Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

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4 responses to “Nouveau-Riche

  1. Reading this post reminded me of when my husband tossed out all of our Art Nouveau posters (reproductions, but we had spent a small fortune having them framed) so that we could convert our home decor into the spare, minimalist lines of contemporary Scandinavian design. It was IKEA before there was an IKEA, and I liked it as well, though it pained me to give up so much of our collection. We did keep one Mucha poster, but it always looked out of place next to the blonde wood bookshelves and boxy black couch. Some years after my husband died, I went back to my own taste—Stickley furniture, Persian carpets, ball-and-claw 19th century chairs and tables—and keenly felt the regret of giving away those posters. They had an ornate, complex beauty to them, and yes, it was the last gasp of a civilization that would soon face modernism and World War I. Art Nouveau comes back when a new generation discovers it and claims it as their own, but right now, my Millennial children have no interest in it. They’d rather have IKEA furniture and abstract art in black Zen-like frames. This is fine, but as I get older, I yearn for beautiful things, not Spartan couches that feel like I’m sitting on a wooden church pew or the black and white reproduced photograph that was bought from the Met gift shop.

  2. My avatar is, of course, from Mucha’s “Poetry.” I love the whole series, and the small decorative bits in my blog’s sidebar also are Mucha. This is a splendid overview of the movement — one that lives on.

  3. A little synchronicity — I just post-dated on my blog, posts for next year, twelve Eugène Grasset prints portraying gardens and female gardeners, one for each month of the year. Wikipedia tells me he is considered a pioneer in Art Nouveau design. I find the “earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau” very appealing. Loved your describing “a bedlam of shifting colors.” Wonderful post, Aubrey!

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