The Art nouveau style took on different names in the various countries where it spread: in Italy floral or liberty style (from the English warehouses of A. Lasenby Liberty, which sold Art nouveau objects); in Germany Jugendstil, in Austria Sezessionstil, in Spain modernism, while Art nouveau is the name it took on in France and Belgium. In spite of the differences given by this wide diffusion, the Art nouveau style presents some characteristic traits; the past stylistic models are now contrasted by the inspiration of nature: the organic vegetal force becomes the model of the development of the ornamental line.
This linear tendency derives largely from the influence that the spread of Chinese and Japanese painting in Europe had in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It determined the taste for asymmetry, the bold cuts of composition, the speed of execution, the collaboration that was seen between art and craftsmanship, and generally a push in painting to a stylization of the figures and a decorative conception of the form, often linked to symbolic motifs. Among the painters linked to the Art Nouveau style can be mentioned G. Klimt, F. Hodler, F. Knopff, A. Beardsley, J. Toorop, a certain phase of Munch. To these components is associated, especially in architecture and applied arts, which had a decisive role in the development and dissemination of Art Nouveau style, the emergence of a new concept of unity between design and product: between the processing of the material and functionality of the object in crafts, between interior and exterior in architecture.
In particular, the works of American and German architects, who will have a decisive influence on the developments of twentieth-century art, are set in this context. In England, where since the mid-nineteenth century the ideas of a unity of art had already developed, as evidenced by the Pre-Raphaelite periodical “The Germ” (1850), Morris and Ruskin’s project of a social art that would bring beauty within the reach of all, while respecting the materials and functionality of the object, took shape.
Since 1888, the English Arts & Crafts movement had been organizing exhibitions of artistic craftsmanship and producing objects that responded to the desire to oppose the decline in quality imposed by industrial development. Although the English experience can be considered an important root of Art Nouveau, this anti-industrial character was not to prevail in the European development of this style, for which the relationship with industry and the use of new techniques and new materials was indeed a decisive stimulus to the search for stylistic solutions.
Magazines played a decisive role in the diffusion of Art Nouveau. One of the oldest was the English magazine “The Studio”, which also appeared in French from 1893, and organized competitions for applied arts creations. “L’art moderne”, founded in Brussels in 1881, and the Flemish magazine “Van Nu en Straks” (Antwerp-Brussels 1892- 1901) show the avant-garde role that Belgium had in the development of Art nouveau, with the works of Van de Velde and the architect V. Horta. In Vienna, “Ver Sacrum” (1898-1903), the organ of the Secession presided over by G. Klimt, to which the architects J. Olbrich and J. Hofmann were linked; in Munich, “Jugend” (which gave rise to the term Jugendstil) around which artists such as H. Obrist and H. Eckmann gathered. Obrist and H. Eckmann who worked on decorative plant motifs; in Barcelona – where the architect Gaudí is one of the most original exponents of modernism – the magazine “Joventut”, propagated the Art nouveau style.
In France, Art Nouveau developed especially in the applied arts (Parisian magazines “Art et décoration” of 1897 and “L’Art décoratif” of 1898) after the exhibitions in the Parisian workshop of S. Bing, a dealer in ancient Chinese and Japanese art, of designs for stained glass by the Nabis. Bing also organized a “first Salon of Art Nouveau” in which he presented paintings by Carrière, M. Denis and Knopff, sculptures by Rodin, glass by Gallé and Tiffany, jewelry by Lalique, posters by Beardsley and Mackintosh, and in 1896 the first Parisian exhibition of Munch. In Italy, the Art Nouveau style developed particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Giolitti’s effort to conduct a policy of industrialization of some areas of the country facilitated its spread.
In the field of graphics and applied arts, numerous examples of the application of the Art Nouveau style emerged as early as 1895, but the peak of the influence of Art Nouveau in Italy was reached in 1902, with the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art held in Turin in the Valentino Park, where the greatest examples of architecture, furniture and applied arts of European Art Nouveau were exhibited.
Within the sphere of Italian painting, examples of the spread of the Art Nouveau style can be seen in the prevalence of line in a decorative sense in works such as Leonardo Bistolfi’s manifesto for the Turin exhibition (Milan, Civica raccolta delle stampe A. Bertarelli), alongside the strong influence of the more symbolist currents of European Art Nouveau and in particular of the Viennese Secession and Klimt, noticeable above all in the work of Segantini.