Art Nouveau

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art nouveau

(är' no͞ovō`), decorative-art movement centered in Western Europe. It began in the 1880s as a reaction against the historical emphasis of mid-19th-century art, but did not survive World War I. Art nouveau originated in London and was variously called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, and Modernismo in Spain. In general it was most successfully practiced in the decorative arts: furniture, jewelry, and book design and illustration. The style was richly ornamental and asymmetrical, characterized by a whiplash linearity reminiscent of twining plant tendrils. Its exponents chose themes fraught with symbolism, frequently of an erotic nature. They imbued their designs with dreamlike and exotic forms. The outstanding designers of art nouveau in England include the graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, A. H. Mackmurdo, Charles Ricketts, Walter Crane, and the Scottish architect Charles R. Mackintosh; in Belgium the architects Henry Van de Velde and Victor Horta; in France the architect and designer of the Paris métro entrances, Hector Guimard, and the jewelry designer René Lalique; in Austria the painter Gustav Klimt; in Spain the architect Antonio Gaudí; in Germany the illustrator Otto Eckmann and the architect Peter Behrens; in Italy the originator of the ornamental Floreale style, Giuseppe Sommaruga; and in the United States Louis Sullivan, whose architecture was dressed with art nouveau detail, and the designer of elegant glassware Louis C. Tiffany. The aesthetics of the movement were disseminated through various illustrated periodicals including The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1894), The Dial (1889), The Studio (begun, 1893), The Yellow Book (1894–95), and The Savoy (1896–98). The works of Beardsley and Tiffany were especially popular.


See definitive studies by R. Schmutzler (1964), M. Rheims (1966), A. Mackintosh, Symbolism and Art Nouveau (1978).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Art Nouveau


(in Russian, modern or still “modern”), a stylistic movement in European and American art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Belgium, Great Britain, and the USA, the movement was known as art nouveau; in Germany, as Jugendstil; in Austria, as Sezessionstil; in Italy, as stile Liberty; and in Spain, as modernismo.

Art nouveau arose amid a crisis of bourgeois culture that took the form of a neoromantic protest against the antiaesthetic bourgeois way of life; it was a reaction to the dominance of positivism and pragmatism. The aesthetic doctrine of art nouveau was based on symbolism, aestheticism, and F. Nietzsche’s philosophy of life. In the opinion of a number of its theorists (including the Belgian H. K. van de Velde, an adherent of the socialist utopian,ism of W. Morris), art nouveau was to become the style of life for a new society that was to take shape under the movement’s influence. Art nouveau was meant to surround people with an integrated, aesthetically saturated spatial and physical environment; it was to express the intellectual life of an era by a synthesis of the arts, making use of new, nontraditional forms and techniques and of modern materials and construction.

The principles of art nouveau were most consistently realized in opulent private dwellings. But numerous business, industrial, and commercial buildings, theaters, railroad stations, bridges, and apartment buildings were also built in the spirit of the movement that strove to become the universal style of its era. Art nouveau attempted to resolve the contradiction, characteristic of 19th-century bourgeois culture, between the artistic and utilitarian principles and to give aesthetic meaning to new functions and methods of construction. The movement sought to adapt all aspects of life to art and to make the individual a part of an artistic whole. The attempt to transform the world through art within the framework of capitalist society was highly Utopian. In the practical sense, however, art nouveau was the first relatively integral style that gave artistic expression to the different aspects of bourgeois daily life.

Rejecting the eclecticism of the 19th century, art nouveau stressed the unity, integrity, and developmental freedom of stylized, generalized, rhythmically organized form, the purpose of which was to spiritualize the material and physical environment and to express the tense and anxious atmosphere of a time of transition. Art nouveau originated at the turn of the century, a period characterized by romantic nationalism and an interest in medieval and folk art. Also characteristic of the period was the appearance of artisans’ workshops, the prototypes of which were W. Morris’ workshops (1861) and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1888) in Great Britain. The new artisans’ workshops often arose as a reaction to capitalist industry; they included the United Craftsmen’s Studios (1897) and the German Craft Studios (1899) in Germany, the Vienna Workshops (1903) in Austria, and studios in Abramtsevo (1882) and Talashkino (c. 1900) in Russia.

Mature art nouveau (1900–20) became an international style based on fundamentally new artistic forms. The rapid spread of art nouveau was facilitated by the journals Revue Blanche (founded 1891, in Paris), The Studio (1893, London), The Yellow Book (1894, London), Jugend (1896, Munich), Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration (1897, Darmstadt), Ver Sacrum (1898, Vienna), and Mir iskusstva (World of Art; 1898–99, St. Petersburg).

In contrast to eclecticism and its concern with the authentic reproduction of individual details of historical and national styles, art nouveau sought to revive the spirit of stylistic unity in art that was characteristic of medieval and folk art; the movement strove to restore the relatedness and mutual influence of all genres of art. This led to the appearance of a new type of versatile artist who was at once architect, draftsman, painter, designer of household objects, and, often, theorist. The idea of a synthetic, integral work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) received its most vivid expression in the design of interiors, the best examples of which are distinguished by the rhythmic harmony of line and tone, the unity of detail in decor and furnishings (wallpaper, furniture, moldings, panels, and light fixtures), and the integration and expansion of space by mirrors, numerous doors and windows, and picturesque murals.

