Art Nouveau

«To each epoch, its art. To art, its freedom.» (Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.)

This motto, which is displayed on the frontage of the Secession House built by J .M. Olbrich in Vienna in 1898, shows the desire to which Art Nouveau was the response: the desire to break away from imitating styles of the past, to develop an art that reflected the sensitivities and way of life of a particular society, the extreme individuality of the artist dreaming of inventing an original language that would ensure the absolute harmony of the ornamentation of life.

The private home became the framework for an aesthetic experience for a new middle class with its newly acquired wealth in commercial or indus trial enterprises. Art Nouveau was thus adopted by progressive people who took care to assert their modernity before it became widespread throughout all social classes or a transient fashion item. The word was spread by images displayed in decorative arts magazines and in commerce (department stores or 'magasins d'art').

Art Nouveau transformed the object, whether it was produced by a craftsman with traditional knowledge handed down over centuries or by industry. ln the second half of the century there was intense debate between the supporters of the craftsman and those in favour of the first steps taken in indus trial design. Henry Van de Velde, who 'converted' to the decorative arts in 1893 and was artistic adviser for industry and craft in Weimar in 1901, claimed to be the first to come out in defence of the machine (Déblaiement d'art, 1894), proclaiming that it would one day be the start of a new aesthetic.

There are numerous facets to Art Nouveau: from the exuberant ornamentation of Gaudi in Spain to the rustic simplicity of Serrurier-Bovy or the Japanese style of Mackintosh in Glasgow. The style was born, developed and died between 1893 and 1910. Ini¬tially based on the use of the arabesque and naturalist decoration, by the turn of the century it was gradually becoming more geometric. Just as a plant could be adapted more or less faithfully, the abstract curve expressed vital energy, growth and blossoming. To study the plant was also to understand the constructional system behind architecture as well as the object. Collections of models abound, bearing evocative titles such as L'étude de la plante, son application aux industries d'art ('The study of the plant, its application ta the art industries') by Maurice Pillard -Verneuil (1900).

Art Nouveau aimed to embellish life's setting for both aesthetic and moral reasons. The competition to furnish workers' homes as part of the Liège Exhibition in 1905 demonstrates the wish felt at the time to give the worker a home worth coming back to. Commenting on the interior by Serrurier-Bovy, Jules Destrée evoked an 'impression of freshness, of health, joy and energy', Art Nouveau being seen as an antidote to the temptations of the 'bar'. Ten years earlier, Horta's construction of the Maison du Peuple also had a philanthropic aim: to open up an airy, light-filled space to people living in the slums. The choice of the Workers' Party also had its origins in the quest for a style that would deter the conservative middle classes.