Art Nouveau: An International Aesthetic

By Gillette, Arthur | UNESCO Courier, August 1990 | Go to article overview

Art Nouveau: An International Aesthetic


Gillette, Arthur, UNESCO Courier


Art Nouveau: an international

POMPOSITY of intent and orthodoxy of style--tese were the main traits of European architecture against which Art Nouveau rose up towards the end of the last century. It was a time of rapid urban growth, when the rich wanted to show off their newly-acquired wealth in town houses and other architectural statements that took themselves so seriously that they seemed heartless. Art Nouveau, in contrast, was a vision that sprang straight from the heart as a rejection of the grey uniformization of the environment: of dwellings, furniture, tableware and other artefacts that strongly shape the ways in which people live and feel about their daily lives.

Art Nouveau expressed nostalgia for Nature and the past, for the non-urban and the non-modern, for the anti-rational swirls of vines and flower stems, the rough texture of pine cones, and more generally for pre-industrial asymmetry. It also grew in tune with the medieval longings that so marked the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century, and were often connected with movements of national revival. But Art Nouveau also looked agead, happily seizing the materials of its day and proving itself to be a force for ingenious innovation. Did stone attest to the solidity and incomes of the wealthy, whose pomposity Art Nouveau mocked? The new style flaunted its creativity by making this staid material come alive with turbulent vegetation, mythical beasts and human beings with expressions so pure they seem to pre-date the very notion of sin. Art Nouveau worked stone as though it were clay, and also embraced new media such as polychrome glazing, wrought iron, exposed steel, and glass (stained or futuristically sworled), often in astonishing and unprecedented combinations in the same work, be it a house or a piece of furniture.

In terms of inspiration and impact, the Art Nouveau vision also looked outwards. Japanese pictorial treatment of Nature was an explicitly recognized source, and japnisme was seldom far from the minds of many Art Nouveau practitioners. Moghul influence can also be seen (in certain towers, for instance), and some Art Nouveau exponents in Central Europe drew on references from further to the east.

And what of impact? There is today a widespread misconception according to which Art Nouveau was an overwhelmingly European expression, with some minor overflow reaching the shores of North America. Nothing could be further from the truth. After flowering in the Old World--from Helsinki to Rome, from Moscow to Paris--the seeds of Art Nouveau spread far and wide on the winds of what turned out to be the first truly international architecture and design movement of our century. …

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