San Francisco

Mariano Fortuny, Gauguin, Bonnard, Aubrey Beardsley, Karl Koepping, Ludwig Hofmann, Paul Hermann, Jules Cheret, Alphons Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, and more

M. H. De Young Memorial Museum

Two well-paired exhibitions, an extensive feature show entitled The Art Nouveau and a concurrent secondary installation captioned A Remembrance of Mariano Fortuny, initiating the spring season at the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, together highlighted the recent wave of interest in the design styles which dominated art, artisanship, decorative crafts and fashions at the turn of the century. Broadly considered, the style trend expressed in, and inclusive of, the manifestations popularly designated by the term Art Nouveau, was, like the Rococo, the Baroque, and others of the long line of epochal European art styles which preceded it, an international phenomenon, albeit (also like its predecessors) embracing distinguishable national variants.

Yet the designation Art Nouveau is only recently coming to be applied by art historians to the entire style phenomenon in its full geographical and chronological spread: from the English Pre Raphaelites and their influence as expressed—even in America as early as the 1890s—in the limpidly swirling linear motifs of idyllic book and poster illustration idioms, through the Austrian Secessionstil “neo-classicism” with its sweeping, curvilinear “streamlines” within basically rectilinear open-grid frameworks, to the persistence of modified survivals of Art Nouveau (inclusive of the Secessionstil) in the American decorative arts of the 1920s and ’30s. Because of the disruptive effects of World War I on transatlantic cultural communication (especially with respect to Germanic innovations) the Secessionstil was not to influence America until the early 1920s when it formed the basis for a widespread popular modernism, which first appeared in office building architectural ornament, ornamental sculpture and bas relief, and soon proliferated into myriad stereotypic commercial devolutions, ranging in application from cocktail-lounge mural and glass panel decorations (those grape-laden Greek maidens and female charioteers with circular bosoms, symmetrically rectangular drapery pleats and sine-wave tresses, combining—in the eclectic fashion of Secessionstil “historicism”—Hellenic motifs with Egyptianesque two-dimensional geometric severity) to patterns of mass-produced household furniture and cabinetry.

The characteristics of this style ultimately coalesced with overlapping and affinitive influences from the more rigorously streamlined and ostensibly “functional” geometricism of early Bauhaus promulgation which, indeed, the design formulas in architecture and graphics of the Secessionstil had, in many respects, anticipated.

Finally, as observed from lower, sluggish currents in the murky deeps of the cultural lag, this modified Secessionstil survival continued for nearly two decades to correspond to an entrenched popular conception of “poshy modernity”—a fact evidenced by its frequency and prevalence in the set decor of motion pictures dealing fictitiously with cosmopolitan upper-class life from the mid-1920s throughout the Depression years (when cinematic pastiches about upper class life provided the favorite escape world of the unemployed film fan) right up until Pearl Harbor, when all of the themes, styles, and orientations of American life and mass cultural media changed suddenly and drastically.

However, notwithstanding such broad historical vistas as the term may maximally accommodate, the overwhelming tendency in America is still toward a narrower definition, associating Art Nouveau primarily with English and French style manifestations arising in the 1880s and the effect of these upon the work of such American commercial illustrators and craftsmen designers as William Bradley and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the following decade: the Berlin Jugendstil being viewed as but a remote cousin, the Vienna Secessionstil regarded as a tenuously related digression from the Art Nouveau mainstream, while delayed manifestations in the U.S. of the 1920s and later (including obvious Art Nouveau survivals in the decorative sculptures and bas reliefs of Gaston Lachaise and in the popular prints and book illustrations of Maxfield Parrish) are not even considered. Thus the habit persists of relegating Art Nouveau to the fin de siècle in spite of the fact that a perusal of some catalogs illustrating designs available in such things as cabinet radios, ceramic lampstands, bas-reliefed glass shower doors, or fancy metal grillwork, say, for any randomly chosen year between 1928 and 1938, would soon convince one of the vigorous longevity of the style. (Indeed, the clichés of its popular and commercial devolutions had to become vulgarly ubiquitous in their saturation of the urban environment, and at the same time conspicuously irrelevant to the economic and psychological orientations of a new era, before they were generally abandoned.)

