Art Nouveau, a pan-world architectural style
Distinguished by their lavish sculpture, metalwork, stained glass windows and tile facades, Art Nouveau buildings were designed to stand out. This short guide introduces you to the leading architects and designers who were determined to create a modern style on the eve of the 20th century.
Hector Guimard, Castel Béranger, 1895-8, Paris
‘The terrifying and edible beauty of Art Nouveau architecture’
Victor Horta, l’ Hôtel Frison, 1894, Brussels (courtesy of Nupur Tron)
‘That strange decorative disease‘
Pietro Fenoglio, Fenoglio-Lafleur house, 1902-03, Turin
Art Nouveau: A Modern Style
By the 1880s Historicism, the revival of past architectural styles from Neo-Norman to Neo-Rococo, was well and truly played out. The application of these styles to new types of buildings, railway stations, department stores, pharmacies, and restaurants, was clearly anachronistic. A modern style had to reflect and address the needs of contemporary urban life. The world was changing very quickly with new technologies impacting on daily life; electric light was replacing gas; cars were becoming a common sight on the roads and airships would soon be offering commercial flights. For architects, moving with the times meant working with iron and steel, concrete and glass. There was a consensus that nature supplied the best forms to express such progress, as organic growth could be equated with human life. The cycle of life and regeneration appealed to the fin-de-siècle mindset, the dying century on the cusp of renewal. Recognizing ‘the vital impulse in nature’, Belgian architect Victor Horta favoured plant stems. His curving, tensile, line expresses movement, the ebb and flow of human life. His signature coup de fouet, or whiplash, curves back on itself; like a coil waiting to spring, the line is full of energy. Undulating, intertwining lines, which can have a hallucinatory effect, were to express growth and vitality. His buildings flow upwards like plants, seemingly straining towards the sun. Using opposing mirrors, reflected lines stretch into infinity. In his home and studio, now the Musée Horta, landings radiate off the spiral staircase like branches of a tree, leading to different living spaces. Covered by a glass skylight, looking up one sees endless space. Light was central to Horta’s vision; winter gardens and skylights illuminate interiors with warm light diffused through coloured glass.
Victor Horta, l’ Hôtel Frison, 1894, Brussels (courtesy of Nupur Tron)
A New Aesthetic
All forms of Art Nouveau/Jugendstil, the German term for the New Art, owe a debt to Japanese prints. Designers either tried to capture the spirit of Japanese design, its minimalism and linearity, or appropriated indicative motifs. Bamboo, cranes, fans, carp, and patterns derived from silk kimonos popped up on ceramics, metalwork, and textiles. Underpinning the Aesthetic Movement (c.1860-90), by the 1880s Japonisme had become a fashionable craze and households were bedecked with Japanese paper fans and blue and white china. Samuel Bing’s journal Le Japon Artistique (1888-91) covered every aspect of Japanese art, providing a lexicon of designs.
In Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau, Japanese and modern objets d’art were displayed side by side. They were shown in room settings with every element, furniture, glass, ceramics, and metalwares, integrated into a harmonious whole. Through such staged interiors, termed ‘scenography’, the consumer could imagine how an object would look in their own home. Traditional distinctions between the fine and decorative arts were ignored to create living environments. The objective was to craft a gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total artwork’. This extended to dress and jewellery, with the lady of the house becoming a ‘work of art’ in her own right. Surrounded by beauty in the ‘Palace of Art’, one withdrew from the ugliness of the modern world. Art Nouveau was much more than a style; it was a way of life.
Eugène Vallin and Victor Prouvé, Masson Dining Room, 1903-06,
Musée de l’École de Nancy
Several cities have acquired fame for their Art Nouveau architecture: Brussels, Barcelona, Glasgow, and Riga. There are plenty more to discover, with over seventy cities in the Art Nouveau European Route. Although architects and designers turned to nature in search of a metaphor for modernity, each developed their own unique idiom: Victor Horta in Brussels, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Hector Guimard in Paris, Ödön Lechner in Budapest, Otto Wagner in Vienna and Antoni Gaudi and Lluís Domènech in Barcelona. Facades richly adorned with magnificent sculptures, riotous metalwork, and colourful tiles, fulfilled the New Art’s democratic mission, bringing Art to the People. Townscapes were transformed, as novelty made people stop and stare. Some facades were designed to be read like paintings, telling a story, or bearing symbols that were instantly recognisable. In Barcelona you will find St George, the patron saint of the city, guarding many buildings. Gaudi’s Casa Batlló (1906) brings to life the slaying of the dragon, the eternal battle between good and evil. The skeletal base is said to represent the bones of the dragon’s victims, the mask-like balconies, with their empty-eye sockets, could be skulls or masks. The broken fragments of tile, trencadís, that glisten over the façade could be the scales of the dragon or tickertape thrown at a Mardi Gras, celebrating the death of the monster. The tour de force is the roofline, with St George, represented by a four-armed cross, locked in battle with the dragon, the roof tiles making its scaly back. This is decoration transformed into storytelling, the ‘word in the pattern’; a vivid imagination envisions the dragon roaring fire from the top of the building.
