Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe and beyond, the movement issued in a wide variety of styles, and, consequently, it is known by various names, such as the Glasgow Style, or, in the German-speaking world, Jugendstil. Art Nouveau was aimed at modernizing design, seeking to escape the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. Artists drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours. The movement was committed to abolishing the traditional hierarchy of the arts, which viewed so-called liberal arts, such as painting and sculpture, as superior to craft-based decorative arts, and ultimately it had far more influence on the latter. The style went out of fashion after it gave way toin the 1920s, but it experienced a popular revival in the 1960s, and it is now seen as an important predecessor of .
Art Nouveau (the "new art") was a widely influential but relatively short-lived movement that emerged in the final decade of the 19th century and was already beginning to decline a decade later. This movement - less a collective one than a disparate group of visual artists, designers and architects spread throughout Europe was aimed at creating styles of design more appropriate to the modern age, and it was characterized by organic, flowing lines- forms resembling the stems and blossoms of plants - as well as geometric forms such as squares and rectangles.
The advent of Art Nouveau can be traced to two distinct influences: the first was the introduction, around 1880, of themovement, led by the English designer William Morris. This movement, much like Art Nouveau, was a reaction against the cluttered designs and compositions of Victorian-era decorative art. The second was the current vogue for Japanese art, particularly wood-block prints, that swept up many European artists in the 1880s and 90s, including the likes of , and . Japanese wood-block prints contained floral and bulbous forms, and "whiplash" curves, all key elements of what would eventually become Art Nouveau.
It is difficult to pinpoint the first work(s) of art that officially launched Art Nouveau. Some argue that the patterned, flowing lines and floral backgrounds found in the paintings ofand represent Art Nouveau's birth, or perhaps even the decorative lithographs of , such as La Goule at the Moulin Rouge (1891). But most point to the origins in the decorative arts, and in particular to a book jacket by English architect and designer for the 1883 volume Wren's City Churches. The design depicts serpentine stalks of flowers coalescing into one large, whiplashed stalk at the bottom of the page, clearly reminiscent of Japanese-style wood-block prints.
Concepts and Styles
Although Art Nouveau has become the most commonly used name for the movement, its wide popularity throughout Western and Central Europe meant that it went by several different titles. The most well-known of these was Jugendstil (Youth Style), by which the styles was known in German-speaking countries. Meanwhile in Vienna - home to, , and the other founders of the - it was known as Sezessionsstil (Secession Style). It was also known as Modernismo in Spain and stile Liberty in Italy (after fabric shop in London, which helped popularize the style). It also went by some more derogatory names: Style Nouille (noodle style) in France, Paling Stijl (eel style) in Belgium, and Bandwurmstil (tapeworm style) in Germany, all of which made playful reference to Art Nouveau's tendency to employ sinuous and flowing lines.
Art Nouveau's ubiquity in the late 19th century must be explained in part by many artists' use of popular and easily reproduced forms such as graphic art. In Germany, Jugendstil artists like Peter Behrens and Hermann Obrist, among many others, had their work printed on book covers and exhibition catalogs, magazine advertisements and playbills. But this trend was by no means limited to Germany. The English illustratorperhaps the most controversial Art Nouveau figure due to his combination of the erotic and macabre created a number of posters in his brief career that employed graceful and rhythmic lines. Beardsley's highly decorative prints, such as (1894), were both decadent and simple, and represent the most direct link we can identify between Art Nouveau and .
The Architecture of Europe
In addition to the graphic and visual arts, any serious discussion of Art Nouveau must consider architecture and the vast influence this had on European culture. In urban hubs such as Paris, Prague and Vienna, and even in Eastern European cities like Riga, Budapest, and Sveged, Hungary, Art Nouveau-inspired architecture prevailed on a grand scale, in both size and appearance. Turn-of-the-century buildings, likein Budapest and the Secession Building in Vienna, are prime examples of Art Nouveau's decorative and symmetrical architectural aesthetic. The arrival in the same period of urban improvements such as subway lines also provided an important outlook for Art Nouveau designers. Hector Guimard's designs for entrances to the Paris subway (c.1900) are particularly fondly remembered examples of the style.
The Vienna Secession
No other group of artists did more to popularize and spread the Art Nouveau style than the Vienna Secessionists, the collective of visual artists, decorators, sculptors, architects and designers, who first banded together in 1897 to promote their own work and organize exhibitions that resisted the conservatism that still prevailed in so many of Europe's traditional art academies. Arguably the most prolific and influential of the secessionists was painter Gustav Klimt, creator of such definitive examples of early modernism asand The Kiss (both 1907-08). The elaborate decorations in his paintings, including gold and silver leaf, and rhythmical abstractions, make them some of the most widely revered examples of the style.
Despite its popularity - both in terms of its geographical spread and its influence on the creation of so many media - Art Nouveau enjoyed very few moments during its heyday when all artistic elements came together to be recognized as a coherent whole. One exception was the 1900 World's Fair in Paris (Exposition Universelle), where the Art Nouveau style was present in all its forms. Of particular note was the construction and opening of the Grand Palais in 1900, a building which, although in thetradition, contained an interior glass dome that clearly adopted the Art Nouveau decorative style. Other exhibitions took place throughout the continent during this time, but none could claim to be celebrating Art Nouveau in such a comprehensive manner as had the Paris Expo.
If Art Nouveau quickly stormed Europe in the late 19th century, artists, designers and architects abandoned it just as quickly in the first decade of the 20th century. 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.