The De Young Museum exhibition reflected these delimiting biases. Its graphics section, drawing heavily upon the locally accessible and extensive holdings in Art Nouveau lithography and poster art of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, contained a profusion of fine examples of the best poster work of Jules Cheret, Alphons Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as small format lithographs, etchings and woodcuts by Lautrec, Gauguin, Bonnard and Aubrey Beardsley. By contrast the sparse selection of small format graphics from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Leon Kolb, representing with single, although choice, examples, such minor figures as Karl Koepping, Ludwig Hofmann and Paul Hermann, seemed like an afterthought to the exhibition. Perhaps the most significant inclusion from the Kolb collection was the woodcut version, executed for the Berlin publication Pan, of Henri van de Velde’s design advertising the food concentrate Tropon. This design (schematically abstracting streams of egg-content being poured from half-shells), now better known in its realization as a poster lithograph, has become famous as epitomizing the so-called “whiplash” linear motif typical of the German Jugendstil.

However, although pertaining exclusively to French, English and American Art Nouveau, predominantly of the last two decades of the 19th century, the exhibition’s survey of such crafts as cabinetmaking, bookbinding and printing, jewelsmithing and glasswork was admirable, and at least comprehensive within its limits, and had obviously entailed long fore planning and a painstakingly selective solicitation of significant loans from many and widespread public and private collections. There were examples of Art Nouveau typography by the famous Kelmscott Press as well as an exquisite, luxury format edition of Wilde’s Salome with Beardsley’s illustrations (printed in Boston, Mass., in 1907). A featured portion of the exhibition was a large selection of examples of the glasswork of Louis Comfort Tiffany, including not only examples of some surprisingly contemporary-looking ceramic free forms in Favrille (an opalescent glass perfected by Tiffany under the inspiration of his fascination with the subtle patina adhering to buried Roman glass) but a large selection of the celebrated Tiffany lamps. In a somewhat literal application of the Art Nouveau preoccupation with abstracted plant forms, Tiffany seized upon the trunk-and-boughs and stem-and-flower analogies so readily suggested by the essential form of the table lamp’s stand-and-shade to create a number of interesting and satisfying variations on such botanical themes in bronze lampstands with leaded stained glass shades.

Fantastically beautiful fruitwood frames by Henri Guimard of Paris and foliate “organic” free forms in handcrafted silver jewelry by Lalique of Paris, as well as in a crumber set by Shreve & Co. of San Francisco, amply testified that it was assuredly during the fin de siècle that Art Nouveau was not only at its zenith as an idiom of superlative aristocratic elegance, but achieved its most imaginative fluency of diversified application.

In this era, also, it was, except for its dissemination in posters and other multiple reproduction graphic media, primarily a vehicle for expensive artistic novelty in fine artisanship and custom handcrafting for the rich. It is in fact ironic that a style which in its inception was extensively associated with a revival of handcrafts (often in connection with colonies and guilds embodying both neomedieval and quasi socialistic experiments in economic collectivism) by men who made a bugaboo of the threatened sterile uniformity and standardization of objects produced by machines, was inevitably to become, itself, the first major epochal art style to influence, and be influenced by, self-conscious theories of commercial art as applied both to mass media advertising and to the design and ornamentation of objects mass-produced on an unprecedented scale. Yet this side of the coin is hardly surprising, for while mystics and medievalists, esthetes and esotericists contributed ideas and abilities to the evolving style, its sustaining rationales and overall propaganda functions were rooted in the Industrial Revolution and the optimistic, middle class progressivism of the turn of the century.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871–1949) was a versatile genius whose contributions to stagecraft and scenography in such developments as shadowless lighting techniques and the utilization of optically projected images on a backdrop were significant in their time. He achieved international recognition, however, as a designer of women’s fashions and an inventor of novel fabrics, textile processes and dyes. In his career he was very much a product of the Art Nouveau world outlook of the era of his youthful years and hence, the exhibition, A Remembrance Of Mariano Fortuny, primarily devoted to his distinctive and now historic fashion creations, was appropriately appended to the Art Nouveau exhibition.

Much as Tiffany’s “Favrille” was an emulation of patinaed Roman glass, Fortuny’s ingenious processes for printing designs on fabric were an attempt to recreate the appearance of ancient Greek cloth appropriate to the neo-classical “historicism” of his pleated, Grecian tunic-like designs. Trained as a chemist, Fortuny devoted painstaking labor to the development of special dyes which he applied in various experimental ways to cloth which was handwoven to his own specifications with respect to component fibers, and the like, in order to achieve extraordinary refinements of texture and variation. It is therefore not surprising that his unique creations—often commissioned by Royalty—enjoyed not only enormous prestige in their time, but today command a status as museum treasures of textile artisanship. Fortuny and his elevation of the haute couture to an art form has been honored by at least two specific references in that monument of an epoch, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

Palmer D. French