Paul Greenhalgh is Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He is an expert on the Art Nouveau period and a leading scholar in the field of decorative arts.

We asked Paul about his reasons for organizing this exhibition and why he feels the Art Nouveau style is as vital and relevant today as it was when it first flourished at the end of the nineteenth century.



Q: What inspired you to do an Art Nouveau exhibition now, at the turn of the twenty-first century?


A: Our agenda with this show was to rehabilitate Art Nouveau, to redefine and reposition it in the history of decorative arts. It's been condemned very powerfully by leading architects, designers, and art historians throughout the twentieth century. For example, Nikolaus Pevsner, who is widely considered to have written the first book on modern architecture, overlooked the style entirely. He started in the 1860s, simply omitted the end of the century, then picked up again right about 1908. Only in much later editions of his book did he bother to discuss Art Nouveau.

We felt that the style itself had held the beginnings of modernity proper--that it was not just a weird aberration in the nineteenth century, or a false start to the twentieth century. So we set about trying to prove that by reassessing the intellectual heritage as well as the artistic heritage of the movement.

The decorative arts have largely been pushed into the background during the twentieth century. There's been a strong rejection of the idea of ornament in design and architecture, which has only been reevaluated in the last twenty years with the rise of postmodern design. So we wanted to win what we called the "right to seriousness" for this material; we wanted it to be dealt with in an appropriate manner, in the way that one would deal with any serious works of art.

And it's exactly a hundred years since the great Paris World's Fair of 1900. Museums always like to deal in centennial celebrations!



Q: Does Art Nouveau have any special significance for the V&A?


A: The V&A was the first museum of the decorative arts, and it provided a template for other museums' development. It's a particular kind of museum, one that gathers examples of all of the visual arts, right across the board, very much in the manner of, say, the Met or the British Museum or the Louvre, as opposed to the NGA, which is focused principally on "fine arts." The V&A is one of the great nineteenth-century museums that attempted to collect everything. For a period of time this was thought possible. So it has a different vision of what research constitutes. The V&A treats all of the arts as more or less being equal and in tandem, and it cares for some 5 million objects, as opposed to a relatively small number of great masterworks. So it's more like a library than a small collection of masterpieces.

One of the interesting things about the V&A is that it was there when Art Nouveau appeared. Virtually all of the designers featured in this exhibition had visited the V&A and looked at its collections. This is where they discovered Japan and China as well as Islamic art. In some cases we know the specific objects that they admired, and quite a lot of those are in this exhibition. In the London version of the exhibition, we treated the V&A as being one of the objects in the show itself.



Q: What makes Art Nouveau a modern style?


A: It is our view that Art Nouveau was the first modern style. It was the first style to be promoted by mass communications and the first style to have ambitions to change the shape of the city. It was the first self-conscious attempt to create something that looked modern. It was self-consciously trying to anticipate the future.

Carabin chair It was also the first style that tried to deal with modern psychology and modern sexuality. It's a peculiar style for twentieth-century tastes, because the idea that you can have an erotic wardrobe, or a sexy chair, or a tragic book (in the sense of its binding) is something we moved away from in the twentieth century. But the whole range of emotions were expressed through everyday objects in Art Nouveau. It was an expressive decorative style. And arguably it was the first style that tried to be that--and the last, maybe, apart from postmodern design.



Q: What circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century gave rise to this new style?


A: The end of the nineteenth century is fantastically interesting. We're talking about a global culture that saw itself through world trade. This is reflected in the great international exhibitions, a powerful phenomenon of the period, with the Paris World's Fair of 1900 being the largest. This exhibition was attended by 51 million people, when only 38 million people lived in France--this is an attendance statistic that any museum would die for! Some 500 million people attended international exhibitions during the life of Art Nouveau, and the Art Nouveau style was represented in every one of them.

All the famous makers of Art Nouveau objects were selling their ideas through magazines, journals, trade fairs, exhibitions, and they saw themselves as part of this larger world. Art Nouveau was the first style to sell itself and to be conscious of itself. The great manifestos of Art Nouveau were translated into dozens of languages, and so on. So it fostered a compelling cosmopolitan environment.

Art Nouveau was also born out of a laissez-faire, free-trade economy. It floated on the back of the buoyant economy of this period, which was killed off by the rapid return to intense nationalism and protectionism before the First World War.



Q: How did you begin to translate the broad, complex subject of Art Nouveau into a museum exhibition?


A: I think with an exhibition of this scale you really have to begin with an intellectual agenda. Otherwise you have no rationale for where to start and where to stop. It's not like presenting Jackson Pollock or Claude Monet. There were thousands of Art Nouveau designers in dozens of cities. So the first part of the process for us was to arrive at an understanding of what exactly is this stuff, what does it represent, what is it about.

Once you've defined those parameters, and once you've defined the style itself, you can then set about making decisions about what examples to choose. We started with some twenty cities, then broke it down to thirteen. We drew up a short list of the key designers who had to be represented, and then a secondary list of those artists and designers who should be represented but who had often been forgotten. There are many key people who are being "rehabilitated" in this exhibition.



