Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology and Style

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Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology and Style  
Author(s) Debora Silverman
Publisher University of California Press
Publication date 1992
Pages 450
ISBN 0520080882

If Carl Schorske identified the anxiety and alienation generated by “modernity” present in the art and architecture of fin-de-siècle Vienna (and larger Europe), then his student, Debora Silverman, has significantly updated and revised his thesis to argue that we must view France in a notably different context. Silverman argues that French art nouveau, while influenced by and representative of new developments in technology, society and psychology, was also closely associated with the liberal republican state. Whereas artist communities in other European cities emphasized their deliberate disconnection from the state, French practitioners of the new style had close relationships with official cultural institutions. The art produced from this relationship stressed a deliberately French cultural tradition of rococo-inspired form that emphasized the interiority of the self as entirely reflective of modern life. Silverman argues that new understandings of psychology coupled with the new artistic form had a mutually constitutive relationship, where interior design of private spaces reflected a desire to escape modern pressures, control gender and the boundaries between public and private, and even promote Third Republican nationalist discourse.

For Silverman, gender and psychology form key components in the development of art nouveau as “an organic, interiorizing, and feminine” form (63). Fears regarding French feminism and the declining birth rate created new forms within the craft movement that united to “forge a specifically cultural route to contain and interiorize women” (74). Their art helped to counteract the idea of the “femme nouvelle” by seeking to place women’s role back in the home and in the domain of the private. Bolstered by new ideas about psychology that emphasized the interiority of the self, art nouveau then developed a style that focused on creating an “ornamental fantasy in an organicised interior” (5). And yet, women artists had some agency – joining the Central Union allowed them to have “new powers of decorative creativity and elaborated a conception of art nouveau propelled by women’s instinctual resources for continuous renewal” (206).

Silverman’s work couples nicely with that of Leora Auslander, who focuses on the relationship between furniture, labor, and gender in mid to late nineteenth century France. As both Silverman and Auslander argue, “taste” has important political and social power. Art Nouveau symbolized a new set of tastes, but ones that nevertheless preserved the power of the Third Republic in the face of nationalist competition and working class agitation.