We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Study Room Resource: Art Nouveau

Prints and drawings, including fashion illustrations, architectural drawings, design drawings, watercolours, posters and much more, not on display in the galleries, can be seen in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. To make it easier for teachers and lecturers to access the most popular material with groups, we have developed themed study room resources which contain original prints and drawings.

The early 1890s saw the birth of a new style in European art and design. What we now call Art Nouveau emerged in several countries at once, under different names and in separate artistic disciplines. The drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in England, the architecture of Victor Horta and Paul Hankar in Brussels and the poster designs of Alphonse Mucha in Paris are some of the most familiar examples of the Art Nouveau style. That they all became fully established between 1893 and 1895 shows how suddenly Art Nouveau arose and how rapidly it spread across Europe.

The Paris International Exhibition in 1900 marked the heyday of Art Nouveau. By this time there were few countries in the Western world without some trace of its style. From the USA to Russia, from England to Italy, Art Nouveau had become the first international decorative style of the modern age. The 'new art' took many forms. It was adopted by, among others, architects, furniture makers, jewellers and graphic artists. The emergence of the Art Nouveau style in each of these disciplines can be seen as part of the artists' struggle to reinvent their products and methods. The drive to create a new form of art for a new age had never been stronger. The most important outcome of this drive towards the new was the characteristic Art Nouveau form: the 'whiplash' line. This is a decorative line that seems to have a life of its own. It writhes and coils with dynamic force, as if trying to break free of the forces holding it in place. It is everywhere in the early Art Nouveau works. Architectural ironwork, decorative borders, textile patterns and the flowing hair of the poster girls all seethe with an excess of feverish energy. The whiplash form can be seen as a metaphor. It displays in graphic form the radical drive to break away from the constraints of tradition.

Escaping the European tradition turned many artists towards the art of other cultures. Japanese art became particularly influential. With its bare, minimal style of drawing and flattened space, Japanese printmaking is an obvious ancestor of the graphic works of Art Nouveau. The complex 'arabesque' designs of the Middle East also had considerable influence, as did ancient European forms such as Celtic decoration. Does this wealth of historical influences contradict Art Nouveau's claims to being modern? If it does, it is perhaps only because the age in which it flourished is contradictory in itself. Spanning both the 19th and 20th centuries, Art Nouveau looks to its future and its past in equal measure.

These resources contain a selection of Art Nouveau work from the collection of the Word & Image Department. It focuses on graphic work: prints, posters and drawings. Some designs for flat pattern and three-dimensional objects are also included. The selection of objects aims to give an overview of the major names, themes and styles of the period.

V&A Innovative Leadership Programme

The V&A Innovative Leadership Programme is aimed at managers working in the arts & creative industries looking to develop new skills, insight and opportunity. Applications are now open for the next course.

Apply now