Art News & Views

Art Nouveau : New Art Furniture

The Art Nouveau Movement was an international design movement applying to most if not all of the arts and crafts including, architecture, painting, pottery, metalwork, printing and furniture. It reached its peak of popularity at the turn of the last century (1890 to 1905). The name 'Art nouveau' is French for 'new art'. It is also known as Jugendstil, German for 'youth style', named after the magazine Jugend, which promoted it, and in Italy, Stile Liberty from the department store in London, Liberty & Co., which popularized the style. A reaction to 'academic art' of the 19th century, it is characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. Art Nouveau is an approach to design according to which artists should work on everything from architecture to furniture, making art as part of everyday life. Art Nouveau's fifteen-year peak was most strongly felt throughout Europe from Glasgow to Moscow to Madrid but its influence was global. Although Art Nouveau fell out of favor with the arrival of 20th-century modernist styles, it is seen today as an important bridge between the historicism of Neoclassicism and modernism. The list of Art Nouveau exponents is endless, but included, Rene Lalique, Emile Galle, and Daum Freres & Louis Comfort Tiffany. Muchas' posters of Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hortas' organic design, Charles Rennie Mackintosh's interiors of spatial elegance and Arthur Lasenby Libertys' Store introducing the designs to his customers.

The development of the style is possibly as complicated as its content, but to mention John Ruskin & designer William Morris's abandonment of machine made articles in favor of handmade craftsmanship & simplicity in design is perhaps a critical starting point. Both men had challenged Victorian aesthetic values and provided a climate for the coming style by changing expectation. The Medieval inspired Arts & Crafts Movements search for new aesthetics, in all probability, also allowed for the later eventual development of Art Nouveau.

The name Art Nouveau was derived from Siegfried Bings' shop in Paris 'La Maison de L' Art Nouveau'. He had for many years bought the art of Japan and China to France. He had also become friendly with a group of artists from the school of thought known as the Nabis. In 1895 a new gallery to promote contemporary, applied and fine arts was opened & in 1900 Bing took an extensive pavilion at Exposition Universelle in Paris.  He called his pavilion “l'Art Nouveau Bing”. An amalgam of styles and influences ensued, collectively from Japanese imagery, Symbolist idealism and idiom and was shown to great effect at the 'Expo'.

In the forerunner to this period a trade treaty between the U.S. and Japan in 1854, sanctioned Japanese Art to become available after almost 200 years of isolation. Their use of nature as a primary source, flat perspectives & block colouring was a revelation to Western artists. Aesthetic values came to the fore. Art Nouveau absorbed all these influences through the use of the motifs and naturalistic designs of birds and insects as well as botanical studies of plant life. The symbolic Art Nouveau alluded to the epitome of weakness and vulnerability, temptation and degeneracy. The narrative of Art Nouveau design concept contains a complex range of symbolic matter.  Mystical aspects were acquired from many sources, but particularly by contact with the French Symbolist Movement. Art Historian Maurice Rheims wrote, “Art Nouveau arose out of symbolism and its sources are as diverse & bewildering as those of the parent stream.” The female form was increasingly used as a symbol of eroticism & decadence. Art Nouveau artists portrayed woman as an ethereal, spiritual creature frequently combining her with motifs of dragonflies, butterflies and flowers in an attempt to convey sensual & melancholic undertones running deeply through the concept of nature. It was overt in its use of erotic forms of imagery and its symbolic use of myth and religion played a part in the development and formulation of the 'New Art' style.

Art Nouveau furniture is some of the most unique and interesting furniture to study, or to own. Art Nouveau furniture designers, inspired by the architectural accomplishments of Horta and Hangar, set out to design pieces of furniture suitable for the elaborate, nature-inspired houses, hotels and public works buildings built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was no easy feat, since the curving lines found in Art Nouveau structures did not always lend themselves to sturdy furniture design. There were several furniture designers, notably Gustave Surrurier Bovy, Antoni Guadi and Henry Van de Velde and the like, who learned to create furniture pieces that beautifully suited Art Nouveau homes and hotels.

Character of Art Nouveau furniture

Art Nouveau furniture has some signature elements which make them unique:

Extreme Curves

Art Nouveau furniture usually features interesting curves that may contradict how you think furniture should be designed. These curves are inspired by nature; the bending of the grass in the wind, or the arch of a new plant reaching for the sun. Some artists referred to the curves in Art Nouveau works as whiplash curves. Rhythmic patterns of curvy lines are characteristic of this art style. These curvy lines connect the images in the art and can even be found in beautified plain items, such as dishes, eating utensils, hardware and furniture.

Organic Inspiration

An Art Nouveau should immediately make you think of nature. You may see extra arches in a book case or china cabinet that reach up like a tree limb stretching to the sky, with smaller limb-like protrusions curving out and away from the center of the cabinet.

Images of Flowers, Plants, Birds or Insects

Art Nouveau designers loved to work images of insects, birds, plants and flowers into their furniture. These are often carved or inlaid into the furniture as decoration.

Patterns of Curving Lines

Many Art Nouveau pieces have carved, inlaid or built-on patterns of lines that swirl and twist like smoke in the air or water rushing down a mountainside. These lines may look like seaweed waving in the ocean or a cluster of daisies weaving in and out of one another. Images of vines that climb the sides of the furniture are also common. Art Nouveau is characterized by graceful, sinuous lines. The lines are rarely angular.

The power and use of symbols in Art Nouveau were taken to the extremes of decadence in exploitation of eroticism and may have contributed to its downfall just prior to the outbreak of hostilities in World War I. These factors were recognised as a destabilising factor right across ideological spectrum. Socialist modernism on the one hand and conservative historicism on the other ignored exploration of sexuality and pushed it to the periphery of art and design. However at the end of the terrible conflict in 1918, new design concepts of modernism began to emerge and Art Deco was born in the second decade of the 20th Century. Although the interest in Art Nouveau declined for about 60 years, its influence still remained, albeit in relatively obscure form. In the 20th century style became more and more associated with utility and technology.

Amitabh Bachhawat 



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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.