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The Art Nouveau Style
A Comprehensive Guide with 264 Illustrations
By Stephan Tschudi Madsen, Ragnar Christophersen
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
FRANCE Floral and Fashionable
French Art Nouveau had two centres, the Nancy school, with its founder Emile Gallé (1846-1904) and the artists who worked around him in King Stanislaus' venerable university town; next there was the group of artists working for the cosmopolitan and energetic little Hamburger Sigfried Bing, in Paris—as well as a number of entirely independent artists also working in Paris.
For the Paris Exhibition of 1900 Gallé made a worktable of ash and walnut, with marquetry of various woods, representing his mature style (fig. 1). On the side of the vertical part of the table are a number of stalk motifs, as well as circles placed freely on the surface of the wood. An inscription, "Travail est Joie," is also found in marquetry. Gallé's speciality is inlay work, varying from plant motifs to verses by Baudelaire inset in the surface, and his decoration is invariably developed two-dimensionally, as can also be seen in the lowest vertical part of the table. The floral motifs flow and undulate rhythmically in a linear interplay between the legs; it is a decoration envisaged in one plane. The table as a whole is not a new type: both its construction and the design of the legs are traditional, while the rich moulding derives from the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Gallé's use of inscriptions is typical of his literary attitude, and "Travail est Joie" might well stand as a motto for his varied achievements as well as his artistic attitude: the object is not to express function through the construction—as some of his contemporaries maintained—no, a piece of furniture should convey a Stimmung, and its aims should find expression through its decoration.
Furthermore, the decoration should provide incitement and a moral—as in the case of the inscription above—giving symbolical expression to the idea of the furniture, or inducing an aesthetic experience beyond what is innate in the piece of furniture itself. "Pour bannir le symbole du decor, il faudrait chasser du firmament notre satellite."
The leading furniture-producer of the Nancy school was Louis Majorelle (1859-1926). In 1902 Majorelle designed a cabinet de travail entitled Nénuphars (fig. 2), from the name given to the sacred white Egyptian water-lily which is the basic motif of this piece of furniture. The suite is representative, not only of Majorelle, but also of the Nancy school: it is symmetrical and more or less traditional in construction, while all ornaments are asymmetrical. While the mahogany is polished smooth, with its mouldings and profiles, the gilt flowers and leaves are contrasted with the smooth surfaces of the wood. A special feature of this suite is the design of the corners, whose sole object is to be decorative. Together with the deep flutings in the legs and the lavish use of gold, the somewhat ponderously designed corners have a marked similarity with Louis XV. The central section of the sideboard also curves out slightly; the chair is the French fauteuil type adapted to the new style. The sides, which are gently curved, terminate in rounded corners with gilt water-lily motifs—leaves and flowers opening out to enfold the legs and corners of the chair.
In contrast to Gallé's two-dimensional decoration Majorelle's is far more plastic: while Gallé's line is at times elegiac, Majorelle's is frequently dynamic.
The Maison Huot, 92-93bis Quai Claude Lorrain, Nancy (fig. 3), designed by the leading architect of the Nancy school, Emile André (1871-1933), was completed in 1903. Taken as a whole, this house presents a medieval effect, with its tall roof and projecting cornices, as well as the Gothic pointed gables, but below the cornice the medieval or Gothic impression ends: here, the form-language of the Nancy school is clearly in evidence. The decoration, instead of being spread across the facade—of smooth and unornamented sandstone—is confined to the doors and windows. But to make up for this the element concerned has been given over entirely to ornamentation. The decoration is on the whole of a floral nature, being constructed of stalks, leaves, and single flowers—in the case of the door of fir twigs and cones—which twine round the apertures like a tendril. But the floral elements have also taken complete possession of the actual structure of windows and doors, and in the door the iron grille, the mullion, and the framework conform to the same stalk-like rhythm. The mullions are entirely original in shape, springing out from the central transom like growing branches, and giving the top part of the window a characteristic onion shape.
Other noteworthy features of the facade are the Moorish-type window and the small projections and decoratively-shaped depressions in the wall, which bear witness to a plastic conception of the surface, striving for a three-dimensional effect. There is not a single sharp angle in the whole facade, all corners being smoothed off. The house represents no special constructional ideas or any striving towards rationalism.
