The complete guide to: Art nouveau Europe

From Brussels to Moscow: discover the glories of the decorative style that swirled across the Continent towards the end of the 19th century, says Anthony Lambert


What's new about Art Nouveau?

Well, from next Wednesday, you'll be able to use a 21st-century high-speed rail link to reach the most spectacular examples of this gracious decorative and architectural style. Art Nouveau was born out of the political, industrial and social ferment of the closing years of the 19th century. In architecture, it was a late response to the question articulated by the architect Viollet-le-Duc: "Is the 19th century destined to close without possessing a distinctive architecture of its own?" It expressed radical ideas in new materials, and was influenced by the 19th-century revivals of rococo and Gothic, the Aesthetic movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Symbolist painting.

The most characteristic form of Art Nouveau architecture and decoration is the sinuous line based on plant forms. But it was never a homogeneous style, and it gave rise to very different interpretations across Europe.The term was first used in the 1880s in Belgium, the country most associated with the style – almost every town has its Art Nouveau buildings, with Brussels at the core. When the high-speed line from London St Pancras opens, the Belgian capital will be just 111 minutes away. And even the cheapest (£59 return) ticket on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) entitles you to travel onwards to any other station in Belgium.

In Brussels, Art Nouveau began with the narrow-fronted Tassel House by Victor Horta at 6 rue Paul-Emile Janson; this is generally regarded as the first complete building in fully fledged Art Nouveau style, but is not open to visitors. Hundreds of Art Nouveau villas and buildings can be found in districts such as St Gilles, Ixelles, Forest and Uccle. Brussels Tourism (00 32 2 509 2400; www.bruxelles-tourisme.be) can provide a list of the most important buildings.

The importance of Victor Horta makes his house in the St Gilles district of Brussels, at 25 rue Américaine, a temple of Art Nouveau (00 32 2 543 04 90; www.hortamuseum.be). He arranged the house with half-floors around a stairway, and the decoration of mosaics, stained glass and murals is complemented by furniture Horta designed for other houses. Open 2-5.30pm Tuesday to Sunday; admission €7 (£5). Take tram 81 or 92 to Janson. The Horta Museum also administers the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, and its website (www.artnouveau-net.eu) is a good guide to surviving buildings and collections.

Was it all for the well-heeled?

Most buildings were, indeed, commissioned by the wealthy middle class. However, many late-19th-century architects had radical political and moral beliefs, which found expression in social housing projects such as rue Blaes in Brussels and Mechelsestraat in Lier, 15 minutes by train from Antwerp Central. The high-minded object was to create homes that workers would regard as worth coming home to, rather than head for a bar.

Art Nouveau had less impact on commercial buildings, but some outstanding examples survive. Most spectacular is the Musical Instrument Museum (00 32 2 545 0130; www.mim.fgov.be) at 2 rue Montagne de la Cour in Brussels, originally designed in 1899 by Paul Saintenoy to be the Old England department store. Walk uphill from the Gare Centrale area, or take tram 92, 93 or 94 to Royale.

In Austria, one of the leading Art Nouveau buildings is the exhibition space commissioned by the Vienna Secession for its members' work (00 43 1 5875 30721; www.secession.at). Located at 12 Friedrichstrasse, Joseph Olbrich's resolutely geometric façade is crowned by a stunning gilded leaf-covered cupola that contemporaries unkindly christened "the golden cabbage" when the Secession Building opened in 1898. Open 10am-6pm daily except Monday; admission €1.50-€6 (£1-£4.30).

Where else?

Art Nouveau design was given a tremendous boost by the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, which covered 112 hectares and was visited by over 50 million people. A surviving relic can be found in the churchyard of St-Germain-des- Prés: the Art Nouveau stoneware façade of the Sèvres pavilion was moved there. It was also in Paris that the name Art Nouveau was institutionalised with the opening in 1895 of a gallery named La Maison d'Art Nouveau. It had a greater influence than its short life of only nine years would suggest, selling as many pieces to forward-thinking museums as individuals.

Art Nouveau was not as pervasive in France as in Belgium, but the Art Nouveau design with which people are most familiar is that of the distinctive Parisian Métro entrances created by Hector Guimard. Designed to enhance the experience of a journey on the French capital's new underground railway, the cast-iron and glass entrances were a modular system whose components could form five different styles depending on the station's size, location and importance. They graced the entrances to stations on the Métro lines built to cope with the 1900 Exposition. Many have disappeared, but good examples remain at Porte Dauphine, Louvre, Abbesses and Cité, among others.

Parisian masterpieces?

Paris was the centre of French Art Nouveau design, and one of Guimard's masterpieces can be found at 14 rue La Fontaine, the Castel Béranger. Constructed from 1895-7, it was his first building in the style. He mounted an exhibition to publicise the building and its 36 apartments in the fashionable suburb of Auteuil, where there were 300 other Art Nouveau-inspired houses by 1910, many of which survive. Furniture designed by Guimard for Castel Béranger can be seen in the Musée d'Orsay (00 33 1 40 49 48 14; www.musee-orsay.fr), at 1 rue de la Légion d'Honneur (Métro Assemblée Nationale). Open 9.30am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday; admission €7.50/£5.30).

