Tag Archives: art nouveau


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.


Searching The Sky

Irene Rich stands like a subdued bride.

She holds a silken bouquet behind her, drooping yet hopeful. The coat she wears is of white mink, and there are three rows of severed tails at the hem, decorative and barbaric.  Hidden shoes – satin, undoubtedly, with curving Cuban heels – tap the floor with delicate impatience.  The floor bearing the brunt of Irene’s disquiet bears the terse design that typifies the beginnings of Art Deco.


The photo must therefore date before 1925, before L’Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.  This was Paris’ months-long introduction of the new symmetries to a world still dreaming in the Ophelia-like embrace of Art Nouveau.  The old sentimentality and weak femininity had expired on the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, and in the choking factories of the home front.

Irene has not cut her hair – not yet – but the curls have been piled into a soft volcano, until neck, back and shoulders show white and bare, an anthem to the new exposure of the 1920’s. She is not a beauty – there is a thickness to the neck, and a suspicion of fullness to the torso which might have been harbored within a corset in her younger days.  For Irene was born in 1891 and her body would therefore have known fashion’s shackles as well as its liberation.  She would be in her late 20’s when she stood for this photo and an actress for almost 10 years.  Later she worked in talkies, in radio, on the stage.  Her acting career would span three decades.

But Irene had another career, albeit a more emotional one. She had a marital calling; one that was more lengthy than her dramatic one.  Her first marriage was in 1909, a pre-emptive jump to the altar to presumably escape the plans of boarding school which her parents had for her.  One daughter and two years later, she divorced.

There quickly followed another wedding, in 1912. The end of this marriage led to Irene seeking work in the new frontier of Hollywood in order to support her family.  This fortuitous decision would promise that bauble in southern California a future of selfish hostesses, gallant frontierswomen, and strong-willed housewives.

When this curiously bridal photograph was taken, Irene stands waiting for her third husband, whom she would wed in 1926. Once more, it would not last long.  But finally, in 1950, she married a New York business executive; a union that lasted until the end of her life, in 1988.

But shortly before this final, stolid relationship; there was one more – a volatile and deadly one.

In 1949, secretary Agnes Elizabeth killed her employer: politician and business owner John Edwin Owen.  According to the sheriff’s report Garnier shot Owen and blamed Irene Rich for coming between them.  According to Garnier’s story the gun had gone off accidentally, as she took the gun from an intoxicated Owen as he was going to bed.  Rich claimed an innocent friendship, Garnier plead innocence.  In the end, Garnier was convicted of manslaughter, serving one and a half years out of her “one-to-ten” year sentence.  And Irene by then was very happily married.

I had found Irene some time ago, I forget where. I was taken with her face, her slightly debauched cloak, her sprite’s modesty.  So I bought her and framed her, and so she has hung in sepia glory in my hallway for many years.  Her photo was one of a few that I own where the image comes with an autograph – a key ready-made for any owner to use who is willing to research the past of a new possession.

So I had only recently decided to find where her name led me: a history of unions – most unsuccessful – one calamitous relationship based on conflicting stories, explanations and affections…and a body of work in television and radio which led to her two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In a way, I think, such research is like looking into the sky – the things that suddenly come into view when you look into vistas that most people will ignore.


East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886.  The date is significant; as it means that his art reached its lofty heights during the dreamstate that was Europe before World War One.  It was a fairy-ring which surrounded a group of illustrators whose mythic colors and living textures would not be equaled, hard as the unfolding century might try.

His influences were many and varied:  Japanese woodcuts and watercolors, the natural asymmetry of Art Nouveau, the violent shadows and delicate yet immovable lines of Aubrey Beardsley.

But there was another influence at work…he painted frozen stars, snow-drenched landscapes, warm rugs and furs, hair that was thick and braided, with lines as delicate as the filigree cracks in melting ice.  There was a chilly Nordic inspiration running throughout his paintings:  black mountains, white skies, barefoot princesses, Iron Kings – even a pretty lassie's face is reflected in a pale and frigid pool.

In 1914 a selection of Norwegian folktales was published, under the collective name of 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon'.  The title speaks of undisclosed distances and of places beyond the knowledge of the ether, of clouds and planets.  These are stories of magic, blood, violence, love, religion and nature.  Nielsen provided the illustrations.

'The Blue Belt' tells of a beggar boy and his search for his love, the black-eyed princess of Arabia.  During the course of its telling there is transference of power, a morphing of identities, and the merging between man and nature.

This illustration from the story is one of my favorites.  In the princess' tall room, graced with a single jeweled lamp and a rich length of tapestry the lovers embrace, kneeling on a cushion stamped with a pattern of roses and tendrils.  The fabric is hypnotic, like leaning into a jungle of ferns.  Her tiny pink slippers are enticing.  The rich decorative passages are balanced against an unadorned wall of black lines.  The only warmth in the painting is in the bare arms and the young faces pressed against each other.

'The Lassie And Her Godmother' is Christianity's version of Pandora's Box…the Lassie is told by her foster-mother that she must leave but three rooms of her house alone.  But as there is no cure for curiosity, she peeped into each forbidden chamber, and there escaped a Star, the Moon and the Sun.

She was banished.

But she was very lovely, so that when a Prince saw her, he was determined that she would be his queen.

They rode away, their gowns curved and graceful, seeming to grow out of the ground and from the horse's carved musculature.  The forest is stylized:  they literally ride over a carpet of flowers.  The only flesh and blood to be seen is in the prince's shield – the eyes of the bronze face have just flickered open, and it gazes balefully at us, as a warning of the suffering to come.

In the fullness of time, she bears three children; but at each birth, the foster-mother comes to take them from her.

When the parents' dispair could be borne no longer, the foster-mother reappeared with the queen's babies, saying, "Here are your children; now you shall have them again.  I am the Virgin Mary, and so grieved as you have been, so grieved was I when you let out sun, and moon and star."

'The Three Princesses of Whiteland' is a tale populated with talking beasts, birds and fish; with swords, trolls, magic snowshoes and three kidnapped princesses buried up to their necks in the snow.

A brave lad rescues them, and marries the princess of his choice as his reward.  He loses her but finds his way back with the help of the North Wind and a pair of snowshoes which will carry its owner indefatigably in whatever direction the toes are pointed.

Here he is seen striding forcefully against a wind that is unseen, but still implied…the hero's long blond hair is blown back, the yellow filaments blending with the crimson and gold patterned cape that billows behind him.  The wind has piled the snowdrifts high, and his profile is determined, and pale from cold though his brow is dark and unflinching.  On one side he carries his sword clutched in one granite fist, on the other a gold shield rests at his shoulder, looking like a moon making its way to the heights of the evening sky.  His outfit is a madness of lines, circles, swirls – clasping together to form a spectacular embroidery.

Beauty and melancholy.  Cold daylight, Nordic twilight, arctic sunsets, midnight winds.  Creatures of legend and of the earth.  Rich patterns, empty skies, spaces whose emptiness both reveal and accentuate.  A delicate thread of line stitched into impossible textures. 

The decoration and details of these illustrations were created from the observation and love of the natural world; but they were also created from ideas imagined when listening in on the tales spun by the mind's whimsy, whispered on a cold winter's night.

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