Antoni Gaudi, Casa Batlló, 1906, Barcelona
Metalwork, ceramics, and coloured-leaded glass windows give Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings their distinctive character. The reputation of the applied arts was raised bringing them closer to the status of the fine arts. Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge revolutionised the technical and stylistic production of stained-glass windows. The new types of glass they perfected, opalescent, iridescent and ‘chenille’, bearing an impressed undulating pattern, were commonly known throughout Europe as American glass. With whorls and abstract lines of colour, the new glass suggested movement when illuminated. The effects and textures meant you could ‘paint’ with glass, leaded windows resembling mosaics of glittering, translucent colours. Drawing on Iberia’s Moorish heritage, Gaudi favoured trencadís, meaning chopped or broken tile, which he used to create mosaics. The undulating bench at the Parc Güell, the chimney stacks of the Güell Palace and the façade of the Casa Batlló demonstrate his inventive use of trencadís. In Portugal, Arte Nova buildings are distinguished by their azulejos or painted tile panels. Some 20,000 tiles, painted by Jorge Colaço, were used to decorate the vestibule of Porto’s São Bento Railway Station. Alexander Bigot’s ceramic peacocks, double-headed tortoises, and bull’s heads, that all carry a sexual innuendo, ensured the Lavirotte building, Paris (1901) won the city’s façade of the year. Alessandro Mazzucotelli, the ‘magician of iron’, created outsized butterflies and dragonflies that alight on Liberty buildings in Milan. Louis Marjorelle, Nancy’s Maitre Ferronnier, created magnificent glass and metal canopies, as did Hector Guimard, whose Paris Metro entrances exemplify organic, curvilinear Art Nouveau. However, this ‘ornamental delirium’ was Art Nouveau’s undoing, as the post-war Modernists rejected decoration in favour of functionalism.
Antoni Gaudi, trencadís, chimney stack, Güell Palace, 1886-88, Barcelona
Jules Lavirotte, Lavirotte Building, 29 Avenue Rapp, 7thArrondisement, Paris, 1901
Alessandro Mazzucoteilli, Casa Ferrario, 1902, Milan
The New Art: national and international styles
Although generally referred to as Art Nouveau, the New Art goes by a bewildering range of labels. Driven by patriotism and economic competition, architects and designers wanted to invent their own, individual, brand of modernism rather than importing foreign styles. In France and Belgium, Art Nouveau takes its name from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a commercial gallery opened by art dealer Samuel Bing in Paris (1895). In German speaking areas, including Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, Jugendstil, meaning ‘Youth Style’, comes from the avant-garde magazine launched by Georges Hirth in Munich (1896). Stylistically Jugendstil is quite different to Art Nouveau, its restraint and practicality indicating the influence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Another term, Secession, meaning to secede or ‘break away’, is used to denote open dissent. In Munich (1892), Vienna (1897), and Berlin (1898) forward-looking artists, designers, and architects, inevitably a disgruntled younger generation, defiantly withdrew from conservative art institutions.
Secession is also used more broadly; you may come across its use in Prague (Czech Secese); Budapest (Hungarian Szecesszió or Magyar Szecesszió); Kraków (Polish Secesja); Ljubljana (Slovene Secessija); and Bratislava(Slovak Secesia). These break-away groups are often linked to rising nationalism, as in the case of Młoda Polska (‘Young Poland,’ 1895-1914) or Jaunlatvieši (‘Young Latvians’). In Barcelona Modernisme or Modernista was partly driven by the Renaixença, a renaissance of Catalan culture. Italian Stile Liberty named after Liberty of Regent Street, the leading purveyor of new art wallpapers and fabrics, also alluded to Italy’s recent unification and status as an independent nation. Artistic, literary, and political activism merged as peoples, who considered themselves both culturally and politically oppressed, sought to reassert their ethnicity.
