Temples of Desire: The French Pavilions of Art Deco

Architecture of Commerce

Selling Art Deco

From Spring to Fall of 1925, The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris captured the attention of Europe and visiting dignitaries from America. Like the decade itself, this Fair was both forward looking and backward glancing. After the Great War, there was a general desire to return to normal, to “order,” as Jean Cocteau put it. What the writer, and other commentators who shared his sentiments meant, was a turn towards conservativism and caution. The Twenties was a decade of consolidation in the French art world, a digestion of the troublesome avant-gardes of the pre-war that had to be tamed and recycled as “modern art.” Designers, however, faced more complex challenges. Their bête-noir was Art Nouveau and its now old fashioned elaboration. After a terrible war, such decadence seemed obscene and such exuberance became unbearable in a new age of machines. Kenneth Frampton described Hector Guimard’s famous Métro entrances, which marked the Paris subway stations in these terms: “Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture…Guimard’s system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic ‘dragonfly’s wings’—to quote a contemporary critic—received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris colour of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.” Frampton was describing one of the three types of entrances designed by the artist–the delightful “dragonfly.”

By the 1920s, the time of such flights of fancy had passed. Art Nouveau and its attachment to nature were simply out of step with the Machine Age. Guimard himself noted, “Nature is a great book from which to draw inspiration..Having myself undertaken this study, I discovered three principles which should have a dominant influence on every architectural work: logic, harmony, and feeling.” When he spoke in 1902, a naturalistic design for the Métro entrances was precisely what the Parisians needed. As Marianne Ström noted in her book, Metro-art in the Metro-polis, “The underground has long been synonymous with anguish, fear, and repulsion. It evokes images of funerals, the dead, and hell-fire, sanctuaries (Lascaux and Altamira) and sorcerers.” She could have added the fact that, in Paris, the underground was an ossuary, the graveyards of millions of unknown city dwellers from hundreds of years. Guimard’s entrances were a welcome touch of beauty that would have welcomed tentative visitors to the new mode of travel. But after the war, such superstitions were stripped away and the public accepted the mechanical and technology, even under the earth. Slowly, one by one, Guimard’s one hundred forty-one lovely passages between light and darkness were removed and it was not until the late 1970s that their artistic value was recognized. Only eighty-six remained after the frenzy of modernizing in the 1960s and 70s.

In Architecture of France, David A. Hanser noted that “..Guimard created a new style in which modern, unconventional materials (iron, steel, brick, glass block, glazed tiles) were used openly and mixed with traditional materials, and in which asymmetry predominated..To some, Guimard’s ‘Metro Style’ was modern; to some it was nightmarish; to others, it represented bad taste..” Also very modern in 1901 was the fact that “Guimard’s entrances were made from a kit of relatively few prefabricated parts of cast iron that could be assembled in a wide number of variations.” Despite the advanced materials and building techniques employed, the entrances, as the author pointed out, caused controversies. Guimard was from Belgium, and the French took a dim view of such a foreign invasion and the architect bowed out of the project by 1902. The Art Nouveau stations themselves continued to be built until 1913, but after the Great War, in ten years, the world had changed and a new style, a rejection of Art Nouveau–Art Deco–arrived.

It should not be assumed, however, that Art Deco was a wholesale rejection of the past. Far from it, Art Deco philosophy rejected its near relative, Art Nouveau, but looked back to a very specific time period for inspiration. As Jared Goss, the historian of French Art Deco noted, the Art Nouveau artists were themselves not particularly good craftspersons and did not understand the relationship between art-for-art’s-sake and mass production. The style became a statement of luxury for the few but could not be easily refitted for broad consumption. According to Goss, “..the commercial failure of Art Nouveau was a national embarrassment, as other nations seemed able to succeed at expanding into a wide consumer based without sacrificing quality. Art Deco Designers rejected the sacrifice of quality for the sake of “art” at the expense of execution and “looked back to the preindustrial past, when guild-trained artisans, with their combined mastery of conception and execution, set international standards for excellence in the applied arts. Because the last generation of artist-craftsmen lived during the reign of Louis-Philippe, many designers chose to relate their own work to that style, although some looked also to the earlier eras of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Directoire, and the Empire. Indeed historical connection became central to the mission of the Art Deco designers.”

