Art Nouveau

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt


Art Nouveau, a period in the world of art that flourished between 1890 and 1914, was all about a radically different style in both architecture and the visual arts. It saw its inception in Europe and North America towards the end of the 19th century. Art Nouveau was established as the 20th century's first new decorative style at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris.

At its zenith of popularity and influence, Art Nouveau had actually managed to create an international decoration-based style. This was possible because of a brilliant and energetic contingent of artists and designers who were intent on creating an art form that suited the sensibilities of the modern age. This was the period in which contemporary urban life was established - a period in which old habits, customs and artistic styles learned to coexist with new ones. A number of the artists, designers and architects of this age drew inspiration from the newly emerging technologies and lifestyles. Yet others preferred to live in the past and found their thematic muses in the world of spirits, fantasy and myth.

One can trace the origins of Art Nouveau to William Morris' resistance to the Victorian Era's jumbled compositions and revival tendencies. Morris had his own theories on where the Arts and crafts movement should be headed from there, and his influence on the Art Nouveau movement is significant. At its core, however, Art Nouveau was all about the influences of the Industrial Revolution, since many of its artists embraced technological progress and the aesthetic possibilities its represented. Of course, Art Nouveau also showcased the squalor of the assembly lines and the mass-produced goods they produced. Whatever stance Art Nouveau artists took on it, they invariably captured the essence of their chosen themes perfectly. Art Nouveau, as the new wave of decorative arts, attained the highest standards of craftsmanship and design.

Many Art Nouveau designers did not limit themselves to traditional art formats and set out to create the so-called 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (German for 'total work of art') by turning their attention to furniture, buildings, textiles, jewellery and clothes, as well. As long as the chosen medium conformed to the principles of Art Nouveau, it was as valid as any canvas.

Art Nouveau, also known as 'Jugendstil' (German for 'the style of youth') lost much of its popularity with the coming of the modernist styles of the 20th century. However, it is still regarded as a significant bridge between the historicism of Neoclassicism and modernism. In fact, UNESCO now recognizes Art Nouveau monuments on its list of World Heritage sites, citing them as important contributions to cultural heritage. Among the locations in question are Riga in Latvia, which arguably has Europe's finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings, and four town houses by Victor Horta in Brussels. The latter are cited by UNESCO as 'works of human creative genius' that serve as 'outstanding examples of Art Nouveau architecture, brilliantly illustrating the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in art, thought, and society.'

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