Art Noveau

“Empire building tools” had been available as a result of the industrial revolution for many years before becoming used extensively in expansionist policies. Gattling guns, steamships and the railways opened up Britain, Europe and America and along with large portions of the developing world. Such technological advantages “made the conquest of weak industrial people easier.”

One of the main factors for the increase in industrial tools and technologies was the economic motivation of Britons, having a desire to defend their financial interests abroad of chartered companies founded earlier for individual financial. The markets for British goods opened up in such areas by these businesses, coupled with the vast resources of cheap raw materials to be found there. This made defense of such interests of paramount importance.

The industrial revolution motivated the search for new markets, especially during the depression from 1875, when according to Hobson “greedy capitalists” preferred to invest in new areas than raise wages.

It was felt in Britain that the emerging Great Powers (a unified Germany, a post civil war America and the rest of Europe) sought to emulate Britain’s great power and status. Consequently, a largely unjustified sense of insecurity developed in Britain, which lead in turn to a desire to defend the British Empire.

Such challenges from other developing nations were one of the peripheral factors that, by threatening British interests, forced increasing colonial involvement and the official control. For example, the participation of Britain in the scramble for African colonies by European states was partially motivated by this competition. More important a factor, however, was the need to maintain order in profitable, if unstable, areas where informal companies were thriving

Empires united classes, or “two nations of rich and poor,” under the banner of imperial pride.

The period between 1809 and 1910 represents a major change in lifestyle and consequently the arts throughout the economically developing world. Europe was at it’s wealthiest before the two world Wars and the upper and middle classes in every country were prepared to spend their surplus income on foreign goods. The impact of industrialization was placing machines in the context of a working environment and the impact of industrial mechanisms to increase yield, efficiency and turnaround was making its presence felt not only in the more traditional workplace of cotton and food processing but it was also having a marked effect on what was possible with the production of art consumables.

America and Europe, fuelled by their wealth and sense-of-self, increasingly traveled in search of new ideas and products. Travel of tradesmen, engineers and artists to and from Germany, Italy, France and the rest of Europe was more and more commonplace. Style, fashion and the trappings of class were increasingly being constructed from sources drawn from all around the world. For the self styled decadent style was the most important thing in life, “beauty was more important than reality”.

The industrial age created many wealthy men but enslaved many others to the maintenance of the machines that made their masters rich. The rich increasingly re-inforced their imagined difference from the poor by their pursuit and collection of art, the social gap between the rich and the poor was now increasingly defined in terms of culture as well as money.

During the latter years of the nineteenth-century and the first decade of the twentieth-century, a shift occurred in the focus of the decorative arts away from aesthetics and toward production.

The great Exhibition of 1851 had been held, not only to advertise new technology and to promote trade, but also to advertise what were held to be examples of well designed objects. Some of the profits from the event went into the foundation of the Victoria and Albert museum in London whose purpose was to encourage a further interest in the decorative arts by means of it’s exemplary displays. A general climate of interest in the subject had been created, but the standards of the exhibition of were criticized by the writer on Art, John Ruskin. Art historian Janine Bloch-Dermant explains:

“As craftsmanship was displaced by standardization, manufacturers sought aesthetic legitimacy through the servile copying of antique models. Industrial capitalism did not create; it exploited found treasure. But hardly had such a trend emerged when certain perceptive critics and collectors began to express concern over the lack of stylistic originality in the fruits of mass production. Terms such as ‘lethargy’, ‘mechanical reproduction’, ‘insensitivity’ appear constantly in the journals of the period, all used to characterize the mediocrity then prevailing in the arts.”

This concern over the effects of industrial production on the decorative arts resulted in a demand for Arts and Crafts style goods. Decorative artists required a compromise enabling “high art” to meet mass production scale demand.

John Ruskin abhorred the products of mass production and called for a return to craftsmanship inspired by a romantic view of the Middle Ages. He rejected, as artificial, the division that had arisen between the so called fine arts and the decorative arts, pointing out that Miochael Angelos great Sistine Chapel had in fact been primarily a work of decoration.

By revitalizing the crafts Ruskin hoped to develop an alternative to what he saw as the horror of factory labour, as well as improving the aesthetic quality of everyday objects.

