By Angela Hesson
I don’t recall any dramatic event that triggered my enthusiasm for figural Art Nouveau – I think the rather unromantic truth is that I began collecting after writing an undergraduate essay on the subject about twelve years ago.
I have always been interested in the literature, art and design of the fin de siècle, and in particular the ways in which femininity was represented during that period. The inkwells, pintrays, teaspoons and other objects that I collect are, I believe, beautiful things, but they also reflect some fascinating shifts in perceptions about gender, sexuality, and the role of decorative art.
The late 19th century was a particularly rich period in women’s history: it saw the emergence of the suffrage and women’s rights movements, and also some of the earliest detailed investigations into gender and sexuality. Figures such as the Femme Fatale and New Woman rose to prominence in this period, challenging, in their varying expressions of power and dissidence, the ubiquity of the Victorian ideal of the ‘angel in the house.’
As the century drew to a close, traditional perceptions of feminine beauty shifted toward a stronger and more enigmatic archetype. In the applied arts, the female form was no longer merely a passive decorative feature; her presence had become more assertive and more disquieting. Often, she appeared to dominate the object rather than to picturesquely and passively augment it. Female subjects became metamorphic, captured in a continual process of transformation. Women seemed to melt into water or flow out of flames. They squirmed out of the earth, they disappeared into the wind. Where clothing was included, it became more revealing, and animal companions were transformed from songbirds and spaniel puppies to snakes, spiders and insects, designed to unsettle.
These were figures grounded in mystique and eroticism, much of whose appeal lay in their detachment from the mundane realms of the practical and the everyday. Yet it was out of the spheres of the serviceable and the utilitarian that some of the most provocative imagery emerged. Ornamenting household objects such as lamps, pintrays and tableware, we see the iconic feminine types of 19th century art and literature rendered in a very domestic, very accessible medium. The choice of materials also reflects this domestication – pewter, spelter, copper and brass were inexpensive and well-suited to mass production, and the majority of pieces remained unsigned.
One of my favourite objects is a paper knife dating to around the turn of the century, in which the blade takes the form of a woman’s hair. If you think about Symbolist and Pre- Raphaelite painting, you might recall that flowing hair is an essential aspect of feminine iconography, but here we see this ethereal, otherworldly motif applied in a very practical and rather aggressive way. There is such an interesting play here between hard and soft, between enticement and danger, between function and ornament.
It is also interesting to note that it was for a female rather than a male consumer that the majority of figural Art Nouveau pieces were designed, and consequently this profusion of seductive, metamorphic feminine subjects must be understood, at least in part, as a response to female taste.
Because they are inexpensively produced, and perhaps also because their aesthetic is so excessive, these objects are sometimes considered ‘kitsch’, a label which doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I love the idea that something so common and accessible could carry such provocative messages, and in practical terms, mass-produced objects are much more affordable than ‘high art’ equivalents. I have purchased a couple of pieces through auction houses, but most of my collection was found at antique markets and online. French eBay has proved to be an especially fruitful resource.
I particularly enjoy the incongruous aspect of figural Art Nouveau pieces – the idea that these little objects might have slipped, without notice or occasion, into the middle-class households of the late 19th century, quietly undermining, in their iconography of subversion and desire, the core principles upon which these households were founded.
Above | maker unknown, France paper knife, c.1900 bronze
This article was first published in fairhall, Issue 7, November 2012, pp 14.