When Art Was Truly Nouveau

In December 1895, a parisian art dealer named Siegfried Bing opened a gallery called L'Art Nouveau, thereby giving a name to a kind of federation of related art styles that swept the Western world at the turn of the last century. That esthetic conglomerate is the subject of a quirkily fascinating exhibition, "Art Nouveau 1890-1914," at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (It's on view through July 30.) Art nouveau posted no manifesto and had no particular leader--as cubism later enjoyed in Picasso, or surrealism in Dali. But it drew on exotic sources (Celtic, Viking, Oriental and Islamic art) and enthusiastically adopted what mass-production techniques were available at the time. Forms of art nouveau quickly appeared everywhere from Budapest to New York, on everything from biscuit boxes to subway stations. Its objects ranged from the ornate Viennese posters of Alphonse Mucha, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh's elegant Glasgow furniture, to Louis Comfort Tiffany's famous glass vases in New York. The V&A show displays ample evidence of all these, and more.

A liberation from decades of Victorian stuffiness, art nouveau was a sexy celebration of the asymmetrical, biomorphic curved line. The American dancer Loie Fuller, who wowed Paris around 1900 by dancing nude under billowing drapery, had just such a homage on her person in the form of a large tattoo. The style also went in heavily for morphing. One art critic of the day wrote, "Electric lights must masquerade in pools under the eyes of a nymph." And art nouveau absolutely loved combining precious materials, as in Charles van der Stappen's meringue-ish silver and ivory Princess Leia... no, make that "Mysterious Sphinx" (1897).

By 1914, however, art nouveau had all but disappeared from the scene. It had received a big shove offstage in 1908 from the Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who issued an artistic white paper declaring, "The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use." Loos's dictum was a philosophical body blow. In material terms, says the exhibition's curator, Paul Greenhalgh, "art nouveau was plowed under by World War I--not only by the destruction of cities and economies, but by the literal death of an artisan class on which it depended."

But art nouveau was rescued from permanent oblivion by the peace-and-love couture and psychedelic rock posters of the 1960s. Nowadays, you can detect art nouveau's lingering influence in the depiction of space-alien civilization in movies like "Independence Day" and "Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace." Extraterrestrial artifacts are assumed to have developed far beyond our still basically rectilinear industrial culture. But sophisticated CAD (computer-assisted design) programs and new composite materials are fueling a kind of re-revival of art nouveau. Frank Gehry's huge, organic Guggenheim Museum (1997) in Bilbao, Spain, is really an art-nouveau building par excellence. The curvy, colorful iMac could be the Tiffany lamp of the cyberage. And what Adolphe Rette, a writer of the original art-nouveau period, described as the condition of his time seems hauntingly similar to our own: "spiritual anxiety... debris from the past, scraps of the present, seeds of the future, swirling, combining, separating under the imperious wind of destiny." In another five years or so we just might be neck deep in a period of, well, call it nouveau art nouveau. Replete, we hope, with some of those electric nymphs.