The Fate of Fonts, Part Two

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part Two

Printing and its old-fashioned fonts had long been viewed as problematic, and, in the nineteenth century, the English designer, William Morris, set out to revive what had once been an art form with the famous Kelmscott Press. His “reform” of mass-produced books was a prelude to the modern movement in typography that actually originated in England before and after the Great War. As Robin Kinross wrote in Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History,

The movement took up Morris’s fight for high standards and for an awareness of aesthetic qualities in printing: as at least one of its leading members reported, the sight of a Kelmscott book had provided the shock of excitement that started a life-long engagement with typography. But the reformers dissented from Morris on the question of the machine..Furthermore, the legacy of Kelmscott, as taken up by the private presses, had, there, become ossified in the cult of the ‘book beautiful’ or had degenerated in weak imitations of the original conception. The advent of Art Nouveau, and its degeneration, had brought further confusion, especially to a trade printer trying to keep up with fashion. In the face of this situation of decline, the compromise made by the reformers was to accept the machine and provide it with good typefaces. For the book-centred reformers, ‘the machine’ meant above all the Lanston Monotype composing machine, which in Britain was dominant in the sphere of book-printing; line-compos- ing machines predominated in newspaper production..

Kinross was right in pointing out that the task of printing books had gone beyond the scope of the printer and, by the twentieth-century had to become part of the work of designers. The newness of the emerging field can be traced by the uncertain nomenclatures surrounding a new need that no one knew how to name. “The post-war reformation was to be largely the creation of such ‘advisers’, bringing to the printing trade the elements of design. ‘Design’, that is, both in the sense of an aesthetic awareness and in the sense of rational coordination of production,” Kinross stated.“The difference was between the merely modern, seen against a backward trade or ossified bibliophile context, and the consciously modern or the modernist.” In other words, in England and in Germany, the old tradition of hand lettering, which had been replicated in old fonts, was being replaced by a rather belated admission of the role of the machine in printing. The hand had to be banished. By the early twentieth century, another element was presenting itself: the role of typeface in presenting what we would term today as “branding.” In other words, there were some products or services that were difficult to present visually, such as the London Underground.

The massive subway system needed to be united by more than rails under the Underground Group. As Oliver Wainwright explained in The Guardian, the subways, plural, were united into one, under a single “brand,” and in 1916, a calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) was asked by Frank Pick, head of the Group, to create a typeface that was modern, distinct and yet unobtrusive. The result was a font that was based on the sharp-edged lettering on Trajan’s column, the capitals the artist considered “held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty,” as “the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions.” The stripped down, lightweight and legible capital letters were san serif, something a bit new in the early twentieth century. In his article, “London to the Letter: Meet Edward Johnston, The Font of All Tube Style,” Wainwright credits Johnston for drawing attention to the way in which such clear and clean fonts could be read with ease. The London Underground script, as it is known today, seems to lift and fly with the speed of the cars rushing past, a prime example of a brand fitting the function of what it represents. One hundred years later, this font is still timeless and irreplaceable–just like Trajan’s column.

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London Underground Font

Johnston had a close associate, the younger designer Eric Gill (1882-1940) who was inspired by the trim look of the sans serif font to create his own font, known as Gill Sans, in 1928. A bit thicker than Johnston’s Underground lettering, Gill Sans is one of the best-known fonts today and was recently redone in 2015 for the contemporary eye, redesigned as the Gill Sans Nova and the Joanna Nova series. As the owner of these fonts, the Monotype corporation explained, “These are contemporary digital typefaces – with a wide range of weights, alternate characters, and extended language support – that pay homage to Gill’s original designs.” The creative director of Monotype, James Fooks-Bale, said, “The Eric Gill Series is what I’d like to refer to as a living narrative, not static and we’re a small part in its evolution since the 1920s.” Like Johnston, Gill’s font would become part of English transportation when Gill Sans was adopted by “London & North Eastern Railway in 1929 as its official typeface for publicity and posters, later appearing on trains themselves. Then Gill Sans really spread its wings, because at nationalisation in 1948 it was adopted by the British Railways Board for its station signage, rolling stock lettering, timetables, and publicity.”

As a 2013 article at UK Time explained, “The British Railways station signs worked so well because Gill Sans is a very dictatorial font, ordering you about in a no-nonsense way. As such, the signs were perfectly suited to the post-war period in Britain, the last time that men in bowler hats were in charge of everything before the 1960s came along and the whole structure of society was blown apart. How reassuring it must have been for a train traveller of the 1950s to know that when arriving at Barnstaple, or looking for the Way Out, they could be in no doubt at all that they were indisputably at Barnstaple, or the Way Out would be precisely where indicated.” Gill Sans was used until the British Railways were privitized in 1965 and Gill’s work was replaced by the Rail Alphabet.

