Written by Simone | 16th June 2020
Art Nouveau began its ascent in the late 19th century and continued on into the early 20th. It's a style that sought to do away with the stoic nature of historical art and the hierarchy of it, where sculptures and paintings were considered the standard. Gone were the clash of colours and in came more muted shades and linear contours that resembled the stems of plants. It's a global style and one that transcended art forms, from interior design to sweeping architectural statements – and each country had its own unique twist.
Even though Art Nouveau is the name most often used to describe this all-encompassing art style, its roots aren't actually in French. With the British Arts & Crafts movement in the 1880s already heavily incorporating nature as its main inspiration, the groundwork for Art Nouveau had already been established. One of the most important influences in Britain at the time was graphic designer Aubrey Beardsley and his use of curved and flowing lines became one of the most recognisable features of Art Nouveau.
An important pair within British Art Nouveau designer were painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald and her architect husband, Charles Mackintosh. MacDonald and Mackintosh were both members of a group called 'The Four', hailing from the Glasgow School – a collective of artists influenced by the Celtic revival, the Arts & Crafts movement and Japonisme. In large part because of this group, Glasgow became the centre for Art Nouveau in Britain.
Aubrey Beardsley - "The Peacock Skirt", illustration for Oscar Wilde's play Salomé (1892)
The name Art Nouveau is derived from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, an art gallery opened in 1895 by Siegfried Bing, which played a key role in publicising the style. Even more important was the Exposition Universelle that was held in Paris, 1900: a world fair celebrating the achievements of the past century and helping accelerate development into the next.
This marked the high point for Art Nouveau; highlighting a number of French designers and many other prominent arts and crafts firms from around the world while making Paris the capital of the movement. Entire buildings were designed in Art Nouveau style, most notably by Jules Lavirotte and Henri Sauvage. Glass vases and lamps were made by Emile Gallé; Louis Majorelle built graceful furniture and the Daum brothers excelled in glass design. New magazines like The Studio and Arts et Idées spread the style throughout the world.
The German Jugendstil was taken from artistic journal Die Jugend, which was one of the magazines instrumental in promoting the style in Germany, together with Simplicissimus and Pan. During the early 20th century, the term Jugendstil was only used for two-dimensional forms of graphic arts, mainly typography and graphic design, but is now also used for manifestations of Art Nouveau in Germany, the Netherlands, the Baltic states and Nordic countries in general.
One important feature of Jugendstil is the combination of letters and images that were designed as a whole. Designers often used unique display typefaces that worked harmoniously with the image. Otto Eckman was a leading German designer, whose favourite animal (the swan) became an emblem of Jugendstil.
Joseph Sattler - Pan magazine cover
In the U.S, glass designer Louis Comfort Tiffany was the most important ambassador for Art Nouveau. In 1895, his works were featured in the Art Nouveau gallery of Siegfried Bing and at the request of Thomas Edison, he began to make electric lamps with multicoloured glass shades. This Tiffany lamp became one of the most iconic pieces of Art Nouveau, but the craftsmen and women also designed windows, vases and other glass art that were equally impressive, if lesser known.
Taking its name from the British department store Liberty, Italy’s Stile Liberty (or Stile Floreale) was a combination of Art Nouveau and classicist elements. Carlo Bugatti (the brother of renowned car designer) was one of Stile Liberty’s leading furniture designers. Bugatti’s exotic designs spanned an impressive range of mediums; from textiles to ceramics and even musical instruments. But he is best remembered for his innovative furniture, featuring remarkable keyhole designs. For an architectural example of Italian Art Nouveau, look to the Teatro Massimo in Palermo designed by Ernesto Basile, the largest opera house in Italy.
In Austria, a distinct variant of Art Nouveau arose: the Vienna Secession. Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil and Otto Wagner were the founders of the movement, with Klimt being the president and the most well-known of the Secession painters. In comparison to Jugendstil, Secession style was more delicate and less nationalistic. It all came together in the Secession building designed by architect Joseph Olbrich, where Klimt and other Secession artists showcased their paintings.
Gustav Klimt - Adele Bloch-Bauer I
In Russia, you could find a particularly colourful version of Art Nouveau, popularised by the publication of the art journal Мир искусства (The World of Art) founded by artists Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev. Contrary to the nature-inspired French Art Nouveau, Russian Art Nouveau used the bright colours and exotic designs of Russian folklore and fairytales as its main inspiration.
One of the most influential contributions that came out of the magazine, was the creation of Diaghilev’s new ballet company: the Ballets Russes – which began with costumes and sets designed by Benois and Bakst, and later by notable international artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and Coco Chanel. The Ballet company, however, never actually performed in Russia, instead they performed annually in Paris.
Hotel Metropol, Moscow, Russia, 1899-1907, artwork by Vrubel, Golovin, Andreev
Riga is an example of a city where Art Nouveau architecture really thrived. The Russian occupation of Riga left the city with a distinctly Russian style of Art Nouveau, although the Latvian architects gave the art form their own spin. If you happen to visit the city, you can expect at least one-third of all of the buildings in the centre of Riga to be in Art Nouveau style, making it the city with the highest concentration of these kinds buildings anywhere in the world.
In Spain, Art Nouveau manifested in a different way. The Spanish Modernisme is most well known for the works of Antoni Gaudí, whose designs of the Casa Milà and Casa Batlló are closest to the spirit and ideals of Art Nouveau. His most famous structure, the Sagrada Família, contrasts the Art Nouveau tendencies with revivalist Neo-Gothic.
In the Nordics, Jugendstil was often combined with the National Romantic Style of each country. In Norway, the movement was connected to a revival inspired by Viking folk art, led by designers like Lars Kisarvik and Gerard Munthe.
In fact, the Norwegian town of Ålesund is now widely considered to be the capital of Jugendstil in Scandinavia, courtesy of tragedy when a great fire in 1903 destroyed 850 houses. Help, however, arrived from all over the world to rebuild the city. In just three years, the area was reconstructed by around 50 Norwegian architects, resulting in a unique and distinctive local variation of Art Nouveau.
In Finland, the style was a bit more simple and functional. You can find Jugendstil in the Helsinki Central railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, the Finnish National Theatre and the Finnish National Museum among other buildings.
Viking dragon-head chair and tapestry by Gerhard Munthe, Norway (1898)
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