry, becoming the European and then American catalyst for the movement. William Morris, who started the Arts and Crafts movement and whose followers started the Aesthetic Movement, later continued with a line of home furnishings, nudged by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley who teased England’s sexual subconscious.
Emile Galle followed William Morris’ precepts before 1880 as a designer of glass and furniture, inspired by Chinese cameo glass. His glassware influenced ‘Tiffany’s’ iridescent glass using unusual chemical techniques, making their name synonymous with the ‘new styles’ of the 1900’s. From here, Art Nouveau spread to the continent and the French took over, elevating Art Nouveau to its purist form. Derived in 1896 from Siegfried Bing’s Japanese import shop that delighted in personifying this new art form, ‘La Maison de L’Art Nouveau’ lent the name to this new movement.
Influencing the French sensibility, Gothic, Rococo, Java and Japanese art styles all took responsibility for their contributions. But from whence did the writhing serpents, the slithering vipers and the Medusa heads come? Could the Parisian Cafe Society with its rampant, mind-expanding drug experimentation have contributed to these wild visionary depictions or were these the hallucinations from French jewelers workshops? Unlike staid British taste at this time, the French were intrigued by Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate stage designs and Loie Fuller’s performances with diaphanous veils.
The nouveau riche were uninhibited by tradition and the voluptuous style appealed to this enlightened elite, who encouraged designers to stylistic excess. Celebrating female sensuality, Cleo de Merode’s free flowing hair added provocation to her dancing routines while draped in Art Nouveau jewelry, leading the French to a national duplicity of standards.
On one hand, their appreciation for delicacy and taste, beauty and artistry engineered the popularity of La Belle Epoque, while their baser instincts perpetrated clubbing through Montmarte to catch a glimpse of a sadomasochistic Apache Dance and the horrific theatricals of the Grand Guignol. Both the demimonde as well as French high society, embraced the risqu’ Art Nouveau movement. Works by the English designers, appropriately named ‘Style Anglais’, were introduced by the Belgian architects Victor Horta and Henri Van de Velde at the Brussels exhibition in 1892.
Horta designed the first architecturally Art Nouveau home in Brussels in 1892 for a Professor Tassel, amalgamating recent influences in linear design and biomorphic whiplash. The French architect Hector Guimard was aware of Horta and Van de Velde’s work, Hector and he adapted Art Nouveau style in his design for the entrances to the new Paris subway Metro system in 1900, lending the name ‘Le Style Metro’. New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses one of Guimard’s Metro gates.
Rene Lalique more than adequately promoted the movement in France with his exquisite enamel and glass in addition to using horn in combination with moonstones and diamonds. Henri Vever, a jeweler, along with his designers Eugene Grasset and Etienne Tourette serviced the upper echelons of society with ornate, extravagant combinations of diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, while also famous for their organic motif horn combs, plique-a-jour enamels and freshwater pearls.
Georges Fouquet specialized in diamonds and flowing lines, Muca created surreal Byzantium designs incorporating designs using gem clusters and Boucheron sculpted gem-set chased enameled gold mounted with pate-de-verre enamel. Germany’s version of Art Nouveau was named ‘Jugendstil’ after the new art periodical named ‘Jugend’, meaning youth. Two versions developed in the Rhineland, one influenced by the English, French, Japanese and naturalism while the other was more of a soft, geometric style with its roots in flowery motifs, giving way to a more abstract biomorphic style.
Spain named her version ‘Modernismo’ or Modernism, almost exclusively an architectural influence, although Luis Masriera extolled in French nymphs with floral motif hair. However, with respect to Spain’s rigorous religious principles, forms remained chastely clothed. Breaking from the traditions of the Vienna Academy, Austria formed the ‘Secessionstil’ movement adopting cubic rectilinear forms which permeated art, architecture and jewelry. Cabochon agates, malachite and mother-of-pearl were mounted with dark enamel in silver and gold plate in contrasting geometric patterns.
Art Nouveau was termed ‘Stile Liberty’ or ‘Stile Floreale’ in Italy while Peter Carl Faberg’ epitomized the movement in Russia with his bejeweled eggs. Georg Jensen in Scandinavia incorporated Vikings symbols and simplistic nature motifs in his work with a memorable line of silverware and jewelry accented with amber, garnets, citrines, malachite, moonstones and opals.
Even before 1890, Louis Sullivan, American architectural teacher of Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated ancient Celtic designs into the decoration of buildings such as Chicago’s ‘Auditorium Building’ in 1889 and the ‘Carson Pirie Scott Department Store’. Spanish architect Antonio Gaud was an Art Nouveau precursor in Barcelona who employed medieval Spanish traditions and materials such as wrought iron and colorful tiles with cast concrete to create fantastic structures.
Church of the Sagrada Familia gegun in 1883 illustrates his engineering power of invention although today it still stands incomplete. In America, ‘Tiffany’ led the way by sending George Kunz, their gemologist, worldwide in search of diamonds and gemstones while his son, Louis Kunz, traveled abroad to develop a taste for Oriental and Moorish Art.
Julia Munson Sherman developed enamel techniques that became Tiffany’s signature jewelry while morning glories glimmered through the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany. ‘Marcus and Company’ made Art Nouveau jewelry also, incorporating vibrant enamel colors and French floral motifs in their designs. In the north, Chicago embraced England’s Arts and Crafts’ movement depicting Native American and American Colonial motifs.
Chicago’s artisans used American themes, French floral designs and English peacock motifs mounted with aquamarines, opals, baroque pearls, moonstones and amethyst in appealing combination. Beautiful Art Nouveau silver and jewelry was mass produced for the working population by the American manufacturers Clara Welles and William Morris.
Unfortunately over-commercialization and WWII terminated this sensual and short lived Art Nouveau era which made a lasting impression throughout the world. It’s naive romanticism was not strong enough to overcome the 20th century and the harsh realities of war and the period, known as ‘noodle’, ‘tapeworm’, and ‘cigarette-smoke style’ was gone.
Although considered by her critics to be ‘ugly’ and out of fashion by the war, about 1960 there were a number of exhibitions in reaction to the unimaginative glass-and-steel rectangular architecture of the 1950’s and demand and the pricing of Art Nouveau objects soared. It was incorporated by the rebellious psychedelic side of the 1960’s and scholarly publications began to appear as Art Nouveau strove once again to gain a place in the history of modern art.
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