“Art Nouveau, 1890-1914”

At the National Gallery of Art

to Jan. 28, 2001

Three naughty sirens beckon visitors toward the opening rooms of the National Gallery of Art’s latest blockbuster, “Art Nouveau, 1890-1914,” a survey of the style that, for 20-some years around the turn of the 20th century, was the rage of the moneyed set—kind of like Prada these days, but on the opposite end of the restraint spectrum. These winged ladies, plump of belly and breast, skirt propriety with a wink and nudge: Duck behind them and you’ll see one whose wings part, exposing her plump behind.

OK, they’re hardly Caligula extras. But the limber trio of bronze statues by René Lalique signal Nouveau’s sexy brand of rebellion. The threesome also happen to make a handy Cliffs Notes for the many, many styles that collided during this short-lived movement: There’s the contrapposto turn of the hips straight off Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, some florid gesticulation suggesting Romantic Sturm und Drang, Pre-Raphaelite-style wings finishing in spiny Gothic points, and a few leafy tendrils to taste. All that and gratuitous nudity.

Basically, Nouveau robbed just about every age, place, and style—all of the above plus rococo, Symbolism, and Japanese, Chinese, Celtic, and Islamic art. What art dealer and Parisian bon vivant Siegfried Bing called “Art Nouveau” at his Rue de Provence gallery, which opened in 1895, you and I might call “recycling.”

Why so retro? Rebellion, really. By the 1880s, French impressionism had stagnated: Water lilies, cathedrals, and train stations were all rendered in the same brushy way. Over in Vienna, old-guard tastemakers controlling the city’s main arts organization, the Künstlerhaus, were more interested in marketing their own works than showcasing new talent. There, it seems, midcentury bourgeois hegemony had created unquenchable appetites for moralistic canvases. (Yawn.)

By century’s end, a new group had assembled to give their predecessors hell. Take Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, who was so bored by academic art that he made a fuss of breaking with it, resigning from the Künstlerhaus and founding the Vienna Secession in 1897. He and his cohorts even erected a new exhibition space, a metal-capped stunner by Josef Maria Olbrich, much to their elders’ chagrin. To further incense the old school, the Secessionists declared all arts to be equally important, making bureaus and cabinets as well as paintings.

Of course, there’s no better way to thumb your nose at your elders than to twist their stuffy conventions. So Nouveau practitioners took to inverting the neoclassical forms so popular with the bourgeoisie. (How very, very postmodern.) Witness Viennese craftsman and Wiener Werkstätte icon Josef Hoffmann’s three-panel screen of 1899 to 1900: Lyres straight off a red-figure amphora sit atop each panel—isolated and utterly decorative. For a populace accustomed to lyres in the hands of some kouros or other, Hoffmann’s gesture spelled scandal.

But riffing on neoclassicism wasn’t enough. Nouveau designers spiced up their work with the flat planes of Japonism and the curlicues of rococo. In Vienna, Paris, Brussels, and points between, the nouveau riches who’d profited from manufacturing were up for a new style that spoke for the new guard. That meant ostentation. (Sort of like the 1980s.)

The movement spread like wildfire. Consider Hoffmann’s medium: His inverted neoclassicism was plastered on a domestic object. Nouveau was a revolution because its artists created objects that were functional as well as decorative. Take those bronze Lalique lookers beckoning us into this exhibition: They’re jewelry holders, designed to cosset Madame’s sapphire-encrusted orchid brooch between outings to the opera. Nouveau practitioners married their design to anything that would take it, from pendants to dinner tables to paintings to advertising type.

British tastemaker William Morris had started a vogue for the total environment decades before. With anxieties about the Industrial Revolution driving him, the socialist designer set out to prove that handcraft trumps machine technology—and to right a few social wrongs along the way.

A little unease drove this craftsman a long way: Morris made everything from wallpaper to furniture to tapestries. His 1878 peacock-and-dragon curtain on view here, full of ornate organic curves, rendered the whole decoration-or-art question pretty much moot. Ironically, he and his Arts and Crafts followers disdained the same flock of money-grubbing industrialists that fueled Nouveau’s fire. Nouveau lifted Morris’ style, as well as his Gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic, but adapted his polemic for more laissez-faire times. The Secessionists and the Nouveau colleagues weren’t railing against money so much as against bad taste.

