The mere mention of the word ‘Paris’ can conjure a vision of rows of handsome Hausmann stone buildings – some of them sober and classically proportioned, others more florid and exuberant, but all reflecting the aesthetics of the mid-nineteenth century. Being accustomed to this vision, what we generally do not imagine as being classically ‘Parisian’ is the expression of a design movement that emerged several decades later in the 1890s and flowered for a quarter century: Art Nouveau.
La Belle Epoque
While that generally peaceful and prosperous era in France is known as La Belle Époque, it was also a time beset by rampant industrialisation, urbanisation and commercialisation. The uniformity of cheap and nasty mass production was seen to threaten long traditions of individual craftsmanship that used and expressed the qualities of natural materials. Out of this concern, Art Nouveau arose in Belgium and France – influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement – as a wide-ranging aesthetic, encompassing architecture, art, furniture, homewares, jewellery and more. It was essentially a rejection of industrial modernity and took inspiration from the materials and forms of the natural world.
What we envision as being classic inner city Paris was mostly created in a frenzy of carefully planned destruction and reconstruction led by Baron Hausmann from 1853 to 1870. Of course, Art Nouveau did not even exist in that era, so obviously could have no expression. So most of what we see of Art Nouveau in Paris today is essentially grafted onto existing Hausmann structures. The most obvious public manifestations of Art Nouveau – apart from some Metro entrances – are doorways and architectural details.
Doorway to Art Nouveau
A typical example is pictured (top), being the doorway of 29 Avenue Rapp, 7th arrondisement. The base material is timber, being only lightly varnished to express its true colour, texture and grain. The flowing lines of hand carving suggest natural movement, greatly accentuated in the glass panes by the waving of the intertwined fronds and rushes fashioned from finely hand wrought metal. The metal hinges resemble sea creatures, while the door handles suggest salamanders. It’s all about uncontaminated nature and natural movement, far removed from mass industrial production. It was indeed beautiful, but it was not to last very long.
As the Bolshevik revoltionary, Leon Trotsky, acutely observed, ‘War is the locomotive of history.’ As the first massive conflict of the industrial age, the cataclysm of The Great War (1914-1918) smashed through European civilisation in a demonic roar of coal-fired engines, flames, friction and heat. In scale, intensity and breadth, the victims of the war were beyond reckoning. In parts of northern France, where industrialised violence and butchery reigned over four years, in addition to the appalling human cost was the destruction of sublime medieval art, including some of the intricate stained glass windows of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.
The Great War not only devastated the artistic culture of the past, but also of the then-present. In that sense, the Art Nouveau movement in Europe was also a casualty of the war. In the relative peace of the 1890s and the immediate pre-war years, the bucolic whimsy of Art Nouveau with its gently flowing lines could create a convincing world of artisanal contentment existing alongside but separate from the crude industrial world. Trotsky’s locomotive of war demolished such faery-like romantic notions: revolutionary industrialism was triumphant.
During the inter-war era of the 1920s and 1930s, it was a complete repudiation of Art Nouveau that seized the imagination of the world in the shape of Art Deco. In shorthand, we could say that whatever Art Nouveau was, then Art Deco was not: it defiantly turned the aesthetic upside down. In place of flowing organic tendrils were the jagged metalic lines of Deco; where one-of-a kind arts and crafts pieces made from raw and natural materials were favoured by Nouveau, they were superseded by factory-made products produced by new synthetic materials, such as bakelite. Art Deco was urban and urgent: it was of the ‘now.’ Art Nouveau was provincial and naïve: its dreamy day was done.
Well, almost but not yet completely. In the mid-1960s, all those Nouveau-inspired flowing forms made a comeback of sorts with the emergence of Psychedelia. Leaving behind the muted autumnal colours of Nouveau, Psychedelia went beyond the highly saturated and exaggerated colours of the French Fauves (or ‘wild beasts’) and embraced even wilder contemporary ‘DayGlo’ colours. But the influence of Nouveau was unmistakable in the free-flowing line work of pop graphic art, especially as applied to ephemeral posters for pop concerts, modern art exhibitions and (ahem) ‘happenings.’
Back in present-day Paris, there is really no single focal point where you find all the Art Nouveau gems. While the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in the Louvre complex has a fascinating collection of artefacts, the best advice (as always) in Paris is to stay on foot and keep your eyes wide open – and not on your phone. At street level, the joy of Parisian Art Nouveau discovery awaits you.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…