What is art nouveau?

A partial transcript of Episode 20 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the full radio show.

What exactly is art nouveau? Well, essentially, it was a major ornamental style of art that flourished between 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and later, the United States. Do you want a well-known example? You know the typeface logo on bottles of Coca-Cola? That’s essentially art nouveau.

Incidentally, this show is actually sponsored by Coca-Cola. No, no, that’s clearly not true.

The name of the style says a lot. Translated from French, it means new art. This simple fact already introduces two driving factors of Art Nouveau. One is an opposition to academia. The other is the desire to rethink and modernize art but also everyday life. Let’s start with the first one. Much like impressionism and post-impressionism, art nouveau stood in opposition to academia.

In fact, many of its major artists, including Mucha himself, had been rejected by art schools in their youth. Some simply rejected the idea that art should be taught or learnt in schools like a science. So, rather than looking at art championed by academia, art nouveau artists looked to Japanese woodprints or the post-impressionists or even botanical shapes, illustrations of science books and stained glass art.

Rather than focusing on imitating life forms, art nouveau artists focused on stylized aesthetics. Some defining traits include two-dimensionality as well as mited and sombre color schemes. The revolutionary impetus of the art movement also manifested itself in interior and exterior designs. Artists designed furniture and every day objects, as well as sculptures and other decor.

The idea was that there should be a continuum between artworks and the decor, and that this continuum should mark a split from the older, classical styles and antique furniture. In fact, you could say that the popularity of art nouveau was benefited by the general uplift of the middle class and the emergence of a new consumer class, with money to spend for their own interior decorations. In other words, to some extent, art nouveau was popular with both the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy.

Aside from all that, art nouveau is known as the first serious art movement to bring serious attention to the graphic arts. Between 1890 and 1920, it was virtually everywhere, from book illustrations to posters. In fact, some of its most famous artworks are poster series, from the Moulin Rouge ones by Henri Toulouse Lautrec to Mucha’s posters for theatrical productions starring the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Art Nouveau did not simply end in 1910 but with changing times come changing trends. In a way, the many driving objectives of art nouveau were carried on by Art Deco, which emerged just before the first world war. Rather than the flowing, curvy patterns of art nouveau, art deco was defined by straight lines and corners.

On the surface, art nouveau may appear to be more keen on aesthetics and beauty. But many of its most notable artists, including Mucha, found ways to talk about serious themes through his own aesthetics. But more on that later. Not to mention that art nouveau was also quite celebrative of sex and sexuality.

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