Shock of the Nouveau

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"Sinister, erotic, morbid and perverse" — these are just a few of the adjectives that critics have sprinkled liberally over the latest exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, which runs until July 30, then travels to Washington and Tokyo. No wonder "Art Nouveau 1890-1914" has attracted record numbers of visitors to file through its labyrinthine galleries, where gemlike vessels and half-naked, half-human creatures glow from the shadows.

Art Nouveau is one of several names — such as Stile Liberty and Jugendstil — given to the sinuous style that overgrew Europe and North America from Prague to Chicago between 1890 and 1910, influencing the design of objets d'art, jewelry, furniture, fabrics and entire buildings. It then suffered an eclipse until a 1960s revival, which was followed by a boom in the '80s — when Art Nouveau glass, for instance, reached record prices. Art Nouveau objects still command high prices, says the show's curator, Paul Greenhalgh, and the style has gained "a broad acceptance [and] become a classic." But it still hasn't quite regained respectability. "It more or less got written out of the canon by academics," says Greenhalgh, "because it is based on decorative art, not on architecture."

Art Nouveau's seductive curves were eventually replaced by the geometrical angles of modernism. The two are not necessarily opposed, however, says Greenhalgh, as you can see the roots of modernism in the earlier style. But he believes it is just as misguided to view it as a precursor to modernism as it is to condemn it as a regrettable explosion of kitsch — it should be valued for what it is. "The elimination of decoration was a tragic mistake," he says, referring to the stark simplicity that took its place. The exhibition's attendance figures — 114,511 from the April 6 opening until the end of May — he feels, vindicate the style's supporters.

Encompassing textiles, furniture, painting, sculpture, pottery, posters and the wrought-iron entrance to an underground railway station from Paris, this is the biggest show on the subject since 1902 when the style was at its height, says Greenhalgh. As almost exactly a century had passed, "it was about time" for an exhibition, he says. Also the V&A was one of the few museums to acquire pieces at the time of the style's popularity, some of them from the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.

The show is a delight to the senses. An effulgence of silver, jade, turquoise and opal emanates from the cases. The first object a visitor sees on entering is a dragonfly woman made by French jeweler and glass artist RenŽ Lalique of circa 1897-8, with her naked green chrysoprase breasts, bestial gold claws and fragile-looking insect wings adorned with diamonds. Measuring 23 cm by 26.5 cm, she is meant to be worn, pinned to the front of a dress.

The fin-de-sičcle artists delighted in such mixtures of materials. Another example is the etched and multicolored glass combined with silver that French glassmaker Emile GallŽ used in his bat-adorned vase of circa 1903. Theodore Rivičre's Carthage or Salammbo chez Matho of circa 1900 has limbs of ivory and an elaborate costume of bronze. Some of the most striking objects here are small, not just the jewels but miniature sculptures like Rivičre's and the Belgian Philippe Wolfers' Civilisation and Barbary (1897), in which the silver swan of refinement confronts the dragon of savagery around a carved tusk.

The show reveals the breadth of the movement: the section on cities takes in Vienna, Glasgow, Budapest and New York, including a case devoted to the iridescent glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It also houses pieces representative of the civilizations and eras the designers plundered to create their exotic potpourri, such as Japan, Islamic art and the Baroque. Inspiration is drawn from the natural world, but from insects, fish and sea creatures rather than anything cuddly, furry or warm-blooded. Lalique may have used casts of genuine beetles, as well as gold, glass, enamel, silver and tourmaline, to create his brooch of 1903-4.

Art Nouveau's relationship to other arts is made clear. Painters and illustrators on show include the British black and white artist Aubrey Beardsley, whose scenes of fantasy have an unhealthy reek, and the French Felicien Rops, whose twisted sexuality was more overt. An undeniable erotic charge runs through much of the work on display, expressing itself as languorous curves of vegetation as well as female nudity. Art Nouveau woman is usually an elegant, idealized creature, exemplified by the Czech Alphonse Mucha's famous swirling-haired 1897 poster girl for Job cigarette papers, but the nudes carved by French sculptor Rupert Carabin are realistically plain and dumpy. This makes his wooden chair of 1896 with a naked woman bound to its back all the more disturbing, and a far cry from the Scot Charles Rennie Mackintosh's oak chair of 1904 with its pattern of ribs set at strict right angles.

The modernists were convinced Art Nouveau had no place in their projected Utopia. According to the book that accompanies the exhibition, also called Art Nouveau 1890-1914, Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote in 1908 in Ornament and Crime: "The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use." Now that Utopias have gone out of fashion, perhaps we can welcome back exuberant decoration.