The Foundry Journal

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Art Nouveau is Punk Rock: The Revolutionary Ramifications of a “Total” Art

Aug 06, 2015 BY Diamond Foundry IN Artisan Craftsmanship,

Art Nouveau was to art what the Ramones were to music, i.e. a total establishment shakedown. In 1976, the Ramones blew apart an overproduced, under-inspired popular music scene with an album that both revived and revised 50s and 60s style rock music. Critics praised the Ramones for their authenticity – for making music alive again. Similarly, Art Nouveau criticized the popular art of its day; the sterile, bombastic, overly academic art of the 19th century, and strove to reimagine natural forms like flowers, plants and curved lines.

Art Nouveau is French for “new art,” and it absolutely was. Art Nouveau modernized everything it touched, from jewelry, furniture and textiles to architecture and even silverware. It was a “total” art style, which means that artists who practiced Art Nouveau sought to create immersive experiences. Those with the means to transform their lives could commission Art Nouveau villas endowed with Art Nouveau furniture, all while sipping tea out of their Art Nouveau teacups and wearing Art Nouveau jewelry.

In Britain, Art Nouveau was pioneered and directed largely by the efforts Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Glaswegian architect, designer, water colorist and artist, whose designs emerged out of modernism, Japonisme, and Scottish industry. Together with his wife, Margaret MacDonald, he built innovative homes, churches and public buildings that utilized technology, while still relying heavily on floral motifs and natural shapes. He worked from the needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals, and rejected commitments to tradition and the past. Mackintosh also embraced the immersive quality of Art Nouveau, and sought to create spaces in which someone like a publisher or an architect could live his life so encircled by art that inspiration would come to him unceasingly. 

While it may seem obvious today, the idea of making high art for decorative purposes was completely revolutionary at the time. Decorative cups, plates and jewelry certainly existed, but they were reduced to the level of artisan craft. Art, on the other hand, was something that existed for the benefit of academic and philosophical discourse rather than aesthetic appeal. Art Nouveau merged these two worlds. Hence, like many late 19th and early 20th century movements, Art Nouveau is partially responsible for the broad definition of art in contemporary times. 

Art Nouveau Jewelry

Although the movement was comparatively short-lived (c. 1890-1910), Art Nouveau had a dramatic and lasting influence on jewelry. Artists drew inspiration from Japanese representations of the natural world, which praised the swirling shapes of orchids, snakes, and butterflies. Simultaneously, Art Nouveau sought to depict the esoteric curves the female form, which it inherited from classical Greeco-Roman traditions.

Art Nouveau also undid many of the fundamentals of jewelry design that had been established in the 17th century. Artisans and jewelers formerly designed pieces around the gemstone, which was considered the foundation of any jewelry. However, since Art Nouveau designers sought to emulate organic patterns, they often emphasized the settings rather than the stone. A more holistic effect was achieved through detailed filigree work that often employed previously unused materials like horn, copper and shell, and which all merged with diamonds, moonstones, opals and pearls.

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