He advised craftsmen and architects to return to nature for their forms, rejecting the historicism of Victorian revivalism and anticipating the work of the Art Nouveau architects : Horta, Guimard and Guadi. Ruskins ideas were taken up by his disciple the craftsmen poet, palmphleteer, printer, erstwhile painter and architect, William Morris.

Designs followed international trends, as many American designers traveled to France and Germany to select motifs. Additionally, companies began to hire mature workers with a wide range of skills, including silversmiths, molders, chasers, engravers, figure and pattern cutters, embossers, and many more. As was common at the time employees worked ten hours a day and were divided into distinct departments, organized by specialty.

William Morris broke from current manufacturing practices of the Industrial Revolution to lead English decorative arts in a new direction. Morris’ program dictated that the quality and craftsmanship placed in each object led the item to be regarded as an artwork itself. Skilled craftsmen who both designed and created art objects replaced the factory system, in which workers performed repetitive tasks. This merging of widely distributed “decorative arts” with “high art” is unique in the history of Western art hierarchies. To achieve a high art status for previously lowly crafts, certain basic changes in manufacture and production had to be implemented.

The ideals of William Morris significantly impacted decorative arts production during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both Europe and America. However, these principles did not prevent the market from interfering with production methods. While designers strove to meet Arts and Crafts’ lofty principles, the need to mass-produce goods eventually overwhelmed many firms. Compromises such as marketing the goods as luxury items in order to preserve hand manufacture or resorting to semi-industrial methods of production resulted. Another solution lay in a dual set of products. For example, Gallé and Tiffany’s vast quantities of smaller and less expensive goods made larger projects economically viable. In general most companies, through technical and manufacturing innovation, kept to the ideals of contemporary production as best they could. In different countries, using diverse materials, and over separate periods of time, various solutions evolved. Though some firms resorted to a higher degree of industrial production, the awareness and surrounding decorative arts discourse meant that critics as well as the buying population were more aware of production methods. The values of quality materials and craftsmanship were highly praised. The result was a period of finely crafted goods, generally produced in quantities that the average consumer could afford.

The period ‘Art Nouveau’ refers to the “new” art that was produced during the two decades preceding and following the turn-of-the-century – lasting until War broke out in Europe in 1914. Sigfried Bing, a dynamic German-born Parisian and patron of the arts, is credited with providing the name for this movement.

In France the movement was known as the “Modern Style,” and the label “Art Nouveau” was applied following the opening of Sigfried Bing’s shop “L’ Art Nouveau”. Handmade decorative art objects in England were known by the term “Arts and Crafts,” however “Art Nouveau” was used for later decorative arts, once Sigfried Bing had introduced the term in France. The label “Arts and Crafts” was more grounded in tradition and had certain links to medieval styles that the later Art Nouveau lacked. In America, both terms were used. Other indigenous terms emerged, including “Jugendstil” in Germany and “Seccessionstil” in Austria. Numerous nicknames also appeared, notably Noodle Style, Métro Style, and Lily Style (Lilienstil). Though there were striking differences between artists and countries, and more important to this discussion, differences in production, the movements were fundamentally based on a commonly held sense of style.

Art Nouveau uses free flowing motifs based on nature. Geofreey Warren captured the essence of Art Nouveau with the words:

“Think of a sensuous line: of a flowing line: a line which bends and turns back on itself. Think of the feminine form, rounded and curving. Think of plant forms growing and burgeoning. Think of flowers in bud, in over-blown blossom, as seed pods. Think of ….waves, think of women’s hair, think of twisting smoke.”

On of the most characteristic shapes of Art Nouveau is the ‘whiplash curve’. It has been compared to “a swirling rope suddenly stopped in its circular motion”. It is a volute ending in a hook, and it is found in architectural contexts on a variety of gates, moldings, and carpets. The motif is often associated with heterogeneous combinations of materials: iron and stone, iron and wood, and stone and wood. Thus materialized, Art Nouveau designs looked pliable and weightless in frames imagined by their creators. Victor Horta’s architecture became synonymous with the style called Art Nouveau. His buildings in and around the Belgian capital were known for both their technological eccentricities and psychological symbolism. When he was commissioned to design the Maison de Peuple he emphasized the relationship between art and the working class by using materials “of the people” (primarily glass, iron, and steel). “To Horta they symbolized the light and air that had been denied to laborers in their own homes.”

