Art Nouveau

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December 31, 2012
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Art Nouveau; A Revolution In Design.


“…..there is a suspicion about it of something downright loathsome, …..which makes you feel you would not care to know the man who could imagine it.”   Lewis foreman Day , 1900.





This picture of  a cabinet by Louis Majorelle is in a well illustrated book ‘Art Nouveau, A Revolution in Design’ by Rossana Bossaglia. The description beside this piece is interesting.

“……it was exhibited in the 1900 Paris Exhibition, was brought by Sir George Donaldson with a number of other pieces and given to the South Kensington Museum, London, for exhibition to craftsmen and students as an example of the finest contemporary design. It was recieived with a storm of abuse and denounced as immoral and corrupting. Together with all the other pieces it was withdrawn from exhibition and remained hidden in a basement for some fifty years before being finally recognized as the masterpiece that it is.”

This strong response wasn’t just over a piece of furniture but involved a complex set of new ideas that is expressed by art nouveauthe ‘revolution in design’ which in Victorian England was not well received  .

To find out some background on this I turned to a recent discovery Google Scholar and  found an article by Kara Olsen Theiding; ‘Anxieties of Influence: British Responses to Art Nouveau 1900-04′. Published in the Journal of Design History.

This essay talks directly about this incident with the cabinet but unites it with the whole collection of work that Donaldson had donated, tables, chairs, a decorated screen amongst others. Looking at the now well known names of the designers, L Majorelle, A Darras and E Gaillard, leads to the first issue Theiding identifies. That the furniture was designed and built by foreigners and the act of displaying these pieces stoked a fear of the foreign, especially of the French and that their ideas would cause a “breakdown of British cultural character”.

Current ideas of design in Victorian England were tied to the prevailing beliefs around morality and nationality that these “…should be visible, within and from the forms of any design.” Art nouveau with its natural lines and strong physicality would have been seen as dangerously ambiguous and disconnected from politics.  In the age of empire, the politics of nationalism and religion was pivotal to its stability, it was the glue that held together a consensual belief system. In this atmosphere the response to Donaldsons collection begins to take on a threat of a “latter day anarchy in design.”

The perceived immorality of these designs was also supported by a ‘Ruskinian’ premise, from John Ruskin (1819-1900), that argued  that there were absolutes of truth and falsehood in design and that true design was that which” accepted the limitations of the material”.

Words like ‘corruption’ and ‘disease’ as in a body under attack are also used in this dialogue, it portrayed a sense of “contagion” towards this “outbreak” that reflected a deep cultural paranoia at the fin de siecle. This was the end of the century, the empire was weakening, Queen Victoria was fading and had only a year to live and the Paris Exhibition was full of Art Nouveau.

Donaldson was a business man but had also been a jury member at the exhibit and had bought several thousand pounds sterling worth of objects, donating them to the museum to be examples of the latest ideas in design. He had hoped to promote a dialogue around these new ideas and have British craftsmen emulate it and for British commerce to benefit from it.

The Times of London seemed to be the paper of choice to ridicule the work, that ” in wondering how the authority (of the museum) can have been brought to admit pretentious trash like this to the hospitality of a national museum.” And they ” were lax and risked turning an important space of art education into a pathological museum for design disease.” This storm of  abuse of course ended with censorship, the pieces being removed from the “institutional, public and national narrative”. Taken from view to a dark basement were they would have to wait until 1985 to be rediscovered and fully appreciated.

The story of these furniture pieces and the strong responses to them, all the blatant xenophobia, the rigidity of belief  that was setting Europe towards the inevitable calamity of  WWI. This dramatic response  to new ideas in design reveals something that is usually hidden in our everyday world. It was a point of friction that showed the inherent  power that exists in our environments, that the things we make reflect and perpetuate our beliefs and actions.

Peter Cressey: