The house in which I grew up was full of Art Nouveau paraphernalia - furniture, vases, ornaments – although it was never referred to as “art”. The only item that could be dated with some degree of certainty was a wardrobe made by my great-grandfather (or was it great-great?) as a wedding gift to my grandfather. It was known as “the big wardrobe” and we were send to search its “left bottom drawer” whenever something that was rarely used couldn’t be found. I would linger and trace my finger over the intricate floral design on the doors, carved in the wood by my ancestor.

Origins of the “new”

Every generation is (or believes it is) superior to the previous one, and each new century is undoubtedly better than the one that comes to an end. Every art movement regards the style of its predecessors as something to rebel against, whether or not they acknowledges its legacy.

In a sense, all Art is Nouveau. But the style that we continue to call “new” more than a hundred years on, brought in a century of extraordinary modern art and a new set of values that engaged much larger audiences. For a start, Art Nouveau was an international, or at least European movement. Until then, modern art (Impressionism, post impressionism, symbolism) was mainly modern French Art. Paris was the place where change was happening, where artists congregated and discussed and decided what were the salient aspects of another emerging art movement. But as a new century dawned, Paris was no longer the only centre for this innovative artistic change. It can be argued that the Art Nouveau phenomenon spread outwards from Brussels, where Victor Horta designed some remarkable works of modern architecture. Or possibly it all started in Vienna, with the Haus de Secession, where a group of artists led by Gustav Klimt resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists in order to be free to explore the possibilities of art outside the constraints of academic and traditionalist style.

In Italy the Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) flourished, (pun intended), while in Munich Jugendstil evolved from the pre-1900 phase dominated by floral motifs to a 20th century stage which heralded abstract art. And many would associate Art Nouveau with the angelic and elegant femme nouvelle in the work of Check artist Alphonse Mucha. We can look further afield for the origins of the style - in Japanese art, which began to make itself known in Europe after 1860. Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas had already shown their interest in the exoticism of Japan in their paintings of Japanese women in traditional costumes. Beyond the woodblock prints and the minimalism of Japonism, there was the inspiration provided by nature, the botanical detail, the never-ending curve of a wave, the thirty six views of a mountain.

What is Art for?

Art nouveau is characterised by extravagant floral decoration, by using organic, ornamental shapes and patterns. Artists were breaking away from the conservative, academic style and chose nature as their main source of inspiration. The sinuous, flowing lines symbolise their freedom, the release from tradition with its academic criteria and expectations.

But is art for art’s sake an end in its own right? Or does it have a meaning and a role in the modern society? More controversially, does art have to be useful around the house – to sit on, to carry water, to divide a room – as well as being beautiful? Fine art – painting, drawing, sculpture – apparently has no other function than to be looked at and be admired. Architecture and decorative arts are mostly utilitarian; for this reason they were, for a long time, considered a poor relative, if not totally unrelated to Art in the traditional sense of the word. Art Nouveau successfully embraced furniture design, fashion, architecture, as well as painting and sculpture, leading towards 20th century modernism and a new status for these expressions. We started talking about design within a different cultural narrative.

The painter and his work

From Brussels to Barcelona, from Prague to Paris (via Glasgow and Vienna) there are structures and objects that delight in their variety, yet clearly belong to the same family.

The Beethoven exhibition staged in the Haus der Secession in Vienna in 1902 was reported as news. One of the most striking exhibits, the paintings by Gustav Klimt, were arranged as a frieze inside the building, placed high up so that visitors had to crane their neck and look up as towards the heavens. The theme of the frieze is not entirely novel: the conflict between the will for happiness and the evils that try to prevent it – disease, excess, impurity, death. Good triumphs and the frieze culminates in pure joy in art and beauty represented by “a kiss for the whole world”.

Klimt’s Golden Phase describes both critical success as an artist and, more literally, the lavish use of gold leaf and silver in his paintings. The controversial portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer and his famous Kiss, are an explosion of sunlight and intricate mosaic-like decoration. Another portrait of the same period, Hermine Gallia, is interesting because of the fact that the model is wearing an elaborate white dress designed by the artist himself. A painter could be a fashion designer and an elegant dress is a work of art.

Klimt’s celebration of art as transcendent, the power of good over evil, is not unlike many religious paintings that precede it. But there is novelty in the decorative extravagance of Klimt’s work, as well as in its capacity – and desire – to shock. Sexual explicitness shocked the Viennese public, as did the fusion of the sensual, the artistic and the religious in the final section of the Beethoven Frieze. With his harmonious sense of beauty and use of allegory, Klimt is a 19th century symbolist painter who paved the way for his successors – Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele – and the first real 20th century artistic movement: the Expressionism.

Mass produced beauty

The most recognisable examples of the style are not in museums, nor in historic homes of the rich – but in the streets of Paris, at the bouche du Metro. The iconic gates designed by architect Hector Guimard are quintessentially Art Nouveau; resembling a dragonfly about to take off, the gates are constructed out of prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, the verdigris tentacles made to look like bronze affected by patina, the symmetrical lights blinking from under leafy hoods, the sinuous lines and patterns inspired by nature. The typeface advertising the Metropolitain also advertises Art Nouveau itself: a font of thick and thin curves, as if written by hand with a quill, a blend of design and functionality.

The same graceful organic forms were to be found in the vases, lamps, chairs and writing desks that adorned the European salons. The transformation from organic symbolic to geometric abstract was an imperceptible process. Straight lines and symmetry are also to be found in nature, and aesthetically embraced by artists and consumers alike. One of the reasons the new style succeeded might be the increase in technological expertise, which enabled production for a mass society. Was Art Nouveau, with its ornamental shapes and patterns a reaction to the Industrial Revolution? Or is it the expression of a natural desire to surround ourselves with objects that are necessary to day to day life, but are also unique crafted creations? After all, this is the reason humans invented art.