L’Art Nouveau – A Design Style More than a Tendril in Time?

Plum Vase by Émile Gallé

The art of glass making, like so many other subjects whose evolution we can explore is a seemingly endless subject. Since antiquity glass has been utilized in many different forms; from jewelry to funerary, from weaponry to vanity, and more lately in our own time for industry.

The style that today we call Art Nouveau (1890 – 1910), was a shared enthusiasm among young artist-craftsmen during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Those that particularly worked well were often rendered in glass.

Feeding on other European arts and crafts influenced groups, and adding a taste for all things oriental, a group established in the mid 1890’s was centred on the work of French glass artist and furniture designer Émile Gallé.

Together with painter portraitist and sculptor Victor Prouvé, metalawork and furniture designer Louis Majorelle, glass designer and maker Antonin Daum (1864–1931) as well as furniture maker and designer Eugène Vallin. They founded the Ecole de Nancy at Nancy, Alscae-Lorraine in France.

The name Art Nouveau was a reflection of the newness of their designs and was taken from an influential Parisian shop of the time, which had been established by German born Siegried Bing (1838-1905). He sold pieces from Germany and England in addition to French pieces.

The style was characterized by fluid, curvaceous lines, which were inspired by nature and included loose tendrils, flower and leaf motifs. It is still considered the very best of all Art Nouveau interiors were produced at Paris, where the unity of art and life was the declared aim of this new style whose sensuous and sinuous lines were more eloquent than words.

Purists today still prefer to apply the term art nouveau only to the largely nature inspired curvilinear French pieces made at Paris and Nancy, although the influence was widespread. In Europe, England, America and Australia builders, designers, artists and craftspeople all responded to the asymmetry and stylish sensuality of l’art nouveau.

Daum Vase

The natural world was a major stimulus to l’Ecole de Nancy, Emile Galle’s group. The outlines and details of furniture depicted the sinuosity of plant growth patterns and the style was also well suited to the multi-layered beautiful antique Roman cameo-cut glass technique, which was made contemporary, fresh and new by Émile Gallé.

His work was like a mysterious temple that no one entered without displaying the emotions of awe and bewilderment.

Divine glass roof at Nancy in France

Grace and beauty are its outer clothing. In its depths shines the flame of the spirit.’ said art critic and historian Roger Marx.

Gallé exceptionally blended poetry and philosophy with the physical material, rendering works in glass, ceramics and also in wood.

The brothers Auguste and Antonin Daum had taken over their father’s workshop and their stand was a popular and innovative draw card at the great 1900 Paris Exhibition, showcasing the new style.

Glass as a medium responded well to all of the style Art Nouveau’s sinuous and seductive lines.

Vases were created in monochrome or graded coloration, devoid of ornament, relying purely on surface effects. Forms were simple, unpretentious, eccentric creations of sophisticated elegance.

A friend of art critic, social thinker poet and artist John Ruskin, architect and designer Arthur H. Mackmurdo (1851-1942) was the first in England to produce the characteristic vocabulary of Art Nouveau.

In England it provided inspiration for providing ‘new’ interiors for the also ‘newly designed, and misnamed Queen Anne House.

MackMurdo took his inspiration from nature, particularly the plant world, flowers, stems and leaves, which were all chosen for their curvaceous silhouettes.

Chair with thistle design, which is the emblem of Nancy, Lorraine. It was designed by Englishman A.H. MackMurdo

His sensational chair with a writhing wrought iron thistle design was a commission for the Century Guild (London, 1882-88) and it was made by Collinson & Lock, London around 1883.

The natural forms of arts and crafts designer William Morris and his pre-Raphealite artist friends also inspired Mackmurdo to develop his shapes into elongated, increasingly elegant patterns.

At the turn of the century at London Arthur Liberty’s new department store, Liberty and Co, displayed goods in the style l’art nouveau, including lamps sold by Tiffany in New York.

Lamp with Dragonflies by Louis Comfort Tiffany

One of the strengths of Liberty of London lay in the fact that within one large shop it was possible to buy all the components necessary for a successfully artistic mode of life.

Protagonists could be sure by an artful display of being acceptable to other aesthetically like minded people when they came to visit.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) led a dedicated band of artists at New York. Anyone who was anybody in America by the turn of the twentieth century would have endeavoured to have a Tiffany stained glass window, a Tiffany coloured glass lamp or a mosaic, inspired by that of ancient Rome in their home.

Otherwise they would have had one donated to their local church, bank or college to prove that they had embraced philanthropy, which at the time was the new ‘black’.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was the son and heir of the founder of the famous American jewellery store. He had his own exotic studio on the top floor of his father’s mansion.

Stained glass had undergone a revolution in both technique and design during the 1890’s and it was being used not only in windows but also inset into doors,  furniture, lamps and at railway stations.

In America John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany used layers of opalescent glass to create sumptuous richly colored windows with designs of flowers, exotic birds or shimmering skies, which could not have been more different from the medieval style windows made in England only 30 to 40 years before.

At Riga - Jugenstidl, 'young style'

The lamps bore his name, however it has been more recently discovered that a lot of the floral patterns designed for them were the work of a very clever woman who worked in his workshops at the time, Clara Driscoll.

Europe was inspired by the sensuality of the style Art Nouveau as artists and architects all sought freedom of expression producing more than tendrils in time.

At Riga, the capital of Latvia in the old city many of its buildings display a combination of straight geometry and carefully controlled organic curves, as everywhere artists inspired by the group at Nancy sought variety by embracing both shared ideas and ideals.

The result was that an entire host of artistic media became caught up in an a glorious arabesque of literature, poetry music, fine and applied art that were part of art nouveau’s expression.

Artist Vincent Van Gough, novelist, critic and essayist Marcel Proust Composers such as Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss were all part of a dizzy climate of sensual, dramatic and poetic masterpieces.

