Beauty Through Form and Function: Art Nouveau’s Influence on the Early Bauhaus Part 3

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Munich was one of the major centers of development for Art Nouveau in Germany. Jugendstil’s progressive design had definite influence upon the modern school of thought, and it is here that one may clearly see the shift in aesthetic that ultimately led to the inception of the Bauhaus. The formal nature of this local movement clearly reflected the use of modern production methods, and, while focused on abstraction, remained hybrid in the use of both curvilinear and rectilinear representation. 1

Artists either blended the two styles to suit their purposes, or gravitated toward one aesthetic or the other. Peter Behrens, whose woodcut was discussed previously, attempted both in his lifetime. Comparing the restless fluidity of The Kiss, or some of his interior designs at the 1902 Turin Exposition, to his later works for the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) in 1907, one may see an accurate cross-section the stylistic extremes.

Of all inspirations, function played perhaps the strongest role in Jugendstil design. In keeping with their general sense of national pride, German artists and architects perceived exacting craftsmanship, practicality, and aesthetic value as means to prevent cultural debasement. 2 It was for this reason perhaps, that Jugendstil designers related to Morris and the Art and Crafts Movement — and also with Belgian designer Henry van de Velde, whose functional ethics and philosophies on the importance of art in all aspects of life (and life, in turn, in art) had considerable impact. 3

The designs of Richard Riemerschmid are prime examples in the execution of functional beauty — designs so carefully considered that structure, function, and ornament are inseparable. A pitcher’s heavily textured, geometric pattern served as both decoration and a supplemental grip, while its long, graceful neck and lip made pouring from it easier. Similarly, his chair’s design united every necessary component; its back fluidly divided into both a back leg and armrest, which in turn curved downward to become a front leg. Intended for mass-production, Riemerschmid’s chair is still praised for both its structural clarity and iconic design — argued by some to be comparable to the celebrated minimalist designs of Mart Stam or the Eames. 4 Such pieces, regardless of manual or mechanical production, were intended to be pleasing to the both hand and eye. Each aspect of design received equal attention, equally responding to demands of function and aesthetics.

Jugendstil’s drive for excellence was promoted through the creation of various schools, workshops, and artists’ colonies. The first notable group of this nature was the Darmstadt artists’ colony of Mathildeholde, which was established in 1899. The colony intended to stimulate creative exchanges, and a synthesis of inspirations, styles, techniques, and media. And in the tradition of Morris’ and Mackmurdo’s Art and Crafts guilds, its artists, craftsmen, and manufacturers worked together to design beautiful objects for everyday use. 5

It was perhaps during his time in Darmstadt, for instance, that Behrens’s interest in free-form ornament subsided in favor of a more simplified, rectilinear expression. 6 Later, schools and workshops were opened and modeled upon the same collective nature — institutions such as the Düsseldorf Kunstgewerbeschule, (led by Behrens in 1903) the Weimar Arts and Crafts School ( to which van de Velde was given directorship by the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar), and the Vereinigte Werkstätten (founded by Hermann Obrist, who was famed for his philosophies on abstraction). With their large scale collaborations and exhibitions, they were direct predecessors to the Deutscher Werkbund of 1907. 7

Though Art Nouveau notions of form and craft were not absent, later Jugendstil artists who participated in these organizations gradually focused more towards machine production and simplicity. This change was not isolated, but rather reflected a shift in the artistic inclinations of Europe as a whole. Within the first few years of the new century, the avant-garde nature of Art Nouveau had slowly degenerated — its noble intents had seemingly backfired, and history seemed to repeat itself. Art Nouveau arose from the desire to make high art accessible to the public as a whole — redefining everything from domestic furniture to the advertising graphics. 8 As the style popularized, manufacturers began to reproduce it in mass quantities to meet rising demand. The resulting goods, though inferior in quality and often vulgar in subject mattered, were still labeled Art Nouveau. 9 Overlooking the fact that the style was founded on skillful assembly and artistic unity, companies designed as though compensating their works’ lack of substance and utility with an excess mask of ornamentation. 10 Thus Art Nouveau became a style lost in translation, gaining its reputation as a lower-class art form — and one purely decorative, decadent, and scandalous in its repetitious portrayals of florals, femmes fatales, and meaningless historical references. 11 The style, stripped of its fundamental principles, had become what it had been made to combat.

Appalled with its declining form, many of the artists and architects who had initiated the movement began to experiment with other design vocabularies – shifting from line to plane, curves to angles. 12 This transition can be seen in Behrens’ architecture for AEG, and Endell’s Atelier Elvira — designs that suggested the quintessential “mute” façades of modernism — well before the movement was acknowledged. Wolfgang von Wersin’s Abstract Studies (1904) were also from this transitional period, and could easily be mistaken for work from the Bauhaus. Likely meant for wallpapers or textiles, it utilized the simple geometric forms of Constructivism and Cubism, in tandem with the subtle colors, undulating rhythms, and asymmetric composition of Art Nouveau origin.

Wolfgang von Wersin, Abstract Study (1903-4)
Wolfgang von Wersin, Abstract Study (1903-4)

These works foretold the path art would follow for much of the twentieth century, and all but heralded the imminent death of Art Nouveau in its recognizable physical form. But the style still lingered in theory, through its principles of originality, craft, and a unified art form capable of benefiting society. Traces remained with the Deutscher Werkbund — and carried through to the Bauhaus with its founder, Walter Gropius.

Credits:
1] Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, Art Nouveau in Munich (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1988), 11.
2] Peter Selz, ed. Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 1975), 81.
3] Hiesinger, 31.
4] Selz, 115.
5] Selz, 115.
6] Hiesinger, 31.
7] Selz, 126.
8] Mieczysław Wallis, Secesja (Warsaw: Arkady, 1974), 245.
9] Hiesinger, 22.
10] Selz, 17.
11] Wallis, 245.
12] Selz, 137.

Linda Just