THE CURVING, CURLING tendrills of Art Nouveau, entangled everything from bookcovers to skyscrapers in their lush lavishness.
The limpid lilies of Art Nouveau bloomed but a few years. Its Blumenzeit was brief, 1890-1914, though it was planted by the Arts and Crafts movement in mid-19th century England in 1859 and its influence today can still be seen in the work of craftsmen such as American metal worker Albert Paley. b
The term "Art Nouveau" is the one by which our generation has come to know the period. That name calls up visions of languid ladies in flowering robes and flowing locks, whiplash ornaments, gilded butterfies, maidens holding up inkwells or clocks, stained glass dragonflies and weeping wisteria.
In its day, the style had other names. In Vienna it was Sezessionstil. In Italy it was the Stile Liberte. In Germany the Jugendstil. In Spain Modernismo. Some places they called it the noodle style.
Its father was Gothic. Its mother was Japanese. Its child was what we now call Twentieth-Century Modern. Art Nouveau was the first truly original style of our century. It was born out of the excesses of historicism, out of the Beaux-Arts of the 19th century which put Gothic arches in Greek portions and minarets over Norman towers.
Art Nouveau, by contrast, aimed at a unity of design derived from nature. Architects strove to give each project its own family feeling: Wallpaper, chandeliers, front door, spitoon, chairs, inkwells and even the clothes of the lady of the house and the walking cane of the gentleman must all be of a piece.
To these ends, a number of workshops grew up to supply such custom caprices. Indeed, evidence shows that the whole movement probably grew out of the British Arts and Crafts Movement whose first manifestation was the brotherhood of craftsmen organized by William Morris and his followers. These British craft guilds were then copied in Germany and in Austria principally, though there were some less rigid groups in the United States.
But if there were basic similarities, enough to make a recognizable style, it is also possible to divide the movement into two strong streams, branching from a single spring.
Art Nouveau Architecture makes it easier to follow the two. One begins with what was cllaed the "spooky" or "ghost" style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the MacDonald sisters of Galsgow. Their spooky ladies, which gave the style the nickname, had a stiff, geometric order. Mackintosh's work was widely exhibited in Vienna, and influenced the Sezessionstil of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos.
In the United States, this rational manifestation of Art Nouveau was seen in the work of the Greene Brothers in California and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago.
The more lavish Latin look of the other branch, deriving from Morris' Pre-Raphaelite fancies, went on to echo in the architecture of Hector Guimard in France, Victor Horta in Belgium and Antoni Gaudi in Spain.
Art Nouveau Architecture has left no building stone unturned to find obscure practitioners of Art Nouveau architecture. Some of them are real finds. Franz Gessner's own Viennese home was a charming example of the more severe style. Alphonse Laverriere, whose project for a mountain inn in the Haute-Savoie is an interesting design, was one of the few of the style working in Switzerland. Jan Kotera studied with Otto Wagner in Vienna and went back to Prague not only to design the fascinating Peterka house but also to establish a school of architecture modeled after Wagner's.
Still, it is hard to keep the actors straight without a playbill, though the excellent biographies in the back do help. A map marking centers of Art Nouveau architecture could have been usefully replaced by a list of Art Nouveau buildings (with addresses) that still exist.
The photographs are luscious, but it would have been nice if those of each architect were grouped. Villa Wagner I, one of the greatest of the Art Nouveau houses and the home of Otto Wagner, is shown unfortunately with its head chopped off. But the color photograph of its studio makes up for that. These are carping comments. I wouldn't want to do without the book.
Viennese Architecture 1860-1930 in Drawings, a far less imposing book, is delightful. Its well-chosen sketches make you want to stop with each one and show it your neighbor. Who could resist the drawing of the Radetzky Brucke by Friedrick Ohmann? And Josef Hoffmann's sketch of a bedroom is so clearly and handsomely done that you want to go find a hammer and make yourself a bed with a connecting seat and cabinet just like his. When the black-and-white sketches begin to pale, the book surprises us with the riotous pink apartment building by Josef Hoffmann.
The quotations from the writings of the Viennese architects are well chosen and to the point. From Otto Wagner: "Art knows only one master -- necessity. Therefore when you set about solving a task, always ask: how will it suit the contemporaries, the contract, the genius loci, the climate, the available materials, the pecuniary means?" Good advice to the architects of today.
Women Artist of the Arts and Crafts Movement helps rescue an enormous nember of figures from an underserved obscurity. Anthea Callen's scholarship is trememdous. She makes the point that whereas we know the names of the great male designers of the period, there were hundreds of hands belonging to British women of all classes who produced the masters' designs. She makes the point that there would have been more great mistresses of design, such as the MacDonald sisters in Glasgow and Adelaide Alsop Robineau in the United States, had they been able to get the training they deserved.
The Dictionary of 19th Century Antiques is wonderfully useful book that explains such terms as "Cymric, a tradename for silver marketed by Liberty & Co., from about 1900. Basically of Celtic inspiration . . ." There are 1499 other equally useful definitions as well as 500 photographs (32 in color). The British silvermakrs are nice to have, but it would be a help if someone would give us a book of European silvermarks, almost impossible to find.
In the last five years, a great number of books on Art Nouveau have been published, reflecting the exhaustive scholarship now underway, a remarkable circumstance since the style is yet to be 100 years old.
In 1960, the only book in English you could find on the subject was the splendid Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century by Peter Selz, Mildred Constantine, Alan Fern and others for the Museum of Modern Art (1959). The Flowering of Art Nouveau by Maurice Rheims (1966) remains one of the most comprehesive and beautiful of all. And contracy to most books on art and architecture, The Sacred Srping, the Arts in Vienna, 1898-1918 (1974) by Nicholas Powell is a pleasure to read.
In 1965, a bronze art nouveau lady, with flowing draperies, who worked part-time as a lamp, cost $7 in a Viennese Alt Waren (second-hand shop). A month or two ago, a clone from the same casting by Gustav Gurschner, a Viennese sculpotr, brought $10,000 at Christie's in New York.
On the Sezession building in Vienna, there is this motto of the movement: Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit -- To the time its art, to art its freedom.
Art Nouveau's time has come again.