One of the foremost designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), who, by 1920, shook off the heritage of the past and moved out of Art Nouveau and into Art Deco. While he had been influenced by the arts and crafts movement in general and Art Nouveau in particular, he criticized its mode of production, saying, “A clientele of artists, intellectuals, and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” In other words, despite the apparent luxury of Art Deco objects, each object was designed for mass consumption, or, at least, for educated consumers. In addition, it should be pointed out that Art Deco designs, with their simple lines and geometric aspects, were far better suited to being manufactured than the complex configurations of Art Nouveau. The straightforward shapes of the “moderne” also lent themselves to a “downgrading” of materials used so that the Art Deco “look” could move down the economic chain, so to speak, and attract the vast and lucrative middle-class market. Ruhlmann pointed out that “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” In other words, the designers and the objects in the various French pavilions were intended to educate the public, advertise a new style, and sell merchandise. The Fair was an opportunity to educate the French public–potential customers–on the superiority of Art Deco as modern “taste.”


The organization and arrangement of the Fair’s shops, holding an extensive range of merchandise, were laid out in vertical lines, suggesting, to the contemporary eye, an outdoor shopping mall. As the Panorama of the Place des Invalides suggests, a magic carpet of shopping meccas, spread out at the feet of the Fair goers, all to tempt them to shop and to be informed and to learn about the latest styles from famous designers. Christopher Green explained, “In 1925, as in 1900, the middle class were the dominant force in French society; it was they, especially the lesser middle classes known in the 1870s and 1880s as the ‘new strata’ who brought back to power the Radicals in the 1924 Left coalition, the ‘cartel des gauches,’ after half-decade of right-wing dominance in the Chamber from 1919, and brought back with them the rationalist libertarian values of 1900-1914. Indeed, the 1925 Exhibition is one testimony to a mid-twenties desire to remake the image of a new modernity the Belle Epoque, imagined as a time of realized ambitions and sated appetites..” The importance of the “lesser middle classes,” who “worked with their hands” and “aspired socially” was the consumer base for the Art Deco artists. In Art in France, 1900-1940, Green explained that the pavilions appealed to “..the lesser middle classes (who lived in) scaled-down versions of the comfortable households of the bourgeoisie rich. It was its lavish appeal to this kind of social emulation that made of the 1925 Exhibition a popular as well as élite success.” The major sites of desire were the pavilions of the leading department stores of Paris–each structure dedicated to the targeted consumer, females with discretionary income, considered the prime customers of these temples of fashion, art, and design.

In their book on Art Deco, Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl discussed the extensive layout provided for the French buildings in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.“The French section comprised two main areas, almost perpendicular to each other, one of them marked by the Seine between the Pont de la Concorde and the ALms Bridge, the other one, leading alongside he Avenue Nicholas II, the Alexandre III Bridge, and the alley bisecting the section cutting across the Esplanade des Invalides from north to south. On the quays of the right bank of the river and the Cours-la-Reine, the visitor would successively encounter the foreign and the French pavilions, then the French Village and the colonial pavilions. On the left bank, some more pavilions, miniature toys presented in a model village, the transport gallery, and the amusement park. On the Esplanade, symmetry, and variety, order and life, obtained by an extremely considered arrangement of buildings, predominately assigned to France. Lastly, in order to connect the two parts of the Exhibition, separated by the Seine and for fear the public would not be tempted to cross from one bank to the other under the summer sun, the Alexandre III Bridge was transformed, from two lines of shops into a kind of Rialto. It was, like certain bridges of the Middle Ages, a street spanning a river..”