Art Nouveau was also,in part, a reaction to the Victorian passion for imitating earlier styles like Classical and Renaissance, Baroque and Rococco styles. Imitations of works of art from the past seemed to give the Victorians a sense of security and confidence in their own affluence. Its themes were symbolic and often erotic.

Some chief exponents included the illustrators Aubrey Beardslay and Walter Crane in England ; the architects Henry van de Velde and Victor HORTA in Belgium; the Scottish architect Renee Macintosh and the jewelry designer René Lalique in France; the painter Gustav Klimt in Austria; the architect Antonio GAUDí in Spain; the illustrator Otto Eckmann and the architect Peter BEHRENS in Germany.

The new style which took Europe and the USA by storm for such a brief period was bold, original, creative, and flamboyant. It was applied to furniture, jewellery, printing, glass, ceramics, and even buildings.

The origins of the Art Nouveau style are to be found in Victorian England. Here one discovers not only the sinuous decorative line that was to characterize the appearance of the style but also the ideas that were to become its theoretical base. Peculiarly, even though the genesis of Art Nouveau originated in England it never took off as resistance to the style was perceived to be decadent, especially it’s sexual overtones. The movement and its principles became inextricably intertwined and alluded to by the press with the trail of Oscar Wilde in England. “Art for arts sake” was the disparaging sound bite used in populist press commentary at the time.

In the later nineteenth century a discrepancy evolved between the ways that decorative arts designers described the manufacture of their wares and the actual practices. While hand craftsmanship was highly valued, manufacturers were limited by output and demand often exceeded supply. Objects made according to the dictates of the Arts and Crafts movement were too expensive for the average consumer. As a result, manufacturing techniques aimed at achieving mass production evolved, which kept costs down.

Renee Lalique (France)

Nowhere was the style of Art Nouveau more pronounced than in France, and no name more recognisable than that of René Lalique. Trained as a jeweler, René Lalique opened his atelier in Paris in 1895. Everyone sought after his avant-garde designs, and his most famous client was Sarah Bernhardt, the diminutive tragic actress who exemplified the archetypal Art Nouveau woman. Heralded as the finest and most innovative jewelry designer at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Lalique never stopped experimenting and learning. In 1907, he began to work in an entirely different art form–designing glass perfume bottles–at the request of his good friend François Coty. In 1912, at the age of 50, Lalique opened his first glass factory and began to produce perfume vials, tableware, vases, lamps and all types of objects for a lady’s boudoir.

“One of the most important examples of Lalique’s work ever to appear at auction is a rare jewelry box of molded amber glass, horn and wood in the form of a cicada. Using common materials to fashion a utilitarian object, Lalique elevates this jewelry box beyond the mundane through a mastery of workmanship, design and artistry. “

“Another rarity is the Tourbillons vase in brilliant turquoise. This vase is found in yellow or in clear glass with black enamel decoration. This is the only known example in this rare color. Tourbillons or Whirlwind was introduced in 1925 and first exhibited at the Exposition des Art Décoratif et Industriels Modernes, Paris. In this vase Lalique has clearly embraced the highly geometric style of the Jazz Age.”

Lalique’s work was all but forgotten in the three decades following his death in 1945. It was not until the 1970s that collectors and connoisseurs began to “rediscover” him and appreciate his technical mastery and creative designs. Today, fifty years after his death, Lalique’s designs continue to have an enormous impact upon the decorative arts.

Lois Comfort Tiffany (America)

In America, the Art Nouveau movement had a strong artists in the form of Louis Comfort Tiffany. He earned a name for himself with the production of glassware, stained glass, picture frames, trinket boxes, perfume bottles and jewelry.

“A good example of his work is this Tiffany favrile glass and bronze peacock lamp on a rare peacock blue ceramic base, circa 1900. The base is the only known example incorporating peacock blue glass blown between the large feathered plume supporters. “

Other important designers and manufacturers of the Art Nouveau period include George Fouquet, who designed a wrap snake bracelet for Sarah Bernhard and Alphonse Mucha, famous for his sinewy flowing-haired female figures. Other painters of the time include Henrie Toulouse Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley. George Jensen of Denmark was highly acclaimed for his Art Nouveau work in silver, and Phillipe Wolfers from Belgium was similarly recognised for his designs in jewelry.