Q: Could you elaborate on your reasons for organizing the exhibition geographically?


A: We wanted to show that Art Nouveau became an international phenomenon and that it was different in every city, and yet the same. A whole set of principles were held in common across the face of the style, but it took on a local flavor everywhere as well; it reflected the ethnic conditions of the places in which it appeared. So it's impossible to mistake what happened in Chicago for what happened in Brussels, but at the same time, you see they're related.



Q: You have described how the V&A and the NGA are two very different institutions, in terms of the kinds of art they collect and the kinds of exhibitions they normally produce. How does the Art Nouveau exhibition demonstrate or bridge those differences?


A: To a certain extent, the exhibition is different from what either of us would normally do. It kind of hangs between us. It's powerfully focused on great masterworks and is beautifully installed, which is very much an NGA vision of the greatest works of art. V&A is usually much more taxonomic and didactic in its approach--more like a library, I suppose. But at the same time, both institutions recognized that this is a loud, quite vulgar, spectacular style, and if you don't do it in that spirit, you don't do it a service.



Q: The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Ladies' Luncheon Room, one of the period rooms featured in the NGA version of the Art Nouveau exhibition, was not shown at the V&A. Why?


A: With regard to the room interiors, we felt that we didn't need to install the Mackintosh Ladies' Luncheon in Britain. Three or four Mackintosh interiors are mocked up in Glasgow now, and there was a very large Mackintosh exhibition only a few years ago, which the whole of Britain saw. So...it was decided that it would be a good idea to bring the Mackintosh room down to Washington, because there's a vast audience here that still hasn't seen it.

Once we decided to include the room setting in Washington, it meant that London would do something completely different. What we did was subtly twist Glasgow another way. While we had the great Mackintosh masterpieces, we decided to put an emphasis on the Glasgow School itself--because there were lots of designers--and on an interesting phenomenon of women designers in Glasgow, the "Glasgow Girls." We played quite heavily on that, because it was a different angle. Doing Mackintosh in London can be a real bore--you have to think of a new way of doing it!



Q: How was the Art Nouveau exhibition received in London?


A: We thought it would be popular, because Art Nouveau is like the decorative arts version of impressionism. People know what it is, and they will come to see it. But we didn't expect it to be embraced quite so enthusiastically. The attendance in London was as high as it could be; we turned away thousands of people. Toward the end of the run, I had to give a public lecture, and we opened the museum in the evening; six and a half thousand people came through the museum in two hours, which is unprecedented in the museum's history. The exhibition was covered not only by the respectable British press but also by the British "gutter" press...and they all loved it. There were television programs about how to decorate your home in the Art Nouveau style, and so on. It had a genuinely mass audience. That was interesting for us, and it will be fascinating to see whether the exhibition is received here in the same way.



Q: In what ways do you think your scholarship and the Art Nouveau exhibitions might inspire designers in the new century?


A: I think they may find it shocking that people could have had such radically focused thoughts on the relation of art to technology to society at that point in time. You might call the reaction, "the shock of the old." And some of the objects in the exhibition are really quite shocking. The print of a young girl injecting her leg using a syringe, the erotic chair--these are pretty violent, extreme images for people to have been looking at a hundred years ago. We often think that all the problems and issues surrounding objects like this are new to us. So that will be revelatory. And the fact that these people had such advanced thoughts about what art could do in the world should also be a revelation.

It is interesting to see the extent to which a lot of key issues in Art Nouveau are back in favor among designers: the relationship of one art form to another, the relationship of the advanced, radical end of the crafts to the fine arts and design. Design, craft, and art separated in the twentieth century and became quite distinct domains. For about twenty years now they've been coalescing again, but the process is accelerating, and this exhibition seems to have caught the imagination of designers, craftspeople, and artists. They see it as a template for how their artistic practice might be, and that's interesting. Now that we've gone beyond the age of the simplistic idea of mass-produced design, now that design is computerized and can be produced in batches, it replicates how craftspeople and fine artists work. The average rock video is using avant-garde ideas that appeared in art schools only two years before. What you can find on the Web now is art, in a very powerful and dramatic sense. So we're living in a period again where the question of what exactly constitutes the arts, and who exactly the arts are for, is back on the table.

There's also something about Art Nouveau that is perhaps an antidote to the irony that permeates contemporary practice. Art Nouveau is based on very positivist principles. It's not critique and irony. It is celebratory art; it can be shocking, but it's celebratory. And perhaps we've had too much irony for the last twenty years. Postmodernism is essentially ironic, and its glib commentary on the condition of the world is now mainstream. While this point of view is quite legitimate and important, it is appealing to think that we could return to simply trying to produce the most beautiful objects humanly possible for the largest possible audience at the highest possible quality. This has always been difficult, but it is clearly what the Art Nouveau designers were trying to do, and I think it's about time we tried to do it again.



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