Vitalism and the Meaning of Art Nouveau

by Peter Kellow

Tite Street Building, E.W. Godwin, architect, Chelsea, London, Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonArt Nouveau, as a style, is customarily thought of as having been consigned to one of history’s tightly locked boxes. In the case of Art Nouveau, it will undoubtedly be a beautiful, finely crafted, gilded box—but a box nevertheless. Art Nouveau architecture is not short of admirers, and people trek from far and wide to see its masterpieces. But they stare at the works, feeling them to be detached in time and history. We expect never to see their like fashioned again. However, the assessment of Art Nouveau, like that of any movement, is never static. We may have finally moved on from Nikolaus Pevsner’s judgment in 1936 that it was “a short but very significant fashion in decoration,”1 but still the feeling lingers that the demise of Art Nouveau was attributable to some fundamental internal flaw.

Art Nouveau was an international style. It had regional variations but contained a unity of purpose that is unmistakable from country to country. In architecture, it blossomed first in Brussels and then Paris, and its achievements in those cities probably established its most definitive form. From there, it appeared in Spain, Scotland, Italy, Hungary and other countries in the heart of Europe; it also reached the periphery: Finland, Latvia, Russia. Art Nouveau eventually came to the United States in the decorative work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the architecture of Louis Sullivan.

Jan Toorop, O Grave, Where Is thy Victory?, 1892, Rijksmuseum, AmsterdamTo truly understand any architectural style (and I am going to confine this essay to architecture), you have to see it in its context and, if you do this thoroughly with Art Nouveau, it shakes off the accusation of lack of robustness. It was born into the febrile atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, when the new confidence in science and rationalism fought with doubt and pessimism about the direction of civilization. Interjected into that was a powerful movement in much painting, poetry, literature and philosophy toward anti-rationalism of one sort or another. At the same time, a particularly dangerous jingoism was on the rise, with accompanying demands for austerity and conformity. A radical new style—especially a flamboyant one with a clearly subversive stance—had to have solid underpinnings to emerge at all.

Within its contemporary milieu, Art Nouveau sided with the anti-rationalists and did so to the extent that Pevsner, in a fuller assessment in 1973, titled a book he edited on the subject The Anti-Rationalists and the Rationalists.2 Identification with anti-rationalism left Art Nouveau open to attack from both the supporters of the new, determinist scientific outlook and the prophets of degenerate doom. The great intellectual event of the last half of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly the arrival of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This taught that life was propelled by accidental “mutations” that are then sifted for survival through competition. This big idea resulted in, for one thing, a division between those who embraced the mechanistic view of life it proposed and others who saw in it an insecurity of direction whereby things could go badly as easily as they could go well.

On the one side, T.H. Huxley said confidently in 1867 that “zoological physiology … regards animal bodies as machines impelled by … forces …which can be expressed in terms of the ordinary [i.e., analyzable] forces of nature.”3 On the other, the prevalent fears of degeneracy were vividly expressed in Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892). Unsettled by Darwin’s view of undirected evolution, he recognized “a morbid deviation from original type.”4 Among such deviants he singled out the “fin de siècle art movements” and notes that “the diagnosis ‘degeneration’ is applicable to the originators of the new aesthetic tendencies.” He sees that a “mental stigma of [such] degenerates” is their emotionalism. “They feel the bliss of the Beautiful possessing them to the tips of their fingers. …”5 Nordau’s views were widely read and no doubt contributed to the popularity of the strident nationalism, found almost everywhere in Europe then, that promised certainty of direction.

Against these currents, a number of artistic movements and theories in the 1880s developed in a more optimistic direction, all of which consciously sought the creation of a modern world. All these movements fed into the emergence of Art Nouveau in the 1890s and formed most of its formal sources, helping to generate the style or the “look” of Art Nouveau. Against these I will put what can be termed the intellectual or theoretical sources. The appreciation of both formal and intellectual sources is crucial to the understanding of the real meaning of Art Nouveau.

