Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Allure of Art Nouveau

Beginning in the 1890s, Art Nouveau captivated urban centers in Europe and North America. The style permeated everything from graphic arts to architecture, interior design, and decorative arts. A number of characteristics define the style: a reverence for nature with an emphasis on organic designs; the use of “whiplash” curvilinear lines; and a seemingly limitless portrayal of the female form, with artists depicting women as ethereal, sensual nymphs. Motifs were interpreted in both realistic and stylized fashions.

Many Art Nouveau designers felt that 19th century design had been excessively ornamental, and in wishing to avoid what they perceived as frivolous decoration, they evolved a belief that the function of an object should dictate its form. This theory had its roots in contemporary revivals of the Gothic style, and in practice it was a somewhat flexible ethos, yet it would be an important part of the style's legacy to later movements such as modernism and the Bauhaus.

Nature served as a driving force of the Art Nouveau movement, inspiring designers throughout Europe and North America. While many Art Nouveau artists took a realistic approach in their interpretations of nature, others created more fanciful designs, with natural imagery appearing in a mysterious, serpentine, dream-like state. Designers often explored metamorphic themes, melding a variety of human, animal, and plant forms together—combining insects, females, and flowers.

Alongside nature, no other subject matter was depicted so extensively as the female form. Artists portrayed women as enchanting, otherworldly maidens. The jardinière on display evokes this theme with a dragonfly that seems to meld with the woman’s head, while sunflowers and poppies appear to be growing from her hair. Art Nouveau artists’ elaborate portrayal of female tresses helped distinguish the design style. From decorative arts to paintings and illustrations, women’s hair serves as a focal point and takes on a life of its own. Locks flow, curve, and meander, often filling the entire canvas.

The proliferation of images of women, sometimes described as femme-fleurs, became a symbol of Art Nouveau, particularly in the medium of sculpture. The erotically charged nature of many of these works is one of the most prevalent features of the style. A new generation of sculptors, such as Auguste Ledru (1860­–1902), abandoned historical subjects of the past. Instead, they explored new themes in both traditional formats and novel contexts including lamps, fruit dishes, and desk ornaments.

A vibrant group of artists and designers fostered the style, such as painter and illustrator Alphonse Mucha, architect Victor Horta, art glass pioneers Emile Gallé and Louis Comfort Tiffany, and furniture maker Louis Majorelle. Referred to as Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Glasgow Style in Scotland, and Modernisme in Spain, each country’s interpretation of the style varied. All of its proponents, however, encouraged artists, architects, and designers to create innovative, modern designs. Designers emphasized the creation of holistic decorative interiors and sought to bring artistic design into daily life. The 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle celebrated all aspects of the new ‘modern style.’ Visited by fifty-one million people, the fair displayed Art Nouveau architecture, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, graphic arts, glass, textiles, and metalwork.

A leading advocate of the style, Parisian art dealer Siegfried Bing opened the gallery Maison de l’Art Nouveau in 1895, which featured new art and design from Europe as well as Japanese arts. Many World’s Fairs showcased Art Nouveau, but the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle celebrated all aspects of the new ‘modern style.’ Visited by over fifty million people, the fair displayed Art Nouveau architecture, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, graphic arts, glass, textiles, and metalwork. Hector Guimard’s sinuous cast iron designs for the new Paris Métro stations debuted the same year. Further disseminating the style, magazines, such as the German publication Jugend, posters, postcards, retailers, and mail-order catalogs promoted Art Nouveau at the turn of the twentieth century. Both ateliers and larger manufacturers offered items in the style, making Art Nouveau designs available to a broad audience.

The Art Nouveau movement encouraged artists, architects, and designers to create modern, innovative designs. The advent of the style can be traced to several influences: the first was the introduction of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1880s, led by the English designer William Morris (1834–96). In response to the Industrial Revolution, the movement emphasized a return to hand craftsmanship. Both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau artists rejected revivalist styles and sought to move away from the cluttered designs and compositions of Victorian-era decorative arts. Around the same time, the Aesthetic movement promoted the doctrine, “art for art’s sake,” or the celebration of art simply for the pleasure drawn from its beauty. Also of critical importance, Symbolist artists were exploring the inner world of the psyche and spirit, making myths, dreams, and religion their subject matter. Meanwhile, the vogue for Japanese art, offered an alternative to established European styles. Japanese woodblock prints contained stylized organic forms and dynamic, curvilinear lines, which would become hallmarks of the Art Nouveau style.

The style went out of fashion after it gave way to Art Deco in the 1920s, but it experienced a popular revival in the 1960s, particularly in San Francisco when psychedelic poster artists began emulating the work of Art Nouveau graphic artists. It is now seen as an important predecessor of modernism. Although the movement had made the doctrine that "form should follow function" central to their ethos, some designers tended to be lavish in their use of decoration, and the style began to be criticized for being overly elaborate. In a sense, as the style matured, it started to revert to the very habits it had scorned, and a growing number of opponents began to charge that rather than renewing design, it had merely swapped the old for the superficially new.

The Allure of Art Nouveau: 1890–1914 is located pre-security in the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby, San Francisco International Airport. The exhibition is on view to all Airport visitors from February 13, 2016 to August 14, 2016. There is no charge to view the exhibition.
All images courtesy of the SFIA Museum; more images

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