Recycling Art

By Julie. H. Fraser.

Copyright 1997 Julie. H. Fraser.

History, the ecology and fashion designers all tell us that everything gets recycled. Fashion and design have to be the most regular and most popular of the recycled products. Everything is influenced by something else. This being true, one product can give rise to another, reworked and re-evaluated product. Something that has been recycled three times already this century are the sentiments, politics and artwork of the Art Nouveau movement.

Art Nouveau itself was born out of the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth-century. During the nineteenth-century there were many changes in society, art and science. The Industrial Revolution and the strict, high Christian morality of the Victorian era produced a materialistic, narrow, consumer Britain. In America, the money morals of the era were also in control though the issue of class was not as strong and the movement was therefore, more successful. Towards the end of the century, piety, greed and failing imperialism gave rise to a new group of artists and thinkers in Britain.

As these individuals returned to rural Britain, they reassessed art, its materials and ethics. Artists and architects such as William Morris, Ruskin and W R Lethaby moved away from the harsh, disciplined industrialism. In his book, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891), Lethaby embodies these new ideas of individualism, reunion with the spiritual and harmony with nature and mankind's environment. Here, the Arts and Crafts movement was born and nurtured until it gave way to the Art Nouveau movement.

Like many artistic movements, Art Nouveau was made of many different styles. There were common links but it is this uniqueness that epitomises the movement, its only one character being an aim to try to defy the established order of the fine and applied arts of the time. This "new art" was hated in Britain by the established contemporaries, the critics referring to it as "The Squirm".

It is no wonder then, that it was the 1960's that brought Art Nouveau back into the limelight. The psychedelic era of the 1960's and early 1970's found their hippie sentiments and anti-establishment beliefs closely linked to those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Both were seen as too radical and were highly unpopular with the mainstream. The mind expanding drugs that were taken and smoked openly in the 1960's, such as LSD and cannabis, gave way to the revival of spirituality and a return to nature. Just as the Art Nouveau movement continued the Arts and Crafts use of organic shapes and forms as an inspirational source, so too, did the psychedelic movement. Escape and rebellion against consumerism and materialism pervaded. The bohemian and communal lifestyle of the Arts and Crafts were adopted and developed by hippie radicals. Young men and women became decadent and outspoken, living in communes and realising their belief in "free love".

The forerunner of the "free love" decadent was one of the most important and popular artists of the late nineteenth-century. Aubrey Beardsley (1872 - 98), now best remembered for his illustrations of Oscar Wilde's Salome and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, was probably the most daring graphic artist of his time. He was highly influenced by Japanese printmaking, as the voluptuous sweeping curves exuded with sensuality. His Indian ink illustrations depicted every Victorian taboo: lust, vice and baseness and he soon excited a following of Decadents, Symbolists and other avant -garde intellectuals.

The other most influential graphic artist of the period was Alphonse Mucha whose posters were incredibly popular with his contemporaries and who was heavily revived during the hippie years. Where Beardsley was daring and artistically dramatic, working only in black and white lines and patterns, Mucha was gentle, sensitive and more feminine than seductive. Delicate and using themes and colours from nature, his work epitomises the serene, environmental side of psychedelia. His most famous works The Seasons, The Arts and The Times of Day are in themselves, timeless, but overproduction and copycat works saturated and killed his market. It is perhaps, his winsome "Belle ÉE'poque maiden" (itself inspired by Rossetti's Proserpine) with long flowing hair and skirts, adorned with leaves and flowers that inspired his popularity in the 1960's and 1970's. The "flower child" and "flower power" of the psychedelic age related perfectly to this maiden of nature. The fashions of the early twentieth-century relate strongly to the fashions of the psychedelic and hippie eras. It can be seen from images of 1905 that the heavy make-up, notably the heavy black eye make-up, was reintroduced in the 1960's. The feminine and more delicate belle Époque maiden was related to by the "flower children" of the 1970's

Before the rise of Art Nouveau there was an innovative and startlingly modern artist at work. The god-fearing William Blake was a many talented man. About two years ago I saw an exhibition of some of Blake's original sketches at the Tate Gallery in London . I was already familiar with his work but the clarity and modernity of his images and faces struck me again as ahead of its time and decidedly "1970's". Blake's art, thought and obsession with spirituality must have had some influence upon the 1970's. It is also interesting to note the influence of Japanese on the Art Nouveau movement. The Japanese love for the poetic character of nature itself was highly influential in creating their appreciation and sensitivity of the organic designs. It is also interesting that it was Japanese graphic design, now cold and minimalist, that overtook the popularity of psychedelic design.

An important group of Art Nouveau creators were the many designers of the Glasgow School of Art. These included Jessie M. King, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the McDonald sisters.Their talents were snubbed by the English who saw their work as outrageously distasteful whilst Glasgow and the continent nurtured and embraced this new creativity. All believed in the inspiration of nature, the McDonald sisters perceiving embroidery as an organic, growing extension of nature. Better known for his architecture and furniture, Mackintosh was also a watercolour artist, his paintings of flowers beautifully delicate and stylised. A host of products were made including stained glass, furniture, textiles and jewellery, all in their unique and distinctive style. They started a new interest in and innovative creation of interior design with daring wallpapers, materials and ornaments, using intensely patterned designs and bold colours taken from the environment such as blues, purples, yellows, reds.

