Art Nouveau in the Age of Downton Abbey

Alfons Mucha, 1897.
F. Champenois Imprimeur-Éditeur, lithograph, 1897

Art Nouveau, spanning roughly 1880 to 1910, was the people’s design, ushering the art world into the twentieth century. Dominating the cultural scene for a brief period, its end is marked by World War One and Modernism.

As Downton Abbey’s fourth season is well under way on British television screens and across the pond, everything historical is all the rage. Turn of the century glamour is again en mode. Vintage style dominates current fashion, trends centering on the 10’s, 20’s and 30’s, and high waists and muted colours are popular. We are also nostalgic for older forms of art, as the revival of Art Nouveau has shown.

Art Nouveau’s legacy can be found in architecture around Europe and is easily recognisable. Some key features of Art Nouveau are sumptuous shapes and smouldering colours, dramatic “whiplash” lines and stylised flowers.

Church of St. Elisabeth in Bratislava, by Ödön Lechner

Art Nouveau is not limited to buildings, however, and spans the fine and applied arts, including furniture, textiles and graphic art. Famous artists who painted in this style included Czech painter Alfons Mucha, English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

To the twenty-first century eye, the emphasis on flowers and natural shapes directly contrasts the industrial modernism of the movements that followed it. Hindsight and context affect our perception of a modern movement that now seems quintessentially antique, infusing it with the golden hue of a better time.
However, its name quite obviously means ‘new art’ in French, representing that which is modern and the beginning of a break with the past.

The Irony of Nostalgia

Art traditionally emphasises legacy, but Art Nouveau provided the foundations of the later Modernist movement, which sought to break from the past. Artists of the time wanted their work to be modern, whatever that might mean.

This interest in “modern” art has in no way abated. It’s been a wildly successful year for the Tate gallery as Damien Hirst has helped to break visitor records by attracting almost eight million people to the four South Bank London galleries.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Hirst, 1991
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – Hirst, 1991

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine) is Hirst’s most lucrative work, worth £7.4 million, and could hardly be further from the feminine, floral predispositions of Art Nouveau.

What we consider modern seems to have come full circle, but the past still plays a huge part in the creation of art. Whether it’s Wassily Kandinski’s purposeful break with tradition in his seemingly random colours, shapes and lines, or John Piper’s British affection for rural landscape styles, we cannot avoid our captivation with history – especially when it seems to be fading before our eyes.

Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)
Matthew and Mary, Downton Abbey Season 3 (Telegraph)

Perhaps in response to the pull of the new, when technology is developing at an eye-watering rate and we are fully immersed in a “digital age”, what we now consider to be nostalgic forms of art can provide comfort as well as a much-needed point of reference. Or, perhaps Matthew and Mary really did just belong together.

Recent Interpretations of Art Nouveau

There has been a popular BBC Four series broadcast in January this year, called ‘Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau’, emphasising its racier characteristics and the factors that encouraged the movement to flourish. You can still catch it online.

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in East Anglia is currently holding an exhibition called ‘The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, from Nature to Abstraction’, treating Art Nouveau as the first modern design movement, exploring the progression of style from natural to more abstract, geometric form. It is curated by Professor Paul Greenhalgh and highlights the role played by Art Nouveau in the advent of Modernism. The exhibition runs until December 13th this year.

Click this link to find out even more about Art Nouveau.


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