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:
Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.
The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.
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.
It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.
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…
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.
It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.
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.