The 1960's combined both of these elements by turning posters adorned with bright (often clashing) colours and flowing lines into the interior decoration item of the era. Unlike most fine art, posters are designed with the audience in mind, dictating its composition and content. Art has become media, a media which must compete with its surroundings against traffic, conversation and noise. A poster must have immediate impact, it must be bold and eye-catching, communicating its message in seconds. The poster developed in the middle of the nineteenth-century, becoming popular and collected in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. During the early part of this century a group called the Nabis believed in the essential quality a picture being created by colours on a flat surface in a specific combination. They believed in a graphic art of two dimensions, simplified and of opposing combinations - very much like the psychedelic posters of the 1960's.

One of the earliest Art Nouveau poster artists was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who was, like many designers, either loved or hated by his contemporaries. His humour and flowing forms and use of colours and real settings and people, were controversial but as we can see now, enduring. Posters became bolder and more simplistic or (as with Mucha) artistically delicate and there are endless designs that could just as easily be from 1967 as from 1897 or 1907. As Art Nouveau grew in the artistic world, magazines (such as Jugend), books and music sheets used this new style of graphic design. These images include Wilhelm Liszt's Ver Sacrum Kalender (1903) and Peter Behrens' The Kiss, Carl Strahtmann's Jugendstil compositions and Cerle Artistique de Schaerbeek by T. Privat-Livemont (1897). Josef Sattler's cover for Pau magazine (1895) could easily have been for a 1960's magazine as the fascination with myths and religious iconography took a high place in the search for spirituality in both eras. An anonymous design of c. 1897 entitled Merodak uses occult, ancient and eastern religious imagery and is surprisingly sinister. Two 1960's posters that do use religious iconography are Bob Masse's poster for the Kitsilano Theatre and Robert McClay's Funky Features. A poster by Paul Christodoulou in 1967 for Elliott: Alice Boots blatantly makes use of several Beardsley characters to produce a new composition, literally combining Art Nouveau and psychedelic graphic design. Another poster, Bradbury Thompson's 1967 Flower Child is heavily influenced by Mucha and his use of natural and feminine imagery.

Magazines in the 1960's as in the 1900's and 1890's adopted and promoted this psychedelic art such as International Times (UK), Yarrow Roots (USA) and OZ (Australia). The magazines, though international, were underground publications due to their anti-establishment and often decadent content. The nudity which started with feminine revealing in the early part of the century, ended with OZ being taken to court in the 1970's for obscene nudity.

The most colourful and mainstream designs were adapted by graphic design companies such as Push Pin, one of the founders of which was Milton Glaser, the designer of the famous Bob Dylan poster of 1967. This was of the "Yellow Submarine" school of design, with curling, rhythmic repetitive lines and bright, mixed colours, reflective of the mental state of the LSD "trip". This liberal use of lines and colours was used to stimulate and free the imagination in a similar way to psychedelic drugs. A poster for the Teatr Wielki entitled Wozzeck by Jan Lenica (1964) also uses these colours and forms can be likened to the symbolist painting by Edvard Munch, The Scream. It is an unsettling, even disturbing poster.

By the 1960's posters did not advertise consumer products and art itself alone. The poster had become the medium for political and philosophical ideas and ideals. Posters became an attitude of mind as much as a design. If we compare the practical, clear designs of the 1950's to the colourful, often busy designs of the 1960's and 1970's a whole new philosophy can clearly be seen. Posters of cultures such as Love and Peace, the very essence of the student and psychedelic movements, were transformed into art and displayed in bedrooms and lounges throughout the world. Record sleeves too, began to display psychedelic fantasies (Hawkwind, The Beatles and Curved Air for example), as fantasy literature, which gave full freedom to the imagination, grew in popularity. Books such as "Lord of the Ringswere" were incorporated into psychedelic music, art and imagination.

The fading of the Arts and Crafts ideals and saturation of the Art Nouveau market were echoed by the commercialisation and fading of the ideals of the psychedelic cult. But it was not long before history repeated itself for the third time this century. During the materialistic and greed-ridden 1980's a rise against this shallow world appeared amongst youth again. Drug culture reappeared with the return of acid and its namesake dance culture. Acid House music and smiley logos, uninhibited dancing and huge open-air raves grew and grew. The designs, ideals and attitudes of the psychedelic era returned together with flares and lurid flowery patterns. Now, in the 1990's dance and drug culture are still growing and new drugs such as Ecstasy are being discovered. Peace, Love and concern for the destruction of our natural environment are predominant issues amongst the young.

But society is often fickle and ruled by the media in this new technical age. Technical developments in imagery, design and communication have led to a powerful and money-centred industry. These new developments mean fast global communication: news and fashions spread fast and fade just as quickly. It is said that the young have frighteningly short attention spans, forever looking for something new to replace last months overkilled trend. As each youth group finds a message of vitality, love and fun the media moguls grab it greedily, compete for their money and attention and swamp the original ideals to death in the commercialism it intended to fight.

It is probably only a matter of time before this new wave of a New Age culture begins to dissolve just as its predasesors did. It is a saddening thought but it will not be long before it emerges in another form, slightly changed and influenced by its peers. It seems that our cultures are evolving, shaping themselves to a wider and more varied audience, becoming less elitist each time. As it comes around faster each time, is it meeting our attention span or, may it become finally, a constant ?

But how much of it is sincere? Good artwork lasts and good artists remain even if they are in the background for some of the time. It is comforting that in the lapses of the Love culture and triumph of the Greed culture, there are those who sincerely believe in a New Age of hope and creativity. Even if this Age is not quite as new as it seems.

Julie. H. Fraser.

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