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What Art Nouveau can teach us about national identity

It was ‘the DNA of modern life’. Cath Pound explores what an extraordinary international design movement tells us about the world.

Art Nouveau was the first self-consciously international modern art movement. Frustrated by the rigid constraints of 19th Century academic art and disillusioned with the way industrialised production had sacrificed quality for quantity, a growing number of artists sought to develop a new style which would embrace the modern to transform society for the better. For its motif they chose nature, which since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 had come to represent evolution and therefore progress.

Although most closely associated with the sensually organic styles of Belgium and France, Art Nouveau had its origins in the English Arts and Crafts movement and went on to have an influence throughout Europe, Scandinavia and beyond. Each country blended nature with its own symbolism and historicism to create its unique take on the style and send out subtle messages of industrial prowess, national identity or defiant independence.  “The first Art Nouveau designs were Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome in 1883,” says Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and an expert on Art Nouveau. Beardsley had been inspired by the eclectic aesthetic of the department store Liberty, which combined Arts and Crafts furniture with Japanese and Indian imports.

 Art Nouveau emerged as a fully-fledged form in Belgium with Victor Horta’s Tassel House in Brussels, generally considered to be the first building to fully represent the style. Like Beardsley, Horta was heavily influenced by Japan. “You get an awful lot of Japanese textile and metalwork with exactly that kind of swirling line it,” says Greenhalgh. Its interior features intensely stylised root forms in mosaic, glass, painting and wrought iron work curling up through the house. “You can feel that you are in something organic growing to the light,” says Michel Draguet, Director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Although Horta’s houses were reserved for a wealthy bourgeois clientele, his designs for department stores and schools made the style accessible to the pubic and its popularity soon spread. “Art Nouveau was everywhere in Belgium,” says Draguet. “It was the DNA of modern life until the first world war.”

In Paris Siegfried Bing’s gallery L’Art Nouveau, with its innovative interiors, gave the movement its name but it was Hector Guimard’s iconic metro station signs that made the style a part of everyday life. The perfect fusion of art, design and technology, his bulbous vegetal creations in cast iron transformed the city, making Art Nouveau an artform for everyone.

The new printing technique of lithography also played a factor in popularising the style, with beautifully produced posters such as Steinlen’s advertisement for the Symbolist Cabaret Le Chat Noir turning the city’s streets into the most egalitarian of art galleries.

In marked contrast to the Belgians and the French, the Dutch rejected the modern in favour of a romanticised idea of what Jan de Bruijn, curator of an exhibition dedicated to Dutch Art Nouveau at The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, calls the “authentic.” Dutch critics also reacted fervently against what they saw as the frivolous excesses of their neighbours and stressed a logical, rational approach to design more in tune with their supposed national character with a firm emphasis on the two dimensional.

The batik technique indigenous to their Javanese colony provided the requisite authenticity and flatness, and led Dutch designers to produce some of the most unique designs in Art Nouveau.

However, as De Bruijn points out “there was a tension between the rationalised art critics and the artists, designers and consumers who wanted to be fashionable,” particularly in the more internationally-minded Hague.

The Delft salad oil poster with its unmistakable fluid line created by Jan Toorop may have been frowned upon by the critics but it became one of the most iconic images of Dutch Art Nouveau.

Nature’s way

Although Art Nouveau  had failed to take hold in England, north of the border Charles Rennie Mackintosh developed a version of the style that was unique to Glasgow by taking elements from the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonism and traditional Scottish architecture, and combining them with a colour scheme of heathery purples, misty greys and muted pinks and greens inspired by the landscapes surrounding the city.

The distinctive nature of the style comes from the severe rectangular geometry of the designs, sometimes softened by flowing organic lines but often, as in the furniture design for Miss Cranston’s series of artistic tearooms, left almost starkly austere.

Barcelona’s Art Nouveau was a flamboyant expression of Catalan pride

Mackintosh’s designs would prove highly influential to the Vienna Secessionists, the geometric nature of his work being adapted by Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and others in their designs for the Wiener Werkstätte. The design collective aimed to revitalise middle-class taste, and reacted firmly against any imitation of the past, shoddy mass production or decorative excess. Nature is still evident, particularly in their fabric designs, but in a highly abstracted manner. However, their emphasis on craftsmanship meant that only a wealthy elite could benefit from their ideas.

Barcelona’s Art Nouveau was a flamboyant expression of Catalan pride, and combined modern technology and traditional craft to spectacular effect. Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s stunning concert hall, the Palau de la Música Catalana, has exposed red brick and iron, covered in richly decorated mosaics and stylised tiles that combine both Spanish and Arabic influences.

But it was Antoni Gaudí who exploited the possibilities of nature and material to the extreme. His extraordinary interpretations of the natural world in stone and metalwork appear to pulse with life with his most famous creation, the Sagrada Familia, swathed in clambering organic forms, almost seeming to grow out of the ground.

The Finns carved folkloric figures and national symbols including bears, pine cones and even frogs

National identity was of equal, if not greater, importance to the artists and designers of Finland, who felt it was in danger of being obliterated by Russia who had annexed the country in 1809. Granite, a local material associated with the resilient flinty character of the Finns, was used in buildings combined with carved folkloric figures such as sinister dwarfish figures and national symbols including bears, pine cones and even frogs.

Italy was one of the last countries to adapt Art Nouveau. Their interpretation was often referred to as Stile Liberty in honour of the imported fabrics whose natural ornamentation influenced the creations of designers such as Galileo Chini, who combined motifs from majolica pottery with the stylised floral designs of Art Nouveau in his ceramics.

However, it would be a mistake to see it as derivative. “If you look across the range of wares, glass, metal ceramic and so forth, there’s a very particular Italian flamboyance to it,” says Greenhalgh. Carlo Bugatti’s eccentrically exotic furniture designs inlaid with bone and ivory are a case in point.

The diversity in Art Nouveau may come as a surprise – but as Greenhalgh notes “a style wasn’t defined simply by how things look, it was also an intellectual and ideological outlook.” And as art historians are just beginning to find out, that outlook spread far further than had previously been thought into Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and beyond – revealing an even greater array of regional variations of the style. It appears nature was a powerfully malleable muse.

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