- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2000

The pot of Europe's Industrial Revolution still bubbled as 1890s artists created art nouveau (or "new art") to express its radical changes.
They created a contradictory brew inspired both by urban life and nature, history and the modern age, and technology and handcrafts. The style was intensely eclectic, and both vilified and worshipped.
"Art Nouveau, 1890-1914," the first comprehensive survey of its kind, opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition — 350 pieces of sculpture, graphics, glass, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, architecture and painted artwork — was organized during the past six years by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with the National Gallery.
"The decorative artists were at the heart of things," exhibit curator Paul Greenhalgh says.
Just as society democratized, so did the arts. The old division between the fine and decorative arts eroded. Most art nouveau artists employed several mediums and believed the arts should coexist to create "Gesamtkunstwerk," or "a total work of art." Two such works are in the show: Agostino Lauro's "Double Parlor From a Villa in Sordevolo" and Charles Rennie Mackintosh's "Ladies' Luncheon Room."
The style traveled quickly through magazines and rapidly became international. Artists in different countries — eight cities are represented in the show — had different ideas about modernity. Inspiration included Celtic designs, Viking ships, Japanese prints and Islamic glass.
Art nouveau's first years, between 1893 and 1895, blossomed in London, Brussels and Paris.
The arts and crafts movement of English artist William Morris was the forerunner of the art-nouveau style and espoused handmade over machine-made objects. Admired for his wallpapers, books and textiles, Morris believed that the everyday arts of architecture, furnishings, decoration and clothing should improve everybody's lives. Like many art-nouveau artists who followed, he was an idealist who worked for socialist causes.
More important, however, were Aubrey Beardsley's black-and-white illustrations for the first issue of a new journal, The Studio, in 1893. They immediately thrust his work into the forefront of the European avant-garde.
Mr. Greenhalgh included in the exhibit Beardsley's grisly "J'ai Baise ta Bouche Iokanaan," later published as "The Climax" for Oscar Wilde's play "Salome." Wilde had substituted the name Iokanaan for the more usual identification of St. John the Baptist. Beardsley showed the biblical temptress staring in the dead eyes of the severed head of Iokanaan. Blood forms a pool in arabesquelike patterns beneath them.
Art nouveau was a young style filled with brash young artists. Illustrator Beardsley was 21; Belgian architect Victor Horta, 32; and Belgian art theorist Henry van de Velde, 29.
Horta combined art-nouveau interior design and decoration for the 1893 "Hotel Tassel (Tassel House)," a terraced town house in Brussels. At this time, the archetypal art-nouveau "line" also developed, one that was a tensile, sinuous abstraction of the organisms of nature.
There were other inspirations. The term "arabesque" comes from "Arab" and elaborate decorative designs of intertwined lines on glass and tiles.
Nature, however, was the dominant inspiration for art nouveau's second phase, from 1895 to 1900. Charles Darwin had published his "Origin of the Species" in 1859 and "Descent of Man" in 1871.
The theme of an exotic nature and a nature to be loved and feared permeated all the arts, especially jewelry. Many artists, such as the French master jeweler Rene Lalique, fused animal, human and plant forms.
His enigmatic "Dragonfly Woman" corsage ornament of 1899 shows a sphinxlike woman with Egyptian features metamorphosing out of a fantastical dragonfly of gold, enamel, moonstones, chrysoprase and diamonds.
Belgian designers Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and Van de Velde created furniture that combined an articulated structure with lyrical curved elements abstracted from nature. Serrurier-Bovy's enormous "Cabinet-vitrine" of rich woods and metalwork, loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is one of the exhibit's special delights.
In Paris, Hector Guimard designed cast-iron entrances for the city's then-new subway system in an organic and tense linear style. He used the same curvilinear forms for his "Window Grille From Castel Henriette" and for the castle's "Buffet" of pearwood, marble and glass.
Paris hosted the World's Fair of 1900, which also marked the beginning of art nouveau's third phase, from 1900 to 1914. This is when it became a recognized international style.
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The other side of the frenzied technical advances of the art-nouveau period was the spiritual. The mystical side of art nouveau came with symbolists such as Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. Although working in different countries, they depicted the loosening of Victorian mores regarding sexuality.
Women's social status was changing. The "femme nouvelle" was leaving home for the world of work, and women were forming the suffrage movement.
Men's anxieties about this often expressed themselves in literature and art. Artists even depicted the new woman as a vampire, as in Munch's series of paintings and lithographs of female vampires.
"Secession" was the name of art nouveau in Vienna, and Klimt headed it. He painted Salome as "Judith II" in 1909. Klimt's Salome is very different from Beardsley's but also combines desire, dismemberment and death.
Klimt had visited the great Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna in Italy in 1903, and they influenced his use of ornamental flatness, mosaiclike patterns and bright colors. He used them in the exhibit's "Pallas Athene," which celebrates female authority and power.
Art nouveau took a spare, restrained path in Glasgow, Scotland, one that ultimately traveled to the New York of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the Chicago of architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Inspired by Japanese art, architect-designer Mackintosh in Glasgow and others introduced an angular geometry into their designs.
Mackintosh used curves only as accents and preferred strongly rectilinear designs. He installed "Ladies Luncheon Room" in 1900 in the Ingram Street Tearooms owned by Kate Cranston, his main patron.
Tiffany, who invented a variety of advanced glass technologies, dominated art nouveau in New York. He looked to Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic and American Indian sources, as well as nature, for inspiration. He also often decorated his lamps with plants and insects.
By 1900 Tiffany had made the technical advances in glass that permitted him to create the stunning, three-panel "Folding Screen," which opens the exhibit. A trellis holds a densely patterned design of autumnal fruits, vegetables and flowers. Japanese art and nature were clearly the inspirations.
Sullivan's soaring skyscrapers symbolized the technological innovations of the new age in Chicago. However, he decorated their exteriors with complex ornaments inspired by Celtic art and configurations from nature.
The exhibit ends, appropriately, with Wright's "Dining Table and Chairs From the Frederick C. Robie House, Chicago" (1907-1910). A student of Sullivan's, Wright picked up on Sullivan's use of ornament in his "prairie style" houses and furnishings. But his rigid and rectilinear designs related more to secessionist geometry and Japanese art than to other forms of art nouveau.
He also looked forward to later art styles, as did designers such as Mackintosh. German Bauhaus designers of the 1920s adopted the rectilinear style favored by several of the art-nouveau artists. The Bauhaus continued Morris' belief that everyday objects should be well-designed.
Artists such as the surrealists of the early 1920s adopted the more fantastic, imaginative side of art nouveau. Salvador Dali owned his own Paris Metropolitain station subway entrance and used it for inspiration.
As the novelty of the modern age ended, so also did art nouveau — the first style to self-consciously try to create a modern style for modern urban life.
That art nouveau predicted so much of 20th-century art is crucial to understanding this exhibition. That there was such a large number of artists, in so many places, also is the great fascination of this show.WHAT: "Art Nouveau, 1890-1914"
WHERE: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth and Constitution Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 28
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/737-4215

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