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Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau

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, Brussels in 1897, Turin in 1902, and Milan in 1906—which not only provided outlets and shop-windows for the style but were the chief means of its propagation and cross-fertilization.

Schmutzler passes over this crucial issue and most of these exhibitions in silence. Instead he devotes a third of his book to the antecedents of art nouveau. Its lineage is traced back through the Rococo (no mention of Meissonnier, most art-nouveau of rococo designers) and Mannerism, to Celtic art and finally Minoan Crete. He then concentrates on the immediate forbears, almost all of whom turn out to be English: William Blake, Samuel Palmer, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Kate Greenaway, Philip Webb, and others. Occasionally what Schmutzler says—particularly about his stalking-horse, William Blake—is eye-opening. But he throws the history of nineteenth-century art out of kilter when he calls Blake “Proto-Art Nouveau” and the Pre-Raphaelites “Early Art Nouveau.” Why, one wonders, does he then agree with most other historians that the style first manifested itself in London, in or about 1880, in the sinuous designs of Arthur Mackmurdo?

For all their historical interest, the English pioneers tended to be austere or arty—Schmutzler calls them “gentlemanly” and “addicted to understatement.” In Belgium, where the chameleon-like style next materialized, it was very different: robust, ornate, and three-dimensional.

What more perfect vehicle for Flemish ostentation than the opulent “palaces” that Horta and Tassel built for the haute bourgeoisie of Brussels? Horta, leader of Belgian art nouveau, transformed the tentative, biomorphic ornaments of Mackmurdo and his friends into a kind of convulsive rococo. And like a rococo architect, he designed everything, even the door-plates, of his mansions. Henry van de Velde, the other key figure in the Belgian movement, went further still in his pursuit of the Gesamtkunstwerk: that art nouveau ideal, the total work of art. Not just the details of his house—an ugly, self-important little villa at Uccle—but his wife’s clothes and jewelry and his own walking-sticks were designed by him; even the food had to harmonize with the decor of the dining room. The amazing thing is that this stifling aestheticism did not prevent Van de Velde from becoming one of the most creative and influential figures in the modern movement.

Compared to Belgian art nouveau, the Dutch brand was “petit bourgeois [and] laconic.” The only exception was Jan Toorop, a mystical painter who, according to Schmutzler, reached “unrivaled heights of poetic intensity”—thanks to his Javanese childhood and “the Celtic element” which his Irish wife brought him as “a spiritual dowry.” This schwarmerei is difficult to follow, let alone share. All Toorop contributed to art nouveau was a garish manner, mainly interesting for its evidence of hair fetichism—a frequent concomitant of the style—and its intimations of Grauman’s chinoiserie.

Schmutzler’s next stop is France where the style was primarily elegant, Listen to his dismay:

In Paris and Nancy, Art Nouveau developed a decidedly worldly character and, not infrequently, had a luxurious quality that even suggests the demimonde. Guimard’s Metro entrances arouse in us expectations of the abode of Venus deep down in a mountain rather than a democratic subway; they seem to lead straight to Maxim’s, the interior decoration of which is still unrivaled as a restaurant interior…

And off he goes ricocheting from one non sequitur to another until he lands back in nice, aseptic Germany.

His distrust of things French leads Schmutzler to play down the importance, historical as well as aesthetic, of developments in Paris and Nancy. “Boudoir style,” he calls all this. Yet Hector Guimard’s foliate wrought-iron work, his chairs, so convoluted that they had to be modeled in plaster, and his auditorium like a huge iron banyan tree are the quintessence of art nouveau, the style at its convoluted, biomorphic best. No less inventive is the sinewy furuiniture (which Schmutzler neither discusses nor illustrates) by Majorelle, leader of the Nancy school, or Emile Galle’s exquisite work in glass and marquetry, often embellished with lines from Mallarme or Baudelaire. Nothing so stylish and inventive had been made since the eighteenth century. And why is there no mention of Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist, whose posters for Sarah Bernhardt and ornate wall-decorations did so much to popularize the style in Paris? For a fair assessment of French achievements the reader had better read Tschudi Madsen or Maurice Rheims’s diverting L’Objet 1900.

