Beauty through Form & Function: Art Nouveau’s Influence on the Early Bauhaus

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Upon its decline, and for much of the twentieth century, critics have regarded Art Nouveau with varying degrees of contempt or dismissal. The suggestion that it could have any relation to Bauhaus, an institution perceived as the cradle of modernism, is met with considerable skepticism. How could a style suggesting excessive fantastic imagery — featuring ornate floral interlaced foliage and languid female forms — have any relation to unadorned surfaces of austere machine logic? The two seem in complete contradiction to one another. However, upon re-examination of Art Nouveau’s history and founding principles, one may draw an alternate conclusion: that this movement, in its flourish and decay, reshaped the conception of art and architecture to come… that, in essence, it promoted several enduring modern design philosophies, which later became the foundations for Bauhaus itself.

This perhaps unorthodox perspective is offered through a series of articles presenting abbreviated histories and social contexts of the two movements, and some critique and comparison of work that came out of them. If nothing else, the topic of art as a reflection of the times, and how it evolves, emerges, discards, or amalgamates ideas of the past and future is still very relevant to the present.

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The era in which Art Nouveau manifested was one of artistic and societal disjunction. The Industrial Revolution had begun a social shift, widening the gaps between classes as much as it allowed for upward mobility. Mass production distributed a wider selection of goods to a larger number of people, and to suit tastes both contemporary and nostalgic, but quality and style suffered. Vehicles of culture and concept — art, architecture, fashion, and craft — succumbed to overwhelming, eclectic historicism to become more consumer friendly.1 Discerning taste in “true” art thus became another way to define class distinctions. Fearing the state of society — and the technological changes blamed for it — artists and patrons further aggravated the situation. In an effort to preserve their supposed aristocracy from what were considered debased art forms, the upper class effectively severed applied art from painting and sculpture, in terms of both formal academic training and metrics of worth.2 In response, artists became even more retrospective, in the disillusioned belief that they might achieve a “golden era” through the re-application of antiquated styles.

The first artistic movement to reject historicism and artistic degeneracy — the Arts and Crafts movement of Britain — emerged around 1882. Its forerunners included Arthur Mackmurdo and William Morris, who believed that all people were entitled to a life amongst beautiful objects representative of their time.3 Appalled by the rampant stylistic imitation occurring in Beaux Arts salons and the increasing degradation of imitated craftsmanship through mass production, they sought a modern artistic expression that healed the rift between the fine and applied arts — and, ostensibly, in society.4 The model used to achieve this goal was, somewhat ironically, the medieval craftsmen’s guilds. In keeping with John Ruskin’s theories, participating artists believed that guilds promoted greater respect for the applied arts, with craftsmen once again seen as equal to the artist.5

Through such establishments as the Millennium Guild, the Arts and Crafts reintroduced the everyday object, whether a wall textile or a book binding, as a practical, contemporary work of art — still reflective of a nationality and folk traditions, but without the artistic pastiche then so prevalent. There was, however, one other anomaly that existed within the forward-thinking nature of the group. Also like Ruskin, Morris and his compatriots harbored a suspicion against the machine, and denounced modern manufacturing techniques and materials of industry, which may have been in part due to social concerns and depersonalization associated with division of labor and factory mechanization.6 They looked instead to “honest” media and hand labor as vehicles of their artistic and architectural reform. In this rejection of the natural progress of industry, the Arts and Crafts still remained nostalgic for a bygone era.

In 1890, shortly after the Arts and Crafts guilds formed in England, another movement developed on in Scotland and on the European continent. It, too, arose in protest of the eclectic anachronisms, with the intent to construct a new artistic vocabulary more appropriate for the approaching century. However, its embrace of modernity surpassed its British counterpart: it accepted the machine as a novel, socially relevant, creative tool that made possible the widespread accessibility of the decorative arts — including end-goal of life in the total work of art.7

The movement manifested differently from country to country, drawing strongly from localized needs and cultural flavors, varying in name with each location. In Germany, it was called Jugendstil; in Belgium, Style Nouille or Paling Stijl; and in Italy, Modernismo. It became a sensation with the vanguard of fashion and design, and was alternately viewed as a unique national development or a vaguely foreign import, depending on whether critics favored or discredited it.8

The style’s generally accepted name was adopted from the name of a small Parisian art shop. John Ruskin, a strong supporter of this new art form, opened the Maison de l’Art Nouveau to showcase the work of international artists. Reflecting on the nature of his shop, Bing mused, “[It is] simply the name of an establishment opened as the meeting ground for all ardent young artists, anxious to manifest the modernness of their tendencies.” 9 Thus, the title “Art Nouveau” was applied to their method of representation, and generally to the body of work they created over the period roughly between 1890 and 1910.

Credits:
1] Anna Rowland, Bauhaus Sourcebook: Bauhaus Style and Its Worldwide Influence (London:
Quantum Books Ltd, 1997), 13.
2] Fern Lerner, “Foundations for Design Education: Continuing the Vorkurs Vision,” Studies in Art
Education, 46:3 (2005): 212.
3] Roberta Waddell, The Art Nouveau Style in Jewelry, Metalwork, Glass, Ceramics, Textiles,
Architecture, and Furniture (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), vii – xi.
4] Peter Selz, ed. Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 1975), 8.
5] Waddell, xi.
6] Rowland, 11.
7] Mieczysław Wallis, Secesja (Warsaw: Arkady, 1974), 145.
8] Selz, 10.
9] Selz, 11.

Linda Just