The four pavilions of the four great departments stores of Paris were wedged into four corners of the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pavilion for the Printemps department store celebrated the fame of the establishment which had arisen from the urban renewal project of Baron Georges Haussmann in the 1860s. In 1865, the founder, Jules Jaluzot, surveyed the new terrain of Paris and selected the 9th Arrondissement as the site for his new enterprise. A former employee of Le Bon Marché, Jaluzot understood the importance of foot traffic and recognized the convenience of being near the Gare St. Lazare and the covered “passages” or mini malls of the Grandes Boulevards. From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Printemps would be the huge display windows, reminiscent of the old fashioned markets on the streets. The “store” was really an assortment of buildings, starting with a building on Boulevard Haussmann and expanding to several other adjacent structures, all of which were destroyed by a fire in 1881. The original “stores” were expanded when rebuilt, rebounding to greater elegance. Under Jaluzot, the newest department store in Paris, became the most innovative, initiating the idea of a “sale” (les soldes) of older merchandise. Customers were offered a bouquet of violets on the first day of spring and, in the windows, elegantly dressed mannequins–an art form in and of themselves–wore the latest fashions. With the new owner, Gustave Laguionie, who purchased the store in 1905, came more innovations. Laguionie topped the main building with a stunning dome, complete with a terrace. Today it is still possible to sit on the roof terrace and have a meal while surveying all of Paris. The famous dome of the original Printemps roof was made with reinforced concrete, which incorporated glass creations by the artist Réné Lalique. In 1912, another much-copied innovation for Printemps was begun when René Guilleré, the founder of the Société des Artistes décorateurs, suggested the firm initiate a department dedicated to displaying and selling artisanal objects and unique furniture pieces. These art works would be designed by the most fashionable designers of the day, including Guilleré’s wife, Charlotte Chauchet, who would go on the design the interiors for the Pavilion in 1925. Faced with a second fire in 1923 that destroyed the Art Nouveau façade, spiral staircase, and mosaic tiles with their flower motifs were destroyed, Laguionie rebuilt the famous dome, reconstructing it as a stained glass masterwork, again by Lalique. And the “Printemps Haussmann” had another innovation to present: special displays for Christmas in the windows, which were now thought of as sites for installations of merchandise arranged with the care of a museum curator. The notion of holiday window displays was quickly copied by New York department stores.

The Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 had to be a celebration of the survival and renewal of Printemps, rising like a phoenix from the fires, an advertisement for the first department store to display furniture and design. The architects were as famous as the store itself: Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and his collaborator Georges Wybo, was was the chief architect of the store itself. Sauvage had been one of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture but also excelled in functionalist architecture and in decoration. He and the architect of the Le Bon Marché Pavilion used the cast iron support columns of the station at Les Invalides which was under the building to support the structures above. As the book, The Architectural Drawings of Henri Sauvage: Architectural works, c. 1905-1931, reported, “Given the fragility of the Invalides Station roof on top of which the building was erected, its was necessary to bear the load on the existing supports by means of reinforced concrete girders carrying the cantilevered pavilion posts.” The Pavilion was dominated by a remarkable frustoconical “dome” that expanded outward from its clipped-off top, enabling the architects to encompass the entire template allotted to them by the officials of the Fair. In fact, as Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl pointed out that the architectural use of “..reinforced concrete dominated the event.” They added that while architects had used concrete in a utilitarian mode, it could “assume, on the contrary, a certain elegance. Even if the Exhibition did not help the new concept of construction progress on a technical level, the date is marked in the history of its diffusion. It accustomed the eyes to its bond spans, its simple shapes, and its large cantilever overhangs. It established its recognition.”

The dome, which quoted the one on the store itself, was built by the Etablissements Perret Company and made of vitreous cement, manufactured by Jean Séailles and his partner Eugène Freyssinet. This kind of cement was a relatively new product, used by Séailles to coat the sides of the Printemps swimming pool in the store’s Salon d’Automne. L’architect magazine of 1925 described the process: “In order to occupy the maximum volume, the architect has ultimately been required to completely fill the imposed template. The result was a very simple envelope which was very richly coated with precious materials. Indeed, all the bases are executed in vitrified cement called “Lap d’Or” of which we have already seen a first application in the Spring Pool. The cement designs are nipped with filaments of gold drowned in the mass and crowned by a cornice with a mosaic of black and gold sandstone. The reinforced concrete roof lined with straw compressed in its lower part, to maintain the freshness of the premises in summer, it is covered with large glass lenses cast, executed by Lalique and giving a little impression of big pebbles with a general tone light chamois. Light hidden concealed fireplaces throw their fires on the facades and the cover.” The magazine elaborated further adding that René Lalique, the artist-decorator, designed “the reinforced concrete roof lined with compressed straw (solomite) with colored glass lenses resembling pebbles.” The effect, as the magazine suggested, was as if colored stones were shining from a journey tumbling down a stream of rushing water. The book on Sauvage described the “gold and black mosaic tiling cornice” made by Gentil and Bourdet and that the wrought iron main door was made by Mozer. The author and editor, Jean-Baptiste Minnaert, noted that “at night the facades of the pavilion were spot-lit.” The book’s section on the Pavilion continued, “The Pavilion did not always get good press. Criticism was leveled at the lack of harmony between the openings requested by the Primavera studios and the interior decoration, decided upon later. The interior layout program, the home of a great artist, was a disconnected suite of juxtaposed rooms. The Pavilion has since been demolished.”

