Art nouveau, Jungendstil, Stile Liberty, Secession -- call it what you will -- was the one original, non-revivalist style of the 19th century and the decade before World War I.
Its curving, whiplash, asymmetrical lines, stylized lilies, and languishing ladies entwined and entangled everything from architecture to silver serving dishes to gowns to graphic design. Often, whole houses were designed in the art nouveau taste, from the door knob to the chandelier. The style began with the pre-Raphaelites and the arts and crafts movement in England in the mid-19th century, spreading to Germany, Austria, Italy and France. It lingered on in backward corners of the world until romanticism fell victim to war.
Now the 20th century international style -- with its dictums against ornamentation and ethnic allusions -- is considered passe. And people are once again looking to the rich exaggerations of the art nouveau period.
"Art Nouveau From Maryland Collections" will be exhibited at the Baltimore Museum through Sept. 2. The show is accompanied by a small catalogue. The Baltimore Museum's assistant curator, Sona Johnston, has put together in an interesting collection of 139 art nouveau objects. Furthermore, jewelry, metalwork, ceramics, textiles, wallpaper designs, books and bindings, and works on paper are included. Though from many countries, all were brought to Maryland.
A bronze letter opener (circa 1900) signed by F. Haberl of Austria, shows the way the Viennese Secession artists smoothed and stylized art nouveau's sinuous lines.
An inkwell by Charles Korschann, a Czech who worked in Paris, is much more romantic than the Austrian work. the inkwell is hidden by a lovelorn maiden with a flowing skirt who doesn't realize she's being eaten alive by a malevolent vine. The inkwell and a good many other interesting pieces in the show -- including a silverplate and iridescent glass epergne in the form of two limpid ladies -- are from the collection of Cal Schumann.
A pewter alloy, often silverplated, was quite fashionable in that era. Pewter's malleablity made it easy to work into art nouveau's flowing lines. A good example in the show is a covered dish by Orivit, Kohn-Ehrenfeld, Germany.
A tulip-shaped vase of Favrile glass, by Louis Comfort Tiffany, shows the American fondness for organic forms and deep colors. the Tiffany vase, lent by the Walters Art Gallery, uses a clear glass background to show off flowing leaves. Sixteen Tiffany pieces are included in the show. Another three glass pieces come from Austria. A vase by Loetz of Klostermuhle, Austria, is of iridescent glass in a strange almost Turkish shape. An equal number are from France, including a Daum Freres vase and a Emile Galle lamp.
Unfortunately, the show only has seven pieces of furniture, but there are two pieces by Louis Majorelle of France, a bedside table marvelously wrought of rosewood, mahogany, burl walnut, mother-of-pearl, marble and bronze; and a hanging wall cabinet of fruitwood with marquetry.
The 17 pieces of ceramics, several again from Schumann's collection, make a brave showing. The ceramics come from the United States, Bohemia, France, Germany and the Netherlands with the largest number from the Royal Doulton factory at Burslem, England.
Several pieces of jewelry are from Arthur Guy Kaplan's collection, the objects come from many countries, all were brought to Maryland.
Five pieces of textiles, all by William Morris, are from Dena S. Katzenberg's collection, showing Morris's romanticized floral motifs. Only two wallpaper designs made it to the exhibit, unfortunately none by Morris. But there is a fine copy of the book "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," the quintessential art nouveau poem. Illustrations are by Elihu Vedder, whose fantastic work was been on view at the National Collection of Fine Arts this winter.
The art nouveau poster is widely acknowledged to be one of the style's greatest strengths. So it isn't surprising that coordinator Johnston has found 27 posters, color lithographs and other works on paper. A poster advertising Louie Fuller's theater at the Paris Exposition Universelle, by Manuel Orazi, is well worth admiring. Also represented are works by Henri van de Velde, Henry de Toulouse Lautrec (including another Louie Fuller), Georges de Feure and Aubrey Beardsley.
The exhibit should whet your appetite to see the larger permanent collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at Richmond and the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk.