Art Nouveau antidote to mass production and consumerism

Art Nouveau refers to a style of architecture as well as commercial and decorative art. It was introduced toward the end of the 19th century.

It has been said about fashion today that “everything old is new again.” This is the case with Art Nouveau. The French term “new art” refers to the style of architecture and commercial and decorative art that was introduced at the end of the 19th century. The style has been out of favour for a while. Still, the interest in Art Nouveau has revived and is now experiencing a surge in popularity.

Although the Art Nouveau style was initially thought to be “modern,” it was adapted from old styles and art forms, including Gothic and Rococo. Japanese woodblock prints, with curved lines, patterned surfaces and contrasting vaults, also inspired by Art Nouveau, as did Persian pottery and ancient Roman glass.

Art Nouveau is the forerunner of twentieth-century cultural movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Art Deco. The style took its name from the Paris shop, La Maison de l’Art Nouveau, owned by the German, Siegfried Bing, an art connoisseur known as the ” Father of Art Nouveau.

Bing’s shop was one of the leading outlets for works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, René Lalique, Emile Gallé, Eugene Gaillard and George DeFeure-all of whom would have become artists of the Art Nouveau tradition.

Art Nouveau should not be confused with Art Deco, a decorative and architectural style from 1925 to 1940 characterised by geometric designs, bold colours and the use of plastic and glass. The Art Nouveau movement, which dates from around 1880 to 1910, is highlighted by a brilliantly diverse array of curving lines and intricate patterns and motifs taken primarily from nature.

Ménages d'artistes; Le Maître, 1890. Artist George Auriol.
Ménages d’artistes; Le Maître, 1890. Artist George Auriol. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Examples included etched and enamelled flowers and leaves, morning glories and stems of plants, and inlaid irises. Art Nouveau also found a rich expression in mantelpiece clocks, with craftsmen such as Maurice Dufrene incorporating asymmetrical lines and organic motifs seen in other movements.

Art Nouveau style Thonet chaise longue with adjustable backrest.
Art Nouveau style Thonet chaise longue with adjustable backrest. Austria, the 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Art Nouveau originated in England and spread quickly across Europe and the United States. However, France’s contribution to the movement was perhaps the most profound. Several key developments in the formation of Art Nouveau took place in Paris, at the time the most important artistic centre in Europe. Paris hosted the 1900 World Fair, which helped bring Art Nouveau to the forefront.

In advance of the World Fair, Hector Guimard, one of the most prominent Parisian designers of Art Nouveau, was commissioned to design the entrances to the new Paris subway system. They are among the most famous icons of the Art Nouveau style, thanks to their graceful, organic style and the use of cast iron for both structural and decorative purposes. Each gateway “grows” like a plant stems to roof beams that look like transparent, open umbrellas.

The entrance of the Porte Dauphine metro station in Paris.AFP PHOTO PASCAL PAVANI (Photo credit should read PASCAL PAVANI/AFP via Getty Images)

Nancy, a small French town and home to the glass artists Gallé and Antonin Daum, actually had a more significant impact on the growth of Art Nouveau than did Paris. With the possible exception of Tiffany, Daum and Gallé produced the most famous and unusually beautiful and delicate glasswork of the Art Nouveau movement.

The School of Nancy, founded by Gallé in 1883, was the centre of the wealthiest floral and symbolic aspects of Art Nouveau. The bowls, vases and pitchers integrated floral details; and the furniture made thereby Louis Majorelle and other skilled artisans had a symbolic meaning.

Art Nouveau was a response to the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of mass production. While some artists welcomed technological progress and embraced the aesthetic potential of cast iron and other new materials, others were deeply disdainful for the shadiness inherent in mass production and aimed at raising decorative arts to the level of fine art.

Art Nouveau is today in a privileged position. In the age of mass-produced everything, it is wonderfully refreshing to consider the care and craftsmanship of Art Nouveau design and the idea that artists like Gallé or Tiffany are continually experimenting with their methods of technique and creation.

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL

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