After Art Nouveau with it’s intricate, heavily worked floral patterns and intertwining vines, and Empire and Consulate furniture, the coming of Art Deco and the pure, no-nonsense simplicity of everyday objects afforded the relief of simplicity to consumers. Art Deco design was bold, bright and innocent and belied the tough economic conditions of the time, which were insecure, and harsh – the stock market crashes of the 30’s leaving reams of communities bereft of income and future.

Art Deco had many parallels with Art Nouveau – a tendency towards abstraction and a move away from obvious subject matter. A sense of line and nature was still inherent in the new work of Art Deco but rather than drawing inspiration from only nature it found inspiration in the new machine age which brought the shapes of cogs, plane wings and transistor radios to the work of artists.

Art Nouveau was of central importance to Art Deco, if only as a style to react against. Equally, the work of Hoffman, Olbrich, Peche, and Moser, who founded the Wiener Werkstatte at the beginning of the century, were early practitioners of a style which when refined, looked like very early Art Deco.

The association with primal art that was hinted by Art Nouveau was greeted with gusto by Art Deco. Oriental Art and African art, championed by many great painters at the time including Picasso and Braque who made numerous explorations on these themes, had great influence on the colour schemes and simplicity of a great deal of the output of the time. From theatre set designs to furniture and jewelery, prevailing ethnic tones and compositions were evident.

To summarise, as Art Nouveau became synonymous with a return to the value of natural forms and colours in some sense it becomes timeless, as nature is, in it’s influence. Industrialisation and mass production, by virtue of satisfying increasing demand cheaply, has continued to flourish as the main delivery mechanism of products in general. Consequently the reverence of the handmade object and of elegantly crafted work only increases and implicitly it’s rarity. Art Nouveau, although disparaged and destroyed for it’s opulence and vulgarity in a post-war industrialized nation eventually found favour again in the 50’s and 60’s as the world economy became healthier. The construction work of the 50’s with it’s regular line and concrete grey pallor reaffirmed to art and design consumers that the Art Nouveau style was worthy of memory and reverence.


Metropolis, Dada’ism and the Rise of the Machine.

Art, Technology and Social Feedback Loops

The mediator between the brain and the hand should be the heart”

This essay is an attempt to discuss issues regarding technology, culture and art how the artists palette was extended to include technology and cultural samples. This extension of art and society was once borne out of the need to co-exist with industrialization. The early 20th century, with the onset of industrialisation and science increasingly woven in society is a pivotal and perfect time in human history to explore this. I have chosen to concentrate on a few areas to illuminate my points :

  • The film Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1926)
  • The Dada movement
  • The first ‘World War’

The pivot point for the majority of this essay is the film Metropolis. This film was the first large scale piece of science fiction to be undertaken in cinema and both at once managed to be documentary and prophecy. The film has had a chequered history and taken a few critical beatings throughout the years however it has remained a zeitgeist moment in the culmination of politics, science and art made between the two World Wars.

It will be useful to examine the storyline of the film before we proceed onto how society influenced it and how it has influenced society.

Metropolis is a film with a universal theme of oppression set in the future (2026) one hundred years from when it was made. Fritz Lang, the director, had the idea for Metropolis while visiting New York. It’s endless and sheer landscapes punctuated by the frantic action at ground level confirmed it as a truly modern city stretching itself towards the future.

Lang took this rough model of New York and stretched it one hundred years further. Langs futuristic city was one where anonymous creatures of labour fuelled machines that supported the city – their labour, like clockwork, turning the giant mechanisms that ran up through the great structures of steel and light. The tone of the film with it’s great structures, electricity and relentless machinery effectively conveyed an accelerated industrialization and scientific development.

In the film the workers are portrayed slave-like with shaved hung heads and black disheveled clothing. The workers inhabit below ground, the privileged elite inhabit the ground level while the upper echelons of the city are reserved for science and government.

