History has a curious way of having similar events take place at the same time in different places. The creation of the Art Nouveau movement is one such event. Simultaneously emerging from the Pre-Raphaelite, High Victorian, and Arts and Crafts movements in England, it was also a synthesis of the Jugenstil (Youth style) movement in Germany; the Skonvirke movement in Denmark; the Mloda Polska (Young Poland) movement in Poland; Secessionism in Vienna, exemplified by the paintings of Gustav Klimt; and Modernism in Spain, centered around Gaudi’s outlandish architectural achievements in Barcelona. Its fluid, undulating, organic forms drawn from the natural world (picture seaweed, grasses, flowers, birds, and insects) also drew inspiration from Symbolism, Japanese woodcuts, and assorted other sources.
One of its founding centers was Nancy, which at the time was drawing the wealthy French bourgeoisie of Alsace, recently invaded by Germany, who refused to become German. Proud of their opulence, they had sublime houses built that were entirely furnished—from simple vases and wrought-iron beds to bathtubs in the shape of lily pads—in the pure Art Nouveau style.
Emile Gallé (1846–1904), the driving force behind Nancy’s Art Nouveau movement, called on his fellow artists to follow examples in nature (as opposed to the Greek or Roman models then in favor) and aim for innovation. Working primarily in glass and inventing new, patented techniques, Gallé brought luxury craftsmanship to a whole range of everyday products, thus reestablishing the link between the ordinary and the exceptional. This was a major advance on the bourgeois bad taste for mass-produced pieces of dubious quality that imitated styles of the past.
Everywhere stylized flowers suddenly became the preferred motif. The tree and its leaves, and plants with their flowers, were modified, folded, and curled to the artist's demand. Among the main Art Nouveau emblems figure the lily, the iris, morning glory, bracken fern, poppies, peacocks, birds that feed on flowers, ivy, dragonflies, butterflies, and anything that evokes the immense poetry of the seasons. It reveals a world that is as fragile as it is precious.
By giving an artistic quality to manufactured objects, Gallé and the other creators of the École de Nancy accomplished a dream that had been growing since the romantic generation of Victorian England of making an alliance between art and industry. As a meeting point for the hopes and interests of artists, intellectuals, industrials, and merchants, the École de Nancy was a thoroughly global phenomenon. From Chicago to Turin, Munich to Brussels, and on to London, the industries of Nancy went on to conquer the world.
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