Art nouveau architecture was the first step in the architectural development of the 20th century. It strove for a unity of construction and artistic design; it introduced free, functionally motivated layouts and used frame structures and new materials like reinforced concrete, glass, forged metal, rough stone, tiles, plywood, and canvas in building and interior design. Freely juxtaposing buildings with different types of facade, art nouveau architects rebelled against symmetry and standard norms in urban construction. They used the wide range of construction forms made possible by modern technology to create an emphatically individual visual scheme; the building and the details of its construction received a decorative and visually symbolic treatment. The striving for unusual, picturesque effects, the dynamism and plasticity of form, and the imitation of natural phenomena in architecture (seen in the buildings of A. Gaudí in Spain, V. Horta and H. K. van de Velde in Belgium, and F. O. Shekhtel’ in Russia) existed alongside a tendency toward rationalism. The rationalistic aspect of art nouveau architecture can be seen in the geometrical regularity of large, calm surfaces, the severity, and even, at times, purity of structures by J. Hoffmann and J. Olbrich of Austria, C. R. Mackintosh of Scotland, and the late works of Shekhtel’. Some of the early 20th-century architects foreshadowed functionalism in many ways; they strove to reveal the structural frame of a building and to emphasize the tectonics of mass and volume (exemplified in the structures of O. Wagner in Austria, P. Behrens in Germany, and A. and G. Perret in France).

The basic expressive element in art nouveau is the ornament, which not only adorns the work but gives form to its compositional structure. In the interiors designed by Belgian architects, elegant interweavings of lines and mobile foliage motifs cover the walls, floor, and ceiling; the lines and motifs fuse and expand at their points of intersection, uniting architectural planes and enlivening architectural space. The endless movement in the free-flowing and coiling sensuous lines of the decor has an emotional and symbolic meaning, combining the pictorial with the abstract, the living with the lifeless, and the spiritual with the material.

In the works of the masters of the Viennese Sezessionstil, J. Hoffmann and J. Olbrich, and of The Four, a Scottish group headed by C. R. Mackintosh, strictly geometrical decor is based on variations in circle and square motifs. Despite their renunciation of historical styles, the art nouveau artists made use of the linear style of Japanese graphics, the stylized foliage motifs of Aegean and Gothic art, and elements from the decorative art of the baroque, rococo, and Empire periods.

Art nouveau combined fine and decorative and applied forms of art. Art nouveau ornamentation, which structurally organized space in all genres of art, and the peculiar rhythm of its supple lines were united in graphic art. Lithography, wood engraving, and the art of book printing became important. Art nouveau’s leading graphic artists included A. Beardsley (England), T. T. Heine and H. Vogeler (Germany), F. Vallotton (Switzerland), J. Toorop (Netherlands), E. Munch (Norway), and A. N. Benois and K. A. Somov (Russia). The Frenchmen H. Toulouse-Lautrec and E. Grasset, the Czech A. Mucha, and the Austrian K. Moser were masters of poster art. In painting and sculpture, art nouveau was heavily influenced by symbolism; its painters and sculptors strove to create a self-sufficient artistic system, but their work also represented the transition from traditional 19th-century forms to the experimental language of the modern European schools. The work of the Pont-Aven School, headed by P. Gauguin, was an important stimulus in this transition.

Art nouveau pictures and murals were viewed as elements in the spatial and emotional organization of an interior. Decorativeness, therefore, became one of the most recognizable traits of art nouveau painting. Characteristic is the often encountered paradoxical combination of decorative conventions, ornamental carpet backgrounds, and foreground figures and faces molded with sculptural clarity and plasticity (works by G. Klimt of Austria, F. Knopf of Belgium, and M. A. Vrubel’ of Russia). Expressiveness was achieved in painting by combinations of large areas of color (the Nabis in France, L. S. Bakst in Russia, E. Munch in Norway) and by the use of shaded variations of one hue (Vrubel’ and Benois).

Symbolist aesthetics led to an interest in the symbolism of line and color, to the themes of Weltschmerz, death, and eroticism, and to the world of mystery, dreams, legend, and fairy tale. Dynamism and fluidity of form and silhouette are characteristic of sculpture (works of the Belgian J. Minne and German G. Orbist) and of works in the applied and decorative arts that imitate natural phenomena with their organic internal forces, such as the ceramic and iron works of A. Gaudí; the metal subway entrances of H. Guimard, the glass works of É. Gallé, and the ornaments of R. Lalique in France; L. C. Tiffany’s glass in the USA; and the furniture of H. van de Velde. A tendency toward constructivism, purity of line, and laconic form can be seen in furniture designed by C. R. Mackintosh, J. Hoffmann, and I. A. Fomin.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Art Nouveau

A style of decoration in architecture and applied art developed principally in France and Belgium toward the end of the 19th cent.; characterized by organic and dynamic forms, curving design, and whiplash lines. The German version is called Jugendstil, the Austrian variant Sezession; in Italy one speaks of Stile Liberty, in Spain of Modernismo.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Art Nouveau

a. a style of art and architecture of the 1890s, characterized by swelling sinuous outlines and stylized natural forms, such as flowers and leaves
b. (as modifier): an Art-Nouveau mirror
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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