Art Nouveau Revival 1900. 1933. 1966. 1974

Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 20 October to 4 February 2010.

1. Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926)
Mirror for the Casa Milá, 1906-1910
Bevelled glass on wood
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Though Art Nouveau is today a major and undisputed category in art history and is correctly considered one of the great moments of our civilization, we tend to forget at times the scorn and oblivion it endured during the period between the 20’s and 60’s. The outbreak of WWI permanently effaced “la Belle époque”, and despite their essentially innovative character, the creations of Guimard and Gaudi (ill. 1) seemed at a total loss while the Symbolist context which had impregnated the poetic, plastic and social imagination of Art Nouveau gave way to other Avant-Gardes making room for the rectilinear modernism of Art Déco. The speed with which the eruption of the history of forms particularly hurt this international “style”, initially so powerful and rich, is striking. How could something originally seen as almost “futurist”, entailing a modern and utopian vision of society, become an object of infamy to the point of seeming backward and antiquated ? Fortunately, scholarly studies focusing on Art Nouveau in the last thirty years, which have reinstated the movement in the correct artistic and patrimonial context it deserves, have taken over from a less analytical and, to all appearances, more superficial interest which is troubling because it itself is linked to contemporary life and creativity : the history of this revival, a complicated and completely untouched subject, is now being highlighted by Philippe Thiébaut in this exhibition and in the collective catalogue published under his supervision.

Readers will have understood by now that this unconventional exhibition does not exactly fall under art history but rather a kind of history of thinking and taste, of “plastic accomplishments”, of memory : the history of 19th century decorative arts has duly reestablished the honor of the Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance and historicist movements in general so then, why shouldn’t the reinterpretations of 20th century Art Nouveau be considered in serious studies ? True, this is a tempting exercice even for those, such as the author of these lines, who had the good, or bad, luck of living in the 70’s and experienced for themselves apple green, fuchsia pink, faded mauve and frequently, the “bad taste” found on purpose on the psychedelic cover of the catalogue ! The “retro” atmosphere of the hippie era, peace and love and the Beatles, is not the least of the exhibition’s attractions including the message that this period has not aged well in our eyes whereas the Art Nouveau masterpieces remain in fact as fresh as on the first day… Much like the exhibition Picasso et les Maîtres (see article), the juxtaposition does not always work in favor of the most recent pieces : in fact, only absolute masterpieces should be compared to be really fair but, once again, this is not the purpose of the presentation at the Musée d’Orsay.

2. Patrice Habans
Salvador Dalí Emerging From
the Basement of the Subconscious
with a Romantic
Anteater on a Lead,
the Animal that André Breton had Chosen as an Ex-libris
Paris-Match n°1055, 26 July 1969

Photo : Habans / Paris Match / Scoop

The exhibition starts with the “homage to the Surrealists” : in 1933, Salvador Dali and André Breton signed several texts in the journal, Minotaure, invoking “terrifying and comestible beauty” and the “medianimic” character of modern style. Guimard and subway architecture, as well as Gaudi, are among the main sources for these texts. Beautiful photographs of monuments by Brassaï and Man Ray, Guimard fragments, including a reconstitution of the portico for the metro station Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, a large Dali of 1929 and works by Clovis Trouille make up this cabinet room, a starting point for a reevaluation which quickly receives approval by including Art Nouveau architecture in the exhibition organized in 1936 at the MoMA in New York : “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism”. As for Salvador Dali, he would always remain fascinated by Art Nouveau posing in front of metro street exits far into the late 60’s (ill. 2).

3. Günter Beltzig (1941)
« Floris » chair, 1967
Weil am Rhein, Vitra Design Museum
Photo Vitra Design Museum
/Günter Beltzig Playdesign

A long room, at the heart of the show, collates Art Nouveau creations with objects from 1950-1970 to highlight relationships and similarities. The exhibition organizers do not claim to find affiliations nor trace a formal genealogical path between the pieces : they present these forms to visitors who often cannot help but find a direct link. The idea of “organic” structures lies behind this exhibition of furniture (ill. 3), glass, silver resembling a bit a department store display, but we all understand how difficult it is to present these objects. The search for organic rhythms, fluid forms, and new materials is also evoked and, indeed, some objects seem to be strikingly similar : the visitor’s eye becomes increasingly more observant, takes in comparisons freely, without being constantly directed or dictated to. Although the sinuous shapes, curves, a reinterpreted naturalism of sorts, unites these objects from periods separated by over forty years, an extensive number of differences in the content stand out to the eye and to the mind. The furniture masterpieces of the 1900 period reveal the use of precious materials, masterful techniques, accomplished finishes : these objects are extremely luxurious, though we know that lower quality pieces also existed and represented a “style” of a certain time period. One rarely finds this luxury in the productions of the 60’s and 70’s : except for some unique pieces of high end design, they are usually mass produced, the plastic is molded, and the colour is approximate. Even the commission from the Elysée presidential palace to Pierre Paulin, whose photograph is compared to the “snail” salon of Carlo Bugatti, does not fare well here. Despite persistent effort, there is something “cheap” in the 70’s productions, even when they are expensive…Whatever similarities might be found, the universes, the creative methods, the social contexts are fundamentally different.

