Looking anew at Art Nouveau

Print edition : August 05, 2000

A reassessment of the once often dismissed genre seems to have taken place. Some impressions pegged on two recent exhibitions, in London and in Berlin.


NOT too long ago Art Nouveau would have been sniffed at by anyone serious about art. Even postmodern viewers, and postmodernist ones if you will - who would have been attracted, one expects, to the hybrid sort of thing it is said to be - seemed no t to interest themselves too much in it. And modernist beholders would have bothered themselves with Art Nouveau, if they did so at all, only to argue that it is not really art (or is only bad art, if it can be called art).

That is to exaggerate a good deal, of course, but putting things so should give some sense of what the art world's attitude to Art Nouveau would have been, until say, 10 years or so ago, (which is when what has come to be called the postmodern era is now adays thought to have ended.) But a reassessment seems to have taken place recently; books have appeared, written by sympathetic historians, which seek to give the work its due; and exhibitions have been mounted to present the case.

London's Victoria and Albert Museum hosted one such exhibition recently, which was billed as a comprehensive show; it proved rather thin in the event, and though one was exposed to the many strains there are of Art Nouveau, the exhibition itself is not l ikely to have made much of an impression. One problem was the sort of thing that was said: the objects on view often had plaques set next to them, with text that was meant to introduce or interpret the work, and while one did not, of course, expect anyth ing really penetrating to appear there, what was written was almost always too loose.

Dragonfly Woman, corsage ornament by Rene Lalique (1860-1945); gold, enamel, chrysoprase, moonstones and diamonds; French; circa 1897-98.-

Dragonfly Woman

So, Rene Lalique's famous Dragonfly Woman was said to "combine a dramatic use of nature with a subversive use of historical style and a disturbing symbolism". This is a brooch (of sorts) which was made for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. The referenc e to the anatomy of insects is more explicit, perhaps, than was usual for a piece of jewellery even in the decadence of fin de siecle Paris, and there may have been a sort of drama in that; the conjunction of the reptilian and the insect-like with the smooth bust of a woman is oddly unsettling, still, and given the peculiar attitudes to the female that Art Nouveau took over from symbolist painting and poetry, perhaps the piece did disturb; but what in the world could this bit of jewellery ever ha ve subverted?

IT may seem silly to press so hard on with regard to a blurb, meant only to snag the casual museum-goer's wandering attention: but the seemingly more studied writing on Art Nouveau is not much better. A recent book, whose avowed aim is to rescue Art Nouv eau from its modernist detractors, avers that Lalique's brooch "resembles a study in fluid dynamics through its evocation of lift and drag tension created by the oppositional V-shaped direction of the wings and claws". The author of this piece of technic al-sounding analysis lectures at university, on the history of art. Perhaps his colleagues and students are really able to tell when something 'resembles' a study in fluid dynamics, and to move off in 'V-shaped directions' when they feel the need to; and perhaps they really can see, as the author puts it just after, just how "the increasing revelation of the laws of physics, not least by Gustave Eiffel and his tower built for the 1889 Paris exhibition, was increasingly leading artists, designers and arc hitects" at the end of the 19th century "to simulate the abstract forces and motions that constituted the world".

Earlier in the book there had been talk of how the dissemination of biological thought, through popular books and periodicals, allowed Art Nouveau "to incorporate laws of nature", and - perhaps because the social consequences of the popularisation of cer tain biological ideas at the turn of the last century are now only dimly remembered - it was then concluded that Art Nouveau was "a form of primal exegesis of a complicated moment".

The book in question is titled Art Nouveau, and it was written by Jeremy Howard who lectures at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. (It was on sale at the Victoria and Albert Museum while the show was on.) Writing on the visual arts is seldom precise, and hardly ever expected to be; specialists' writing on art is bound to be inbred, moreover, and the reader new to it, coming upon the sort of thing quoted above, just may think that this is how initiates communicate between themselves (enciphe ring so, as it were, their otherwise ineffable thoughts on the arcana they administer). But no one who kept his wits about him would think so for very long: and it really is surprising that the art world - or the anglophone art world, at least - should h ave begun to tolerate such nonsense. Nothing in Howard's book tells you what it might be for a work of art to 'incorporate' a law of nature, or to 'simulate abstract forces and motions' (whatever those might be); and no argument supports the claim that A rt Nouveau is any sort of exegesis - 'primal' or not - rather than a product, merely, of its time. (There are reasons why even specialised writing on the visual arts can get so loose nowadays; but setting them out would not be easy, and I have gon e on at such length in order to suggest that, perhaps, something like Art Nouveau could be taken seriously as art only when art writing itself becomes carious, so to say: and that may be a distinctive feature of what the philosopher Arthur Danto calls th e 'posthistorical' condition of art.)

