This idea of an uncontrollable world all around us was mirrored in the Art Nouveau interest in psychology, symbolism and the supernatural. Sigmund Freud was writing about the unconscious dream world, and artists were trying to explore that world through art and design. Symbols weren't fixed — their meaning shifted and was ambiguous.
Also ambiguous was the role of women in Art Nouveau. As always, women were important muses for artists and designers, and at this time there was a lot of interest in famous performers like Sarah Bernhardt, the dancer Loie Fuller, the nightclub performer Jane Avril. But in an era when women were increasingly independent — struggling for suffrage, gaining the right to divorce, more visible in the public sphere than previous generations — the Art Nouveau woman had a menacing twist. She was alluringly sexual, but also scandalous, morally compromised, even mortally threatening.
Here is a brief gallery of iconic Art Nouveau works from France and Belgium, which should help clearly define the style:1 Nature was a big inspiration for Art Nouveau, but not necessarily the 'pretty' side of nature — more its vital organic force that could be almost terrifying. Here, whiplash curves resembling vines literally overtake the house, and iron support columns are cast in the form of a stem or root that is bursting alive at the top. (Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel, Brussels 1893-4, via The Victorian Era blog.)
2 Another major theme in Art Nouveau was an interest in local history, looking to a familiar pre-industrial past for inspiration. This chair's form references an 18th-century Louis XVI-style chair, but modernizes it through the use of vital, stem-like lines — the designer famously said, "Reject the flower, seize the stem!" Art Nouveau designers were interested not only in the vitality of nature, but also in the life cycle, which of course includes decay and death. (Hector Guimard, Fauteuil, Paris c. 1898, at the Musée d'Orsay.)
3 This iconic image is an ad for Job cigarette papers, an early example of "sex sells" at a time when marketing was increasingly important. Art Nouveau tended to see women as dangerously independent and sexual. The half-nude woman pictured here is in a state of voluptuous pleasure that would have been scandalous at the time. Her hair of course takes the form of whiplash curves (also scandalous at a time when women wore their hair up). (Alphonse Mucha, "Job" color lithograph, Paris c. 1898, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.)
4 Glass was an important Art Nouveau medium, with designers like Emile Gallé in France and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the US experimenting with both ancient and brand new techniques. Glass was effective for conveying the important Art Nouveau theme of metamorphosis, with surfaces treated as three dimensional layers, and varying from opaque to translucent. Dragonflies were a common motif during this era, as were bats and other creepy creatures of nature that could be seen as menacing or otherworldly. (Emile Gallé, "Libellule" vase, Nancy c. 1903, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.)
5 The demi-monde of Parisian nightclubs was an important source and inspiration for Art Nouveau. In this poster, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts two famous performers watching a show at the club Le Divan Japonais. Note the independent woman, the sinuous lines, the hand-drawn font. There is also the suggestion of depth emphasized by lighting, with the orchestra in silhouette, and the blocks of solid color, techniques inspired by Japanese graphic art, which was a major source for Art Nouveau designers. (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "Divan Japonais" color lithograph, Paris 1892, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.)
Hopefully this has helped define Art Nouveau style. Next week, we'll look at Art Deco and then compare the two styles side-by-side.
Images: as linked above