British Railway Car with Gill Sans signage

In Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield wrote, “Oddly enough, Gill Sans is itself a curiously sexless font..In his autobiography, Gill explained that sans serif was the obvious choice when ‘a forward-minded bookseller of Bristol asked me to paint his shop fascia.’ The long wooden sign in question, for Douglas Cleverdon, led to something else–after seeing a sketch of these letters, Gill’s old friend Stanley Morison commissioned him to design an original sans face for Monotype. Its impact was instant and is still reverberating..It was the most British of types, not only in its appearance (spare, proper, and reservedly proud), but also in its usage, adopted by the Church of England, the BBC, the first Penguin book jackets and British Railways (where it was used on everything from timetables to restaurant menus). Each showed Gill Sans to be a supremely workable text face, carefully structured for mass production.It wasn’t the most charming or radiant, and not perhaps the most endearing choice for literary fiction, but it was ideal for catalogues and academia. It was an inherently trustworthy font, never fussy, consistently practical.” However, to return to the beginning of this paragraph, why did Garfield use the unexpected phrase, “oddly enough” to comment on the sexlessness of Gill Sans?

Perpetua, unlike Gill Sans, has serifs

The great design historian, Steven Heller, reported for Wired Magazine that Gill wrote about his penchant for bestiality and incest and produced pornography, even while designing the Perpetua font, in his diary. The combination of creating elegant fonts and exotic sexual tendencies, which, as the author observed wryly, earned “him posthumous scorn.” The author of the biography, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, that revealed Gill’s most interesting life, Fiona MacCarthy, considered the link between the artist’s work and the artist’s personal life: should one be judged by the other? For her article in The Guardian, she discussed a less known aspect of this work, his sculpture. Gill was as adventurous in his public sculpture as he was in his personal life. By 1910, a decorous time in the British arts, the sculptor and soon to be famous font designer, was exploring forbidden topics and producing heretofore rare subject matter. As MacCarthy wrote,

He was already working at the extremes of the domestic and the risqué; his placid mother and child carvings contrasting with the sheer effrontery of such works as Votes for Women, an explicit carving showing the act of intercourse, woman of course on top. Maynard Keynes bought the carving for £5. When asked how his staff reacted to it, he replied: “My staff are trained not to believe their eyes.” This was also the period at which Gill was making the almost life-size sculpture he entitled Fucking. This carving was over protectively rechristened Ecstasy when bought for the collection at Tate Britain, having been discovered abandoned in a boathouse at Birchington-on-Sea. Is it relevant or is it a distraction to know that the subject of the carving is Gill’s younger sister Gladys and her husband Ernest Laughton, entwined in a position of – well – ecstasy, and that Gill’s own incestuous relationship with Gladys was then in progress, continuing for most of their adult life? To me it is significant in stressing the artist’s dependence on the known and familial: his passion was the personal, he would not use outside models. It certainly deepens understanding of the element of voyeurism in Gill’s work.

The biographer’s 2006 article, “Written in Stone,” discussed Gill’s fonts only briefly, but mentioned that, during 1924, he created the Gill Sans series in a “ruined Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains of Wales. Here he designed his brilliantly workmanlike typefaces for Monotype, typically throwing his reservations about machine production to the winds. Gill Sans, the sans serif typeface used on the covers of pre-war Penguin books, is rightly lauded in the current V&A Modernism exhibition as the first British modernist type design. What is striking,” MacCarthy wrote, “is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work.” in fact, the reissue of an updated version of Gill Sans, took place ten years later. Like the recent renovation of Gill Sans, the Underground font was also slightly altered. As the London Transport Museum reported, “In the 1970s, London Transport looked into the suitability of using Johnston or its replacement with a more modern letter form. In 1979, Eiichi Kono, a young Japanese designer working for Banks and Miles, revised the original Johnston with slight changes to the proportions to some of the letters and created bold and italic fonts. The New Johnston type is still in use across the network today.” Whatever one might think of Gill the man, it is clear that he followed the creed of his mentor, Johnston, that a font should demonstrate “Readableness, Beauty, and Character.”