These broad classifications of groups by Lang represented his experience of hierarchies in ci401cAustria and Germany and the five central characters that are developed in the film are stereotypes representing the major drives of society. The first is the Lord of Metropolis, John Frederson, who rules and dominates the whole city as opposed to governing it. The second is the state scientist and inventor, Rotwang a focused man intent on invention. The third is the son of the Lord of Metropolis, Freder a happy-go-lucky character and with no direction at the start of the film and the fourth is Maria, a leadership figure for the workers. She acts partly as union rep and priest for the underground masses as well as symbolizing purity and mother earth. The oppressed workers are effectively treated enmasse and as such are effectively desensitized. The final protagonist is a Robot – an invention of Rotwang brought to life using the soul of Maria as source material in an experiment.

Freder is enticed by Maria to go into the underground city and there he witnesses a worker struggling to keep up with the demands of the machine and subsequently dies. This awakening to the reality of Metropolis’ underbelly prompts him to go and tell his father what he saw. His father replies “it was their hands that built Metropolis”. The implication is that the masses are responsible for Metropolis.

Freder returns to the underground and trades places with one of the workers, asking him to take a message to his friend. The newly liberated worker however is waylaid and tempted by the lure of the red-light district in Metropolis – another device used by the city to contain men.

The relationship between the main characters in the film is complex and we discover that Rotwang and the Lord of Metropolis both loved the same woman a long time ago. The woman gave birth to Freder and subsequently died. Joh goes to meet Rotwang where Rotwang shows him a robot modeled on the woman that died explaining that all it is missing is a soul. Rotwang manages to bring the robot alive using the soul of captured Maria and then places the evil Robot Maria into the midst of the workers with the intent of thwarting their plans of revolt. Eventually the robot manages to convince the workers to take up violence and not peace and leads them to the machines – ordering them to be destroyed. The workers do so and subsequently the underground is flooded and their children are in danger of being drowned.

“The machines are bound by the people and the people are bound by the machines”

Meanwhile the real Maria escapes and attempts to stop the flooding and to save the children. In the underground city the workers are on a witch-hunt for Maria – they capture the robot, which is laughing wickedly, and burn her seeing the mechanisms underneath the fake flesh. Freder in an attempt to save the real Maria from Rotwang, battles with Freder with Rotwang falling to his death. The masses realize that in fact Freder is the mediator that they were seeking to represent them.

The film narrative is often criticized for being simplistic and of containing an antiquated romanticism while it’s visual content tends to be lauded very heavily. However one German left wing weekly magazine commented, “This is not just Metropolis it is all of Germany as we know it and experience it every day of our lives”. On release in 1926 the film did not do very well in German cinema due to the recession and the need for quick, snappy upbeat pictures to relieve the depression. It did, however, find favour with Hitler whose perverse misreading of Lang’s nightmare into dictatorial heaven prompted Lang to flee the very same day.

The First World War left an indelible mark on the psyche on the world, particularly Europe. Germany along with other countries was left with a feeling of disgust and anger at the war and the dull echo of the romanticism that seemed to precede the war was a fading memory. There was great poverty in the wake of such industrialization and the science at the time did not seem to favour the poor. The demise of the arts and crafts movement destroyed generations of skilled workers and replaced their varied skill set with mass-produced goods.

There was never a point in human history like that between the two World Wars. Before the war the majority of the Western world was adjusting it’s psyche to regular news on a worldwide basis. The collective witnessing of the war started a fire in the hearts of artists. Like all rage it is a primal and confused beast like a Frankenstein toying the objects near to it in confusion. Who are we and what have we become was the response of the art world. It gave us Dadaism as the opposition party to the madness of war and the pervasive mentality of the time. The issues were so great that political action and shock tactics took precedence over the gentle pursuit of landscaping. Old classifications such as artist or poet became meaningless – only personal revelation and interaction with the world around oneself was sufficient to right the wrongs. Art now dealt with war not on a tribal, gentry or parochial sense it dealt with collective consciousness.

How do we govern ourselves? Who are we governing? Why is science and technology going in the direction that it appears to be heading? A new requisite for synthesis with technology and industry was thrust upon us.

These questions and issues gave rise to the art movement of Dada whose principles were the antithesis of everything that led to the beginning of the First World War. A renunciation of Nationalism, a rejection of the bourgeois, a blurring of the dividing lines between artistic disciplines and a reduction of the sanctity of high art. German Dadaism along with most of a recovering Europe was inextricably intertwined with a sense of new politics. Dada was a revolution from the gut – it characterized not so much by what it stood for as what it stood against.

