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Sublime Form: European Decorative Design 1900-1920

Arts and Crafts, the Aesthetic movement, Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstätte, and Stile Liberty all emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, as artists strove to express in the decorative arts the exuberance and fine craftsmanship associated with contemporary painting and sculpture. The enthusiasm was remarkably widespread, from Glasgow to Vienna to Florence, ushering in an era that paid homage to the master craftsman, the artisan who could create lovely objects for everyday use—an era in which the utilitarian and art merged.

It is sometimes difficult today to think that there was a period when fine craftsmen were not considered artists but merely “artisans,” creating beautiful objects, true, but usable objects nonetheless, seemingly less worthy than a canvas or a sculpture. The middle classes could not afford masterpieces and certainly did not expect their utensils and teapots to have “good design” or to be created by an artistic temperament. But that’s exactly what William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, wanted for everyone, and he urged his English countrymen, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.”

In 1854, just as Morris was starting to win people over to his new ideal, Admiral Perry arrived in Japan to open the country to Western trade. What Perry—or Morris, for that matter—could not have foreseen was how quickly the culture of Japan would be reflected in the work of European and American artists influenced by the fine craftsmanship of exported Japanese items, which emphasized a symbiotic relationship between nature and object. These works could be seen at the international expositions and in the galleries, such as Art Nouveau Bing in Paris, and artists and collectors alike avidly began acquiring them, creating a market for a culture that seemed exotic and paradisiacal.

The organic, almost lyrical, style of Eastern art was quickly subsumed into Western culture. It reflected a keen interest in searching out a new, more cosmopolitan approach to art decoration, as the Victorian age, filled with the clutter of too many objets d’art, gave way to a new century filled with optimism and hope reflected in the clean lines and distilled decoration of an amalgamated “Japanese” style. All of the arts, from painting to sculpture, to metalwork, ceramics, prints, and posters, reflected this influence. This exhibition celebrates the beginning of modernism in European decorative design.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs