Art Nouveau – Devil in the Detail

Art Nouveau, an art style that rose to prominence between 1890 and 1910 and gained widespread acclaim for its naturalistic approach with a diverse range of initial line work with flora. Art Nouveau as a style became famous due to the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, an art gallery in Paris owned by Siegfried Bing. Though the style spread throughout Europe and had various names, it is Art Nouveau which has stuck as the defining term for an age and an art form.

Comprising various forms of both decorative and fine arts –painting, architecture, textiles, jewellery, graphic work, interior design and metal moulding – Art Nouveau is a perennial favourite. Maurice Denis a French painter stated, “I believe that before everything a painting must decorate.” It is this design consciousness that continues to shape us.

The aim of Art Nouveau was to modernise art. Its popularity has ensured an enduring aesthetic vision. Updated, shapeshifted, it still defines the quintessentially modern. Its big comeback occurred in the 1960s. Now seen as an important precursor to both Art Deco and Modernism, a major influence on Art Nouveau was Japonism, an eastern style which first gained traction in Europe in the late 19th century.

Stephan Welz & Co.

Christies South Kensington, Butterflies and Roses, 1999. Art Nouveau lamp, 40,5 cm in height. image courtesy of Stephan Welz & Co.

Iconic works of Art Nouveau are The Peacock Skirt by Aubrey Beardsley,The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt and Moulin Rouge: La Goulue by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Furniture during the time became greatly enhanced, more opulent, for Art Nouveau is all about the tell – an arabesque, a cool flex of line and colour – the devil in the detail – on occasion a chair with an odd number of legs. The entire human habitat fell under its spell with architects designing living conditions in its iconic image – more decorative and nature-centric – at odds with cold looking interiors and exteriors of houses consumed by minimalism and functionality.

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Josef Lorenzo, Egyptian Dancer, 1930. Polychrome figurine, 46.5 com in height. Image courtesy of Stephan Welz & Co.

This shift in the art world, this decisive lifestyle choice, ensured that graphic design and would be painting to be forever altered. The newly created pieces blended personal talent with that of the new technologies being formed at the time and the genre did not oppose the use of newer techniques but rather embraced them. Posters became vibrant and exciting, and were able to be viewed by the public eye in locations other than galleries and museums and seemingly gained a strong feminine approach. Women in their entirety – the iconic feminine, as a design fetish – proved a core focus for painters, graphic designers and architects. It seemed that there would always be a work of art depicting la femme.

The question asked is whether or not Art Nouveau, with its largesse, sweet conceit, pleasure, play, and wonder, still fits into the contemporary art scene today. Then again, everything is ‘cool’ today. In a culture shaped by the mash-up and remix, I’m confident that there will always be room in which Art Nouveau can mutate. After all, what is life if not the devil in the detail?

Sean Streak is staff writer at ART AFRICA.