The philosophies of this art movement read more like a political manifesto and the notion of gallery showings was replaced with happenings designed to confuse, irritate and prompt action in it’s viewers. The recent war had shocked minds and in the opinion of the Dadaists, events as art were of higher value than the art itself which could only be hung in a gallery. The very nature of how we live, act and react was the fodder of their work. They intended social change not as a byproduct but as a direct result of their actions.

Dada was also the first movement to re-contextualise objects resulting in a body of works described as “ready mades” which used banal objects of everyday use. Dada was almost like cultural sampling of the society in which it lived and which it fed back into. Mass produced items were for the first time being considered under the banner of art rather than science and the blending of science and art continued for a great deal of the early 1900’s. The art of this time was asking questions on the global state of mankind and assessing it’s progress and toying with it’s physical and mental inventions.

ci401cIt is clear that this examination of society is underway in the film Metropolis. The examination of physical, political, social and scientific drives and conflicts flood throughout the film. The huge relentless machinery of Metropolis provide a poetical tempo and backdrop to the stereotypes of the main characters who represent science, government, workers, mother earth the robot as a final fusion of all of these. Lang, like the Dadaist Mondrian, uses technology to examine his feelings about technology and a great number of inventive filmic devices were employed to create the desired effect on screen – from optical tricks, re-projection of backdrop scenery, swinging cameras and the techno-wonder of the robot Maria coming to life.

Social comments are woven into the visual language of the film. The intricacies and interplay of society symbolized by wheels inside wheels. Mass production and industrial culture is shown to be served by man rather than the converse. The increasingly blurred division between human and machine illustrated by the joining of worker with the machine. The confusion over what is real and what isn’t when the workers mistake the Robot to be the real Maria. Confrontational shots of characters staring directly into the camera for sustained periods of time beckon the viewers opinion of the object in the same way the Dada happenings pushed it’s audience. Masses of workers with shaved heads trudge in rags around the belly of the beast – an awful precursory image of the horror yet to arrive in the Second World War.

Art and science have been blending together since we could draw circles and triangles. Industrialization forced us to look at concepts of mass production and the commoditisation of art and laterally a global culture forced us to reinterpret cultural fragments of ourselves including everything from the banal to the political. Art is blending new science and spirituality in the same way that Islamic painting has blended old science and spirituality for centuries. There are new breeds of painters like Philip Laffoley who draw on ancient and modern methods to blend sacred geometry with physics and paint.

Metropolis is a piece of technological poetry that belies its date of creation. The strong architectural, visual and symbolic nature of the work make it a visionary piece of film that despite flaws with narrative survive the truth that time brings. Metropolis both reflected what was happening at the time and fed back into what was happening at the time. The Second World War must have had scenes to match frames of Metropolis – the film is terrifying and shames the almost kitsch Star Wars by comparison. Star Wars also had an evil dictator who had a son that must intercede in the fathers evil. The allegory in all of this is that each generation is the father of tomorrow’s generation – will they too have to intercede to stop our madness?

The question of the worth of science and it’s over simplistic classification of good or evil belies the real questions that surrounded the artists of the turn of the century. Dadaism was not necessarily against technology neither was it for the wholesale embrace of it. Dadaism used science and society to explore science and society. It was a widening of the palette rather than a choice of direction.

This inclusion of technology in a wider sense of ourselves was a major step in the development of society and without it we can hardly imagine the revolutionary mindset of the 60’s, the satirical antics of Monty Python, the noisescape bulletins of Public Enemy or the sensibility of punk and irreverence of Vivienne Westwood clothes.

The question is how do we harmonise with technology and industry and retain our sense of humanity?

Metropolis attempts to answer this question in it’s final frame with the quote at the end of the film by saying that

“the mediator between the science of the brain and the body (society) which carries out the action must be the heart.”

Fritz Lang was a visionary. Managing a cast of thousands, employing the latest technologies and writing with in a strong political and spiritual fashion he created a truly modern opera of light and poetry that endures to this day.


The Nature of the Beast, Fritz Lang by Patrick McGilligan

Fritz Lang by Lotte H.Eisner

Fritz Lang, The Image and the Look by Stephen Jenkins

Marcel Duchamp by Gloria Moure

The Dada Painters and Poets by Robert Motherwell and Jack D Flam

Futurism and Dadaism by Jose Piere

Various Internet resources