Art Noveau – an elegant age followed by turbulance

I think if it were possible to indulge myself in traveling back in time to a period I would love to get back to the 1890-1920 era when there were great bursts of creativity and brilliant artists like Monet and Matisse. Art was quickly evolving, with great movements like the Impressionists and the artists that broke tradition to transcend art.   I would love to wander through Monet’s garden and look over his shoulder as he painted his water lilies , or watch as the Tiffany studios created wondrous works in glass that are now timeless.  But in the midst of that age was another art movement spurred by the advertising industry of Europe known as Art Noveau.  Softened colors, curvaceous lines, brilliant beauty encapsulated in quintessential ads made famous by these europeans.

Most famous of the period is Gustaf Klimt, a bodacious man that loved pushing the boundary on the canvas, seeking out wealthy patrons to paint.  His most famous painting, the Kiss, defined the era – geometric patterns of black and gold suddenly become visible as a robe or cape draped over a man, who is holding a woman in a delicate embrace.

Klimt was as controversial as his art work, having fathered many children, and often choosing to paint his female subjects while wearing very little clothing.  Caught in the warp of history were a few of his paintings that were seized by the Nazis in WWII.  The two paintings of a woman known as Adele Block Bauer, wealthy wife of an industrialist were ripped from the walls of their palatial townhouse in  Vienna and for nearly 60 years they were housed in a museum in Vienna until the rightful heir came forward with a David and Goliath story of the nearly impossible mission to restore to her family what was rightfully theirs.  The two paintings could not have been different in composition, color and design.  The first, pictured at the left, is the classic Klimt gold gilded treasure with the hopeful wistful face of Adele.  Adele II as it is know was painted several years
later as the “gilded age” was transitioning to the volatility of pre WWI Europe, where hope was fading and unsettled restlessness was the order of the day.  The Adele II, pictured at the right, clearly shows this wrestling churn of european society.  Sadly Adele died within a year of the second painting of a rare brain condition, leaving her grieving industrialist husband without her presence.   As i mentioned, during the outbreak of WWII these paintings were seized by Nazis and the struggle to return them to their rightful heirs was a 6-7 decade long story, with the Austrian government making it most difficult for the family.

Recently we watched a movie produced to tell the story about this Jewish woman, Adele Bloch Bauer, and the family that lived through the Holocaust  to rebuild their lives, and then begin to rebuild what was their possessions.  A niece, now well into old age, remembered playing in the room where the paintings of Aunty Adele hung, and of sitting next to her gracious aunt.  The paintings were not without deep emotion, and memory for her, the last of the surviving Bloch Bauer family, who long ago moved to America to create a new life. Her hopes of reuniting with these paintings were hard fought, seemingly next to impossible until several amazing connections were made.  And it happened. The courts awarded the paintings to her.  She subsequently made plans to have The Adele I on permanant exhibit, while Adele II was sold at Christie’s for one of the highest prices ever (4th most expensive on record as of 2007), and the private owner is non other than Oprah Winfrey.

The Art Noveau ages was indeed a gilded age of rare wealth, of unique beauty, and of an age that may never come again.  I love the enthusiasm for new form, color, pressing the boundaries. I love it so much that hung in my home (actually in my bathroom) is a copy of Klimt’s The Kiss.  The painting reminds me of the care and love of two people, the tender embrace, the gentle nature of human love…. and the spectacle of wealth of an age gone by.  Klimt’s work has evoked so many emotions and thoughts.  I do find it humorous that the Nazis did not fully appreciate the genius of Klimt, not did they realize they were celebrating the beauty of a Jewish woman in these paintings.  Ironic, controversial…. all this sums up why i love the period.

I plan to share a few more posts on Art Noveau, as i have been working on a series of Silk Scarves in Art Noveau.  more to follow soon.