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INTRODUCTION

    The furniture and decorative and applied arts of the Art Nouveau period first came to the attention of collectors in the 1960s and 70s, largely because increased worldwide demand for antiques had drained the market of most collectable earlier pieces. However, the Art Nouveau style has since developed a dedicated following and is today one of the most popular collecting areas, combining at its best quality, originality and affordability. "Art Nouveau" refers to a style that permeated the decorative and functional aspects of certain areas of design around the turn of the century. The term is traditionally held to be derived from the name given to the Parisian gallery Maison de l'art Nouveau by its owner, the entrepreneur and Orientalist dealer, Siegfried Bing. Bing's gallery attracted the works of both French and international exponents of the "new art" including Lauis Comfort Tiffany, Max Läuger, Henri van de Velde, Georges de Feure, Eugéne Gaillard and Edward Colonna. These, and other craftsmen and designers of the so-called "Paris School", exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, in the Pavillon Art Nouveau Bing, where they were greeted with much acclaim. Similar works from the "Nancy School" of designers, such as Louis Majorelle, Eugène Vallin and Emile Gallé, were exhibited in the Palais des Arts Decoratifs and met with equal enthusiasm.
    Although the Art Nouveau style was popularized throughout Europe and the United States, its origins can be traced to Britain. The French regularly referred to it as le style Anglais and the Italians recognized it as lo stile Liberty. However, the latter reference would no doubt have surprised Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who in a public address spoke of "that strange and curious style our Continental friends refer to as Art Nouveau".
    The seeds of the style were sown in the early 1870s, when world trade with Japan resumed after almost 200 years of self-isolation. The Japanese observation of nature and their subtle application and integration of decoration and form caught the imagination of mid-Victorian artists and the public. The arrival of Japanese art and artefacts in Britain, Europe and the United States prompted a craze for the Japonais style, a vogue which eventually manifested itself as the Aesthetic Movement. This informal artistic movement of the late 1870s advocated beauty in all furnishings and wares, however trivial. European Art Nouveau emulated and adapted the naturalistic elements of the Oriental style, often incorporating them into organic forms.
    The furniture produced by the French designers of both the Paris and Nancy schools escaped from the tradition of the 19thC cabinet makers, and their plasticity of form makes them primarily objects of sculpture. By the same token, the art of the sculptor and the jeweler was taken to new heights by René Lalique, whose creations often defy explanation of technique. He incorporated well-observed naturalistic themes into his work with emphasis on the combination of non-precious and precious materials to achieve the desired effect. Similarly, the glassmakers' art entered new realms under the guidance of the great Emile Gallé, whose studio pieces qualify as perhaps the finest glass sculptures ever executed. In all media, an element of fantasy often prevails, especially with the use of female forms, usually with erotic or ethereal undertones.
    The invention of the light bulb by the American, Thomas Edison, proved most fortuitous for his fellow countryman, Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose colourful leaded glass lamp-shades have become synonymous with Art Nouveau and reproductions of which tend to grace modern bistros and wine bars throughout Europe and the United States.

 

Collecting Art Nouveau

    Profit should always be a secondary consideration for a collector. As long as you buy what you like, the only purchase you can ever regret is the one you didn't make. The finest examples of Art Nouveau are sadly difficult to find and usually carry what for most would-be collectors are prohibitive price labels. However, the massive demand at the time, aligned with the introduction of new-fangled mass-psaduction techniques led to Britain, the Continent of Europe and the United States being swamped with comparatively inexpensive, industrially-made objects in the new style. Even the humblest of objects, such as crumb trays and scoops or coal scuttles, were embellished with Art Nouveau motifs. Some of these productions were of dubious artistic merit, but even these may nevertheless be of collectable interest.
    The revival of enthusiasm for the Art Nouveau style has led to a wide range of honest reproductions and, regrettably, a number of outright fakes, some of which have been known to mislead the most experienced collectors. The novice is well advised to seek specialist advice before making a major purchase, and to exercise caution if the piece appears a real bargain. Within these pages is information that should help the unsuspecting collector to expose the counterfeit and confirm the authentic. The Art Nouveau Checklist is a complete sourcebook of the major craftsmen, factories and styles of the period. Its purpose is to illustrate the diverse approaches, from the florid and sinuous curves favoured by the Paris and Nancy Schools, to the starkly contrasting geometrical motifs and perpendicular emphasis advocated in Glasgow and Vienna, and to teach how to recognize and assess individual pieces. The Checklist also provides useful background information on the makers and media and, wherever possible, highlights undervalued areas that may prove collectable in the fucure.

 

 

ERIC KNOWLES


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