But, for the purposes of this series, the question must be asked, why raise the issue of the artist’s life and Gill’s work in fonts? On one hand, there is an interesting contrast between the straightforward Gill Sans and the tangled life of the artist, but, on the other hand, the disturbance about his character underlines how important fonts are to our lives today. For German artists, fonts became deciding factors in their lives. At the same time, Eric Gill was working on his sans fonts in a remote monastery, his German counterparts were creating letters that would put their lives at risk. The next post will examine the dangers of making fonts for the wrong person–Adolf Hitler–at the wrong time.

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

Thank you.

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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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Podcast Episode 32: Whistler, Part One

Whistler, Manet and The White Girl

One of the most overlooked avant-garde pioneers was the American in Paris (and London), the expatriate, James Whistler. Whistler was one of the first international artists, who showed in London and Parisian Salons. Although overshadowed in art history by his good friend, Édouard Manet, Whistler was the other scandal in the Salon des Refusés of 1863 with the controversial painting known as The White Girl. and instituted installation techniques later adopted by the Impressionists. Always controversial, Whistler’s art, like that of Manet, established Modernist tenets with his groundbreaking paintings.

Also listen to “Whistler, Part Two”

and “Whistler, Part Three”

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


The Pre-Raphaelite (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) artists established a style and content in 1848 that was so successful and beloved that the “realism” of this group lasted as a British tradition well into the Twentieth Century. The movement was complicated, combining vestiges of the content of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism with virtuoso demonstrations of technical prowess. Art history has exorcised Pre-Raphaelites from the canon of “correct” Modern art, but the PRB was the first group to self-consciously declare themselves avant-garde artists. They issued a literary Manifesto, opposed Academic art (based upon the classicism of Raphael), painted en plein air, and organized their own exhibitions—three decades before the Impressionists.

There were two main groups of visual artists. One was organized around the young precocious painter, John Millais in 1848 and included other painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. This group included lesser known painters and writers, Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and Frederick George Stephens. The second group formed around Rossetti and included, the painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the interior designer, William Morris, the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the artist, Ford Maddox Brown. The two groups developed almost twenty years apart but, in the public mind, were connected through subject matter and the devotion to medieval ideals of craft and morality.

The PRB were at first not known as individuals. In their debut exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1848, the artists were designated collectively, through their “PRB” signature on their paintings. The were at first savaged and attacked by the press, so badly that Gabriel Rossetti did not show publically again for a decade. However, their moral stance towards art as craft and elevated labor and the moral and religious content of their subject matter found a defender in England’s most powerful art critic, John Ruskin, who also felt that art should have a moral purpose. As the artists found support, they emerged from anomnymity. But the Pre-Raphaelites differed from their French counterparts in significant ways.

The Pre-Raphaelites took their name from the paintings from the pre-Raphaelite artists of the Early Renaissance: those painters who preceded Raphael. By opposing Raphael, the artists opposed the Royal Academy and the traditional classicism that was a hundred years old, out of date in content, and, to the minds of the young men, thoroughly degenerate. The PRB was a reforming group with the goal of returning painting to the medieval values of careful craft. There was a moral stance in their adherence to craft. In the meticulous attention to the infinite detail of nature, the artists were recording the moral presence of God in nature. This tradition of intense description can be traced back, not only to the Italian Renaissance but also to the medieval paintings of Northern Europe. In England, one could point to the meticulous art of Hans Holbein. To borrow Panofsky’s description of the artists of the Northern Renaissance, the realism of the Pre-Raphaelites was based upon a vision that was both “microscopic” and “macroscopic.” In other words, the artist saw as through a microscope and a telescope, perfect vision, both near and far: the world revealed in all its manifest detail.

Compared to their secular French counterparts, the PRB—Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—had a distinctly religious cast with Christianity of the New Testament providing inspiration as a source of spiritual value. They modeled themselves on the early Nineteenth century group, the Nazarenes, who also sought a more authentic art through a more “primitive” approach to art making. The young, all-male community of the PRB believed that art should deal with serious issues and made their debut in 1849 under a cloak of anonymity, hiding their individual identities under the signature “PRB.” Paintings, such as Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! which demonstrated the naïve traits of early Renaissance art, shrill colors, intense details broken into fragments and ignored pictorial order. “Disease,” “deformity,” “dissection,” “ugliness” were some of the charges against the art of the PRB. Queen Victoria sent for Millais’s offending painting and poor Rossetti never exhibited in public again. But from 1852 on the Brotherhood found valuable support from Ruskin who celebrated the “actual facts” and the “truth to nature” that took painting back to fundamentals. The PRB produced a revolution in taste and caused a new appreciation for Early Renaissance art.

