For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I’ve always had a slightly odd interest in Paris 1900 and Art Nouveau. While I can’t pinpoint the exact origin of that fascination, my nostalgia for all things “Belle Époque” resurfaced during my recent trip to Paris when I saw the beautiful Art Nouveau façade on 29 Avenue Rapp (precisely finished in 1901).
Art Nouveau, French for “New Art”, was the first late 19th/early 20th century modern style which stopped looking back in history for ideas and inspirations. Indeed the key motivation behind that somewhat short-lived but intensely active movement was the drive for modernity, the recognition that the world was changing and the belief that art and life were synonymous. Characterised by sinuous, elongated and curvy lines, Art Nouveau is deeply rooted in the natural world and reached its height at the “Exposition Universelle” held in Paris in the year 1900.
Art Nouveau symbolised change, youth, energy, thus inevitably collided with the old ways of thinking and conceiving art and society. Adolphe Retté superbly summed up that idea when he told his readers on 1 March 1900: “we are living in a storm where a hundred contradictory elements collide; debris from the past, scraps of the present, seeds of the future, swirling, combining, separating under the imperious wind of destiny”. At the time, Art Nouveau faced a considerable amount of hostile criticism and was eventually doomed to an early death shortly before the start of the First World War.
Today, Art nouveau is anything but forgotten and its legacy still lives on in numerous beautiful buildings throughout Europe and the United-States. If anything, most of us are familiar with the Liberty department store in London, the New Era Building in New York City, or Paris’ Metro stations with its Art Nouveau signs.
But its remembrance is not just confined to architecture, the Macintosh chair is still a design classic copied and reinvented by many designers today. I’ve had a bit of fun myself recreating an Art Nouveau interior combining a modern version of a tree lamp, Macintosh chair, wall lamp, mirror, fireplace and wallpaper.
In 2013, the Art Nouveau generation might seem a distant memory but it is fair to say that the creators of this bygone era have started almost everything that defines Modernism and Postmodernism today.