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Definition: Art Nouveau from Collins English Dictionary


1 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

[French, literally: new art]

Summary Article: ART NOUVEAU
From The Edinburgh Dictionary of Modernism

Art Nouveau was, at least for a brief period of little more than a decade around the turn of the twentieth century, perhaps the most widespread and popular manifestation of a modernising spirit in architecture, design and the applied arts; to a lesser extent its influence extended to painting and sculpture too. Art Nouveau had a key moment of triumph with the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it appeared as a ubiquitous aesthetic innovation for manufacturers and artists alike, and even seemed – for example in buildings created for the Exposition such as the Grand Palais with its decorative ironwork – to bring art and industry together in a shared aesthetic language. Art Nouveau was also, however, often subject to strident CRITIQUE from contemporaries and successors who perceived it as a mistaken diversion from truly modernising or modernist principles.

Known as ‘Jugendstil’ (‘Youth Style’) in Germany, and going by many other local names – some of them less than flattering – Art Nouveau was not a particularly French phenomenon. Its French name is borrowed from the Maison Art Nouveau, an influential Paris gallery owned by Siegfried Bing which existed from 1895 to 1904, and which promoted the use of art and furnishings in harmonious ensembles that clarified the eclectic clutter of Victorian domesticity. Though such reforming intent was common to much of Art Nouveau, the name itself is something of an umbrella term, serving to gather various international movements that shared some precepts and some formal traits, but could also accommodate disparate, even contradictory, positions which had little more than ‘newness’ in common. Thus the work of Antoni Gaudí, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Vienna SECESSION and Louis Comfort Tiffany could all be seen as ‘Art Nouveau’, as could the SYMBOLISM of Aubrey Beardsley, though these scarcely constitute a coherent group and each deviates considerably from the work of more ‘properly’ Art Nouveau figures such as the Belgians Henry van der Velde and Victor Horta, for instance. Accordingly, the roots of Art Nouveau are varied and can be found in the ARTS AND CRAFTS revival and the theories of William Morris, AESTHETICISM and Japonisme, among other nineteenth-century developments.

Hector Guimard's iconic Paris Métro entranceways, which use cast-metal to emulate organic plant-like forms, more imaginative than NATURALIST in their treatment, might serve as a useful exemplar of the Art Nouveau aesthetic in its stereotypical form – Style Métro was even an alternate name for Art Nouveau in France. For Guimard, as for other exponents of Art Nouveau, form – and above all line – could be freed from merely representative or utilitarian function (see FUNCTIONALISM) and allowed to describe arabesque, curvilinear shapes, seemingly motivated by private whimsy even on pragmatic, public or urban infrastructure. The efforts of Art Nouveau to synthesise vibrant, dynamic natural forms and the suggestion of handicraft with the seemingly antithetical world of modern industry, and the sense that solutions such as Guimard's were inevitably compromise formations, were central to the unease felt by its opponents. So too were concerns that its urge to create ORNAMENT and its tendency towards the decorative led to irrational frivolities rather than masterpieces. Walter Benjamin memorably described Art Nouveau as ‘the last attempt at a sortie on the part of Art imprisoned by technical advance within her ivory tower.’ Art Nouveau's characteristic use of free-flowing botanical forms to adorn bourgeois interiors was an unsuccessful attempt, Benjamin contended, to rehabilitate the modern subject within an environment that reconciles TECHNOLOGY, nature and individuality. Though it might provide luxury goods that would function as the signature of a wealthy consumer's taste, and inspire a legion of cheaper commercial imitations of its stylistic tropes, Art Nouveau seemed not to be able to offer a deeper response to the practical or artistic challenges of industrial MODERNITY. The sense that the movement had gone to seed set in quickly as its tendrils extended in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the very solutions Art Nouveau's adherents had devised across all the arts would be themselves subject to severe revision in the years that followed.

  • Benjamin, Walter (1999) ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, in The Arcades Project. Belknap Press Cambridge MA London, pp. 3-13.
  • Duncan, Alastair (1994) Art Nouveau. Thames & Hudson London.
  • Greenhalgh, Paul (ed.) (2000) Art Nouveau, 1890-1914. V&A Publications London.
  • Howard, Jeremy (1996) Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe. Manchester University Press Manchester.
  • Rheims, Maurice (1966) The Age of Art Nouveau. Thames & Hudson London.
  • Silverman, Debora (1989) Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style. University of California Press Berkeley and London.
  • Dominic Paterson
    © in this edition Edinburgh University Press, 2018; © in the individual contributions is retained by the authors

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