Unity of the arts: “Art nouveau” at the V&A and “1900” at the Grand Palais.

Artists and designers 100 years ago were united in their embrace of modernity


At the end of the nineteenth century decorative artists were at the forefront of an international avant-garde that sought to create a unity between the arts. A hundred years later, two exhibitions, in Paris and London, bring together spectacular displays of painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, furniture, jewellery, graphics and architecture to offer different perspectives on art at the turn of the last century.

“Art nouveau 1890-1914”, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (from 6 April to 30 July) and “1900” at the Grand Palais in Paris (18 March to 26 June)will complete the picture offered by “Art around 1900”, at the Royal Academy until 3 April. Broadening the timespan beyond the RA’s focus on the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Grand Palais explores the decade 1895-1905, with an emphasis on European painting, while the V & A, in its most ambitious show of recent decades, examines the sources and development of Art nouveau between 1890 and 1914.

Curated by Paul Greenhalgh “Art nouveau” will feature artists and designers such as Aubrey Beardsley, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Toulouse Lautrec, Antoni Gaudi, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alphonse Mucha, Emile Gallé and René Lalique. Its aim, said Mr Greenhalgh, is “to reinstate Art nouveau as the first self-conscious, internationally based attempt to create a modern style, and the first and last modernism based on decoration.” Representing twenty nations, this is the most comprehensive survey to date of a style that was to influence Bauhaus, Art Deco and Surrealism.

The exhibition will explore the style’s historical sources, including the Rococo and Baroque; Japanese, Chinese and Islamic art; and the period 1860-90 when British art was at its most influential, with the pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements of artists such as William Morris, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Organically inspired forms in design and furniture will be explored in a section devoted to Nature and its affiliation with Darwinian ideas of evolution and progress. A second section focusing on eight fin de siècle cities (Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Vienna, Munich, New York, Helsinki and Budapest) will overlap more with the Paris show.

“1900”, curated by Philippe Thiébaut, head curator at the Musée d’Orsay, presents 400 works of art including decorative painting by Vuillard, Redon and Klimt, Photo-secession photography, and sculpture from Rodin to Picasso, with the aim of assessing “How artists assimilated the lessons of the past in approaching the twentieth century.” It is divided into three sections: “The unity of the arts” looks at how artists’ colonies such as the Vienna Secession, Wiener Werkstätte and the Glasgow School aspired to create “total works of art”; “Modernism and tradition” explores the adoption of national myths and traditions by painters such as Hodler and Gallen-Kallela; and “Fin de siècle and a new dawn” looks at evocations of the Golden Age and iconic female imagery in paintings by Munch, Kupka, Beckmann, Matisse and Signac.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Unity of the arts'