The Victoria and Albert Museum desperately needed Art Nouveau 1890–1914 to be a good exhibition. The museum must have craved a blockbuster. Lamentably, our national museum of art and design has not staged a really world-class exhibition which has won both critical and popular acclaim since the Pugin show of 1994. Since then, we have seen a series of rather lacklustre shows, topped by the Carl Larsson exhibition in 1998. Here was a relatively minor Scandinavian figure being given a major retrospective funded, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a major Scandinavian design retail chain. Intellectual compromise for fiscal gain was a depth to which the museum will hopefully not have to descend again.
All was not well, so it must now be a cause for relief, as well as celebration, that Art Nouveau 1890-1914 has received widespread critical acclaim and is proving a popular success, with healthy attendance figures raising the depressing spectre of the timed ticket.
And it is a good exhibition. The most refreshing aspect of the show is its courageous refusal to oversimplify. There are number of truisms about art nouveau which, although scholars have been busy refuting them over the past twenty years, continue to be trotted out every time the subject is mentioned in passing. And it is these that this successful exhibition will, it is to be hoped, help to eradicate.
First is that art nouveau sprang from nowhere. Many artists and designers of the time did posses a revolutionary zeal, believing that they were on a mission to smash the tired historicism of much mainstream late 19th-century architecture and design. August Endell, the Munich-based architect and designer, claimed that designers of his generation stood, ‘at the inception of an entirely new art – the art of using forms that, although they signify nothing, represent nothing and recall nothing, can move the human soul... profoundly and irresistibly.’ But of course art nouveau signified many things, and on a more fundamental level it embodied much of what some of its designers professed to refute. The exhibition was particularly successfully at exploring the historical precedents of art nouveau. Juxtapositions of oriental and middle eastern decorative arts, French rococo furniture and examples of folk art with art nouveau objects all served to show the debts owed by many artists of the period to both historical and exotic styles. George de Feure’s furniture, conceived as part of the display in Samuel Bing’s pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle was redolent with the decadent languor of Madame de Pompadour’s boudoir, while a glass vase by Tiffany dating from 1896 went further than merely embracing the spirit of Persia. Placed next to an almost identical Persian vase dating from just ten years earlier, the line between influence and plagiarism seems to have been shamelessly breached.
Another of the great popular misunderstandings about art nouveau is that it was all about naturally inspired curvaceous decoration laden with images of flowing tendrils and naked maidens. If art nouveau lacked a coherent intellectual underpinning, this was also mirrored in its lack of aesthetic unity. What could be further from René Lalique’s intricate and luxuriously decorated Butterfly woman which graces the front of the exhibition catalogue than the stark geometry of the furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Josef Hoffmann? The show did not waste time trying to rationalise the inclusion of the contrasting aesthetics of Hoffmann and Lalique under the same art nouveau umbrella. Instead, it rightly opted to simply present then as differing contemporary responses to the same cultural and political milieu.
Purists maintain that true art nouveau was limited to Paris, Brussels and Munich, but again the V&A took the inclusive rather than exclusive approach to the style. The second section of the exhibition concentrates on eight of the style’s urban centres, including cities as diverse as Glasgow, New York, Helsinki and Budapest. The last two were particularly welcome, providing powerful examples of the nationalist charge which art nouveau was capable of carrying. In Finland, in particular, the style had a potent political dimension. Evolving in the face of Russian oppression in the 1890s, art nouveau allowed Finnish artists to express their sense of European modernity while maintaining the importance of their folk-inspired sense of nationhood. Moreover, art nouveau proved a practical political tool rather than merely a vehicle for rhetoric. The Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition gave the country an international platform and drew protests to the Russians from intellectuals across Europe.
Inevitably the selection of just eight cities must lead to omissions. Among the most acutely felt were Barcelona, Moscow and Chicago. Antoní Gaudí’s idiosyncratic Catalan version of art nouveau was laden with conservative and Catholic values, and adds a further dimension to the intellectual complexity of the style which should not be ignored. The inclusion of Chicago would also have allowed the curators to challenge more effectively one of the other myths about art nouveau – that it was an inconsequential episode in the history of design whose influence was blocked by the imminent rise of the all-conquering modern movement.
This is a was a view first propagated by the critic and historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who described art nouveau as a ‘blind alley’ in the evolution of modern architecture and design. But Pevsner was only able to say this by denying art nouveau two of its central figures – the American architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. He accorded both men the heroic status as ‘Pioneers of Modern Design’ and claimed them as proto-modernists, while allowing art nouveau only architects such as Victor Horta, whom Pevsner viewed as more of a decorator than a true architect. By doing this he ignored the role of art nouveau in the adaptation of modern technologies to art and design.
The reality was that the work of both Sullivan and Wright was shot through with the same fin de siècle concerns as that of Emile Gallé, Joseph Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the aesthetic similarities between Wright, Mackintosh and Hoffmann being obvious.
Sullivan was as vocal a polemicist for visual revolution as any of the European designers. Like Gallé and Endell, he argued that designers should look to natural forms for influence so as to escape from the chains of historicism. But at the same time the influence of Gothic revival architects such as Frank Furness, in whose office he worked in the 1870s, showed the extent to which he was influenced by tradition. In his later years, Sullivan also indulged in the kind of mysticism that pervaded European art nouveau. Although not published until 1924, his writings on his own theory of ‘parallelism’, which flirted with ideas about the symbiotic nature of organic and inorganic form in a rather arcane and obscure manner, have a definite fin-de-siècle flavour. Likewise, Wright, who famously worked for Sullivan in the 1890s, was far from being a pure pioneer of functionalism. His early designs drew on Sullivan’s neo-Gothic legacy, while his early ‘prairie houses’, such as the Dana House, made use of unashamedly symbolist sculpture as part of their interior schemes. Wright later wrote that he felt an affinity with elements of European art nouveau, but the visual record left by both American architects stands for itself. It is impossible to deny the similarities between Wright’s furniture and stained glass of around 1900 to Mackintosh’s and Margaret McDonald’s geometrically inspired yet still deeply spiritual decoration of the 1890s and early 1900s. Likewise, Sullivan’s ironwork on the façade of the Carson, Pirie & Scott department store in Chicago (1904) is a riot of stylised decoration of which Hector Guimard in Paris or Gaudí in Barcelona would have been proud.
The exhibition did have a few other weak spots. The New York section appeared slightly lacklustre, comprising almost entirely objects by Tiffany at the expense of other designers. Also, there was a limited sense of the economics of the style. The way objects of any style are made, bought and sold is integral to the story of its influence. But aside from the posters on show, there were few examples of pieces which were mass-produced were included. There was also little attention to who owned art nouveau; some of the patrons of the major artists inevitably emerged, but it would have been good not to have to read between the lines to discover the commercial profile of the style.
The potential strengths which these
approaches can give to a display can be proved by visiting the newly opened
19th-century section of the V&A’s silver gallery, which explores these
very concerns to give a fascinating framework to a group of objects which,
like those on show at the Art Nouveau exhibition, display an anarchic
aesthetic diversity. The curators of the silver gallery have placed technological
issues such as the development of electroplating and sociological phenomena
such as the expansion of the affluent middle class, as well as developments
in retailing, at the centre of the story of 19th-century design. These
matters are brought out rather than obscured by the changing stylistic
developments. Some of these issues are alluded to in the chapters of the
catalogue to the art nouveau show; but they should really have been given
more prominence in the exhibition itself.