Delftsche Slaolie, 1895, Toorop.-

Delftsche Slaolie

As mentioned, the current reassessment of Art Nouveau is meant to counter the modernist deprecation of it: as, for instance, merely decorative, or at best only a debased form of symbolist art. One obvious thing to do, then, would be to try and bring out formal affinities between symbolist art and Art Nouveau: between, for instance, Gaugin's paintings and, say, Maurice Denis' designs for tapestry; or between Jan Toorop's paintings on the one hand, and his commercial posters on the other. The Victoria and Albert show did not have any Toorop on view, nor any of Denis' or Gaugin's painting except for the former's Road to Calvary and the latter's Vision After the Sermon; but since the Gaugin was so much better than anything else to be seen the re, the only effect of showing it may have been to confirm the modernists' low estimate of Art Nouveau. (Denis' picture called up from the curators the profound observation that "the sombre flat pattern forms of this painting evoke the tragedy of the imm inent crucifixion"; the Vision After the Sermon was left, mercifully, to speak for itself.)

THE Brohan Museum in Berlin had an Art Nouveau show on at the same time, and this exhibition, because it limited itself to what was done in France, was more focussed than the Victoria and Albert's (which had ranged as far afield as Finland and Hungary) T here was a good bit of furniture on view here - and lamps, vases, bowls and so on as well, which are the best known sort of Art Nouveau objects - and what was said about these things is, again, worth retailing. Next to a writing desk by Emil Galle (who w as one of the most successful and technically inventive Art Nouveau designers) one found text quoting Galle himself, who asserts there that "the work of the symbolist poets provided motifs for the ornamentation of furniture" - and that "a piece of furnit ure could tell, in the language of the forest, by whom and how it was made." (The word "motif" would have to be understood in some unusual way here: somewhat as, say, "schema" might be.)

Art Nouveau is nowadays praised for having refused to distinguish between art and design - which should not surprise, perhaps, if the practice of art has become 'posthistorical' - but its votaries should think twice before setting up Galle's 'symbolist' furniture as an example of design that is art: the mahogany escritoire at the Brohan, with its carefully 'natural' inlay of leaves and flowers, is a good argument, actually, that the virtues of design seldom agree with the values of art. (Howard's book, predictably, ascribes unusual powers to Galle, finding in his work "aspects of organic nature metamorphised (sic) into static objects" - and this on the strength of Galle having "studied botany from an early age".)

Faiths in Decline, 1894, Toorop.-

Faiths in Decline

The Brohan show had a couple of pictures by Gustave Moreau, who was perhaps the first painter anyone would have called a symbolist; the epithet does not embarrass the painting - not as much as it would Galle's desk, at least - but the dangers of trying t o recover pictorially the suggestiveness of symbolist poetry are evident enough here (particularly in the piece titled Femmes Poetes Indiennes: where the vaguely 'hieroglyphic' drawing over the insubstantial bodies of the poetesses does little mor e than advertise an 'Oriental' provenance.) The intent in showing Moreau may have been to cast his painting in the role of ancestor, both to the symbolist painting that came after him and to Art Nouveau graphic design; but if so the gambit failed. The Br ohan had paintings by Denis, and by Paul Ranson and Paul Serusier as well, and there were a number of posters by Alexandre Steinlein and Alphonse Mucha (and by some less well known Art Nouveau graphic designers); but having Moreau nearby did not link the painting to the posters in any illuminating way. (There were a number of Toulose-Lautrec's posters there also; but Lautrec's is a special case, and he deserves better than to be classed with Steinlein and Mucha.)