Another weakness in the French section: the author does scant justice to the crucial influence of art nouveau on late Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. For instance, he does not observe that when, in the 1880s, the Impressionists abandoned naturalistic compositions for more selective or schematic ones, their solutions often anticipate or reflect are nouveau. We can see this in Renoir’s magnificent pair of figure paintings, On the Staircase (Gerstenberg Collection, Berlin), whose compositions are held together with extravagant curlicue stair-rails à la Horta; or in Monet’s pictures of populars, done around 1890, which are composed in great S-curves. Even Seurat resorted to art nouveau in the composition of his last unfinished masterpiece, Le Cirque (1890-91)—trust Schmutzler to see an “abyssal difference” between Seurat and art nouveau!—while Manet, another artist whom Schmutzler expressly dissociates from the movement, used a panel of Mackmurdoish decoration for the background of La Prune as early as 1877. And surely a book as encyclopaedic as this should at least mention Lucien Pissarro, who was repeatedly trounced by his father, Camille, for falling victim to Pre-Raphaelite and art nouveau influences. It might also take into account the fact that so many art-nouveau-oriented painters—Vallotton, Maurice Denis, and Toorop, for instance—later became Pointillists. Why was there such a close link between these seemingly disparate movements? Schmutzler’s failure to deal with these and similar points is the more regrettable, because much of the historical importance of art nouveau lies in its catalytic effect on other movements and artists rather than in its own freakish manifestations. Let us face it, in the field of painting these seldom transcend the second-rate.

The author is happier stalking his quarry through Germany and Austria. No degenerate boudoir stuff there. Jugendstil lived up to its name. It was a style of youth—Schmutzler makes a surprising parallel between Jugendstil and Wandervogel (“a youth movement resembling the boy scouts”)—and of reform: “house reform,” “dress reform,” “design reform.” At first Jugendstil was floral and abstract in character but, in the zealous hands of designers like Endell and the half-British Obrist, the genteel, foliate patterns invented by the English took on a dynamic new life as “the whiplash line.” Obrist, a typically protean product of the movement (he was a sculptor, ceramist, designer, and naturalist), carried what Schmutzler calls “abstract dynamism” to its logical conclusion when, in 1898, he created the first abstract sculpture: a stumpy, cubistic phallus entitled Monument to a Pillar. With unintentional irony, a writer in Die Jugend prophesied:

The time will come when, in public squares, monuments will be erected representing neither men nor animals, but imaginary shapes which will fill the heart of man with exuberant enthusiasm and inconceivable enchantment.

For all its Teutonic heaviness, Jugendstil looked ahead, especially in its later, more architectural phase, when it went rectilinear. Richard Riemerschmied’s sleek chair, for example, anticipates the Bauhaus by more than twenty years—no wonder an American factory recently put it back into production.

Next comes Spain, or rather Catalonia, Always at his best on architecture, Schmutzler does well by Montaner and Gaudi, “the outstanding genius of the entire…are nouveau movement.” For the rest, Catalan art nouveau gets short shrift. A pity, because this ollapodrida of Moorish and Mediterranean, national and international ingredients is especially spicy. Moreover the art nouveau group in Barcelona was as modern-minded as any in Europe. One of their more interesting beliefs was that the century about to dawn would see the emergence of a glorious new art and the coming of a Messianic artist—a Nietzschean superman with a Dionysiac style. How odd that they turned out to be right! Picasso was already at work among them. Not only he but Miro and Dali were steeped in art nouveau, and we should not overlook, as Schmutzler does, Picasso’s special interest in Heinrich Vogeler, the Jugendstil illustrator.

As for America, the author confines his study to two figures: Louis Sullivan and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany was of course one of the most creative figures that the movement produced. Sullivan’s buildings, however, “can scarcely be considered art nouveau.” Schmutzler is right: why, then, devote so much space to them? As well discuss the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright. After this comes a section on late developments in Glasgow (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) and Vienna (Hoffmann and Klimt) and, finally, a somewhat speculative essay on “The Significance of Art Nouveau.”

Schmutzler sees a dichotomy in the movement: “Biological Romanticism” and “Abstract Dynamism.” “Biological Romanticism” relates to the discoveries of Darwin (his early studies of jellyfish and medusae) and of Ernst Haeckel who discerned “the curvilinear progression [in] the procreation of life.” It also takes into account the fact that so many people connected with art nouveau—Dresser, Obrist, and Gallé among others—had trained as botanists and had derived new organic forms from their studies of nature. “Abstract Dynamism” is an even more confused concept, at least as adumbrated by Schmutzler. Joseph Paxton is cited as an early example, but Van de Velde apparently epitomizes it:

Van de Velde and abstract High Art Nouveau embody the dynamics of the elements of life itself, suggesting Henri Bergson’s élan vital, that eternal energy which continues its uninterrupted pulsation, regardless of the stage of metamorphosis in which it happens to find itself, and of the particular form assumed by any species at any given time.

Poor author! There may be something in what he says, but “the whiplash line” keeps fouling up his arguments. No sooner has he established art nouveau as curvilinear than it goes rectilinear on him. No sooner has he termed it “narcissistic” and fin de siècle than it proves to be robust and avant garde. Surely the solution would have been to follow Pevsner’s suggestion and postulate a very different dichotomy: between art nouveau proper and the modern movement. As for the translator—himself a connoisseur of the subject—he does his best, but this somniferous thesis with its abrupt changes of focus and its tracts of tedious analysis defeats him. No, this is certainly not the definitive work on the subject. However, its 451 plates, numerous facts, and period marginalia make it a useful, if not indispensable, book of reference.

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