Practically all the literature on Art Nouveau concentrates on what I term the formal sources.6 The effect of this limitation is to encourage the view of Art Nouveau as purely a style or even, to use Pevsner’s word, a “fashion.” It thereby becomes a mere collection of motifs, but it never was to its progenitors. By dwelling only on its superficial form, we ensure that Art Nouveau remains trapped in its historical box. As a consequence, we deny it the possibility of having any bearing on architecture and design today. However, by releasing the profound ideas that lay behind Art Nouveau, we can return it to today’s debate about how we might build. I will briefly describe the formal sources of Art Nouveau—the Aesthetic Movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Symbolist art, the structural theories of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and contemporary neo-Baroque architecture—before considering the intellectual sources.

Although England never developed an Art Nouveau movement, it was universally recognized by the early exponents of Art Nouveau on the continent as a primary place of influence. The Aesthetic Movement was primarily responsible. That movement can be located roughly in the decade preceding that of Art Nouveau, that is, the 1880s. Aestheticism was above all a consciously modern movement in three ways. First, it built upon the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris on how to create a style that was free from the numerous historical styles encompassed by contemporary eclecticism. Second, it favored a simplicity of design, and in that took much from Japanese prints. It was the latter’s asymmetry, striking pattern-making and balance between detailed figuration and blank areas that impressed the makers of the Aesthetic Movement. Third, Aestheticism rejected the standard messages, such as patriotism, glory or piety, that conventional art and architecture were expected to convey. Its slogan of arts for art’s sake proclaimed a dismissal of such values and said that the work of art contained its own message. Only beauty itself mattered.

Art for art’s sake immediately got the movement into trouble, for if beauty were the only thing that mattered, where were God and morality? Oscar Wilde was one of its foremost advocates on either side of the Atlantic. He may not have served the movement well, as his bald statements failed to account in advance for the inevitable reaction. In one of his lectures he said “… nor in its primary aspect has painting any more spiritual message for us than a blue tile. … It is a beautifully colored surface, nothing more, and affects us by no suggestion stolen from philosophy, no pathos pilfered from literature, no feeling filched from a poet, but by its own incommunicable artistic essence.”7 Art Nouveau inherited the fresh, radical vision of the Aesthetic Movement, but with that came its sense of amorality and decadence. One of the movement’s best architects, E.W. Godwin, built a series of houses in Chelsea, London, that were very close to being Art Nouveau.

The second formal influence on Art Nouveau was the Arts and Crafts movement, which again sprang from England. Art Nouveau took from it the ideas of truth to materials and the abandonment of historically-based designs. Arts and Crafts was, of course, related to the Aesthetic Movement but substituted the latter’s somewhat foppish style for a seriousness of purpose associated with a genuine desire for social improvement and reform along the lines that Ruskin laid down. Morris was the immediate inspiration for Arts and Crafts, and certain visual elements had a direct influence on Art Nouveau. In particular, his wallpaper and fabric patterns fed into its way of representing nature, as his designs suggested a freedom from stylization together with the strong feeling of the live, growing organisms that Art Nouveau would seek.

Victor Horta, Tassel House, 1893, Brussels, BelgiumWe have to cross the Channel for the remaining formal influences on Art Nouveau. Symbolism, like Art Nouveau after it, started in the Paris/Brussels axis. It stands out as a direct reaction to Huxley’s kind of philosophy of mechanism, for it seeks to investigate a reality behind that of appearance and scientific analysis. In this, it is surely otherworldly, but it rarely aligned with any of the many religious and mystical cults generating adherents then. It preferred to express this reality wholly within the artistic realm. Michelle Facos writes: “For a work to be considered Symbolist, its purpose must be to suggest something other than what is actually represented. … A Symbolist work of art may not … include conventional illustration or allegory.”8 As with Aestheticism, the Symbolists exposed themselves to accusations of amorality, sickness and decadence, prompting a contemporary writer to observe that “… their vision has always been somewhat feverish, with the diseased sharpness of over-excited nerves. …”9

Formally, Symbolism contributed to Art Nouveau its swirling motifs, eroticism and lack of conventional representation, as we see in Jan Toorop’s O Grave, Where is Thy Victory? (1892). Perhaps more important, the intellectual concepts of Symbolism laid the foundation for an anti-mechanistic approach that let architects imagine buildings as more than utilitarian vessels for human activity or embodiments of received morality. Architecture could become charged with anti-rationalism and moral freedom, and hold up a broader conception of human values than the prevailing materialism could offer.

