“For me the genius of Art Nouveau is the emphasis on bringing a design aesthetic based on natural forms to everything we touch in our daily lives, from a cathedral to a jewelry box. There is no object that couldn’t be improved by seeing it as a work of art, as the leading Art Nouveau artists did. It’s no surprise to me that although this design movement was preeminent for no more than 15 years, surviving examples both large and small remain strongly fixed in the public consciousness today.
“Art Nouveau first appeared as the name of an interior design gallery in Paris–Maison de l’Art Nouveau–that opened in 1896. For many artists and designers neoclassicism—the predominant aesthetic of the day–was staid, inert and soulless. Looking to the past was dull. Why not look to the forms of the living things that surround us, these artists suggested, to the curving lines and colors of nature, rather than the straight lines of the man-made forms of the distant past? Why not use these organic forms as a jumping off point for the human imagination, creating dramatic, stylized compositions that throw off the tired historical conceits? And why not apply this aesthetic to the decorative as well as the fine arts? The result of this revolutionary manifesto was a design idea that produced art that was startling to say the least when it appeared in the closing years of the 19th century. Victorians were either elated or appalled by what they saw. Many thought it would be a passing fad and that art would quickly revert to the accepted classical rules. While Art Nouveau wasn’t to last, there would be no going back, as the modernist art movements of the 20th century built on many of Art Nouveau’s innovations.
“Fine artists like Klimpt typified the Art Nouveau style, but it’s the architects and decorative artists who really fulfilled Art Nouveau’s promise. Antonio Gaudi created his whimsical, eccentric spaces in Barcelona. Charles Rennie Macintosh designed everything from buildings to chairs to wallpaper to jewelry cases. Furniture was not an Art Nouveau focus, but in ornaments, specifically glasswork, the style reached its apogee. We’ve all heard of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the glassmaker whose colored lampshades are as well known today as they were 100 years ago. Nearly as well known is the work of Rene Lalique and Emile Galle.
“The primary thematic visual elements of Art Nouveau are flowers, roots and buds, as well as spider webs, peacock feathers and locusts, featured on everything from wallpaper to fabrics and furniture. Serpentine curving lines and complex patterns, taken from nature, were to be seen on painted and carved surfaces. Silver, pewter, iridescent glass and exotic woods as well as semi-precious stones were the materials most often used on interior surfaces and furnishings. Colors were tastefully subdued browns, greens and mustard, supplemented by purple, gold, lilac and robins’ egg blue.
“Today, Art Nouveau is seen primarily as the bridge from stuffy classicism to modernism. But it is much more than a link between two design eras. Especially in it’s emphasis on the potential beauty of even the most mundane object, Art Nouveau elevates the work of the decorative artist, celebrating the art in the artisan.”
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