The Road To Psychedelia: The Most American Art Genre Pt. II

Georges Privat-Livemont Absinthe Robette lithograph January 1896

Part II: Art Nouveau And Psychedelia

Victorian era Europe was a period known to the French as the Belle Epoque or “Beautiful Era.” While this is the era where Post Impressionists were rebelling against conventional art norms and marrying 13 year olds or cutting their own ears off, there was also another Absinthe fueled rebellion taking place. The industrial revolution was fully formed and was now present in almost every aspect of life. The societal shift away from the natural world and into the mechanized plod of factory farms and chemical manufacturing had many people disgusted with what the world had quickly become. This brought about a backlash from the arts community in the form of Art Nouveau. 

Alphonse Mucha, The Zodiac 1896

Art Nouveau was an art movement that only lasted 20 years but had a profound impact for generations of artists to come. While it too took inspiration from Ukiyo-e, it also focused on a handful of artistic ideas all in opposition to the industrialization of the victorian era.

One was a general purpose of bringing long natural lines and curvature into art and design. Another was the importance of bringing aesthetic beauty into the applied arts like architecture and interior design. The third would be an anti-dogmatic rejection of the hard shapes and boxiness of the mechanized world. Lastly, to bring back craftsmanship and aesthetic to every day things rejecting the throw away culture that had risen out of the industrial revolution.

Boobs, Bubbles, And A Whole Lot Of Wrought Iron

On the left: Ernst Haeckel’s jellyfish 1889
On the right: Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Bastillo 1904

In 1889, Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and all around renaissance man released a series of 10 books he called Art Forms In Nature. The shapes and images in these books along with the naturalist design philosophy in Owen Jones’s 1856 book The Grammar of Ornament gave Art Nouveau the visual context the movement needed for its aesthetic. Pictured above, its easy to see the correlation between Ernst Haeckel’s images of jellyfish and Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Bastillo in Barcelona.

Aubrey Beardsley’s The Climax 1893

In 1893 Aubrey Beardsley created a poster called The Climax. It was for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. It solidified the aesthetic of Art Nouveau. The piece shows the main character of the play just after kissing the severed head of her dead lover. The long undulating lines of the piece, the concentric circles surrounding them and the flowers in the foreground are all hallmarks of the Art Nouveau aesthetic.

Art Is Everywhere

 Taking another influence from the Post Impressionist credo of art for the sake of art, the Art Nouveau movement also believed in the synthesis of all types of art into one uniform artistic existence. This brought the movement to all areas of design. From architecture to furniture to the beautiful lamps and glassworks of Louis Tiffany.

Poster for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair

The Art Nouveau movement peaked at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. This is an ironic detail because World’s Fairs were generally about creating a snapshot of the period’s technological mastery. On top of that, this particular World’s Fair operated under a theme of “retrospection on the previous century.” Two things that the practitioners of Art Nouveau were completely ambivalent about. 

Nevertheless, the fair was an incredible display of all things Art Nouveau. From Hector Guimard’s designs of the Parisian metro stations to the promotional poster designs by Art Nouveau’s golden boy Alfons Mucha. There were also amazing interior spaces like the iron work of the Grand Palais and the dining room of Le Train Bleu, a restaurant built for the fair.  

Gone Too Soon

In another twist of irony, the saturation of Art Nouveau at the fair led to a multinational mainstream adoption of the movement. This in turn made it a commodified trend on an industrial scale. Suddenly Art Nouveau aesthetics were being mass produced, something that is antithetical to the movement’s direct cause. Because the pieces of art created in the Art Nouveau aesthetic could not be made cheaply and true to form, wide adoption of the movement was not possible.

In July of 1914 the first World War began. As mechanized war hit the world stage, the ethereal magic that was the cornerstone of Art Nouveau seemed contrite and outdated. To a population dealing with the horrors that humanity can unleash on itself, the importance of natural beauty in all aspects of life seemed like a naive and childish care. We were now in a brutal world where we were using chemical weapons and machine guns to rip each other to shreds. This did not jibe well with the peacocks and butterflies that adorned the artwork of Art Nouveau.

As quickly as it came into popularity Art Nouveau was gone again. Its lasting impression would resurface 50 years later in Psychedelia in almost all aspects of the new art form. From the rejection of conformity, to the adoration of nature and natural beauty, to the straight up lifting of images, Psychedelia borrowed heavily from Art Nouveau.

So what comes next? A real weird movement that swept up a bunch of weirdos that were dodging the war in Switzerland. It took the anti-conformist elements of the Impressionists and Art Nouveau and pushed them to almost silly limits. It was called Dadaism and I’m going to tell you all about it. Stay tuned!

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[…] the next installment we will dive into the movement that shares the belt with Art Nouveau for most visually influential on Psychedelia, Surrealism. This is where hedonic art and intentional […]

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