The first group of the Pre-Raphaelites followed their predecessors of the Fifteenth century by painting on white ground, using bright and pure colors, and painted directly from the careful study of nature. The brightness of the hues, after centuries of subdued tones and deliberately darkened colors, came as a shock to the audiences of London who were blinded by this new light. The historically accurate detail was rendered at a level of the daguerreotype and the content of the painting was literary and contemporary, Biblical and mythological, and always with moral content and didactic lesson. It is often said that the English were a literary race, and that the French were more attuned to the visual arts. Although this comparison is simplistic, the English allowed and welcomed literary content while the French gradually removed narrative from the visual arts. While it is true that the PRB artists enjoyed painting literary subjects, from the Bible to Shakespeare to tales of King Arthur, all from English literature, the Pre-Raphaelites were very popular in France and, because of their contemporary subject matter, were often an inspiration for the Naturalists. As the leader in the Industrial Revolution, England was a society split between the future and the past, cherishing its own native heritage which, at the same time, destroying the past. Pre-Raphaelite art was similarly Janus-faced, looking to the past while examining the present. The Pre-Raphaelites told stories from the Bible and evoked a pre-modern Britain of King Arthur and fairies as an antidote to modern times. But, by the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelites shifted their gaze to modern London and the modern problems of industrialization and modernization.

The Pre-Raphaelites were socially aware but not politically active, but, in their youth, they were rebels with a cause, announcing their presence in 1848. By returning the artists of the Early Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelites found a primitive and pious sincerity in content and a sharp edged observation in technique that gave sacred stories an intense gloss of convincing detail. Unlike many of the avant-garde groups in Europe, the Pre-Raphaelites were not as overtly political or critical of the state. There is no question that witnessing, albeit at a distance, the Revolution of 1848, impacted the interest of the Pre-Raphaelite artists in the nation’s poor. England had lived through one revolution in the Seventeenth Century and had no desire to live through another. The English desired equilibrium over all things, particularly after witnessing the horror of the French Terror, and staved off a rebellion of the lower classed with small measures of Reform. Chartism, a reform movement, rather than a revolutionary movement, finally succeeded in securing universal male suffrage in 1867. Until then, according to French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, there was a real “affection” by the lower classes for the upper classes. Other English artists, such as the American, James Abbot McNeill Whistler and the French artist, James Tissot, painted the wealthy and privileged middle class in Great Britain, the PRB pioneered in the “problem picture,” or paintings that dwelt on the problems of modern life in the city, especially those faced by the lower classes.

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Avant-Garde Realism in England

Avant-Garde Realism in England: Coping with Contemporary Life

At mid-century, young English artists were prepared for the Royal Academy in a system called the “schools,” or preparatory schools, such as Sass’s Academy and Heatherley’s School of Art. But the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds seemed less relevant to new artists, as a newly restive lower class demanded a voice in government and newly rich industrialists began to collect art. After the Reform Bill of 1832, the climate of English art changed and the shift away from ancient times and Renaissance models and towards a new interest in the great social and economic changes taking place in Britain. A group of young artists, some graduates of the “schools,” initiated a modern realism in England at the same time Gustave Courbet was preparing for his bold move to political realism. In 1848, the artists of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood established a style and content that was so successful and so beloved that the “realism” of this group lasted as an English tradition well into the Twentieth Century. The movement was complicated, combining vestiges of Neoclassicism, with careful drawing and historical content, and Romanticism, with a fascination with the Medieval past, and Realism, with a new emphasis on urban subject matter.

Debuting in the revolutionary year of 1848 under the mysterious acronym “PRB,” the paintings showed a virtuoso demonstration of technical prowess in painting and bright colors patterned after the original “pre-Raphaelites” of the Early Renaissance. To borrow Erwin Panofsky’s description of the artists of the Northern Renaissance, the realism of the PRB was based upon a vision that was both “microscopic” and “macroscopic.” In other words, the artist saw through both a microscope and a telescope, perfect vision, both near and far: the world revealed in all its manifest detail. With the Pre-Raphaelites, the attention to detail was nothing short of obsessive. The labor-intensive painting practices were based upon a morality of work and diligent labor that gave their works an aura of the medieval, as was intended. Pre-Raphaelite art acted as a rebuke to the lazy habits of the academic artist who copied, not nature, but artistic conventions. The influential art writer, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, called their academic practices “laborious idleness.” Although the PRB was rebellious against academic theories and practices, there were limits to the rebellion of these middle class men. The group resembled a boy’s club, for the men involved were quite young, and the women later associated with the PRB remained peripheral and played a larger role as models than as associates.

