Art Nouveau unfurled

A disease or an art movement? A new show at the V&A will clarify the issue
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The Independent Online

Art Nouveau is one of those terms that people use all the time, without stopping to think what it means. Since the great Art Nouveau revival of the Sixties, when collectors and dealers started to get in on the act, the phrase has become so familiar that the art world has become complacent and assumes it understands. Art Nouveau? Oh yes, Tiffany glass, Paris Métro stations, Mackintosh chairs. We know all about that.

Art Nouveau is one of those terms that people use all the time, without stopping to think what it means. Since the great Art Nouveau revival of the Sixties, when collectors and dealers started to get in on the act, the phrase has become so familiar that the art world has become complacent and assumes it understands. Art Nouveau? Oh yes, Tiffany glass, Paris Métro stations, Mackintosh chairs. We know all about that.

But, of course, as soon as you begin to delve beneath the surface - or if you travel around Europe and America with your eyes open - Art Nouveau takes on a whole new dimension, and suddenly, strangely, magnificently, starts to unfurl. Now the lid is being lifted from this sometimes grotesque, sometimes glorious phenomenon with a blockbuster exhibition at the V&A, which claims to be more comprehensive than any that have gone before. Cutting through the veil of received opinion, the curators have gone back to basics, to probe, question and re-assess. What makes it exciting this time is that the subject is being tackled on a global scale.

While many art movements, such as Rococo and Art Deco, were given their names after the event, Art Nouveau is not a neat retrospective classification, but an actual living term. It derives from the name of a gallery called L'Art Nouveau established by the entrepreneur Siegfried Bing in Paris in 1895, which acted as a showcase for the work of practitioners in the emergent style. But the sinuous furniture and exotic objets d'art he displayed - and indeed the whole School of Nancy phenomenon in France around the fin de siÿcle - were just the tip of a pan-European iceberg.

Some commentators at the time regarded Art Nouveau as a disease infecting the purity of their native stock. With hindsight the virus analogy still seems apposite, given how rapidly it swept across two continents. Dissemination in itself is nothing new, of course, and decorative styles had often crossed national boundaries before. What was remarkable about Art Nouveau at the turn of the 19th century, though, was the speed and force with which these ideas spread.

It was this violence - along with the headiness and extremism of the style itself - that made Art Nouveau so exhilarating to its adherents, and so shocking to its critics.

Some argue that the driving force behind Art Nouveau was the rush towards modernity - the creation of a new style for a new century. Others see it in relative terms as a reaction against the excessive historical revivalism of the 19th century.

The more one delves into the sources of Art Nouveau, the more complex, and in many cases conflicting, its origins and its aspirations appear. For some, like the glassmaker Emile Gallé and the furniture designer Louis Majorelle, nature became a religion, and the more they immersed themselves in the natural world, the more literally organic their work became. For others, such as the Belgian designer Victor Horta and the maverick Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner, it was the richness and exoticism of Eastern cultures that triggered their personal voyage of exploration.

At the heart of the movement lies the inexplicable dichotomy between the dynamic, extravagant, Belgo-French whiplash branch of Art Nouveau, and its crisp, rectilinear Austro-Germanic counterpart, Jugendstil. How can two such different forms of expression be reconciled, and ought they to be considered as manifestations of the same style? All this makes for a fascinating story, full of twists, turns, contradictions and inconsistencies. This, and the sheer visual ebullience of the style, is why Art Nouveau is worth returning to now, a century on.

Art Nouveau 1890-1914 is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 30 July. A book of the same title, edited by Paul Greenhalgh, is published by the V&A to accompany the exhibition. Tel. 020 7942 2528. www.vam.ac.uk

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