As is evident, the Pavilion was the work of many hands and many designers, all brought together to create a striking and controversial building which, if nothing else, had been created to attract attention. The design or designs were exquisitely elaborate and it is doubtful if any of the artists were familiar with the idea of ornament as a “crime.” Alphonse Gentil and François Bourdet, who designed the elaborate tiles for the cornice were architects, classically trained at the School of Fine Arts in Paris and yet they were also entrepreneurs, who created their own company in 1901, Gentil, Bourdet et Cie, creating exterior embellishments in sandstone and ceramics. Their intention was clearly architectural elaboration and the pair began as Art Nouveau designers, as did many of the other designers, who worked on the Pavilion. Although Gentil was Algerian, Bourdet hailed from Nancy, the capital of Art Nouveau, where both artists were well-known crafters of Art Nouveau vases. With the greatest of ease, after the Great War, they shifted their designs towards Art Deco. The point is that the department store pavilions were all small jewel boxes masquerading as architecture. Given that all the artisans, who collaborated on this and the other structures for les grands magasins were veterans of Art Nouveau, they were not part of the new generation which eschewed ornament. The outsides of these glittering gazabos of shopping promised rooms full of the most fashionable and desirable wonders—a lure that the plain white walls of Le Corbusier were incapable of achieving. Fabrienne Fravalo wrote in 2009 in an article entitled, “Primavera, the Art Shop of the Printemps Stores,” that the theme of the Pavilion was the “house of an artist.” He noted that, in comparison to the contributions of other department stores, this pavilion was very original, so much so, it was disparaged as being a “hut,” because of the cone shaped roof. But this “hut” was encrusted with precious decorative coatings, not to mention the huge planters overflowing with draping flowers. As Fravalo wrote (in translation) for L’historire par l’image:

Evoking a temple, this unusual building houses an interior that is both modern and refined, designed according to the wishes of Spring and that of an artist. Its design made by the different workshops of Primavera contrasts rather strongly with the exterior aspect, as shown by the view of the vast living room. All the furniture in this room meets a spirit of modern comfort: the wide divan, the carpets with geometric motifs, the small coffee table with clean lines, the piano on columns where a large lamp with the shade pleated. Inviting to contemplation and aesthetic reverie, the art objects arranged in this reception room accentuate yet the elegant and refined atmosphere. The interior layout of the Primavera pavilion, a true demonstration of the creative possibilities of the Spring workshops, also clearly reveals the guiding principles of the department store: to offer guests a harmonious, comfortable and designed as a whole. Thought differently according to whether it is addressed to a man or a woman, the decoration also takes into account his profession: the 1925 pavilion thus corresponds to the dwelling of a male artist. The decorators pay as much attention to the furniture as to the accessories: from the wallpaper to the lamps, to the glassware, ceramics and statuettes, all the elements are important.

The conceptual juxtaposition of Le Corbusier’s all white undecorated Pavilion at the Fair and the fully dressed and “clad” department store pavilions pointed to a contradiction in terms within the practice of architecture itself. If one follows the reasoning of Mark Wigley in his famous book, White Walls, Designer Dresses. The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, the color white, which “dressed” the walls of “modern” architecture, was related in concept to the reform dresses and to the simplified designs with sharp edged cuts by radical designers, such as Coco Chanel. But in rejecting ornamentation and decoration and period styles, the radical architects also insisted that they were rejecting changeable fashions. But Wigley, following the trail of references dropped by the architects in their writings, saw a “psychosexual economy of fashion” buried in the subtexts. In addition to refusing to use ornamentation and decoration and references to the past, the modern architects were rejecting color or polychrome exteriors as form of “clothing” or a “cloaking” of the surface. As is known, the unadorned surfaces of the modern buildings of the architect Adolf Loos shocked the Viennese public with their “naked,” meaning unclothed or “undressed” exteriors. For many observers of the older generation, a “naked” building was obscene and scandalous, akin to a nude body walking down the street.

