Vienna Secession
Vienna Secession

One of the strongest reactions against the clutter, formality and artistic revivalism of the Victorian period was Art Nouveau—a style of art that swept across Europe between about 1890 and 1905. Its natural motifs and sinuous curves transformed architecture in cites from Prague to Paris, and the movement proved a rich begetter of local variations, including the more rectilinear styles that caught on in Austria.

Several different influences caused artists to create the Art Nouveau style. One came from the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin, who reacted against Victorian art with a call for less clutter and more investigation of natural forms. Another was a new fashion in Europe for Japanese art, with its strong graphic content and rich colors. A third was the work of the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, whose posters, much used in major international centers such as Paris, stimulated a fashion for sinuous curves, images of flowers and portrayals of sensuous feminine beauty.

Graphic roots

Graphics were an area in which Art Nouveau motifs could be worked out and developed, and another strong influence was a book cover for a volume called Wren’s City Churches, designed by architect A.H. Mackmurdo. Dating from 1883, this design features flowers and strong curving stems and leaves in bold monochrome. Because it appeared on the front of a book about architecture that many British architects must have bought, it was a strong influence on the curves and forms of architectural Art Nouveau.

The Vienna Secession

A crisis occurred in the arts in Vienna in around 1898 when a group of artists broke away, or seceded, from the establishment to form the movement called the Secession. The group’s most prominent architect was Joseph Maria Olbrich who, partly influenced by Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh, developed a strong rectilinear style adorned with contrasting flowing Art Nouveau ornament. Olbrich’s most famous work is the Secession Building in Vienna, where the group held exhibitions. It has a dome covered with laurel leaf decoration.

Architects picked up on these influences in different ways. Frenchman Hector Guimard explored the use of colorful materials, such as faience, and transformed Paris with the dramatic curving ironwork of his Métro station entrances. Belgian Henry van de Velde began as an artist and book designer before bringing the long curves of Art Nouveau to wall decoration and structural details, such as the shapes of roofs. Another Belgian, Victor Horta, followed in his footsteps. The style also spread to Germany, where it was known as the Jugendstil. Further east, cities such as Prague, Moscow and Riga became centers of Art Nouveau decoration.

In England the movement had a greater influence on product design than on architecture. One area in which it was influential was pottery, and firms such as Doulton, who made vases and other pottery for the home as well as ceramic tiles for buildings, made a big impact. Their tiles proved popular for exterior cladding on buildings from factories to shops, and some of their designs bore Art Nouveau motifs, such as foliage, hearts and whiplash curves.

Art Nouveau and the crafts

Although most Art Nouveau buildings had conventional structures, the movement took advantage of both craft and industrial technology for their ornamental work. Decorative tiles were common on British Art Nouveau buildings, while French Art Nouveau structures, such as the Paris Métro station entrances (below) used ironwork creatively, with ornate panels, curving rails and metal-framed canopies. The art of lettering and typography also formed an important element in the station entrances.

Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau

Scotland had a major Art Nouveau architect in Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The most famous of his stunning buildings is Glasgow School of Art. His style is based on straight lines and meticulous patterning. Mackintosh’s rectilinear form of Art Nouveau bears a strong resemblance to the Austrian version of the style. Known as Secessionist, the design and architecture of Austrian fin de siècle is highly distinctive.

“… the terrifying and edible beauty of Art Nouveau architecture.” Salvador Dalí

A city style

The influence of Art Nouveau was strongest in the cities, where it was used most widely for the design of upper-class houses and for buildings such as hotels, where good, up-to-date decor was at a premium to attract rich and sophisticated clients. Its curves were more useful in decoration than in laying out buildings, most of which have walls and partitions made up of straight lines and right-angles. But one architect, heavily influenced by Art Nouveau, took the idea of the use of curves further than any other. Antoni Gaudí, the great Catalan architect who worked in Barcelona, was a complete individual. His buildings, with their curving walls, pillars like stalagmites, colorful tile mosaics and irregular windows, are like the work of no other architect.

Gaudí’s eccentric and irregular forms, with their sweeping curves, are very much influenced by Art Nouveau and its Catalan incarnation, which was known as Modernisme. Gaudí’s extraordinary apartment blocks, his bizarre and colorful garden buildings and his great church of the Sagrada Familia make up one of the most impressive bodies of work of any architect. They would have been impossible without roots in Art Nouveau.

A passing vogue

Art Nouveau was a short-lived movement. Its heyday was past by 1905, although some designs continued to show an Art Nouveau influence in the following years. But it was more important than its short vogue suggests, because it was a way of making a decisive break from the past forms and the artistic revivals that had dominated the previous decades. It restored the notion of the shock of the new to architecture, and prepared architects and clients alike for the yet more shocking architecture of the 20th century.