Essay: History of Architecture

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Art Nouveau: Art, Architecture and Its Effect on Daily Life

In all of its interpretations, Art Nouveau constituted a movement in the arts and architecture that marked a clear departure from the Victorian style popular at the tail-end of the 19th century. What follows is a brief outline of the many ways in which Art Nouveau separated itself from past styles, and how the practitioners of the movement attempted to define their art, progress their art, and change the fabric of daily life by taking a totalitarian approach to architecture, and a richly decorative and sometimes direct philosophy to the fine arts. The practitioners of the movement desired to be original, and many of the architects designed each part of a building on which they worked, including the decorations inside. The visual artists of the movement attempted to tap into the future by, for one example, portraying the modern women in new and sometimes risque manners. Art Nouveau artists and architects saw themselves as forging a new era in art, when the art would not be made simply for the sake of art, but, instead, to transform the daily lives of people. This task -- to change daily life -- earned the movement the name Art Social in some circles. (Pile 259)

Through the use of modern materials -- such as iron and glass -- modern industrial techniques, and recent innovations like electrical lighting, Art Nouveau established itself as a preferred art movement of the late nineteenth century, popular not only in art circles, but in popular media such as advertising. In using nature's forms for decorative ornamentation -- the contours of flowers, vines, shells, bird feathers, and insect wings -- the movements decorative ornamentation was formed. These style choices were employed not just in architecture, but, furthermore, in the fine arts, with which Art Nouveau architecture had a close relationship. (Pile 260)

The late nineteenth century was a period of relative peace and prosperity in continental Europe. As economic growth gave rise to larger upper and upper-middle classes, new and experimental directions in design, especially in Belgium and France, resulted in the development of Art Nouveau. To be sure, this new style appeared also in Germany, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries. During this time, travel increased western awareness of design in distant places, such as the Far East, and communication brought objects and art works into European culture. The term is ambiguous, useful in delineating a time of reform, rebellion, and freedom which dominated the art world at the end of the 19th century. Many people argue the movement was, in part, a response to the increase in mass materials during the period. These often boring materials had begun to dominate people's lives, making irrelevant the traditional artist-craftsmen. These sentiments were particularly strong in the English Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860's, a pre-cursor and contemporary of Art Nouveau, led by John Ruskin and William Morris, who had an eye on the guild craftsmen of the Middle Ages. (Pile 260)

It originated as a strong reaction against the traditional styles in conventional art of the time, including those taught and practiced in schools, promoted in salons, and celebrated in public architecture. Art Nouveau stood in contrast, for example, to the Historical Style, which exemplified and celebrated art and architecture by making large-scale tributes to earlier styles. All of the movements generally considered to fall under the rubric of Art Nouveau were based upon similar inspirations; some common threads of the art-form, such as exoticism, literary and plastic, mystical and erotic, futurist and traditional, functional and fantastic, round out some of the design motifs for which it is known. Art Nouveau embodied the Hegelian system of contraries, wherein an artistic truth is only valid if its opposite is equally true. (Challi 9)

The Art Nouveau movement, according to its practitioners, was so important and revolutionary, that it would change the manner in which even industrial mass products were produced. Common among Art Nouveau artists was their proclivity to demonstrate a vast array of artistic interests. For example, Alfons Mucha, a Czech visual artist, was interested in posters, paintings, lottery tickets, jewelry, police uniforms, designs for money, stamps, wall hangings, etc.

It is indeed possible to identify commonalities and relationships that justify defining Art Nouveau as a well-defined movement. The term, however, was meaningless at the time of Art Nouveau's development. It was, in fact, the name of a Paris shop whose products had the qualities that were attributed to the movement. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the German term Jugendstil was the most often used term. At first in England, Art Nouveau was only a feature of the Aesthetic movement. Thereafter, the term Liberty Style came to prominence. It was taken from the name of the London shop that sold objects in the Art Nouveau family. In Spain, Scotland, and America, Art Nouveau was dissimilar to the style in Brussels and Paris. Vienna, Austria was considered a center for the design direction the Vienna Secession, which can be seen as a separate but parallel style to Art Nouveau. (Pile 261)

The Art Nouveau motif can be pinpointed in graphic illustration, typography, posters and advertisements, painting and sculpture, fashion design, and the design of jewelry and decorative objects like ceramics, glassware and silver, picture frames, and lamps. With such a diversity of use, Art Nouveau synthesizes interiors and architecture. For many, Art Nouveau surroundings enveloped them in a chorus of flora and fauna, art designs inspired by the nature. Since Art Nouveau arose in many fields and places, to define an orderly history is difficult. Typically, the historiography maintains that Art Nouveau first surfaced in France and Belgium, although it is as accurate to identify Britain as the origin. Many of the individuals associated with the Arts and Crafts movement in England created objects that featured characteristics of Art Nouveau. S. Tschuldi Madsen used the term proto-Art Nouveau in describing the work of a.H. Mackmurdo, especially a chair he designed in 1882, which had a perforated back carved in swirling flower-esque forms. (Dvorak 102)

A keystone visual artist of the movement, Alfons Mucha was born in southern Moravia during the period of Austrian rule. He grew up in a very traditional town, vastly different from cosmopolitan epicenters such as Prague and Paris. His work was rooted in, but still divergent from, the folk traditions of his home land. His was a very accessible style that required little knowledge of artistic traditions or modern conventions, and his designs mixed dynamic lines in geometric pattering amid dramatic figures, that tended to blur in with the patterns. The focal point is typically on his linear design, as opposed to the color of his paintings. Many of his paintings give off an atmosphere of wholesome and natural sexuality. In 1900, Mucha made contributions to the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where he worked on the Boznia-Herzegovina Pavilion and other areas. There his most famous piece of jewelry was also featured. As with most Art Nouveau artists, Mucha emphasized the need of uniting beauty and function, alongside a certain social message. (Madsen 45)

For most Art Nouveau artists, nature was an endless source of inspiration and design ideas. The flora and fauna helped to develop in the movement an appreciation for sinuosity and asymmetry, and flowing lines. The keystone ornamental characteristic of Art Nouveau is its asymmetrically undulating line ending in a whiplike, energy-implying movement. Art Nouveau has the propensity of wholly transforming the appearance of objects, subjugating the material and object to the design. Despite so much perceived movement in Art Nouveau artwork and architecture, the harmony in its designs is what stands out the most. The ornamentation and linear patterning was not mere decoration for Art Nouveau artists, but, instead, represented the symbolic content in the pattern, functioning as a visual metaphor imbued with spiritual energy and meaning: (Mucha 126)

Optimism and fatigue are symbolized by two movements, an upward one and a downward one, which occur together in serpentine sinusoids between two poles which attract alternately, thus formulating the profile of the movement which can be seen in all structural and decorative elements. The two mutually complementary poles are connected with specific human destinies. Another aspect of this characteristic is Art Nouveau's relationship with music which acts as a catalyst of human experience. Music breeds rhythmic movement and heartbeat. Art Nouveau is primarily a mimic art which evokes, assumes, and in the end leads to a certain way of human behavior. -- Franco Borsi

The quote is important insofar as it demonstrates the degree to which Art Nouveau was never merely decoration, especially to its practitioners. The movement had important social and political interests and implications, and an emphasis on spiritual energy, perhaps adopted from eastern traditions. The art and architecture offered a means of becoming spiritually renewed, of seeing the world in a new way. The focus on patterning and lines and natural shapes gave the art an atmosphere of abstraction,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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