2: Form and Function 3: Principles Approaches Design Inspiration

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art – especially the decorative arts – that was most popular during 1890–1910.  Art Nouveau is known as Jugendstil  in Germany, Modern in Russia,  Modernisme in Catalonia,  Secession in Austria-Hungary and Stile Liberty in Italy. Art Nouveau tendencies were also absorbed into local styles. In Denmark, for example, it was one aspect of Skønvirke (“aesthetic work”), which itself more closely relates to the Arts and Crafts style. Likewise, artists adopted many of the floral and organic motifs of Art Nouveau into the Młoda Polska (“Young Poland”) style in Poland.

Origins and influences

The origins of Art Nouveau are found in the resistance of the artist William Morris to the cluttered compositions and the revival tendencies of the 19th century and his theories that helped initiate the Arts and crafts movement.

The first realisation is often considered Arthur Mackmurdo’s book-cover for Wren’s City Churches (1883), with its rhythmic floral patterns.

A key influence was Japonisme with its organic forms and references to the natural world that was popular in Europe during the 1880s and 1890s. The flat perspective and strong colors of Japanese wood block prints, especially those of Katsushika Hokusai, had a strong effect on the formulation of Art Nouveau.


Art Nouveau is considered a “total” art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including jewelery, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils and lighting, as well as the fine arts. It s viewed by some as the first self-conscious attempt to create a modern style. It was a reaction to academic art of the 19th century, inspired by natural forms and structures, not only in flowers and plants, but also in curved lines.

 decorative “whiplash” motifs, formed by dynamic, undulating, and flowing lines in a syncopated rhythm and asymmetrical shape


A description published in Pan magazine of Hermann Obrist‘s wall hanging Cyclamen (1894) described it as “sudden violent curves generated by the crack of a whip”


Fine Art and Graphics

Aubrey Beardsley

Alphonse Mucha

Edward Burne-Jones

Gustav Klimt

Jan Toorop

As an art style, Art Nouveau has affinities with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolist styles,Unlike Symbolist painting, however, Art Nouveau has a distinctive appearance; and, unlike the artisan-oriented Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau artists readily used new materials, machined surfaces, and abstraction in the service of pure design.


The style was the first major artistic stylistic movement in which mass-produced graphics (as opposed to traditional forms of printmaking, which were not very important for the style) played a key role, often techniques of colour printing developed relatively recently.

A key influence was the Paris-based Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who produced a lithographed poster, which appeared on 1 January 1895 in the streets of Paris as an advertisement for the play Gismonda by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt. It popularised the new artistic style and its creator to the citizens of Paris. Initially named Style Mucha, (Mucha Style), his style soon became known as Art Nouveau in France. Mucha’s work has continued to experience periodic revivals of interest for illustrators and artists. Interest in Mucha’s distinctive style experienced a strong revival during the 1960s with a general interest in Art Nouveau.

However, Art Nouveau was not limited to Mucha’s style solely but was interpreted differently by artists from around the world as the movement spread. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Jan Toorop, René Lalique, Antoni Gaudí and Louis Comfort Tiffany, created Art Nouveau works in their own manner.Magazines like Jugend helped publicise the style in Germany, especially as a graphic artform, while the Vienna Secessionists influenced art and architecture throughout Austria-Hungary.

Two-dimensional Art Nouveau pieces were painted, drawn, and printed in popular forms such as advertisements, posters, labels, magazines, and the like.Japanese wood-block prints, with their curved lines, patterned surfaces, contrasting voids, and flatness of visual plane, also inspired Art Nouveau. Some line and curve patterns became graphic clichés that were later found in works of artists from many parts of the world.


Art Nouveau did not eschew the use of machines, as the Arts and Crafts Movement did. For sculpture, the principal materials employed were glass and wrought iron, resulting in sculptural qualities even in architecture. Ceramics were also employed in creating editions of sculptures by artists such as Auguste Rodin.

Architecture and interior design

Art Nouveau in architecture and interior design eschewed the eclectic revival styles of the 19th century. Though Art Nouveau designers selected and ‘modernised’ some of the more abstract elements of Rococo style, such as flame and shell textures, they also advocated the use of very stylised organic forms as a source of inspiration, expanding the ‘natural’ repertoire to use seaweed, grasses, and insects. The softly-melding forms of 17th-century auricular style, best exemplified in Dutch silverware, was another influence.