Le Corbusier preached the superior “morality” of white as a chaste and pure color but Wigley commented that the “..whole moral, ethical, functional and technical superiority of architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces.Although white surfaces were put forward by modern architects as superior to decoration and polychromy, Wigley argued that the insistence upon white was a “very particular fantasy. it is the mark of a certain desire, the seemingly innocuous calling card of an unspoken obsession.” If one accepts the notion that white architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillion L’Espirt Nouveau at the Exposition, was the architectural the equivalent to putting on a plain but beautifully tailored crisp white shirt, then the Pavilion of Printemps was a statement of fashion and decoration and other marvels that appealed to (female) fantasies of accumulation and acquisition of adornment. While the architect dons a white shirt and wears a black suit, the female consumer changes her outfit every day and follows changing styles devotedly. The contrast in attitudes towards fashion is a gender dialectic that was played out in the built environment. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by the excesses of Fair architecture and the unbridled decoration of Art Deco that he wrote L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) in protest, putting forward his opposing philosophy. But these four department store pavilions at the Paris Fair had to be “clothed;” it was necessary for them to be wearing the latest styles. In contrast to the wealth of display on the outside–the contributions of many designers and artists–a white building displays a prim hygiene.

As Wigley noted, “The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath… Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one’s membership of a social class rather than the state of one’s body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.” The Printemps Pavilion wore its exterior decorations like a collection of metaphors, all signifying the interior contents which collectively were advertising a modern way of life for a very modern and aware individual, the artist who is always on the cutting edge, a denizen of style.

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Defining Art Nouveau


Origins of Art Nouveau

One could argue as to which was the last movement of the Nineteenth-century or the first movement of the Twentieth-century, but Art Nouveau fits into the end and the beginning, dating from 1895 to 1905. But these dates are ambiguous. Art Nouveau was a continuation of the older arts and crafts movement of the British designer, William Morris. Seemingly ended by the rectilinear design ethic of Cubism, Art Nouveau reemerged after the Great War as Art Deco, which then morphed into the Bauhaus. Art Nouveau was based upon a dream born of the horrified reaction of William Morris to the shabby manufactured goods, festooned in bad taste and marred by poor craft that he saw at the Great Exposition of 1851 in London. The brainchild of Prince Albert, an art lover, the Exposition featured the unlikely stars, new machines such as the McCormick Reaper, displayed for public visual consumption in an iron and glass cathedral of industry. The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was a true marvel of modern construction and innovative design. But William Morris left the exhibition, determined to revive the medieval tradition of craft as art.

It is the dream of Morris—that craft might be art and that art might be well crafted—that extended over a century, from the Arts and Crafts movement, to the Aesthetic Movement in England to the Art Nouveau in France to the Bauhaus designs in Germany and America after World War II. Art Nouveau, like its predecessors and successors was an international movement, called “Jungenstil” in Germany and the “Liberty Style” in England, for example, and encompassed painting, sculpture, jewelry making, glass art, metal art, architecture, fabric art, furniture, wallpapers, and printmaking and so on. Art Nouveau was based upon the idea of the “Total Work of Art,” the gesamtkunstwerk, which engulfed all of the spectator’s senses. Art Nouveau was a total immersion of life in style. All of existence was to be aestheticized.

Although often associated only with the decorative arts, Art Nouveau was part of a more complex phenomenon that had been unfolding in Europe for a long time. First, the Salon system and the academic system tended to create a hierarchy among the arts, with the “minor arts” placed well below the “beaux-arts.” Art Nouveau sought to restore the importance of the decorative arts. Second, Art Nouveau is often connected to Symbolism, with certain artists begin claimed by both movements. An artist, such as Paul Gauguin, whose work was frankly decorative, was important to both philosophies. Third, Symbolism was a late extension of Romanticism, a kind of extreme eccentricity, seen in Gustave Moreau and carried on by the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi (Casa Mila, 1905 – 10), who was connected to Art Nouveau. Fourth, looking forward, Art Nouveau was an important precedent for the European movement of Expressionism. After decades of the dominance of realism, either as movement, “Realism;” or a style, “realistic,” the avant-garde artists began to consider alternatives to observed empirical reality. Symbolism, a late nineteenth century reaction to realism and positivism, and Art Nouveau, an early Twentieth Century extension of this rejection of realism were part of a larger philosophical quarrel between materialism and idealism.

