Art Nouveau Was Neither, Vast Exhibition Shows

The exhibition of Art Nouveau, 1890-1914 , organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is said to be the largest and most comprehensive survey of its subject ever attempted. I can well believe it. With more than 350 objects-which range in size from fanciful table ware and bizarre pieces of jewelry to an entire luncheon room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh-it is an exhibition that no sane person could wish to be any larger than it is. Not surprisingly, it is accompanied by one of those blockbuster catalogs that runs to nearly 500 glossy pages.

This catalog will undoubtedly serve as a useful work of reference for many years to come, but it would require some sort of shopping cart to be used as a guide to the exhibition itself. And speaking of shopping- which has now been expanded into a mandatory service in our art museums-the National Gallery has seen fit to open a special Art Nouveau shop as an appendage to the current show. In this emporium you can acquire, among much else, a reproduction of a William Morris tapestry called Tree of Life for $495. Never before has Andy Warhol’s comparison of the art museum and the department store been more vividly illustrated. For more modest budgets, there are Charles Rennie Mackintosh napkin rings at $38 and a Louis Sullivan black velvet scarf for $48.

Decorative overkill, of a kind that makes a fetish of curvilinear ornament, swirling curlicues and a vast inventory of forms that wriggle, wiggle and writhe, is the distinguishing feature of Art Nouveau design, and this mammoth exhibition responds to Art Nouveau’s decorative excesses with a massive application of museum-installation overkill. No opportunity to add further layers of mindless artifice and specious glamour to the already-overwrought preciosities of Art Nouveau design is resisted in the installation of the exhibition, which, well in advance of the approach to its final rooms, leaves one longing for a breath of fresh air or a strong drink, or some other escape from its smarmy, relentless aestheticism.

According to Paul Greenhalgh, the curator of the exhibition, “Art Nouveau began in the ateliers, workshops and galleries of the art world, but quickly moved out beyond these to become a commonplace … on all levels of fin de siècle culture. In the first decade of the new century it was everywhere. It was simultaneously vulgar and elite, loved and hated. It could be found proudly decorating new and noble museum buildings, State monuments and official architecture, as well as giving garrulous form to biscuit tins, bill-posters, menu cards and children’s toys. It inspired moral manifestos dedicated to the future good of society, while providing the imagery of erotic theater and pulp pornography. It was hailed as a visual Esperanto by internationalists, and claimed as their own by Gauls, Slavs, Latins, Celts and Teutons.” America made a significant contribution, too, but the creepiest examples tend to be European.

Art Nouveau was not so much an art movement, then, as it was a cultural fashion-a distinctly bourgeois fashion that was created to satisfy a voracious appetite for conspicuous consumption, erotic fantasy and an entire repertory of bogus mystifications. Its principal places of worship were indeed the department store and the salons of interior decorators, which specialized in turning the hard-core realities of everyday life into the spiritual equivalent of a perpetual masked ball. Everything from consumer goods to nature itself had to be given the look of something ultramundane; everything had to be euphemized into seeming to be something it wasn’t.

It is for all of these reasons that this particular Art Nouveau exhibition has more the look and feel of a visit to an anthropological museum than of a show of works of art. There are, of course, many works of art to be seen amid the clutter of housewares, posters, jewelry, chairs and tables beyond number, but in this exhibition even a painting by Gauguin or Whistler has the look of an alien presence, at best a footnote to all the posters and the preposterous furniture. In the end, we are left with an impression of a prosperous but anxious bourgeois society intent upon deceiving itself about both art and life.

Such projects of fantasy and self-deception are inevitably self-destructive, and the Art Nouveau fashion was no exception. It crashed almost as suddenly as it had emerged. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, its heyday had passed. The Austrian architect Adolf Loos sounded its death knell in 1908 with his polemic, Ornament and Crime , which equated the elimination of ornament with the advance of civilization to higher realms of achievement. That, of course, led to the countervailing excesses of the Bauhaus after the war-but that is another story.

There is, I suppose, a certain appropriateness to be found in the mounting of the mother of all Art Nouveau exhibitions in a period like our own, which is also an era of anxious prosperity, runaway consumption and a long menu of mystifications about art and life. It may be that, in this respect, there is an admonitory message to be discerned in Art Nouveau, 1890-1914 ; but whether or not you care about such things, the show itself, in all its foolish splendor, remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington through Jan. 28.

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