Art Nouveau

At the Busch-Reisinger

In the cycle of taste that characterizes the field of modern decoration, interior designers have once again turned to the stylized patterns that were innovated by the Art Nouveau school of the late 1890's. Art historians, ever sensitive to such trends, have just recently produced a flurry of books to document this fin de siecle style. As if to dignify the Nouveau group, the scholars have even proposed a number of somewhat questionable theories about its far-reaching importance for modern painters, most notably, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Munch and even Monet in his old age.

At the present show at the Busch-Reisinger, three rooms are devoted to Nouveau objets d'art and the graphics of some artists influenced by the school--Beardsley, Charles Ricketts and, true to recent art scholarship, the masters, Lautrec and Munch.

Fashion today has almost come to the point where it easily accepts Art Nouveau furnishings. In fact, Nouveau pieces often seem so modern that one finds it hard to believe that they were modish sixty years ago. The swatches of material designed by Richard Riemerschmid would fit wonderfully in a modern interior. The chair and three-legged table by Hector Guimard, the leader of the Parisian branch of the international Art Nouveau movement, combine tasteful flourishes with beautifully smooth wood surfaces and simple, elegant forms. In an elaborate Guimard picture frame, though, the typical Nouveau tendency towards overdecoration is manifest.

Sentimentality often prevails in the characteristic Art Nouveau simplification of natural forms. The handle of an American silver mirror, done under this style's influence, depicts the body of a young girl clad in what seems to and turning along the border. Though she may be swirling reeds; her glamorized face appears on the mirror's back, her luxuriant hair twisting sound sensuous, she merely looks affected, coy and thoroughly uninviting.

These dangers of Nouveau decoration, unessential detail and "beautification," can be found throughout the works of the minor artists who derived their inspiration directly from the decorative school. Not only is Peter Behren's The Kiss a shamelessly mawkish print, but almost the entire picture surface is covered by the grotesque stylized tresses of the lovers' hair.


The eclecticism of Beardsley and his follower, Charles Ricketts, can be seen to derive from the Art Nouveau habit of overstatement and slickness. Likewise, the Nouveau penchant for vegetal forms led to the functionless fantasies in glass of Louis Tiffany, America's gifted designer. The most interesting forms of his stylized works, such as the flower vase in this show, are impractical and, consequently, must be looked at as sculptures in glass. Unfortunately, Tiffany's garish color schemes lessen their value as works of art.

The best things in this exhibit, as could be expected, are the Munch and Lautrec prince Comparing the precosity and decadence of many of the Nouveau's minor works, such as the Ricketts drawings, however, to the profundity of the masters' graphics, one sees that the influence of Art Nouveau on their style was only slight and, as regards content, the decorative school had no significant impact on either Munch or Lautrec. In short, there is no real ponit for their being exhibited.

Munch was a profound visionary and his Nouveauesque attempts at decorative simplification almost hurt his work. At his best, as he is in his famous print, Geschrei, and the marvelous tone modulations of the lithograph, Attraction, he presents a luminous picture of man's subconscious fears and desires.

Lautrec's decorative patterns have almost unlimited visual interest because he carefully avoids any sort of systematic stylization, a method all too frequently employed by the Art Nouveau. The lack of any one obvious decorative pattern and the subtle coloring of his poster for Le Divon Japonais produces a composition whose complexity would not have pleased the Art Nouveau. Moreover, as if to prevent decorativism, curved lines that might become stylish are suddenly straightened if the picture requires. The faces in the Divon poster, if anything, are distorted with a vengeance--no pretty picture this. These harsh qualities are precisely the ones that set off Lautrec's genius from the minor talent of men like Behrens.

Art Nouveau is just beginning its vogue. New York's Musum of Modern Art plans an enormous exhibit of the school this summer and similar shows elsewhere will surely follow. Aside from the pleasant but confusing inclusion of Munch and Lautrec, the Busch-Reisinger's well-chosen exhibit gives one a full picture of the Art Nouveau--its frequent failures as well as its undeniable successes.

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