Art Nouveau, 1890-1914, explores a new style in the visual arts and architecture that developed in Europe and North America at the end of the nineteenth century. The exhibition is divided into three sections: the first focuses on the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where Art Nouveau was established as the first new decorative style of the twentieth century; the second examines the sources that influenced the style; and the third looks at its development and fruition in major cities in Europe and North America.
At its height exactly one hundred years ago, Art Nouveau was a concerted attempt to create an international style based on decoration. It was developed by a brilliant and energetic generation of artists and designers, who sought to fashion an art form appropriate to the modern age. During this extraordinary time, urban life as we now understand it was established. Old customs, habits, and artistic styles sat alongside new, combining a wide range of contradictory images and ideas. Many artists, designers, and architects were excited by new technologies and lifestyles, while others retreated into the past, embracing the spirit world, fantasy, and myth.
Art Nouveau was in many ways a response to the Industrial Revolution. Some artists welcomed technological progress and embraced the aesthetic possibilities of new materials such as cast iron. Others deplored the shoddiness of mass-produced machine-made goods and aimed to elevate the decorative arts to the level of fine art by applying the highest standards of craftsmanship and design to everyday objects. Art Nouveau designers also believed that all the arts should work in harmony to create a “total work of art,” or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewelry all conformed to the principles of Art Nouveau.
The Art Nouveau style appeared in the early 1880s and was gone by the eve of the First World War. For a brief, brilliant moment, Art Nouveau was a shimmering presence in urban centers throughout Europe and North America. It was the style of the age–seen on public buildings and advertisements, inside private homes and outside street cafés–adorning the life of the city.
Art Nouveau was a response to the radical changes caused by the rapid urban growth and technological advances that followed the Industrial Revolution. This timeline establishes a counterpoint between major moments in the development of Art Nouveau and world events to provide a context for understanding the style’s many and varied influences.
A period of significant change, it resembles in many ways our own time. Indeed, we can see in Art Nouveau the seeds of modernity and our own fast-paced world.
It was an age of innovation, introducing modern conveniences such as the car and the telephone, electricity, the department store, and the skyscraper. Cities were mushrooming, nationalism was on the rise, religion was being questioned, and the role of women was shifting. Art Nouveau–the new art–reflected these transformations in a dynamic, linear style that emphasized individuality through a decorative vocabulary based on nature.
Beginning in the 1890s, artists reached out to a vast number of design sources for inspiration, exploring the cultural roots of their own countries as well as art from Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, they experimented with new materials and techniques across a broad range of media to create a unified vision of design and architecture.