However, for many the New Art was merely the latest fashion, a style which above all expressed modernity. Portugal’s colourful Arte Nova, seen at its best in the tile clad facades of Aveiro, spoke of wealth and status. Following the First World War, architects and designers looked for new ways to express modernity. The natural forms of Art Nouveau were replaced with geometric and mechanical motifs. Art Deco sought to express the speed of change, in a technologically driven world.
Be prepared to do lots of walking. Travel Editions offers guided tours with Anne or Scott Anderson to Turin, Milan, Brussels, Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg. In 2022 Travel Editions will be offering a new tour to Trieste and Ljubljana.
In Brussels, the Musée Horta, Rue Américaine, Saint-Gilles, home and studio of Victor Horta is a perfect expression of the gesamtkuntswerk. Musée Fin-de-Siècle, located within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, houses a breath-taking collection of furniture, glass, and metalwork. The Hôtel Frison in the Sablon area and the Hôtel Solvay on Avenue Louise are private houses that have opened their doors to the public.
In Nancy, the undisputed epicentre of French Art Nouveau, the Musée de l’École de Nancy displays outstanding examples of glass by Emile Gallé, furniture by Louis Majorelle and leaded glass windows by Jacques Gruber. The massed display of Daum glass in the Musée des Beaux-Arts is awesome. As a bonus, enjoy a Kir Lorraine, a local aperitif, in the Place Stanislas, the finest ensemble of mid-18thcentury architecture in France.
Jacques Grüber, ‘Roses and Seagulls’, Maison Bergeret, Nancy, 1904.
In Budapest there are two museums devoted to the new art, the quirky House of Hungarian Art Nouveau, housed in Emil Vidor’s iconic residence for the Bedő family and the György Ráth Villa, which displays Zsolnay ceramics, Tiffany and Gallé glass and jewellery by Lalique from the Applied Arts Museum collections. A hidden gem is the Villa Schiffer, which has found a new purpose as the Customs and Tax History Museum! Don’t be put off, many of the building’s original features have survived including a magnificent leaded glass window in the entrance hall.
In Turin there is a feast of Liberty buildings in the Cit Turin, Crocetta, and San Salvarino neighbourhoods. Don’t miss architect Pietro Fenoglio’s masterpiece, the Casa Fenoglio-La Fleur on corso Francia in Cit Turin. However, if you have the energy to walk there, the Villa Scott, which lies across the river in the Borgo Po, is even more sumptuous. The finest collection of decorative arts, however, is to be found outside Genoa, in the Musei di Nervi Wolfsoniana, the private collection of Miami native and long-time Genoa resident Micky Wolfson, Jr.
Giovanni Battista Alloati, sculptural relief, Casa Maffei, Turin (1904-06).
Art Nouveau 1890-1914, edited by Paul Greenhalgh, catalogue for the international exhibition held at the V&A in 2000.
Art Nouveau; Utopia: Reconciling the Irreconcilable by Klaus Jurgen Sembach (published by Taschen)
Art Nouveau: Art and Ideas by Stephen Escritt (published by Phaidon)
Art Nouveau International and National Styles in Europe by Jeremy Howard (published by Manchester Press)
Brussels Art Nouveau: Architecture & Design by Alec Forshaw (published by Unicorn Publishing Group)
My own publications include Art Nouveau Architecture, published by Crowood Press (2020).
Anne Anderson BA, PhD, FSA, Hon. Associate Professor, University of Exeter, was a senior lecturer in Art and Design History at Southampton Solent University for 14 years. She has curated four national exhibitions, most recently Beyond the Brotherhood: the Pre-Raphaelite Legacy (2019/20). She has held several prestigious American fellowships, at the Huntington Library, California and the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Library and Museum, Delaware. Her career as an international speaker has taken her all over the world including four lecture tours of Australia. Her recent books include Edward Burne-Jones The Perseus Series (2018) and Beyond the Brotherhood: the Pre-Raphaelite Legacy (2019). She offers many lectures on Art Nouveau including Rene Lalique; Emile Galle and l’Ecole de Nancy; Louis Comfort Tiffany; Mackintosh and the Glasgow Four; Klimt and the Vienna Secession; Brussels: Art Nouveau and Budapest: Magyar Secession.
Please check out Anne Anderson Art and Design History Channel where you will find some of my lectures are open access:
Art Nouveau Cities
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Four