Casa Battló, 1904–06, Antonio Gaudí, architect, Barcelona, SpainFourth, the influence of the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc should not be underestimated, for it is their integration into the realization of Art Nouveau buildings that allowed the style to move beyond mere artifice and decoration. Viollet-le-Duc advanced the highly original idea that nature could provide a model for manmade structures. In this sense, he claimed to be a functionalist. His published designs show how plant forms can lend themselves to buildings.10 Crucial to this narrative was the use of iron, because it could achieve the tensile strength and rigidity of fibrous plant tissue. Victor Horta, a pioneer of Art Nouveau architecture, demonstrated that structural iron could be fashioned into plant forms with no sense of forcing the argument, and in the process created a fluidity and harmony between vegetative forms and buildings.

The last formal source of Art Nouveau was the style in which its architects were primarily trained and that was practiced extensively in the new boulevards of the major cities of Europe, the neo-Baroque. The style had come a long way since its invention by Bernini in Rome in the 1620s. I would define Baroque architecture as the exaggeration and manipulation of the elements of classical architecture for the sake of total theatrical effect. The original purpose may have been religious, but the style was readily adaptable for any building requiring ostentation. It is relevant to Art Nouveau because it achieved its drama by merging classical forms with natural and human forms. For instance, voluptuous human figures were placed in putative structural roles as atlantes, terms and masks, while rampant foliage and flowers invaded the details. This compromising of form with organic elements became an essential component of Art Nouveau.

These formal sources were all in place before the first Art Nouveau building, Victor Horta’s Tassel House, in Brussels (1893). Others followed so quickly and spontaneously over such a large geographical area that there must have been a like-minded artistic and intellectual environment already in place. To appreciate how and why this happened, we need to add to the formal sources the intellectual sources of the time.

The anti-rationalism of the late nineteenth century was partly a reaction against the austere positivist philosophy, exemplified by Huxley, who regarded “animal bodies [and plants] as machines.” So the means by which, for instance, an acorn becomes an oak tree, would someday no longer be an unfathomable miracle of nature but a series of mechanical, analyzable processes. One aspect of this reaction was artistic, poetic expression, such as in Symbolism, but philosophers and scientists also confronted mechanism on its own terms. Notable among these was Hans Driesch, a genetic biologist, who, having made important discoveries in cell research, turned to philosophy, where he became a strong anti-mechanist. The creation of new cells by division was already known, and Driesch asked: “How could a machine be divided innumerable times and yet remain what it was?” Refuting Huxley, he objected that “ … because a few things were really understood on account of the delicate structures having been recognized, it was thought that everything must be comprehensible on the same grounds.”11

Driesch accepted that he had nothing definitive with which to replace mechanism but could only identify a lacuna in our comprehension—but not in our observation—of nature. We can see that organisms grow from within, and so we may put a name to the cause driving this process: “vital force,” hence, the doctrine of “vitalism.” Driesch explained that “by vitalism we mean the possibility, merely negative at first, that there may be processes in the organism which are not of the machine-like or ‘mechanistic’ type.”12

Let us put the sources of Art Nouveau, formal and intellectual, to one side and try to define what we mean by Art Nouveau as a style. Let us do this on the basis of observation, looking at an Art Nouveau building and attempting to say what marks it as different from a building in any other style. What strikes us about the Casa Battló, in Barcelona, by Antonio Gaudí y Cosset is that the whole building seems to be taken over and subsumed by plant forms, suggesting a transformation of inert into organic material. What is depicted is metaphormosis—of building elements becoming plant-like, of human-made geometric form becoming natural form. We see the vital impulse in nature taking command. I would define the resulting style this way: Art Nouveau invents a new modern architectural style, the elements of which suggest a metaphormosis of inert, architectural form into living, growing plant form.

