by Robert Schmutzler, translated by Edouard Roditi
Abrams, 322 pp., $25.00
“It smells like a vicious Englishman, a Jewess addicted to morphine, a Belgian scoundrel, or a nice salad of these three poisons.” Arsène Alexandre’s sneer (Figaro, 1895) reveals that even at its height art nouveau was thought to be decadent, vulgar, immoral, and, worst of all, foreign. Each country disowned it. In England and America it was dubbed “art nouveau,” in France “modern style,” or “yachting style,” and in Italy “Liberty style” (after the London store). Only the Germans invented a word for it in their own language: “Jugendstil,” but they also nicknamed it “Bandwurmstil” (tapeworm style).
True, art nouveau does tend to be decadent, precious in style, and perverse in subject-matter—how else describe those androgynous figures slithering about in a Sargasso sea of hair? But out of the rottenness and slime grew much that was vigorous and good. As historians, notably Nikolaus Pevsner, have shown, the creators of art nouveau, such as Van de Velde, Mackintosh, Gaudi, and Behrens, were in many cases the founders of the modern movement. They were among the first to react against historicism, the first to send that deadweight, the Renaissance tradition, crashing downhill, and the first to experiment with the possibilities of abstractionism. In so doing they cleared a path for artists as different as Arp, Le Corbusier, Dali, Kandinsky, Munch, and Matisse.
Not only German art historians but museum curators and taste-makers, not to speak of antique dealers, the world over have now set out to rehabilitate this disreputable style. Hence the suspect modishness and the inevitable rise in prices; hence also the need for a comprehensive monograph, one with special emphasis on the roots which art nouveau had in the nineteenth century and the fruit it bore in the twentieth. Stephan Tschudi Madsen’s Sources of Art Nouveau (1956) was an enormously useful pioneer book—well written and well documented—but it confined the style in time and scope. However, it inspired John M. Jacobus to write an exhaustive and unusually constructive review (Art Bulletin, December, 1958) which indicated new lines of research and pointed out lacunae, for instance Madsen’s neglect (shared by the present author) of Italian developments.
With these and other contributions and a mass of source material to draw on, a serious historian like Dr. Schmutzler should have had little difficulty in compiling a definitive history of the movement. Alas, he has not heeded Jacobus’s admonishments nor taken full advantage of Madsen’s conscientiously laid foundations. Instead of presenting us with “the extended thematic development” that Jacobus rightly called for, Schmutzler has rehashed his doctoral thesis and served it up piecemeal, country by country, artist by artist. As well as being inappropriate to a subject as anomalous, confused, and changeable as art nouveau, this bitty approach prevents the author from setting the movement in an international context. The more is the pity, for the later history of art nouveau has to be charted through a series of international exhibitions—Paris in 1889 and 1900 …