Even with such different artists as Gallé and Majorelle the Nancy school nevertheless shows certain peculiar features which distinguish it from all other types of Art Nouveau. The artistic attitude of the Nancy school is based entirely on Nature and exploits its motifs—especially flowers—without any special stylisation. The Nature-inspired decoration tends to spread over the entire object, literally enfolding it in its floral embrace. The Rococo predilection for asymmetry and for a vue d'ensemble are important factors in the decoration. A literary touch of a symbolical nature is especially noticeable, and this found expression in frequent use of inscriptions, and was referred to in the language of the furniture-designer as meuble parlant. The signing of pieces of furniture and inlay work are also special features of the Nancy school. In architecture the link with the French tradition is represented by a neo-Gothic manner bearing all the hallmarks of Art Nouveau.
The Parisian Art Nouveau is lighter and more austere than that of the Nancy school: the decoration is often confined to a single square, and though it takes its inspiration from Nature, it is more stylised and at times even abstract. In 1900 Eugène Gaillard designed a canapé executed in rosewood by Bing (fig. 4). This piece is remarkable for its simple faintly-curved lines and discreet decoration. With its narrow mouldings it has a light and airy, somewhat prim, appearance, with the decoration unerringly placed on the rounded corners and the arm-rests. The actual decor consists of freely-adapted leaves which wind their way gracefully out of the flutings, clinging in low relief to the actual shape of the canapé. The decoration is so discreet that the noble rosewood gives the essential decorative effect. The upholstery is pale blue and dove grey.
This exquisite piece from 1900 seems to embody some of the best features of French eighteenth century furniture-making, with its light and airy elegance. So perfect is the rhythm of all the separate elements and curves, and so subtly attuned, that any change—even of the tiniest curve—would seem to affect the whole piece and destroy its harmony.
Georges de Feure's (1868-1928) canapé and chair from the same year, also executed by Bing (fig. 5), are constructed in the same way as Gaillard's piece—viz. a divided backpiece, upholstered arm-rests, and a small seat. While all the lines in Gaillard's piece were curved, we find here a contrast between the arched top section and the straight bottom part. All the woodwork is gilt, in conformity with the best traditions of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Rococo. The decoration consists of abstract plant shapes, with a few fancy-flowers à la water-lily. All the woodwork is included in the decorative system, and in the back the germinating motif is visible.
In the Parisian Art Nouveau school few architects are better known for their fantasies than Hector Guimard (1867-1942), the designer of the decorative subways of the Metro stations. His designs for Le Castel Béranger, 16 Rue de la Fontaine, Paris 1894-98, are also very characteristic. In the panels in the dining-rooms in this block of flats (fig. 6), Guimard has allowed the abstract ornament full rein to develop freely according to his fancy. There are no shapes here which can be derived from nature, or which are of a symbolical character. The most essential characteristics of the entirely asymmetrical lines with their faintly plastic modelling, are their pliancy and the sense of powerful movement which they convey: gentle curves alternate with sudden violent twists, reminding us almost of a curling whiplash.
The same qualities come to the fore when he makes use of ornamentation in a somewhat larger format and in an architectural connection. In the actual entrance (fig. 7)—the building's main decorative piece—Guimard has allowed this style to unfold with great decorative forcefulness. In a semi-circular gateway, flanked by columns with floral capitals and motifs, wrought iron is allowed to curve in an abstract linear pattern. The vivid interplay of line is markedly asymmetrical, and yet so beautifully balanced that the total effect is one of harmony—excellently inset between the ponderous stone masses on either side. The principle underlying his line is throughout the same: long, gentle curves culminating in a tense climax and a retroflex movement.
The keystone of the gateway is a plastic ornament reminding us of the "gristle" ornamentation of Louis XV.
In the entrance (fig. 8) the style has invaded the whole interior, and here we are completely under the spell of Art Nouveau. The iron construction, the polychrome faience tiles of the walls, the ceiling decorations, everything is subjected to the sophisticated interplay of line and wanton use of material of French Art Nouveau. The unique portal in this way acts as a transition from an interior which is at once original and free from tradition to a relatively conventional exterior.
Architecturally the building contains all the features of the 1880's (fig. 9), the facade itself being constructed of three different materials: red and green brick, sandstone, and millstone. This vivid play of colour is in some places further enhanced by horizontal bands of sandstone, which in a way soften the highly irregular and original construction of the facade. Furthermore the actual body of the building is dealt with in a remark-ably plastic way, certain parts being made to project, others to recede; while bays, balconies, and projections strike an asymmetrical note.
