When you think of Art Nouveau, you probably picture the entrances to the Paris Metro with delicate swirling leaves and elegant glass canopy. Perhaps you envision Mucha's posters with dream-like women covered with flowers and jewelry. But what about this: a rock concert poster from 1967 featuring The Doors? As surprising as it may seem, the style - sometimes referred to as "Art Nouveau on Acid” - has profoundly marked the aesthetics of the era of free love and flower power. In today's video, we'll learn about this pure product of the Belle Époque and why it has never quite gone away.
Art Nouveau was a highly decorative art movement started by the new middle-class, which established itself in cities throughout Europe and the United States at the turn of the century. It was a genuinely cosmopolitan project of modernity that existed in all sorts of media, forms, scales, and geographies. Everything from architecture, interior design, decorative arts, fashion and graphic design was influenced by this new art. It was literally new since the term Art Nouveau is a French word for "new art."
What was so new about it? Well, the Art Nouveau movement was a very self-conscious and deliberate attempt by a group of artists, including Les Vingt, who wished to create a "total work of art" that would unify arts and crafts into a single aesthetic universe. Inspired by the teachings of French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, British designer William Morris, and the Art and Crafts movement, these revolutionary artists wanted to tear down the hierarchy between fine arts and the so-called lesser decorative arts once and for all.
They were tired of the academic art and historicism of 19th-century art and dreamed of creating a new form that would be more appropriate to the age of electricity, cinema and automobiles. Still, they didn’t like everything that the Industrial Revolution brought, primarily growing mass production. They saw it as dehumanizing and were concerned that it would bring uniformity and unimaginativeness into the realm of art. Therefore, Les Vingt and fellow artists suggested a return to crafts and nature to create objects that would blend fine arts, artisanal craftsmanship, beauty and function.
Ironically, the Art Nouveau movement would not have reached its global scale had it not been for mass production. This technology also gave artists access to modern materials, such as iron and later concrete, allowing them to realize their extraordinary designs from buildings to decorative items.
The most recognizable feature of the Art Nouveau style is undoubtedly the delicate use of curves and natural forms. In nature, the artists found sinuous curves of plant life and insects to inspire a lightness and sensuality of form and a sense of movement in their work. The style’s trademark whiplash curves and organic shapes can be found everywhere, from architecture and interior décor to illustrations.
The new art also found great inspiration from medieval art, folk art, Rococo style, and Japanese art. Japanese influences are especially noticeable in graphic design, furniture, ceramics, and jewelry.
Zodiac by Alphonse Mucha, 1896
But perhaps the most intriguing feature of Art Nouveau is its obsession with the representation of the female form. If you watched the 2016 movie Klimt starring John Malkovich as a famous artist, you know what we mean. Art Nouveau artists draw inspiration from the natural curves and beauty of the female body to create a distinctly sensual and feminine appeal in their works. Let’s not forget that only the bourgeoisie had the means to fill their homes with lavish Art Nouveau items. Therefore, this luxurious and overtly feminine look was deliberately designed and marketed for the middle-class female consumers with fashionable aspirations and significant incomes.
Female celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt and Loïe Fuller, seen as personifications of the new, liberated woman, were muses for many artists. The daring new woman exemplified in the art of Klimt and Mucha was depicted with idealized body features dressed in elegant costumes and endowed with a subtle erotic quality. One could say they are reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite representations of women and they wouldn’t be wrong. The most iconic representation of this new, femme fatale is by all means Klimt’s Judith I. The Old Testament heroine is shown daringly nude and sensual, holding the head of the Holofernes like a trophy. She is a powerful, self-conscious woman who proudly claims control over her body and sexuality, depriving men of their dominant role in society.
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by by Gustav Klimt, 1901
Art Nouveau had many names and reached many places at an amazing speed thanks to advances in printing and publishing. France is a country the new art is most associated with. There it was called by many names besides Art Nouveau. The most amusing are Style Jules Verne, Style Mucha and Style Métro. There are a few moments that marked the spread of the new art in France. First, it was the appearance of an advertising poster produced by Alphonse Mucha for the play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhard in Paris in 1895. The poster was an overnight sensation. Parisians fell in love with it so much that they tore it down and carried it home to decorate the walls. Later that year, an art dealer Siegfried Bing opened a gallery in Paris to sell art and design objects in the new style. He named his gallery “Maison l’Art Nouveau.” By the time The 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris took place, Art Nouveau was met with great acclaim. The famous event served as a big spreader of the style.
Despite its great popularity, Art Nouveau only lasted until the eve of the First World War. The decline of social classes, which led to the Great War, revealed that the style was based on utopian ideals and, as such, a short-lived phenomenon of the Belle Époque. After giving way to the Art Déco style in the 1920s, Art Nouveau was forgotten for many decades. In the 1960s, the style was the object of unexpected revival. Its feminine designs with organic forms inspired the graphics of the psychedelic movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its quiet death 100 years ago, the style still has a fond place in many hearts and continues to live on! The current decade is witnessing the re-emergence of Style Mucha and retro 1970s design in fields as varied as street art, graphic art, fashion, and interior design, proving that the wealth and beauty of its forms are worth rediscovering once again.