The term Art Nouveau has a good ring to it. Art Nouveau is considered hip, nostalgic, creative and colourful.
There is only one problem: it does not exist!
Well, at least not in the sense of a clearly defined “style” with a definable set of forms, such as Gothic or Baroque.
Art Nouveau – it can be cool, straightforward minimalism as exemplified by the “Secession Style” in Vienna.
Art Nouveau – it can also be curved lines and floral elements, as in the French “Art Nouveau” in Paris or in Nancy.
Art Nouveau expresses itself differently in every country, in every city, with every artist. In western and southern Europe, curved, fanciful or even overstated forms were popular; in eastern and northern Europe, it was often more abstract, austere and geometric.
There is thus a world of difference between the designs created by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Victor Horta in Brussels or Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow:
The totally modern notion: “Everyone is their own artist!”
The artists – and female artists – of Art Nouveau wanted to overcome the endless copying of other styles (the “Historicism”) of the 19th century, that is, retro styles, such as Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque, etc. (By the way, if you want to know exactly what these historical styles were like, you just need to look at a 10-, 20-, 50- or 100-euro banknote!)
The visionaries of Art Nouveau wanted to transport art and beauty into life, into homes, into everyday life. Their ideal: a fully-styled, “synthesized artwork” („Gesamtkunstwerk”) – from sofa cushions to urban planning, as it was later described. For this reason, painting did not play a very significant role in Art Nouveau – with the exception of the work of two famous artists: Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch.
When the new Art Nouveau movement held what we might call the “first Germany-wide show” at the German Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1899, four “birthplaces” of German Art Nouveau became apparent: Munich, Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dresden.
The magazine Jugend, which later
gave its name to the new style, was published in Munich beginning in 1896. With colourful cover pictures, impudent texts and caricatures, discreet eroticism and a modern layout, it had a bombshell effect.
In his role as mentor, the visionary Hermann Obrist, who was Swiss, motivated a loose
group of very different types of artists: the "crazy" August Endell, who had actually
studied philosophy; Bernhard Pankok, who
gave his furniture the curliest shapes; Bruno Paul, who in the long run preferred the classically severe style; and Richard Riemerschmid, the most balanced of them all.
Characteristic features of Munich's Art Nouveau architecture, which was largely influenced by Martin Dülfer, are grid-like ornamentation and stencil painting.
The city on the River Elbe was the first to show international Art Nouveau in Germany. The interiors designed by the Belgian Henry van de Velde caused a sensation at an exhibition in 1897.
Some major works of Dresden Art Nouveau architecture were destroyed in the war. Their main representative was Julius Graebner from the architecture firm Schilling & Graebner.
A pioneer of the increasingly industrial (“Maschinenmöbel”) and no longer handcrafted production of beautifully shaped furniture – a
kind of forerunner of IKEA – was the furniture factory “Dresdner Werkstätten für Handwerkskunst”,
known today as the “Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau”, which were founded by Karl Schmidt in 1898 and around whose new production facilities outside the gates of the city, the first German garden city – besides the one in Karlsruhe – developed from 1908 onwards.
The “swan carpet” was made in a hand weaving mill in Scherrebek (which has been Danish since 1920), a social economy project.
The design, which draws on Japanese models, was created by Otto Eckmann, then a teacher at the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts. He also developed the most widely used Art Nouveau typeface.
Henry van de Velde, one of the most important representatives of Belgian Art Nouveau, went to Berlin in 1900, where he became known for his shop interiors.
In 1902 he moved to Weimar, where he founded the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts), the nucleus of the later Bauhaus movement.
However, Art Nouveau is rare in the cityscape of the German capital, perhaps because Kaiser Wilhelm II did not like it. Famous exception: the ceramic façades of the Hackesche Höfe.
The renowned Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School) laid the foundations. Max Laeuger, who founded modern German ceramics with his earthenware with floral slip painting, was one of the teachers there and at the Technical University.
Among the most progressive German Art Nouveau architects were the Karlsruhe
architects Hermann Billing (the Baischstrasse development, among others) and Karl Moser (Villa Junker, Ludwig-Marum-Strasse 10,
Emmy Schoch was one of the avant-garde of German fashion design. At the age of just 24,
she founded her studio, which had around 50 employees by 1911.
Through her lectures and a magazine that was published in Karlsruhe, she promoted the advantages of the comfortable, corset-free "reform dress".
The ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (synthesized artwork) was most fully implemented in Germany by the “Mathildenhöhe” Artists' Colony in Darmstadt, which was founded in 1899. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse financed it, as an art-loving patron, but also wished to strengthen the cultural and creative industries in Hesse. The exhibition "A Document of German Art" in the summer of 1901 showed nothing less than a comprehensively designed settlement with a large, communal studio building and eight fully furnished model houses, some of them owned by participating artists.
Further exhibitions followed in 1904, 1908 and 1914, at which houses and interior furnishings for lower-income groups were also presented.
Joseph Maria Olbrich from Vienna (“Secession Building”) was engaged as the artistic mastermind. His Darmstadt villas strike a balance between cubic and playful forms.
Peter Behrens' house is quite different, with its powerful lines traced in clinker. Behrens became chief designer of the company AEG in Berlin in 1907.
In Strasbourg, which at the time belonged to the German Empire as part of Alsace-Lorraine, the opulent French Art Nouveau style was predominant.
Art-loving patrons and factory owners in smaller cities such as Chemnitz, Weimar or Hagen commissioned Henry van de Velde to build their villas.
The theatre in Cottbus designed by Bernhard Sehring echoes the forms of the Viennese Art Nouveau style.