Leslie Jordan Clary
Art Nouveau was a short-lived art movement from the 1880s to World War I that has had a big influence on the world of jewelry design. With its wild flourishes and free form sensual lines, known as the “whiplash line,” Art Nouveau provided a flamboyant contrast to the staid conventions of Edwardian jewelry that was also popular at the time.
The term Art Nouveau (new art) comes from the French, and France is generally considered the heart of the movement, the place where the art form culminated in both vision and technique. But Art Nouveau was a global movement. Known also as the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, Jugendstil in Germany, the American Arts and Crafts movement as well as other terms, each country made its unique contribution to the style. All sought to celebrate freedom and to express the organic spontaneity of nature through art.
In an age when the world was hurtling toward modernity, Art Nouveau rose up as a protest against mass production and the decline of individual craftsmanship. For inspiration, its artists looked to nature and the imagination. Designs that were surreal and disturbing were juxtaposed with gentle, floral motifs.
New lines of communication brought new ideas and artistic techniques to the attention of European artists. Japanese art, in particular, with its simple lines representing wind and water, as well as its subtle use of color, was a major influence in the development of Art Nouveau.
The impetus for the movement
During the 19th century Great Britain was the focal point of modernization. The Industrial Revolution began here, and England’s role as a colonizing empire opened the public’s mind to new ideas and art forms.
Not everyone was happy with industrialization, however, and many critics, particularly among artists and writers, spoke out against mass production, which they believed lessened the intrinsic value of an object. An artistic movement called the Arts and Crafts movement was born that called for a return to traditional methods and individual craftsmanship. The movement was spiritual in origin. It rejected the cold, mechanical influence of industrialization and yearned to reconnect with nature. Yet, industrialization also created the conditions for new cultures and ideas to emerge. It was dichotomy that found expression in the emerging new art forms.
The Arts and Crafts movement sought to reestablish the Medieval tradition of guilds and schools where artisans were taught how to craft an object from conception to finished product. The past was idealized as a time of lost innocence and ancient patterns of Gothic and Celtic art were rekindled, along with an appreciation of the history they represented.
Two of the most influential designers from Britain’s Arts and Crafts period are Charles R. Ashbee and William Morris. Ashbee became well known for his vibrant peacock designs. The bodies were fashioned from abalone or turquoise-colored enamel with flamboyantly bejeweled tail feathers. He also used floral motifs with sinuous, fluid lines that heralded the early patterns that would come to define Art Nouveau.
William Morris, although best known as a poet, is considered one of Great Britain’s great cultural icons. He was a major force in many avant-garde artistic circles and had a major influence on Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Although significant artists and artwork emerged from the Arts and Crafts movement, Great Britain was not quite ready to embrace the free form sensuality of the designs, and the movement there was relatively short lived.
On the European continent
Whereas Great Britain was prim in their interpretation of the new ideas put forth by the Arts and Crafts movement, France picked up the thread and ran with it without inhibition. From France emerged Art Nouveau, as we know it today. Like Great Britain, France also embellished upon Gothic and Celtic designs, but now these flowing lines and patterns moved into the realm of the surreal. Like a nightmare on Sesame Street, in the hands of the French, Art Nouveau took on a deeper, psychological edge with nightmarish images. Woman as muse continued to be a recurrent theme, but these representations no longer idealized women in the manner of Victorian or Edwardian art, capturing them in cameos or in stiff portraits. Half woman and half insect creatures emerged from lotus blossoms. Medusa heads peeked out from bunches of leaves. Tree trunks took the forms of sinuous nudes.
Japanese art with its delicate lines and subdued colors continued to have an impact and was absorbed into the French expression, but often with a twist. Some of these bizarre images may have been spurred on by drug use among the avant-garde Parisian café society who experimented with both drugs and ideas as a way of breaking through strictures and confinements. Natural beauty continued to be celebrated, but along with the flowers, the French gave the worms equal attention.
Several prominent jewelry designers came from this period. One of the most influential and innovative is René Lalique, who is credited with being the first Art Nouveau artist to use the female nude in his work. Lalique’s dramatic pieces are unequaled in their vision and surrealism. These sensual renditions were often portrayed as part insect, part fish, with strong sexual undertones. His pieces are experimental and he often incorporated glass into the enameling techniques. In gemstones he favored opals and moonstones and liked to play with the interplay of light and sparkle in his creations.
Lalique reached his pinnacle at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, but he became disillusioned with replicas of his work and moved away from Art Nouveau jewelry. Dozens of other designers, however, left their mark, as the movement transformed the way Europe looked at art.
