Unified by Art Nouveau

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Art Nouveau’s birth at the end of the 1900s not only affected the art world but also radically transformed the public’s visual awareness, helping to propel product design, graphic design, typography and manufacturing into the 20th century.

The Setagaya Art Museum’s “Art Nouveau et Industrie du luxe a Paris” (titled “Art Nouveau in Paris” on the English Web site) brings together over 100 objects from 19th-century France, many of them from the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

“Musee d’Orsay is famous in Japan as a museum for Expressionist and post-Expressionist art,” says Nozomi Endo, curator for the Setagaya Art Museum, “but decorative art is also important for the museum, especially Art Nouveau.”

The first work commonly considered of this style was actually created in Britain — the frontispiece for a 1883 book on the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren by Arthur Mackmurdo. It was the rhythmic vitality of Mackmurdo’s floral designs that later became one of the hallmarks of Art Nouveau as it spread across Europe and over into the United States.

It was France, however, that championed the style and provided its name, taken from the Paris gallery Maison de l’Art Nouveau, which opened in 1895 and specialized in new forms of art.

The celebrated arrival of Art Nouveau in Paris that same year, however, was not through this or any other gallery, but via the streets of the city, when posters designed by Alphonse Mucha for the 1894 opening of the stage play “Gismonda” caused a sensation.

One of these posters is included in the Setgaya Art Museum’s exhibition, and displayed alongside it is a poster for another production, “Jeanne D’Arc.” Both plays starred the same actress, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. In Eugene Grassert’s design, dramatic flame-reds and the sharp outlines of spears and arrows whiz around the French heroine. In contrast, Mucha’s “Gismonda” adopts gentler shapes in a softer palette, with the tall, narrow format of the larger-than-life poster emphasizing the sensuous line of Bernhardt’s figure. In Mucha’s work, gone, too, is the heavy, solid Gothic lettering, replaced instead by the kind of softly morphing letter shapes that were to make a comeback in Nouveau-influenced rock-concert posters of the 1960s.

O ne of the highlights of the exhibition is the recreation of a 1900s room in Art Nouveau style, indicating that another key feature of the movement was the way that people began to appreciate furniture, interior and products as aspects of an environment unified through design. Here, gilded flower motifs found on table legs, chairs and even a plant holder bring together the pieces. “At the end of the 19th century,” says curator Endo, “newly rich people wanted to decorate their home in their own, new style. The most trendy interior style was Art Nouveau design.”

The French title of the exhibition refers to Art Nouveau’s harnessing of various materials and manufacturing processes in the service of creating luxury goods — “a marriage,” according to Endo, “of the high techniques of Parisian artisans and new ideas of design.”

Hence, the ordinary became special: an enamel cloisonne diamond-encrusted pin by Henri Lalique, a delicate pink glass lamp with bronze stand, and ladies’ fans made from horn and pearl shell, replete with botanical and peacock motifs.

The exhibition also touches on the influence of Japanese design. As Japonism hit Europe, primarily through ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints and other imported objects, it influenced designers and craftsmen just as much as it did artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

A ladies’ bureau, made from inlaid wood by Emile Galle (who is more commonly associated with glass work), displays an “asymmetric composition and lack of perspective” that Endo attributes to Japanese influence. A number of the vases in the collection clearly show inspiration from Japanese ceramics — one for its gourd shape and tension between matte finish and gold glaze, another for its rough texture that resembles a landscape whipped by wind and snow.

Says Endo of the European artists and designers, “They were attracted by the mysterious beauty of Japanese vases. I think they found a rich texture and taste in these rough designs. This kind of imagination was a very important aspect of the Art Nouveau style.”

Of course, no style or movement is hermetically sealed and it may be difficult to comfortably attach the Art Nouveau tag to some exhibits that have been included here primarily for the date of their manufacture. Such is the case with a vase from 1905, where the decorative styling of its butterfly motif looks forward to the geometric patterns of Art Deco a few decades later. Such links, however, highlight Art Nouveau’s influence on subsequent forms of modern art and, ultimately, the design-aware world we live in today.

“Art Nouveau et Industrie du luxe a Paris” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs till Nov. 29, closed Mon.; admission ¥1,300; open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. For more information visit www.setagayaartmuseum.or.jp