Magazine article The Spectator

Exuberant, Excessive, Indulgent

Magazine article The Spectator

Exuberant, Excessive, Indulgent

Article excerpt

Over the largest room in the Art Nouveau exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum there beetles a complete Parisian Metro station entrance by Hector Guimard. To beetle - that is, to hang threateningly, of fate, brows, cliffs, etc. is the mot juste in more than one way, since Guimard's lamps, lit a vivid red, are remarkably like the eyes of giant insects. But, then again, they could be flowers of a menacing variety, Venus Flytraps, say.

The ambiguity is typical of Art Nouveau. Elsewhere in the exhibition there are cases of zoomorphic and plantiform jewellery and glassware. There are bracelets and brooches, in the form of serpents, orchids, insects, hornets, damselflies, irises sometimes it is hard to tell which is which. Similarly, it can be hard to tell the bats from the flowers and sea creatures on the glassware, no matter whether it is from Paris, New York, Nancy or Budapest.

The Art Nouveau was a universal, international style, which spread from Moscow to Chicago, which may explain why this is such an enormous exhibition. It has spread through the first large room - big enough for some entire shows at the V&A before it has dealt exhaustively with just the sources of Art Nouveau: Japanese art, Islamic art, Rococo, arts and crafts, etc. Only then does it get down to the stuff itself, by theme - the obsession with nature and evolution, for example, from which the above examples are taken - and the various centres: Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Vienna, Helsinki and so on.

On and on it goes, a feast of Art Nouveau, for those who like it. And an awful lot of people do, to judge by the crowding on the afternoon on which I went along (tickets are by time-slot). I suspect that the V&A are on to a winner here.

The reason for this popularity is not hard to find. Where 20th-century design has been by and large austere and visually self-denying, Art Nouveau was exuberant, excessive, indulgent (all popular qualities, in art and elsewhere). Modernism has tended to believe, along with Adolf Loos, that ornament is crime. The Art Nouveau - though in many ways it led on to modernism, as one can see, say, from the spare metal work of the Vienna Secession - tended to think you couldn't have enough decoration, and the more bizarre the better. Partly that was because of a fin de siecle propensity to lie back and float away on all those fronds and undulating tresses of hair - which no doubt explains the hippy fascination with the style. (An aged modernist with whom I once went round a Gaudi building remarked, 'That is not architecture, it is marijuana.') But there was also a belief, derived from the Symbolfists - and mentioned on an information board at the V&A - that art is, or should be, profound decoration.

That is exactly what modernist artists don't believe. Decorative, for them, is a dirty word, and we have temporarily or permanently lost the notion that the way everyday items look could be a matter of interest for serious artists. That, I think, is a shame.

One of the attractions of Art Nouveau is that a chair or a vase can come from the same conceptual world as a painting by a great artist. Pictures by Gauguin, Klimt and Seurat, therefore, fit quite happily into this exhibition (as do some extraordinary, but not entirely successful ceramics by Gauguin, resembling the kind of thing which is borne proudly home from school pottery classes). …

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