While the facade as a whole presents nothing new or revolutionary—being typical of the hectic polychrome treatment and the vivid modelling so familiar to us from the 1870's and 1880's—it is in the details that we encounter the new style. Guimard's artistic temperament, which finds its clear expression in the facade, though in more traditional form, is given free rein when he fashions in wrought-iron, faience, wallpaper, and other decorative fittings.
* * *
The French Art Nouveau, being primarily a decorative style, linked up with the interior and fittings, only occurs to a limited extent in architecture—and then merely decoratively. Nor does there appear to be any constructive seeking or treatment of constructive problems in French Art Nouveau.
Furthermore, in its French guise, the style shows certain traditional features—elements from earlier styles such as Gothic and Louis XV, while both gilt and mountings, and traditional solutions of types are exploited. On the whole it is based on Nature, and its motifs are plastically conceived, for in its very nature French Art Nouveau is three-dimensional.
In the single ornament, as well as in the object as a whole, French Art Nouveau at its best shows a grace and refinement of line which places it side by side with the work executed in France in the eighteenth century.
Linearism and Symbolism
The style which corresponds in Great Britain to the Art Nouveau of the Continent had its centre in Glasgow, with the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (18681928) as its leading exponent. The other three artists who form the Glasgow group are Herbert McNair and the sisters Margaret and Francis Macdonald—"the Four," as they have often been called.
The fundamental decorative principle of the school, and one of Mackintosh's fundamental artistic points de départ, was the decorate value of the line. The mirror from about 1903 (fig. 10) which Mackintosh designed for the Room de Luxe in the Willow restaurant in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, illustrates a number of his outstanding decorative qualities. The mirror is built up of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, together with separate surfaces which are egg- or drop-shaped. The lines are given peculiar tension by their deviation from regular forms: the straight line is not quite straight, as one would expect, but is slightly curved, while the circle is not perfectly round but appears to have been inflated, until it has acquired a slightly unsymmetrical ellipsoidal form. In this Mackintosh always manages to retain an unresolved tension-factor in the irregular shapes. Time and again he makes use of the onion shape, or the egg, or the drop, the split bud or cell form, the thin line with a circle at one end, and the "flexed knee joint." All these elements are formally speaking closed, not open or sprawling—and in their small deviations from customary shapes they give the impression of breathing, budding, or being alive.
This two-dimensional decorative style is then transferred in a few selected places to the very simple pieces of furniture, such as in the cupboard from 1902 (fig. 11). Its cornice is rigid and simple, with no mouldings or any traces of tradition. The large door-panel is quite bare, with a slight curve in its lower edge to break the otherwise rigid line. A very characteristic feature is the colour—the whole cupboard being executed in ivory-white, at that time a rather unusual colour for furniture, and typical of Mackintosh's bright and airy bedroom interiors. On opening the cupboard (fig. 12) the characteristic decoration is revealed. Against a pearl-grey background stands the slender figure of a woman enveloped in a white robe with a pink "rose-ball" in her hands. There is a refined colour-scale in the clearly delimited surfaces.
However, we can pursue the style of the Glasgow group still further from the ornament itself via the piece of furniture, to the entire interior.
In 1901 Mackintosh took part in a competition arranged under the auspices of the Zeitschrift für Innendekoration, the subject of the competition being to design, with all interior decorations, a house for an art-lover, the so-called Haus eines Kunstfreundes. The winning design was submitted by H. M. Baillie Scott, with Mackintosh second, and Leopold Bauer third. The designs were published in 1902 by that indefatigable promoter of art, Alexander Koch of Darmstadt, under the title of Meister der Innenkunst.
The music-cum-reception room is the most important part of this house (fig. 13). Mackintosh's project is decorated in a colour-scale which has all the delicate fragility of porcelain: roofs, walls, floor, are in pearl-grey and ivory, with occasional highlights of silver, pale green, pink, and mauve. The panels between the windows and the wall at the end of the room are the work of Margaret Macdonald, but so uniform is the style that they merge imperceptibly with the rest of the room. If the expression "feminine interior decoration" calls up any associations at all, then it must be this graceful linearism and range of delicate, carefully controlled hues.
The room has been conceived as an entity, all the component parts being subordinate to the main decorative conception, and fusing to such an extent that they cannot exist apart from one another.
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