The relation between Art Nouveau and symbolist art is actually a complex one (as Toorop's example suggests) and the formal differences between them can be explored in illuminating ways (as Robert Goldwater's book on symbolist painting does, for instance) . But neither the Victoria and Albert nor the Brohan seemed interested in doing that. These exhibitions preferred, instead, to neglect differences and treat both as aspects of the same phenomenon. But the fact is that the aims of symbolist art do not sor t well with the purposes of Art Nouveau (even for people like Toorop, who worked as both artist and designer.) One cannot tell whether the neglect is deliberate or inadvertent: but however that may be, it does not help their case if the ultimate aim of t hese shows is to argue that Art Nouveau is art worth studying - and not just fine design, so to say.

Mention was made of Finnish and Hungarian work at the Victoria and Albert show; there was Czech work as well, besides (as one expects) work from Austria and Germany, and from Scotland (and, of course, from France and Belgium). But Art Nouveau was a more widespread phenomenon than this list suggests: one finds it in America (where Tiffany's is the best known name) and in Russia; in Latvia, in Catalonia (where the architect Antonio Gaudi's work is the famous example); and, as it happens, some Indian paint ers were taken with it, Abanindranath Tagore notably, as his picture of Asoka's queen shows; (this, incidentally, was acquired by Queen Mary during her visit to India in 1911.)

La Nature, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939); gilt bronze, silver, marble; Czech, circa 1900.-

La Nature

The more meticulous writers on the subject distinguish Art Nouveau proper, as something French and Belgian, from its other European variants. (The German variety is referred to as JugendStil, for instance, and the Catalan as Modernista; the Austrian and the Czech are called Secession styles; and there may be special names for other Eastern European varieties of the style.) The designers in these different places were more than usually aware of each other: the look of Art Nouveau was commun icated quickly - across Europe, and beyond, from France and Belgium - by illustrated magazines, and through international exhibitions (and the many 'World Expositions' that the end of the 19th century saw). How local factors conditioned the style as it s pread would make an interesting study; to give an obvious example, its appearance in Glasgow would have had the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain as a backdrop (and this would have to figure, as well, in any account of why Abanindranath Tagore could so readily adopt the style. Howard's book, incidentally, does look into such matters.)

Art Nouveau may be said, actually, to be both an international and a varyingly national phenomenon. In Eastern Europe for instance, in places like Czechoslovakia and Finland particularly - which were in the late 19th century parts of larger imperial poli ties; of the Habsburgs' realm in the first case, and of the Romanovs' in the second - the variants of Art Nouveau that developed, as conspicuously 'new' or 'modern' styles, display a selective appropriation of local craft practices; and this appropriatio n would have both expressed and sharpened an emerging sense of national identity (especially among the newly formed urban bourgeoisie who were the natural consumers in these places of the 'new' and the 'modern'.)

The Dancer's Reward, 1894, Aubrey Beardsley.-

The Dancer's Reward

It may not be a coincidence that there should be a revival of interest in Art Nouveau just now, when national polities - and the 'comity' of nations they are ideally meant to constitute - are being submerged, seemingly, in another sort of socio-economic order: one where the elites who govern nations have to come to terms not just with each other, but also with the elites who command the resources of transnational corporations (and the like). The identity that members of these business elites have as cit izens - as members of national polities - that may well be residual only (a matter of nostalgia, say, or a convenience merely). Perhaps one should keep in mind now that, although Art Nouveau wears different national faces, it serviced the industrial and commercial elites whose sense of belonging to a nation may have differed, materially, from that of the masses who laboured for them (and who constituted the 'nations' that gave these elites their political identity); and together these - the submergence of national polities, and the power of transnational business elites - may be factors why art worlds (which seem increasingly to depend on the patronage of such business elites) have become so interested in Art Nouveau. (Besides the shows in London and B erlin, there were retrospectives in Paris and Copenhagen as well.)

There are many 'names' that have not been mentioned here: Hector Guimard for instance, who was perhaps the most famous Art Nouveau architect and designer in France; or, because he presents such a difficult case, the Viennese painter Gustave Klimt - whose work shows an odd mix of symbolist 'atmosphere' and, seemingly, mere 'decor' - or, for like reasons, Aubrey Beardsley; or the singular Czech painter Frantisek Bilek; and so on. Art Nouveau is a very diffuse thing, though, and there just is not enough ro om here to talk of it in any comprehensive way.

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