Known as Jugendstil in Germany, the early Art Nouveau work from this period is often indistinguishable from that which came from France. One representative artist, who also exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, is Wilhelm Lucas von Discuss Cranach. Like his French counterpoints, the Gothic influenced Cranach’s work. Blending beauty with terror, Cranach’s fantasy creatures came in the mutated forms of bugs and fish. His most famous brooch is an octopus with butterfly wings that is made from enameled gold, baroque pearls, diamonds, rubies, amethyst and topaz.
Jugendstil found inspiration in the British Arts and Crafts movement, but it evolved into a unique style of its own, and the later period distinguished itself with new emerging designs. Gentle floral motifs morphed into abstractions and then geometric shapes serving as a prelude to the Art Deco movement that would eventually pass up Art Nouveau.
Across the Atlantic
On the other side of the ocean, in the United States, a unique style that was strongly rooted in the Art Nouveau tradition yet with a distinctive flair was coming into its own. Two primary forces are behind the innovative jewelry of this era: Louis Comfort Tiffany and the Chicago Arts and Crafts movement.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was born into the well-established jewelry company his father had founded. Unlike his father, however, Louis was drawn to art more than to business. Louis traveled widely and brought new ideas from abroad to the Tiffany workshop. Inspired by Arts and Crafts movement in England, particularly their use of enamels and metals, Louis also incorporated Oriental and Byzantine motifs into creations that have been described as a blend of the English Arts and Crafts school and the motifs of Art Nouveau.
Tiffany’s first gemologist, George Frederick Kunz, also had a profound effect on American jewelry design in the early 20th century. Like Louis, Kunz also traveled the world, but his search was for the world’s most exquisite gemstones to add to the Tiffany collection. At the time, most fine jewelers had little appreciation for unusual colored gemstones, preferring the standard diamonds, rubies and emeralds instead. Kunz, however, recognized their potential and began collecting the world’s most unusual gemstones, which began to create a buzz in artistic circles. In a 1927 Saturday Evening Post article, Kunz recalls a conversation with writer Oscar Wilde in which Wilde is quoted as saying, “My dear fellow, I see a renaissance of art, a new vogue to jewelry in this idea of yours. Bah! Who cares for the conservatives? Give them their costly jewels and conventional settings. Let me have these broken lights — these harmonies and dissonances of color.” (Kunz, 1927).
Kunz was equally passionate about American gemstones. Matrix turquoise, peridot from Arizona’s Apache nation, scintillating tourmaline from southern California, Montana sapphire and other American gems, formerly overlooked, found themselves suddenly coveted with a new value.
Using gemstones that Kunz had chosen, Louis set to work combining these stones in new and unusual patterns, ones that were more concerned about color and effect than intrinsic value. With graceful, coiling gold scrolls and unusual stones, he also incorporated glass into his pieces. The result was an art jewelry that became known as Tiffany Studio jewelry
Just as France was the global hub for Art Nouveau, Chicago served as the focal point for the American version. Founded in 1897, the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society adhered to an aesthetic of simplicity of design and use of natural materials. A number of innovative metalsmiths emerged from the Chicago Arts and Crafts movement. They drew inspiration from Native Americans, the American colonial period and nature. Their work reflected both the idealism of nature found in the British Arts and Crafts movement and the sensuality of the French Art Nouveau.
During this period several prominent women jewelers emerged in what had previously been a male dominated vocation. If you’re going to be in Chicago during the next year, the Driehaus Museum will be exhibiting Maker and Muse: Women and Early 20th Century Art Jewelry, which will feature the work of several of these early jewelers from the Chicago movement as well as some exquisite period pieces. The show opens Feb. 14, 2015 and continues until January 2016.
Each country that embraced Art Nouveau expressed it in a slightly different way, yet there were significant unifying connectors. The whiplash line is distinctly an Art Nouveau line expressing movement and passion. This line shows up in virtually all pieces. The lithe female nude also achieved prominence during this period, portrayed in ways that were both innocent and sensual. Mythological beasts, winged demons and other fantasy creatures were also adapted. Color and gemstones were also brought together in new and innovative ways.
Art Nouveau was a hopeful movement, celebrating freedom of expression and a sensual response to the natural world. The intentions were optimistic: to renew an interest in art and develop a new art form. Perhaps World War I damped some of the hopefulness of Art Nouveau. Or maybe it was the rise of cubism and modernism, but the Art Nouveau movement died out quickly and Art Deco with its sharp angles and geometric shapes became the next rage.
However, today it is one of the most sought after periods at major auction houses and throughout the past 100 years Art Nouveau has enjoyed limited revivals.