Today, the expression of vitalism probably works best in the details of a building. This illustration shows the architectural order I invented for an urban square.

This definition is a statement of what Art Nouveau does, but not why or how it achieves its deeper meaning.

Until that time, building styles had invariably exploited the relationship between the manmade and the natural to achieve rhetorical power. For instance, many have pointed out that the array of columns and vaulting in a Gothic cathedral suggests a stylized forest. But the forest is one thing, the building another. We read the forest into the building as metaphor, and so the relation between the two exists only via the mental bridge that the metaphor creates. With metaphormosis, the building becomes nature before our eyes. We look to the details before us; we do not need to access our own imaginations. Art Nouveau’s originality was to shift the relationship between the natural and the human from metaphor to metaphormosis.

An essential characteristic of any metaphormosis is that the force that impels it comes from within. Things do not metaphormose because of external forces. Growth is one type of metaphormosis, and so metaphormosis is allied with the vitalist principle. Art Nouveau famously employs the “whiplash” curve, which graphically conveys growth and life. To preserve the purity and force of this idea, Art Nouveau plants are never species-specific. They are never so literal. Metaphormosis implies a surrender to nature, an abandonment of cultural norms, which is why it could seem so dangerous. Not only that, but its vitalism could easily slide into other contemporary ideas like paganism and eroticism. Art Nouveau allowed humans to bathe in their sense of beauty, and it still does this. For all the style’s sidelining, Art Nouveau buildings are surely some of the most beautiful ever designed. Not necessarily the best, but the most beautiful.

Architecture and art are currently dominated by a mechanistic ethos, and a denial of human sensitivities to beauty is often part of that. Contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton refers to this as an act of “desecration,” and points  out that “… our contemporary culture … is … in flight from beauty. There is a desire to spoil beauty. …”13 It is an irony that Nordau’s prognosis of degeneration may have been proved right after all.

Appreciating the underlying meaning of Art Nouveau, we can create an alternative source of architectural rhetoric by appealing to the vitalist principle, with its innate recognition of the genius in nature. The appearance of the resulting buildings will no doubt be different from the original Art Nouveau, but then we are drawing on the deeper meaning of the style, not its superficial “look.” Art Nouveau will at last be taken out of its gilded box and allowed to again inform our imaginations.


1. Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin), 1966, p. 96.

2. Sir James Maude Richards, Nikolaus Pevsner, eds., The Anti-Rationalists and the Rationalists (London: Architectural Press, 1973).

3. T.H. Huxley, Science Gossip (London, 1867), p. 74.

4. Max Nordau (1895), in Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds., The Fin de Siècle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 15.

5. Ibid., p. 16.

6. See Paul Greenhalgh, ed., Art Nouveau: 1890–1914 (London: V & A Publications, 2000); Stephan Tschudi-Madsen, Sources of Art Nouveau (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press Inc., 1956); Sir James Maude Richards, Nikolaus Pevsner, eds., The Anti-Rationalists and the Rationalists (London: Architectural Press, 1973).

7. Elizabeth Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement (London: Ferndale, 1969), p. 111.

8. Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), p. 4.

9. Arthur Symons (1893), in Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds., The Fin de Siècle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 107.

10. E.E. Viollet le Duc, Entretiens sur l’Architecture, Vol. II (Paris, 1872), p. 130.

11. Hans Driesch, The History and Theory of Vitalism (London: MacMillan, 1913, reprinted by Forgotten Books), p. 210.

12. Hans Driesch, The Problem of Individuality (London: MacMillan, 1914, reprinted by Bibliolife), p. 5.

13. Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 172.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2013, Volume 30, Number 2