How come this brand of rebellion sounds so familiar? Because defeating your father is Everymensch’s Oedipal struggle. And indeed, these young turks adopted Freud—whose The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900—as their poster boy. While he advocated the breaking of traditional views of the psyche, painters and artisans broke from the constraints of the academy.

So sex and excess are everywhere in this show. Its most enveloping environment, Agostino Lauro’s double parlor from a 1902 villa in Sordevolo, Italy, celebrates overindulgence. This carved mahogany and silk moire extravaganza is all honeycomblike nooks and crannies. With lamps practically growing out of the walls, and carved wood arching this way and that, it’s a magnificent space for an assignation. And a damn fine bird flipped at straitlaced fogies.

In worst-case scenarios—there are a handful on view here—all that excess goes flaccid, such as when it’s tumbled onto Henrik Bull and David Andersen’s circa-1900 Dragonship jardinière. The idea of a Viking barge for your petunias seems ludicrous, and the execution is even goofier: Extravagant curves make the prow, a mean-visaged dragon-head, look like a yippy little puppy—chevron-shaped ends make its pointy ears flop; its arched fangs suggest the curves of a smile. Likewise, a hyperflorid walnut chimney piece by the Vittorio Valabrega Co. could have benefited from some editing: The wood, smooth as skin, is gorgeous—but it would take a daily hosing down to ensure that all the flowers carved into this fireplace surround got watered.

With this piece, Valabrega’s craftspeople appear to have lost their focus—as does the first portion of this bilevel show. The bottom half, devoted to juxtapositions of full-flower Nouveau objets and their precursors, gets murky with a few too many objets to process. But there is nonetheless exquisite stuff to catch the eye. Louis Majorelle and Daum Frères’ Orchidée desk, smack dab in the middle of the exhibit’s Cult of Nature room, belongs under its spotlight: It’s gorgeous, with mahogany legs, half-animal joints, and glass orchid-flower lamps overseeing the writing area.

Beyond the occasional bright spots downstairs, it’s what’s upstairs that counts—or that’s most cogent, at least. There, furniture, paintings, and lithographs from eight European and American cities where Nouveau took hold follow a geographic unfolding of the trend. Naturally, folks operating concurrently proffered entirely different versions of Nouveau depending on what country they lived in. But subversion of the old guard—whether by inverting classical order or eschewing it in the name of pure excess—underlies everything from an angular Viennese chest to a slinky bodice ornament by Czech designer Alphonse Mucha.

The French did it curvy, as in Hector Guimard’s Paris subway entryway, here on view complete with full balustrade and arched floral canopy. Guimard peppered Paris with these beacons for the shuttling masses during the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Their twisted, free-form shapes—somewhere between insect and flower—made a splash against the city’s Haussmanian backdrop of endless, ordered sameness. They still have a kind of sinister authority, with their insectoid red lights beaming. Here, too, are Guimard’s window grille from the chic Castel Henriette and a cast-iron cross engulfed in marble tendrils, as if cake icing had been applied to its metal armature. Through Guimard, nature is brought onstage coiffed and ready for her close-up.

By the time we reach Scotland, something more rational is brewing. At the same time Guimard was making his luscious iron curves, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was producing rectilinear high-backed chairs for Glasgow tearooms. The hyperextended vertical lines in the chair backs recall the ordered form of the classical column. Like the skyscrapers that were going up around the same time in Chicago and New York, harmonious classical design was taking on unheard-of forms. No Second Empire settees, these.

In Vienna, Hoffmann was doing something similar. If Mackintosh’s high-backed chairs mimic skyscrapers, Hoffmann’s tableware—witness his silver Skyscraper basket—is an homage to them. His forks, knives, and spoons prefigured the high modernism that arose from the same Germanic roots. We can already see the clean lines of Mies Van der Rohe emerging from this superefficient cutlery.

How to explain the discrepancy between Guimard’s flowing forms and Hoffmann’s angular ones? You might as well blame the weather: The colder and wetter the clime, the more buttoned-up and angular the bureau, armchair, or fork. But even the most rectilinear of high-backed chairs Mackintosh pushed into Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tearoom signaled the urge to create some new world order. CP