Art Nouveau and Symbolism

The historical context of Art Nouveau is that of a mood of decline and decadence, which developed into a neo-mystical and irrational direction opposed to positivism and naturalism. The aim of Art Nouveau artists was not to depict or describe nature but to evoke or convey sensual impressions very much like the attempts of French poets, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud to escape the restrictions of the real and visible world. By shifting the task of the artist from that of an observer, even a voyeur, the new artists at the fin-de-siècle, took up the question of how do we see and how do we know the world. This “world” is not confined to that which can be apprehended by the senses. The “world” of any human being is also a mental world, personal and subjective and emotional. If Impressionism asks the question how do we see, by presenting us with a variety of versions of seeing and looking, Symbolism gives us a different dialogue, a mental one. Seeing is what we think it is. Seeing is less important than what we see makes us feel. Life is in the mind, not just in the eyes. Symbolism explored the human mind, the human subject, as exhaustively as Impressionism explored the human world, the inhuman objects.

The idea that nature was or could be more than simply a pretty scene was taken up by the artists, which clustered around Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven. Gauguin’s associate, Émile Bernard, called the style they developed Cloisionisme, a title which conveys the idea of the intent of the artists quite well. Simply, the term described the heavy or prominent black outlines used by the artists. But the term itself comes from jewelry making and is a way of drawing with thin strips of metal. These borders form boundaries around areas of intense colors made of precious stones. In taking a term from the crafts, the artists were implying, more complexly, that the use of line was freed from its traditional task of description and was given over to the task of formal expression and to the constructive demands of design. Line was free from its previous role as describer and began to take on a life of its own.

Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, 1888 is an excellent example of Symbolism, of Post-Impressionism and of an Art Nouveau precursor—in other words, of an artistic stance or impulse, which was anti-realistic. Based upon the influence of the “arbitrary” composition of Japanese prints, the design is strong, surmounting any traditional Western concepts of composition; color is vivid, arbitrary and non-naturalistic, used for emotional effect; line is dark, curvilinear and prominent. The subject is mystical and magical, hardly concerned with the realist-based daily life of the leisured middle class. The subjects of Gauguin’s Pont-Aven period are timeless and about timeless experiences that are spiritual and unspeakable and inexpressible—except by an artist, such as Gauguin. But is the subject—Breton peasants having a religious experience—modern? Probably not. Is the idea that spiritual values were as important as material value a modern one? Not really. So what is the rupture here? The style of Paul Gauguin—arbitrary colors and strong outlines of abstracted and simplified shapes—moved away from the objectivity of Impressionism.

Art as Craft, Craft as Art

By the end of the century, Gauguin can be seen to be pointing towards a “liberation” of the elements of art, such as line and color, from the “confines” of subject matter and from the “task” of description. On the other hand, Gauguin’s style was quite in tune with his subject matter, which transcended itself, expressing something more than a Breton experience. His “Vision after the Sermon” is also a human experience. It would be a mistake to interpret all fin-de-siècle art as being art-for-art’s-sake, but Gauguin and the Symbolist artist made strong arguments for artistic freedom. But here is where Symbolism and Art Nouveau part company. According to the Kantian doctrine of art-for-art’s sake, art’s purpose is its purposelessness. Too much of Art Nouveau was applied art. In terms of purpose, Art Nouveau sought to provide purposeful objects the status of “art” by infusing them with style, a style, which had, in and of itself, no useful purpose and existed merely for the sake of Beauty.

The concept of “Beauty” had greatly changed over the century. Frederic Schiller has followed Kant’s footsteps in aesthetics and understood beauty to stem from the Greco-Roman standards. But, even early in the century, Schiller sensed the threat to these timeless canons of beauty: modern life itself. With the Industrial Revolution, beauty was replaced by a certain utility of manufacture, causing a decline of Taste. Taste, as defined by its role in art, disappeared and was replaced by a manufactured look to mass produced objects, just as style was replaced by necessity of fabrication. The horror of machine wrought objects was fully on view in the Crystal Palace exhibitions of 1851. While most marveled at Joseph Paxton’s new architecture of glass and iron, Oxford student, William Morris, was horrified and ten years later started Morris and Company in 1861 with the intent to revive the Medieval traditions of art as craft and craft as art.

Morris insisted that everything beautiful should also be useful and vice versa and established the “Morris look” that is popular even today. The elegant and naturalistic wallpaper patterns, the palely colored rooms decorated with restraint, and the pared down furniture established a standard that would lead to Twentieth Century design. The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international movement, extending even to America, and, in England, evolved into the Aesthetic Movement in which beauty was extended from the home to high art in England, especially in the art of James Whistler who was an exponent of art for art’s sake. For the French, Art Nouveau came as something of a surprise; but for the English, the movement was an extension of earlier impulses—that of extending beauty to life and to all its objects and artifacts. Art Nouveau, which seemed to be merely decorative had a higher purpose. In another reaction against the crass materialism and the “naïve” naturalism of the Impressionists, the artists of the Art Nouveau movement sought to renew the decorative arts through a union of the fine and applied artists.

