Video: Art Nouveau Glass
Paul Greenhalgh, Head of Research at the V&A from August 1994 to December 2000:
Art Nouveau is a movement in the visual arts, in particular, the decorative arts that begins in the early 1890s and runs through more or less to the First World War. It's the first self-conscious attempt to create a modern style. It's based in all the great, new industrial centres of Europe and North America and it goes right across all of the media - painting, sculpture, jewellery, metalwork, glass, ceramics - all media.
I'm sitting here in front of a small number of master works of Art Nouveau, in glass, and glass is one of the great media for Art Nouveau practice in general.
Two of the greatest Art Nouveau glass masters were Emile Galle, who practiced in Nancy in Eastern France and was thought to be the very greatest European glass master and Louis Comfort Tiffany, the greatest American Art Nouveau practitioners in any medium, but particularly famous for his glasswork. So it's very nice to bring these two great artists together to have a look at how they went about doing Art Nouveau.
The very first thing that strikes you as you look across all these objects in front of me here is that Art Nouveau is not just a kind of single consistent style. When we talk about style in the late 20thC, we tend to mean stuff that looks like...that all looks the same - in this style or in that style, really means it looks the same.
At the end of the 19thC, style also meant ideas, it also implied the society that was producing the stuff. So it didn't necessarily mean that it all looked the same, although it does have a kind of generic holding together visually, it meant that it meant the same thing - it ran down the same lines.
So, as we sit here, I'll try and explain to you what I think Art Nouveau is about and where the major sources come from.
If I said first of all that there are really three major areas that Art Nouveau practice comes out of. It comes out of a reinterpretation of the history, it comes out of a concern with psychology and symbolism, and it comes out of a complete obsession with nature. As we look at these interesting, beautiful, gem-like funny objects, you can see that history, nature and symbolism are at work in all of them.
First of all, if I look at this beautiful piece of glass by Tiffany, what might not be immediately obvious is that it's deeply inspired by the history of glass. It owes a massive amount to Chinese glass, to ancient Chinese glass, and the actual amphora shape has a lot to do with the classical heritage. What Tiffany has done is twist these things to suit his own purpose, to suit his own ends, his designs, so it's a reinterpretation of history.
If you look at it, it's covered in this beautiful relaxed natural form and as you hold it and look at it also, it has a strange exotic mysticism to it which gives it an odd sensuality - quite an odd, deep psychological sensuality. So, history, nature and symbolism at work.
As you look at this particular piece, you realise it's blown coloured glass and it has these beautiful pieces of silver inlaid into it.
If I go across to this other little creature, also by Tiffany, immediately it becomes redolent of ancient glass. It has this lovely lustrous surface which would be very common upon excavated Roman glass. The actual shape itself has a lot in common with Sassanian glass, which was popular round about the time of Christ and slightly afterwards, so it makes use of the history of glass but again, it has an odd organicism to it which puts it close to nature.
What I would say also about this particular piece is that it's a beautiful gem-like masterwork. It has this wonderful, wonderful glass threading round it which is technically superb - absolutely wonderful thing to do.
As you look across the surface of it all - Ancient Rome, China and the aesthetic movement, but again nature very, very powerfully part of it and this odd sensuous symbolism which is to do with the kind of physicality of life and the contemplative aspects of life.
The interesting thing about all of these things in front of me is that they were bought from Louis Comfort Tiffany by the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I'm sitting, from Tiffany himself in the early 1890s.
Tiffany came to the museum and looked around the glass collection and the pieces were bought because they bounced off great historical pieces in the collection. The curators at the time thought it'd be a lovely thing for young students of glass to see how a contemporary master made use of history. It is a good lesson.
This creature over here is not by Galle or by Tiffany. It was on show in the museum when Tiffany visited in 1892 and he saw it and he made his own version of it. It's Islamic and the shape itself comes from the 18thC, although this is probably a later version - mid to late 19thC. It's a flask for holding rose water. Legend has it that it also held the tears of women when their men went off to war and they've become known as tear flasks because of that.
Tiffany saw this shape and copied it into several pieces of his own. As you look at it, you realise this beautiful curling line has a massive amount in common with Art Nouveau. If you then put the kind of stories, the teardrops onto it, it acquires this odd, interesting romantic symbolism as well. And of course also it's got this powerful sense of nature. It almost feels human as you look at it. It almost looks like an exotic dancer moving. So, Tiffany made direct use of that thing and I think it's interesting that we still have it in the museum.
The other great glass master is Galle, and we have a different technique here. All of this glass is blown and then covered with various different glass finishes to get the effect.
This is a piece of cased glass. That is to say, it's blown several times to get many layers of different coloured glass in it. The base colour here is this very pale yellow, then there's a sort of beautiful orange colour and then there's a darker colour on top. So, shapes would be blown inside one another and colours added, so, at one moment this piece of glass would be plain but with many different layers going through and then it's carved and cut.
The glass artist cuts away levels of glass to reveal what's below, so you get this wonderful sense of depth to it. When you shine a light directly into a piece like this, dozens and dozens and dozens of colours come out. So, a superb piece of Galle.
And again, as you look at it, you can see that Galle's obsessed with nature. You also pick up this strange, odd symbolism. And in Galle, he often made use of plant symbolism. He used the orchid frequently, for example, which is thought to be a very sensuous plant. He would make use of Japanese plants which had different kinds of symbolic meanings. So, symbolism enters into it as well.
And Galle, like Tiffany, was obsessive and very interested in the history of glass and how he could reuse the history of glass to create something that was modern.
So, Galle, Tiffany, history, nature and symbolism running all the way through this beautiful material.