Art nouveau is a period of art history dating from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.
Other names for it are Jugendstil, Modern Style, Modernisme, Stile Liberty, Reformstil, or Vienna Secession; in Russia it is called the Modern Style, and in France it was also referred to “fin de siècle”. The term Jugendstil is only used in German-speaking countries, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, and in Latvia, and originates from the illustrated cultural magazine “Jugend”, which was founded in Munich in 1896.
Today relatively value-free, this term was coined by the later reception of Jugendstil in the art history literature. When it appeared around 1901 in the major magazines (Dekorative Kunst; authors: Hermann Muthesius, Julius Meier-Graefe), the terms Jugendstil and Secessionstil were used as critical labels for the modish popularisation by industry and its (“cheap”) mass-produced items of applied art of the new forms used in (individual) works by artists such as Henry van de Velde, a popularisation deemed to be imitative to the point of caricature. External characterising components or elements of art nouveau are decoratively undulating lines, extensive floral ornaments, and the eschewal of symmetry. With such formal classifications, it must not be overlooked that art nouveau was by no means a rigidly prescribed movement in the way the description “ art nouveau” may today lead us to believe. It is a series of sometimes highly divergent currents within Europe which at most were truly unified only in their renunciation of historicism, i.e. the rejection of the then common practice of imitating traditional form types. Numerous artistic programmes and manifestos are associated with art nouveau. The modern understanding of the term also encompasses holistic works of art, such as the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, in which everything from the external edifice to the interior decoration was created with a uniform aesthetic sense. In this way, art nouveau was also associated with the demand for the great melding of “art and life”, for art to once more become a part of daily life, in the sense of a comprehensive artistic reworking of all objects of everyday use. Here, the decorative arts were particularly emphasised. In this regard, however, art nouveau did indeed align itself with historicism, which had already elevated the “holistic artwork” to a position in its programme. At the same time, this was the manifesto-like counterpoint to the aloofness and remoteness of auratic works of art in the pure sphere of the so-called “high arts” or “visual arts”.
Yet the art nouveau programme also included the demand for functionality and the expression of functionality in the design of objects, so that the functions of a building would also visibly determine its design. For example, the facades should no longer be governed by symmetry and axial distributions, but instead be allowed to follow a spatial concept developed from the floor plan. Overall, the renunciation of traditional forms of construction and the intensive search for new decorative design possibilities in architecture and applied art is part of the stated programme of many art nouveau artists. One of the central questions of art nouveau was to some extent a continuation of the 19th-century style debates, namely the question as to what the so-called “modern style”, the “style of our own era”, should be.