Characteristics of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is more than a style, it is also an intent: to renew art and to develop a new art. Art Nouveau is just what its name states, a “new art.” Art Nouveau was an international style, having a variety of names, depending upon which country one is in. Its permanent name was derived from the Paris shop of Samuel (Siegfried) Bing, La Maison de l’Art nouveau, founded in 1895 (The N is not capitalized in French). Often the end of Art Nouveau is marked at the year, 1905, the year of Bing’s death. Art Nouveau in France as a style can be identified with the characteristic whiplash line and with asymmetrical compositions. In other nations, the line of Art Nouveau would be straight, as with the work of Charles Henry Mackintosh. Line and design take over and subject matter is ruled and ordered by the demands of the powerful line. Line is closely allied to ornament and decoration. There is a definite philosophy connected to the use of ornament, and this philosophy varied according to who was speaking.

Art Nouveau designers and painters understood line as a determining force. Designs based upon nature were common and line was thus always in motion, growing like a natural being, asymmetrical and undulating, whip like, energy-laden, with movement, engulfing and transforming the object. As with Gauguin, line pursues a separate life of its own and mass is molded in obedience to linear rhythm. Ornamentation seems alive and restless but balanced and in a state of equilibrium, indicating the dynamism of nature, where the structure of form would be fused with organic unity. But there were dissenting opinions on the subject of line.

Henry van de Velde of Belgium was scornful of anything curvilinear or naturalistic. He preferred the geometric abstraction of the structure of ornament. Anything else was mere surface decadence. For van de Velde, structure was everything and he disliked the floral themes of Émile Galle’s glass works. René Lalique’s jewelry in its opulent naturalism was grotesque to van de Velde. Émile Galle, who founded the famous communal school at Nancy, preferred the naturalistic motifs and used them without the exaggeration that one sees in the line of British illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. English architect and designer, Charles Voysey, seemed to take a middle ground between stern structural approached and fantastic curvilinear extravaganzas and all embracing nature. He preferred a more analytical and selective approach to nature, using it as a stepping-stone to stylization.

Voysey, like many of his Art nouveau counterparts, turned his hand to many arts. He designed textiles and furniture and was a very important architect of domestic houses. The English Art Nouveau designers resisted French extravagances, such as can be seen in Hector Guimard’s Métro stations. Charles Henry Mackintosh designed his Glasgow School of Art with a bit more restraint, preferring rigid straight lines and pale colors. Van de Velde also designed furniture and houses, and the American Louis Comfort Tiffany, famed for his glass creations, also designed furniture. Another leading furniture designer was the Frenchman, Louis Marjorelle, whose plastic designs made wood do things that wood never dreamed of doing. The idea is that Art Nouveau artists attempted to create a total environment with all the parts coordinating into an ensemble instead of just being pieces standing separately in a room.

Art Nouveau and Architectural Theory

The Art Nouveau artists were also attempting to escape from Beaux-Arts architecture and from Victorian bad taste. The escape from Beaux-Arts was an escape from dead traditions and from imperial opulence and from associations with the past. The escape from Victorian bad taste had to do with improving ornament and decoration. Artists of a slightly later generation, such as the architect, Adolph Loos of Vienna, would take a sterner and more uncompromising approach. Ornament was, for Loos, a “crime.” Art Nouveau was the decadent opposite of the new uncompromising Modernism developing in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Art Nouveau was an art of beauty and luxury, divorced from the Industrial Revolution and the processes of mass manufacture. The so called “new art” was nostalgic and did not express the new century. One can ask if Art Nouveau was truly a new art for a new century or the last rear guard action preserving the past. Ultimately, the viewpoint of Loos would win out and the white reductiveness of Modernist architecture would render the architecture of Art Nouveau to isolated fancies of architects of folly, such as Gaudi’s amazing organic cathedral, Sagrada Familia (1882 – 1926) in Barcelona.

