Architecture Art & Illustration

Before the Modernists, there was Art Nouveau | Part 1

Gismonda - Sarah Bernhardt - by Alphonse Mucha - 1896

“Nature is a big book from which we can draw inspiration, and it is in that book that we must look for principles.”Hector Guimard – Art Nouveau Architect – Architectural Record, vol. XII, n° 2, 1902

The name was sort of generic, as opposed to something like Expressionism. Art Nouveau just means New Art, but in fact it was a return to nature. We’re going to visit this movement before I write anything about Modernism, because even though they’re almost polar opposites in some of their principles, they’re both ground breaking movements. They’re both at least a century old and have heavily influenced the world of today.

I believe an image is a thousand words, so instead of telling you, let me show you what Art Nouveau is:

Secession building, Vienna - 1898 - by Joseph Maria Olbrich
Secession building, Vienna – 1898 – by Joseph Maria Olbrich
Secession 16 Exhibition, by Alfred Roller
Secession 16th Exhibition, by Alfred Roller

The words “lost art” comes to mind when thinking about Art Nouveau. This artistic style is very hard to replicate these days. In the world of today we worship machines, but back then they were paying a homage to nature, which this is why this happened in the 1960s:

60s Novel illustrated covers
60s Novel illustrated covers
Jefferson's Airplane - Buffalo Springfield - Electric Prunes - Shadows Knight poster
Jefferson’s Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Electric Prunes and Shadows Knight poster

Do you recognize those patterns? Those ornaments? Yes, they were influenced by Art Nouveau quite a bit. At least when it came to graphic, interior design, and illustration. It makes sense when you think about the movements taking place in the 60s. Peace, love, women’s liberation, civil rights and anti-war movements. Art Nouveau emboddied these things about 80 years before the 60s counter culture movement. Using this beautiful ornamentation based on nature gave a sense of harmony and peace, and the 60s generation was looking for exactly that. The only difference would be the psychedelic colours.

Now, why did I say it was a bit of a lost art? In a way, even though Art Nouveau has influenced things, the Art Nouveau from the 1890s was an artisans job. Everything was hand made, everything required a lot of effort: doors, lamps, stained glass, etc… They didn’t make these with machines, and these weren’t mass produced things either, there were lots of pieces made in small amounts or one of a kind.

If we look at the architectural master pieces made back then, they were insane feats of craftsmanship.

Art Nouveau stained glass roof
Art Nouveau stained glass roof

We’re not talking about some sterile condo: a glass hyper-rectangle with flat surfaces. No, the Art Nouveau ornamentation was meticulous. Creating a building with that kind of craftsmanship would be incredibly expensive. One of the reasons being that we’ve replaced artisans with machines, so now they’re a rare species. If you’re lucky to find one, you will pay a premium for their work.

End of Part 1.