To use a single term to describe a diverse movement is deceptive. It connotes a certain amount of homogeneity and standardization, which was the very antithesis of Art Nouveau. Individuality was key; the movement’s forerunners believed that problems of design could be overcome through the unique methods of each artist.1 Yet despite this tendency, there was also a set of common formal means and inspirations. It is within these concepts that one finds the foundations for many modern design philosophies — including that of the Bauhaus.
Technology and material played a central role in Art Nouveau’s motivation. It has been suggested that the period followed a materialist model, utilizing the most advanced means and methods of construction from any and all disciplines, and from there deriving its style.2 The Industrial Revolution was the advent of iron and glass construction — factory-produced materials with a potential for myriad creative applications. Artists and architects perceived the valuable opportunity such media presented, and looked to contemporary engineering as models. They began with the airy, skeletal forms of the greenhouse and train shed, and improvised. Trusses developed curvilinear webbing, and buttresses stretched outwards, seemingly warping beyond its limits.
Columns sprouted wrought iron vines, tracing the elements of the roof’s structure. Rather than being simple applications, ornament became symbolically organic, derived and seemingly emerging from an object — as means to highlight its materials and construction.3 This was another facet of an all-encompassing artistic unity, and architects such as Horta and Endell implemented them deftly. Horta’s Maison du Peuple, demolished in 1965, was exemplary. Large expanses of glass, exposed wrought iron tracing the curving façade and internal balconies blur the perceived boundaries of interior and exterior.4 Structure became decoration, and decoration (seemingly) structure; both were entwined beyond separation.
Function was also important with early Art Nouveau principles, but its gravity varied in each country. Some artists held the search for novel aesthetic to be of greater importance — to the point that utility was often disregarded.5 It was perhaps partially due to this philosophical variation and from those examples that Art Nouveau’s purely decorative reputation arose. But despite this, many participants of the movement were driven by the intent to create beautiful, useful objects. Members of the German Jugendstil were particularly strong advocates of functional design. The manifestations of function were not always well-accepted, however, in an era during which a lavishly furnished home reflected wealth. Belgian architect Henry van de Velde’s display at the Paris Exhibition, though effective, received considerable criticism from many of its visitors. Its design featured carefully planned spaces that flowed one into the other, and furniture that was integral with the walls.6 Though it demonstrated a beautifully designed, efficient use of space, the general public remained unconvinced that art need not be a mere accessory. For them, art was still detached from the utilitarian components of life — often contributing to the clutter of one’s home.
Skepticism merely fueled the designers, as they strove towards the Wagnerian Gesamstkunstwerk. The concept — literally, “the total work of art” — suggested a harmonious environment in which the activity, tools, furniture, room, and building were integral. Artists believed this goal could be achieved through a unification of the arts. The first issue of Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration (1897) proclaimed “need of a complete integration of all artists, architects, sculptors, painters and technical artists. They all belong intimately together in the same place, each thinking individually, yet working together hand in hand for a larger whole.” 7 The statement echoes the same desire as the earlier Arts and Crafts… but it is also worth noting its similarity in wording and intent to the first Bauhaus manifesto.
Certain motifs became vehicles for the functional, technological, and material intents of Art Nouveau. Although vegetation, sea creatures, and the lithe female form were prevalent subjects, the blatant eroticism that was later attached to the movement was not necessarily the primary feature. Artists looked to folk art, nature, and to specific historical periods for inspiration, which at first may seem somewhat contradictory behavior for a style that pronounced itself anti-historic and anti-eclectic. But such sources were strictly generative antecedents – foundations for a strongly sought abstraction that appealed to emotion. Successful pieces thus portrayed the world as it was felt as much as it was seen.8
Methods to achieve abstraction were revolutionary at the time — and often characterized the work of such design groups as the Bauhaus. Surface treatment, for instance, consisted of harmonic color palates, plays of solid and void, asymmetry and planar flattening. In using these techniques, artists discarded the favored practices of artistic realism that emerged from techniques of perspective, shading, and highlighting.9 Instead, bold use of lines was favored — prominent not only in the visual, but also the applied and architectural arts. Whether through direct connection or inferred relation, lines became a unifying element and an emblem in the all-consuming goal of integration, drawing objects together towards synthesis of an entire space.10 They appeared in two forms: one was a curvilinear, floral idiom, which was generally connoted with the style, and the other followed a more geometric, linear vocabulary, “which heralded the modern preoccupation with geometry.” 11 Art Nouveau came to describe both — as well as a hybrid of the two. In any form though, lines defined the voids, created the forms, and caused the asymmetry so important to the style of this movement. Some artists, such as Peter Behrens and Wassily Kandinsky, began their careers in Art Nouveau, and later participated in various modernist movements. Many of the techniques they learned from their initial attempts remained in employment in their later works.
Consider Peter Behrens’ early woodcut, The Kiss, as an apt demonstration of Art Nouveau techniques.
Bold colors flatten the space and distort one’s perceptions of the subjects — two androgynous lovers locked in a kiss. The swirling, miasma of the hair frames both the image and their faces, effectively joining the two elements together more intimately than their dispassionate gesture. Invoking the restless tension that drives the image, abstraction, asymmetry, color, and outline dominate the image, to the point that the subjects are subordinate. Such techniques stood in jarring contradiction to the meticulous realism of Beaux-Arts instruction — and completely reflected the path that art would follow for the remainder of the twentieth century.
1] Nikolaus Pevsner, The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.,
2] Paul Greenhalgh, “Revisiting the Style of Art Nouveau,” USA Today, September 2000: 43.
3] Peter Selz, ed. Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 1975), 17.
4] Pevsner, 96.
5] Selz, 101.
6] Selz, 97.
7] Selz, 7.
8] Selz, 9.
9] Mieczysław Wallis, Secesja (Warsaw: Arkady, 1974), 159.
10] Roberta Waddell, The Art Nouveau Style in Jewelry, Metalwork, Glass, Ceramics, Textiles,
Architecture, and Furniture (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), ix.
11] Frank Russell, ed. Art Nouveau Architecture (London: Rizzoli International Publications, 1979), 7.