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Art Nouveau evolved about the same time as the Arts and Crafts and the Modern movements. It had no credo and sought its way in very diverse directions. Though Art Nouveau extended itself into all realms of artistic activity, it belongs first and foremost to the decorative arts. Like the Arts and Crafts movement, it possessed the merit of reviving handicraft; it was the style of the individual designer, who relied on the work of men’s hands and not on the machine. As this new international movement gradually spread and achieved notable success as the style of fashion and the avant-garde, it was given a legion of names in the various countries, each name suggesting a somewhat different view, but tending to summarize the kind of organic expression that was always aimed at.

In the early days in France the commonest designation was simply Modern style. But after S. Bing, a native of Hamburg, who had previously been interested in Japanese art as a connoisseur, dealer and publisher, opened his first shop, Maison de l’Art Nouveau, at 22 rue de Provence in Paris in December 1895, the name Art Nouveau took root. As the French molded their own version out of Art Nouveau, the name became the customary one in France, and except for the German-speaking countries, which kept the name Jugend, the term Art Nouveau was finally accepted in the majority of countries.

Art Nouveau, at its height from about 1895 to 1905, appeared in full bloom around 1900 and may be placed midway between historicism and the emergence of the Modern movement; it was the product of a wide social reaction that marked the close of one period and the start of a new one. The innovators resolutely turned away from the beaten track and, in an effort to gain a new footing, freed themselves from tradition and conscientiously pursued novelty. It was but a step to the exaggerated or sensational, in this case the extravagances of Art Nouveau.

No doubt Art Nouveau’s most important contribution to the art of interior decoration was to re-establish a sense of unity in interior design. An ainti-historical attitude was much a marked feature of Art Nouveau as was its striving for unity. The style, however, shows certain traditional features – in particular Gothic, rococo, and baroque; Gothic contributed theory, rococo its application of asymmetry, and baroque its plastic conception of form. Art Nouveau also found timely inspiration in the higly linear and colorful art of Japan and emancipation from the bondage of symmetry and the Greek Orders.

Wood was twisted into bizarre shapes, and metal writhed in tortuous curves inspired by the flowing interlacings of Nature – for, on the whole, the style is based on Nature, not only in ornamental development but in structural conception. Sensuous, undulating lines of growth twine and spread across the structure, taking complete possession of it. Chairs and tables seem as if they were molded in a taffy-like substance. Straight lines are erased wherever feasible, while natural structural divisions are no longer definable, flowing into one another to maintain as continuous a linear movement as possible. Art Nouveau at its best, rich in linear rhythm, clearly reveals a harmony of line which places it side by side with cabinetwork made in the eighteenth century.

Two distinct centers of Art Nouveau developed in France – one in Paris around Bing and his shop and the other in Nancy under the aegis of Emile Gallé, 1846-1904. It is in Nancy that we find the closest affiliations between rococo and Art Nouveau. Less fascinating, but among the most characteristic of Art Nouveau’s artistic personalities, is Nancy’s other celebrated furniture designer, Louis Majorelle, 1859-1926. Gallé’s forte was inlay work, varying from plant motifs to inscriptions, the latter providing a literary touch of a symbolic nature. A feature Gallé employed in much of his furniture, especially in smaller pieces, was to change the actual structure into stalks or branches that sprang up and developed into blossoms and flowers. In contrast to the Nancy school, Parisian Art Nouveau is lighter, more refined, and austere. The Nature-inspired decoration is more stylised, occasionally even abstract, and frequently confined to small areas.

The early rejection of Art Nouveau becomes understandable when we comprehend that in this style the continental artists first turned their attention to ornament. They believed decoration necessary; the problem was to find a suitable form for it and in finding it they felt they would have a style. Gradually, however, when they realized that the solution to the stylistic problems of the nineteenth century, which new materials and social tasks had created, lay in the constructive principles, that is, simplicity of form and honesty toward materials and working processes, the leading artists abandoned Art Nouveau in ordre to give their creative energy to a wide movement promoting these ideas. Decorative problems were relegated to a subordinate role; their interest centered on new shapes.

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