4. Bonnie MacLean
Poster for
The Yardbirds Concert
, 1967
Paris, Galerie Janos
Photo : Musée d’Orsay
Patrick Schmidt /Wolfgang’s Vault

The juxtaposition of the graphic universes, and the section called “Psychedelic” are much more convincing. Not only are there parallels in the form, but even more importantly, obvious borrowings and an art with references reflecting the very clear look that 70’s designers cast on the “noodle” atmosphere. Although this is no longer, in fact, a culture of luxury and the exceptional, the manner in which graphic artists reclaimed certain materials, at times lower rate, accounts for the success of this new style. Posters (ill. 4), album covers, magazines, advertising, décors for photography and film, publications of every kind confirm these “lines under influence” studied by Philippe Thiébaut in the catalogue. And, yes, we had almost forgotten the association of the neo-Art-Nouveau graphism with Johnny Hallyday or Françoise Hardy. From an almost “copy-paste” quotation to the invention of “in the manner of”, to the psychedelic creation of forms and more original colour associations, it would be hard to deny the surge of this renewal underscored by the use of themes, peacocks, hair, androgyny. A time of freedom but also a certain idea of “decadence”, a term to be used with caution, this age can be glimpsed in a confused manner in the aspirations of a whole generation of youth, in a legacy which was as “extravagant” as the young people, that of the late 19th century. Soon, this becomes a veritable trend which imparts everyday life in the mid-70’s with the colours of this revival both in publishing and cinema or theater, in fashion, hairdressing or wallpaper, while at the same time working in favor of Art Nouveau itself so that collectors, dealers and the general public become progressively aware of its importance. The exhibition Audrey Beardsley at the V&A in London in 1966 was hugely successful and the provocative drawings of this great designer became extremely popular.

5. Claude Lalanne (1924)
Mirror Decorated With Branches From Yves
Saint-Laurent’s apartment
, 1974-1985
Gilt bronze and
London, private collection
Photo : Christie’s Images
Limited 2009 / ADAGP

The exhibition closes with a section evoking “Naturalism” and techniques used in working metals for treating vegetable forms : part of the décor for Yves Saint-Laurent’s music salon executed by Claude Lalanne in 1974 (ill. 5) is compared to the “Coloquintes” girandole (light fixture) by Emile Gallé (ill.6). The décor of the first artist, with a rather sinister effect at the home rue de Babylone, evokes only an artificial ornament devoid of any great creativity whereas Gallé’s work is brimming with structural and decorative inventiveness. The juxtaposition of these objects is not a favorable one for the contemporary sculptor and demonstrates the limits of this exercise. The exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay recalls the very real phenomenon of re-appropriating or “vampirizing” a “style” which was in fact the pre-historical preparation for its real historical discovery. It reflects a period accurately and studies the question in an intelligent manner, all in finely staged surroundings. This does not mean that it will bring new findings to art history, but this is not the purpose of the exhibition. The show will interest visitors of all backgrounds and ages, providing a discovery for generations born after the 70’s who are often “fans” without knowing it. When can we expect an exhibition on the Neo-1970 movement which is currently taking place ?

6. Emile Gallé (1846-1904)
Coloquintes girandole, c. 1902
Wrought iron, glass, engraving
Nancy, musée de l’Ecole de Nancy
Photo : Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy /Claude Philippot

The very attractive catalogue brings together a rich iconography, highly creative, and revealing comparisons put into perspective thanks to the excellent and creative essays by Philippe Thiébaut (who also studies cinema), Stephen Calloway, Irene de Guttry, all art historians, as well as Thierry Taittinger who evokes the period and studies comic books, and Philippe Thieyre on concert posters album covers. Guy Cogeval, the museum’s president, in a postface, reestablishes the subject in the historical context of the Musée d’Orsay’s history thus closing this publication which is sure to meet with a huge success.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH153/Couverture_Revival-475b6.jpgCollective work, under the supervision of Philippe Thiébaut, Art Nouveau Revival 1900. 1933. 1966. 1974, Paris, Musée d’Orsay/Snoeck, Paris, 2009, Cloth binding, 276 pages, index, 48 -2-35433-040-8

Visitor information : Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 62, rue de Lille, 75343 Paris Cedex 07. Phone : + 33 (0)1 40 49 48 14. Open daily except Monday from 9.30 to 18.00 ; thursday from 9.30 to 21.45. Rates : 7,50 € (full), 5,50 € (reducted).

Version française

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, dimanche 22 novembre 2009

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : J. W. Waterhouse 1849-1917. The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

Next article in Exhibitions : James Ensor