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Friday, June 28, 2013

Art Nouveau

Education, 1890, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the center section of a
window in Linsly Chittenden Hall, Yale University.
Hope II, 1908, Gustave Klimt
Around 1890, and from then until about 1910, there evolved a new style of art. It has since come to be seen as the transitional style between Classicism and what we have loosely come to call Modernism today. The only problem was, no one could agree upon what to call this new style. In Germany they called it Jugenstil (youth style). In Spain they called it Arte Joven (young art, except in Catalonia where it was called Moderisme). It was Arte Nova (new art) in Portugal, Nieuw Kunst (also new art) in the Netherlands, Stile Liberty in Italy while elsewhere around Europe it was called Stile Floreal (floral style), Lilienstil (lily style), Style Nouille (noodle style), Paling Stijl (eel style), and Wellenstile (wave style). In the U.S. we called it Tiffany Style (top) after the stained glass artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Following a great deal of nomenclatural warfare, the art world pretty much settled on the French name, Art Nouveau (new art), named for an art gallery in Paris called Maison de l'Art Nouveau (House of New Art).

Art Nouveau, the book cover
which started it all.
Art Nouveau was a broad art movement, innovative in style, and one that touched virtually all the arts in existence at the time. The name of Antonio Gaudi comes up in architecture. In graphic design the style not only had its birth but its most avid use and followers, starting in 1883 with Arthur Mackmurdo's book cover for Wren's City Churches (left), a guidebook to the London churches Christopher Wren. Actually, the style probably was least influential in the area of painting, prominent primarily in the work of Gustave Klimt (Hope II, above, right) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as the prints of Aubrey Beardsley (below, left). Mostly one might characterize Art Nouveau as organic, or more precisely, as "botanic" (hence some of the more descriptive entries in the name game). If the decorative motif had vines, leaves, flowers, and curving, flowing lines (usually to a fault) it was Art Nouveau.

Isolde, 1899, Aubrey Beardsley
Twenty years is a nice, long run for any art style; but so much florid, flowing, floral flamboyance after a while can grow flagrantly flatulent. If the profound social changes of World War I hadn't killed it off, the advent of the 1920s' Art Deco would have. Art Deco was neat, clean, streamlined, and urban, all the things Art Nouveau was not. Art Nouveau eased the transition from Victorian overindulgence in all things decorative to the understated elegance of Art Deco, and eventually what we've come to think of today as "modern." Had it not been for Art Nouveau, the advent of Modernism would have been much more jarring.

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