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Art Nouveau Prophecy with Samurai Swords

It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’.  By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.

In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.

Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.

The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.

Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.

There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperate workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.

One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.

Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.

The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:

1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.

2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.

This possibility was prevented with considerable effort; it required tremendous, long-term outside manipulation by highly concentrated wealth through institutional education, economy and force.

3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring.  Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.

As with point no.2, this energizing behaviour that is the birthright of most anyone with enough free time is for now bottled up in trained specialists such as artists and designers. A broader scale of creativity is also prevented at considerable cost by “tremendous, long-term outside manipulation by highly concentrated wealth through institutional education, economy and force.”

Don’t write off the century-old visionaries of New Art just yet, not that their outstanding contributions ever could be forgotten. They may prove to have served as avant garde after all.

For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith.  Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today. These are functional instruments, but they reveal much more, they reveal human life. True talismans, perhaps mixed in among these cultural arrivals in the West is the wordless incantation that led to the prophetic pronouncements and new iconography of the New Arts fever.