Tension between the senses and sexes were stimulated by plant and animal symbols and sensuality was accepted in all the famous salons.

Back to nature was a pretext for grasping and handling the concept of the body, particularly the female form with manes of hair swirling and swimming in complex waves and curls of smoke, imprisoned and surrendering.

Entrance to Metropolitan Station at Paris

Paris was a centre for the style and Hector Guimard (1867-1942) was one of its unsung hero’s.

Daily people pass by the stunning design he produced for the entrance to its Metro station at Porte Dauphine, one that many people fought to retain in respect for his innovation.

He concentrated on space and volume in his work, which has been praised a great deal by scholars since the 1960’s, despite much of his achievements in architecture having been demolished.

His personality seems to have been part of the problem, quite simply it seems people did not like him.

A large number of station entrances attributed to him were demolished with the original one at Porte Dauphine and those constructed at Abbesses and Châtelet in the main rebuilt.

Brooch with Female with tendrils and flowing hair

Orchid Desk by Louis Majorelle

Progressive furniture in the Art Nouveau style was produced from 1880 to 1910. Of impeccable craftsmanship the style at its best was exuberant and joyful.

French decorator and designer Louis Majorelle 1859-1926, a cabinetmaker by trade, gave sensual and sinuous form to his furniture, which was richly ornamented.

After 1901 he became a Vice President of the Ecole de Nancy and worked to expand his father’s business that was tragically destroyed by fire in 1916, consuming all his original sketches, moulds, equipment and archives.

His renowned orchid desk of 1905 is a testimony to his mastery of the style as is his dining room suite of c1902, now in a corporate Museum in America.

Within the art community at Vienna at the turn of the 20th century the hoped for marriage of art and industry had not happened and small communal workshops were thought the best way to remedy the situation.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss 1907-1908

Art Nouveau artist, Gustav Klimt, whose brilliant individualism dominated the era, led a group of primarily young Viennese artists, painters, sculptors and architects who seceded from the prestigious Kunsterhaus (Artists House) and set up the Society of Austrian Artists – the Vienna Secession

They staged their first exhibition in March 1898. They enjoyed considerable success in their early years. ‘To each century its art, to art its Freedom’ was its credo. It was an act of youthful idealism in the spirit of sacrifice and with a willingness to work hard, the 19, started have today become seventy and they plunged into leading Vienna into the age of Modernism.

Their aims were purely aesthetic; concerned only as they were with finding the form, the ‘material’ being already at hand. The secession was founded in coffeehouse culture and decorative arts magazines, such as The Studio, were devoured in the capital’s cafes.

English fashion, sport and astonishingly food, was debated endlessly. The attractiveness of the handicraft items issuing from Vienna was demonstrated at the World Exposition in Paris of 1900.

Michael Thonet designed the Viennese coffeehouse chair, which is still manufactured today, selling over 100 million. The secret of its enduring success lies in its social as well as technical serviceability, its low production costs and its competitive price.

Thonet chairs have since become indelibly identified as classics of modern design and his remarkable bentwood furniture continues to turn heads more than a century later.

While the history of bentwood furniture dates back two centuries, it was Michael who propelled the notion of bending woods, and subsequently tubular metal, into the twentieth century. His original designs were delicate and lightweight and he established a patent in 1842 for his process.

The pliant and pleasing styles practiced by artists were a veritable box office hit…with handicraft liberated from its confines and allowed to form a synthesis with interior design and the liberal arts; bringing with it a sense of liberated living for those who embraced the style ‘l’art nouveau.

Sinuous Staircase by Victor Horta

In Belgium Victor Horta became a leading exponent of the sensational style, making use of painting as a supplement to the building materials in order to extend the sense of movement in his iron components. Much more was made of iron as a building material when combined with glass and superb examples married colour and geometry.

Bold use was made of contrast, embracing the whole spectrum of color from violet to turquoise, dissolving into checkerboard patterns and ‘little squares’. He particularly loved skylights which allowed an interplay of light on his staircases.

George Jensen (1866-1935) became Scandinavia’s most famous silversmith. He began as a ceramicist producing everyday utensils in powerful art nouveau forms, exhibiting his work to great acclaim using semiprecious stones and enamel to embellish them.

In Scotland Charles Rennie Mackintosh was greatly influenced, particularly through Celtic art. His style was much more puritanical and simple and in turn did much to heavily influence industrial design.

Gaudi, flowing sinuous lines

At this level however, it would be a Belgian Henry Van de Velde, who would prove to be an influential link between the Arts and Craft,  Art Nouveau movements and industrial design.

His influence on German architecture and design would be profound. He wanted artists always to retain their individuality. He also realized the importance of education in gaining an appreciation for the arts of history and his own time.

In Barcelona the Catalan architect come artist Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) was also inspired by natures organic forms. He asserted that virtually everything could be produced from brick and stone. His controversial works still challenge the mind both structurally and aesthetically.

Gaudi loved Christian symbols, classical and oriental mythology and his imagination transferred and translated into structures that cannot be forced into stylistic pigeonholes or, historical periods but are perhaps a lesson in painterly and sculptural architectural composition combining honesty with spirituality.

‘Art is beauty and beauty the radiance of truth‘ Gaudi said, ‘without which there is no art‘, new or otherwise.

At Nancy in north-eastern France today the Ecole de Nancy Museum offers a testimony of the diversity of creative techniques practiced by the artists of this school, with a fine display of furniture, objets d’art, glassware, stained-glass, leather, ceramics, textiles, etc. from the period.

The motto of the city is Non inultus premor, Latin for “No one touches me with impunity” a reference to the thistle a symbol of Lorraine. As a style Art Nouveau expired, a casualty of the first World War 1914-18

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

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