Art history has exorcised Pre-Raphaelites from the canon of correct art but the PRB was the first group to self-consciously declare themselves avant-garde artists. They issued a literary manifesto, published their own journal, The Germ, for four issues, opposed the kind of academic art that based upon Raphael, painted en plein air, and organized their own exhibitions three decades before the Impressionists. There were two main groups. The founding group, the “PRB,” was organized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1848 and included John Millais, who entered the Royal Academy at the age of eleven, and William Holman Hunt. All members selected by Rossetti, this group included lesser known painters and writers, Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and Frederick George Stephens. Meeting for the first time in 1848 in the studio of Millais, the original group were inspired by the German Nazarene artists and determined that three elements were necessary for them to establish a new kind of art. First, they had to be a disciplined group, which, second, produced a distinct doctrine, disseminated, lastly, by their own journal.

The idea of discipline and doctrine would have pleased Sir Joshua and the journal was designed to preempt the power of the art critics. However, the President would not have been pleased by the PRB’s refusal to take classical art as their model. Instead the Pre-Raphaelites rebuked the notion of “style” and formulas and looked to nature in a desire to retrieve a naïve vision. Clearly, the English idea of Realism was close to the French concept. Based upon science and a close study of nature, Realism in both nations sought to regain an innocent eye and to eliminate self-conscious style in favor of objective observation. Both the French and British Realists were part of a movement that was deliberately avant-garde and in rebellion against their respective academies. Both groups used realism, as approach and as content, to position their art to counter the stranglehold of the establishment. There were important divergences, however.

It would be more appropriate to say that the Realism of the French was a response to contemporary scenes of life in France, particularly life among the lower classes. The English Realists were more intent in precisely copying nature and losing themselves in the welter of details. For them, Realism was linked to an absolute and moral fidelity to Nature and their content was simply “English.” The “Englishness” of English art could be found both in the past and present in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites who were inspired by English literature and poetry and by the social problems in an industrial society. In contrast, the second group of Realist artists in England could also be termed “artisans,” whose realism was to be found in their exactitude of execution. This second group used precision to evoke the past.

Just as the first group of mid-century English artists were self-consciously archaic, so too did the second group also look back to Medieval art and its standard of excellence and pride in individual craft. This group, which formed around Rossetti and included, the painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the designer, William Morris, the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the artist, Ford Maddox Brown. These men came together in 1852 in reaction to the horrors of mass manufacturing revealed in the Great Exhibition of 1851. They came, not from London, but from Oxford’s Exeter College and were unaware of the Pre-Raphaelite group until 1854. Once again, this is a male brotherhood in rebellion against the status quo. The Oxford Group rejected the “canon” of literary reading and looked to the Romantic English poets, such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But, typical of the Victorian period, they particularly admired Chaucer’s Medieval poems and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poems of King Arthur.

Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (1856 – 85) was an updating of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470), discovered by the Group in 1855. Like the German Romantics before them, these men looked to Gothic architecture for inspiration and traveled to Italy to see the early Renaissance murals. The only way, they surmised, to counter the pernicious influence of manufactured aesthetics was to become visual artists themselves. William Morris became an architect and interior designer and Edward Burne-Jones became a painter. The Oxford Group connected with the Pre-Raphaelites when Burne-Jones introduced himself to Rossetti. Also joining the Group were Arthur Hughes, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Valentine Cameron Prinsep, John Hungerford Pollen, and sculptor, Alexander Munroe. Together they painted murals of the life of King Arthur in the new building for the Oxford Debating Society.

Both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Oxford Group had many followers and a long life span that dominated artistic and aesthetic life in England well into the Twentieth century. Sir Joshua Reynolds would not have been pleased to learn that the “English” style or “English school” of painting would never be established by chasing the classicism of the Italians or the English, in other words, “modeling,” but by a careful rendering of nature and a relentless observation of human behavior. The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers created “English” art precisely by defying Sir Joshua and his Discourse.

The Oxford Group began the Arts and Crafts Movement that merged effortlessly into the English version of Art Nouveau and its Liberty fabrics and designers, such as Archibald Knox and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The seven men of the Oxford Group were, as founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the precursors of Art Nouveau in France. Both movements were dreams of restoring respect for hand-crafted goods to counter bad middle class taste. However beautiful and popular these styles were, both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau were to expensive and too elitist to be accessible to the middle class the movements were trying to reform. And yet, today, these avant-garde English styles are still living and still popular and still in use, having long since been assimilated into contemporary life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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