Probably the most bizarre Art Nouveau doorway in Paris belongs to the apartment building at 29 avenue Rapp (Métro Ecole Militaire) designed by Jules Lavirotte; the sexual imagery includes male genitalia on the front door and upper windows and balcony, supported by a form resembling female genitalia. It won Lavirotte an international design prize in 1901.

Beyond Paris?

A more literal translation of natural forms characterised the work of some of the artists and craftsmen who formed the Nancy School around the celebrated ceramicist Emile Gallé, whose stunning glasswork can be seen at The School of Nancy Museum at 36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan (00 33 3 83 40 14 86; www.ot-nancy.fr/uk/musees). It's open 10.30am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday; admission €6 (£4.30). It has displays of Art Nouveau furniture, objets d'art, glassware, stained glass, leather, ceramics and textiles. The principal architectural achievement of the Nancy School was the u o Villa Majorelle (00 33 3 83 40 14 86; www.ecole-de-nancy.com) designed largely by Henri Sauvage. It is a gracious mansion in pleasant grounds outside the city centre; guided tours of the house are organised by the museum on Saturdays and Sundays from May to October, and on Saturdays only from November to April, at 2.30 and 3.45pm; booking is advisable.

Further east?

In Germany, Art Nouveau was adopted as Jugendstil, and became a hallmark of progressive taste. An excellent example is Darmstadt, 20 minutes south of Frankfurt by frequent trains. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig founded, in 1899, an atelier of Jugendstil craftsmen who lived in a surrounding colony of houses in the same style. This unique cluster of Jugendstil houses includes the first house designed by Peter Behrens (in whose Berlin office Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were all working in 1910). The atelier building, the Mathildenhöhe at 26 Alexandraweg, has been restored and is now a museum (00 49 6151 133385; www.darmstadt.), open 10am-5pm daily except Monday. Admission €5 (£3.50).

Between Trier and Koblenz is the town of Traben-Trarbach, once the second-largest wine-trading centre in the world, where a bridge spanning the Mosel is guarded by a twin-towered Jugendstil gateway, completed in 1899. The town itself has many fine Jugendstil villas commissioned by wealthy wine merchants. The romantic Jugendstil Hotel Bellevue (00 49 6541 7030;www.bellevue-hotel.de), at Am Moselufer, was designed by Bruno Moehring in 1903; it has elaborate timberwork, an intricate tower and antiques in many rooms. Doubles from €130 (£93) including breakfast. Traben-Trarbach is easily accessible from Hahn airport on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), which calls it "Frankfurt".

European expansion?

Art Nouveau soon influenced architects right across the Continent, from Portugal to Russia, though it was a short-lived style, and had already become unfashionable by the outbreak of the First World War. Logically enough, its influence was often greatest in places experiencing a housing boom, sometimes in tragic circumstances. In 1904, the Norwegian coastal town of Aalesund was almost completely destroyed by fire. The young Norwegian architects rebuilding the town over the next three years independently fused Art Nouveau with national romantic symbols such as dragons' heads, giving the harbour town a rare unified character. In the one-time pharmacy and house of a chemist, at 16 Apotekergata, the Art Nouveau Centre (00 47 70 10 49 70) has preserved rooms and holds exhibitions, with an imaginative multimedia time-machine (in English) about the town's reconstruction. Open 11am-4pm Tuesday to Saturday, noon-4pm on Sunday; admission Nkr50 (£4.50).

Right in the centre of Aalesund, at 8 Lovenvoldgata, is Rica Hotel Scandinavie (00 47 70157800; www.rica-hotels.com), which retains Art Nouveau decoration in some of the public rooms as well as unaltered façades. Doubles from Nkr990 (£88) including breakfast. SAS flies to Aalesund twice weekly from Gatwick (0870 60 727 727; www.flysas.co.uk), from £112 return.

At the end of the 19th century, Riga was growing so rapidly that its population doubled in 15 years. Again, the vogue for Art Nouveau buildings was fuelled by an international exhibition in the Latvian capital in 1901, where many of the pavilions were built in the style, which was also adopted for over a third of the buildings in the city centre. The Art Nouveau doorways of Riga alone could fill a book.

In Moscow, the Gorky Museum occupies the Ryabushinsky House, built from 1900-3 to a design by Fyodor Shekhtel, at 6/2 Ulitsa Malaya Nikitskaya (00 7 495 290 0535), with a twisting marble staircase lit by stained glass. The writer Maxim Gorky lived in the house from 1931 to 1936, despite disliking Art Nouveau. It's open noon-7pm Wednesday and Friday, and 10am-5pm Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, closed last Friday of the month.Metro Arbatskaya.

Interest in Art Nouveau underwent a revival in the Seventies when reproductions of posters of Sarah Bernhardt by the Czech designer Alphonse Mucha became popular. The finest collection of his original work is in the Mucha Museum at 7 Panska, Prague (00 420 221 451 333; www.mucha.cz), situated in the baroque Kaunicky Palace. Open 10am-6pm daily; admission Czk120 (£3). Metro Muzeum or Mustek.