Architects tried to harmonize with the natural environment. Hyperbolas and parabolas in windows, arches, and doors are common, and decorative mouldings ‘grow’ into plant-derived forms. Japanese-inspired art and design was championed by the businessmen Siegfried Bing and Arthur Lasenby Liberty at their stores in Paris and London, respectively.Like most design styles, The text above the Paris Metro entrance uses the qualities of the rest of the iron work in the structure.
Art Nouveau architecture made use of many technological innovations of the late 19th century, especially the use of exposed iron and large, irregularly shaped pieces of glass for architecture. By the start of World War I, however, the stylised nature of Art Nouveau design—which was expensive to produce—began to be disused in favour of more streamlined, rectilinear modernism, which was cheaper and thought to be more faithful to the plainer industrial aesthetic that became Art Deco.
  • Victor Horta
  • Paul Hankar

Art Nouveau and the Erotic

From VandA Article

A fetishistic concentration on the erotic potential of the object is implicit in much Art Nouveau – echoing fin  de siècle obsessions in novels and literature when the erotic briefly came to denote the modern.
Art Nouveau produced erotic sculptural or decorative domestic objects : ink-wells, carafes, centrepieces, candelabra, lamps and figurines – that manipulated the female body to create often playful symbolic narratives. These objects demanded contact – furniture or carafes where the handles are naked women that must be grasped; vessels that metamorphose into women inviting touch; lamps that provocatively pose women in suggestive positions.

Some were mildly erotic, some were much more direct and in some instances pornographic:

  • Rupert Carabin’s chair of 1898 plays with the physical restraint of the body. A bound female is made to support and envelope a presumably male user. It is a vision of erotic subjugation that is powerfully disturbing.
  • Max Blondat’s humorous door knocker designed for a Parisian brothel, is of a nude female figure peering into the interior of the brothel while simultaneously signifying the pleasures to be obtained within.

The scale of the production and dissemination of these kinds of objects denoted a widespread ‘taste for the erotic’, not only among upper-class and aristocratic collectors of the more explicit and expensive objects, but also by the middle classes, concerned to achieve the height of modern decorative style in their homes.

The end of the century also saw the advent of mass advertising. Just as the promise of sex could fill the theatres of Paris, so sex could sell anything from cigarettes and cars to painting and poetry. The erotic content in Art Nouveau advertising ranged from the subtle to the explicit. Designers did not just aim to sell the promise of sexual fulfillment to a male audience, but also, and extremely significantly, they were selling the idea of a sophisticated, decorative and glamorous identity to women – increasingly the dominant consumers. As it was women who often held the domestic purse strings, it was they who came to be associated with shopping.

Traditional gender divides were reinforced through the symbolic use of male and female imagery. Women’s capacities were traditionally perceived as being for pleasure and instinct. Designers often used used the female body to sell products and for entertainment.

Many designers used women to sell products.:
  • Alphonse Mucha created images of woman that epitomised the sophisticated and decorative Art Nouveau woman. His strategy of combining women with products sold a lifestyle dream, just as lifestyle became an issue for a growing metropolitan middle class with a disposable income.
  • Gallen-Kallela’s poster Bil-bol for a car dealer makes the promise of sexual fulfillment explicit: in an adaptation of a traditional Finnish folk story, a naked woman is violently snatched and restrained.
  • Leo Putz’s woman in Moderne Galerie seems to offer sex in a playful and surprisingly modern way. The idiom of Putz’s woman is that of the Bond girl. Putz in fact produced explicit erotic material, as did a number of prominent Art Nouveau graphic artists such as Fritz Erier and Aubrey Beardsley.

Designers used the male body to promote industry and technology – Men’s capacities were perceived as being for action and intellect. The perfect male body emerged in many images of the period, most often when the subject-matter demanded a ‘serious’ approach.The Italian designer Marcello Dudovich’s poster Fisso l’idea employs the muscularity and erotic potential of the male figure to promote ink and pigments. Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Gustav Klimt and Adolf Munzer all created images that used the male body to denote virility and action. These images, although not overtly erotic, sit within and promote the Classical homoerotic ‘cult’ of the male.

Homoeroticism and androgyny

Wilhelm von Gloeden, 'Two Seated Sicilian Youths', about 1900. Museum no. 2815-1952

Wilhelm von Gloeden, ‘Two Seated Sicilian Youths’, about 1900. Museum no. 2815-1952

The fin de siècle not only witnessed the formation of various constructions of female sexuality, but also the crystallisation of attitudes towards male sexuality. Decadence had become increasingly associated with non-conformity, and sexuality was perceived as another area for experimentation. Photography became a particularly rich area for homoerotic depiction in the period. Works by Baron von Gloedon and Fred Holland Day concentrated on representing the nude male body, both adult and child, often in erotic poses. An important element in homoerotic depiction was androgyny. Androgyny provided a vehicle free from restrictive gender codes and often allowing disturbing messages to be conveyed. Many fin de siècle artists used the androgyne to represent the resolution of what Octave Uzanne called the ‘eternal misery of the body fretted by the soul’. The androgyne could be both man and woman, adult or child, and became the ultimate fin de siècle enigmatic erotic symbol, simultaneously denying sex and providing endless erotic possibilities. Sar Piladan, leader of the Symbolist Rose+Croix group, described the androgyne as the ‘nightmare of decadence’, ‘the sex that denies sex, the sex of eternity’.

Art Nouveau style was short-lived, collapsing finally in the years prior to the First World War. The fundamental subversiveness of eroticism, its disregard for conventional morality or social structures, was  seen as a destabilising factor as functionality and technological progression came to signify the new modernity,

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