The attempts of the Art Nouveau artists to educate and improved taste was doomed. Like the Arts and Crafts movement before Art nouveau, many of the artists found that the time for handcrafted goods was passed. These one-of-a-kind objects became luxury goods for sophisticated tastes and fat pocketbooks. Art Nouveau, like the art of William Morris and this English Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s, was essentially a connoisseur’s art. The materials were luxurious and beyond mass production. And yet Art Nouveau left behind some sublime examples, thanks to open pocketbooks of open-minded clients. The Palais Stoclet in Brussels is a late example, 1906 – 11, by Josef Hoffmann, a huge private home, a true gesamtkunstwerk, a product of the labors and talents of the best artists Vienna had to offer: Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser who worked with their colleague, Hoffmann on his greatest work. The total cost of the Palais has never been calculated.

The careful craft and exuberant art and the luxury materials deployed by Hoffmann were totally at odds with the theories of Loos. Art Nouveau intended to marry art and craft and was philosophically opposed to manufacturing. Eliminating ornament, the criminal, would allow mass production, and this dream became possible only after the Great War. This is the direction that proved practical and which ultimately elevated the public “taste.” Good design replaced ornamentation as the concern for artists. Van de Velde can be seen as a harbinger for this position in his concern from structure, tending towards the abstract, rather than the romantically symbolical. The battle over ornamentation, which raged during the Art Nouveau years, 1895-1905, was waged in towns and cities all over Europe.

In Vienna, the artists preferred straight lines, circles and squares, mechanically drawn elements quite at odds with French art nouveau. Viennese art nouveau was additive, rather than holistic in approach, when one is considering its design qualities. This is an obvious result of creating a pattern out of many geometric elements (Gustav Klimt), rather than out of a curving line (Beardsley). Victor Horta’s Tassel House (Hôtel Tassel) in Brussels is quite a contrast to the Steiner House by Loos. Predictably, the Loos house is completely without ornamentation or decoration in the back. The façade of the private home had to conform to Viennese architectural codes. Despite the prediction of the late modern clean lines seen in the Steiner House, most of the architecture done by the Viennese artists was a sometimes uneasy alliance of elaborate decoration and sharp edges, seen in Joseph Hoffmann’s work, Palais Stoclet, in Brussels, and Otto Wagner’s postal savings bank in Vienna.

The End of Art Nouveau


Art Nouveau was not for the masses and remained a luxury art with a limited customer base. The characteristic curvilinear style can be found in the posters of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, the only items that could be mass-produced and widely distributed. But like many art style of the avant-garde, Art Nouveau ended after only ten years. Perhaps it was the death of Bing or the birth of Cubism, or the outbreak of the Great War. Ironically, the “new art” was not the future. The future of design actually could be found far outside of Paris, in Vienna, birthplace of modern design. Adolph Loos was actually a very radical architect and designer. So accustomed have we become to the clean modern aesthetic that we find it difficult to realize to what extent people of this period were accustomed to architectural decoration. When we look at the “Chicago style” of commercial architecture in America, we see what are to us rather sculptural and decorative buildings. But to the public, they were unadorned. This was often a client requirement. Ornamentation was expensive; it got dirty and was hard to clean, especially when one is building a skyscraper. The invention of these tall buildings was made possible by the invention of a safe way to elevate people to great heights–the elevator. With a new kind of building, come new kinds of questions. The question became the relation of form to function, and the debate would be played out in architecture before it could be considered in functional objects.

Art Nouveau had one attitude about form and function. The form of the object should be express its function and this function should be expressed through decorative forms. Ornament was in the service of expressing form and function. Ornament both clothed and expressed the underlying structure. Ornament decorated the structure. Ornament disguised the structure. But form and function came to take on different meanings. Louis Sullivan’s statement “form follows function” came to be an architectural dictate, which contained a philosophical issue concerned with the role of structure in determining architectural form. The buildings of Sullivan were encrusted with ornamentation, one of the last expressions of the importance of decoration in architecture. His student, Frank Lloyd Wright, would banish the curve and favor the straight line. He produced, not decoration or ornamentation, but interior design. Through a repetition of the post and lintel as construction methods, the straight lines in Wright’s work led the way to the future. Sullivan and Wright were the transition architects out of Art Nouveau and into Modernism. Under the impact of rectilinear Cubism, the curvilinear signs of Hector Guimard began to look old fashioned the Métro signs were removed. Only a few remain today and, like the Eiffel Tower, these Art Nouveau entrances to the stations have become nostalgic symbols of Paris.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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