Further south?

In Italy, Art Nouveau was named Stile Liberty in recognition of the influence of the London store. The principal centre is Milan, where there are several hundred buildings in the style. The places used as weekend retreats by wealthy Milanese – such as Stresa, Bellagio and Verbania – also feature some Art Nouveau villas. In Milan, peacocks decorate part of the Art Nouveau block of 16-22 Via Pisacane, and the Galimberti house on Via Malpighi was covered in ceramic cladding by Giovan Bossi to introduce Liberty themes (as well as making the building easier to clean).

One of the largest museum collections of Art Nouveau is in Lisbon, though the city has few buildings in the style. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (00 351 21 782 3000; www. museu.gulbenkian.pt) was endowed by the Armenian oil magnate and collector, and has an extensive collection of Lalique glass and jewellery. At 45A avenida de Berna (metro Sao Sebastiao or Praca de Espanha), it's open 10am-5.45pm daily except Monday; admission €4 (£2.80).

Anything closer to home?

No and yes. Although the Arts and Crafts Movement was a seminal source of inspiration to Art Nouveau designers, architects in Britain never took the style to heart. But the concept that even functional objects should be beautiful and expressive was derived from the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the writings of designers such as William Morris. The best introduction to the design philosophy is perhaps Blackwell at Bowness-on-Windermere, off the B5360 (015394 46139; www.blackwell.org.uk). Open 10.30am-4pm daily; admission £5.45. This magnificent holiday home, created in 1900 for the brewer Sir Edward Holt by M H Baillie Scott, is exceptional for the survival of so much of its interior decoration.

One of the finest English collections of Arts and Crafts items is at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum in Clarence Street (01242 237431), which is so extensive that it incorporates an Arts and Crafts Museum (www.artsandcraftsmuseum.org.uk), reflecting the importance of artists working in the Cotswolds at the time. The collection includes furniture, pottery, silver, metalwork, jewellery, plasterwork, leatherwork, private-press books, textiles and embroideries. Open 10am-5.20pm daily except Sunday; admission free.

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, in Church Street, 15 minutes' walk from the station (01273 292882; www.virtual museum.info) has the best British public collection, outside of the Victoria and Albert Museum, of French Art Nouveau and Austrian Secession design; it includes furniture by Majorelle, Rennie Mackintosh, Hoffmann and Moser, and furniture, ceramics and glass by Gallé. Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday, until 7pm on Tuesday and 2-5pm on Sunday; admission free.

Dining out with art nouveau

Predictably, some of the best Art Nouveau restaurants are in Paris. Foremost is Maxim's (00 33 142 65 27 94; www.maxims-de-paris.com) at 3 rue Royale; Métro Concorde. It was designed by Louis Marnez from 1898–1900 using School of Nancy artists. Pierre Cardin, who has owned the restaurant since 1981, has collected over 550 pieces of Art Nouveau, some of which are on display in the Maxim's museum (open 2-5.30pm Wednesday to Sunday, with tours by art historians at 2pm, 3.15pm and 4.30pm; admission €€15/£11). Lunch and a museum visit Tuesday-Friday costs €€110 (£79). The restaurant is closed for Saturday lunch, and on Sunday and Monday.

The interior of Lucas Carton (now called Senderens), at 9 place de la Madeleine (Métro Madeleine), was designed by Majorelle (00 33 1 42 65 22 90; www.lucascarton.com). Open noon-3pm, 7.30-11.15pm daily. And Bouillon Racine (00 33 1 44 32 15 60; www.bouillon-racine.com) at 3 rue Racine (Métro Cluny-La Sorbonne), now a listed national monument, was created in 1906 and retains its Art Nouveau features. Open noon-11pm every day.

Metro massacre

Art Nouveau did not remain popular for long in Paris: Le Figaro even campaigned to get Guimard's Métro entrances removed, and as late as 1962, some of them were still being demolished. The French capital's first wake-up call was when the New York Museum of Modern Art bought one of the jettisoned entrances. It is still on display at MoMA, at 11 West 53rd Street (001 212 708 9400; www.moma.org), which is open 10.30am-5.30pm Wednesday to Monday, with late opening to 8pm on Friday; admission $20 (£10).

Even after the Second World War, French museums refused the offer by Guimard's widow of his collection, so she gave it MoMA and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (001 212 535 7710; www.metmuseum.org).

The Met, at 1000 Fifth Avenue on 82nd Street, is open 9.30am-5.30pm daily except Monday, with late opening to 9pm on Friday and Saturday; admission $20 (£10). On 4 December, the second-floor 19th-century Paintings and Sculptures galleries reopen after renovation and additions, notably the reassembly of the Art Nouveau "Wisteria Dining Room" created by the French artist Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Lectures on Art Nouveau in Brussels and Paris, and in Eastern Europe are being given on 27 November and 18 December respectively; tickets $23 (£11.50).

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