Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Deeper Dive Into Art Nouveau (1)

Good friends like to tease me about my attention to my special interests. When asked, I’m always quick to note that I have three (in no particular order): my love of elephants, my devotion to opera, and my joy in discovering the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — pleasures of Art Nouveau.

The first comes up pretty often, as demonstrated in my last post. Opera, too, gets written about frequently in these posts. My third interest, though, hasn’t had much coverage in the past. If you search the term “Art Nouveau” in the upper left-hand corner, just above the blog’s title bar, you’ll find I have written only twice about Art Nouveau, in a description of the style in Brussels when I visited there in 2010 (Art Nouveau, February 24, 2010) and a longer, very admiring post from Paris (Pierre Cardin’s Art Nouveau Museum at Maxim’s, January 26, 2014). Obviously I have a way to go if I’m going to catch up and give greater attention to Art Nouveau in the future.

Siegfried Bing's
Maison de l'Art Nouveau, Paris
As I speak with friends about Art Nouveau, I’m often asked for a definition, and I usually begin by noting that this decorative movement or style seems to have been particularly short-lived. Some say it began about 1889 and for others the beginning period was in the early 1880s. For me, 1895 to 1915 seems to work best, for it was at the end of 1895 that Siegfried Bing opened his Maison de l’Art Nouveau at 22 rue de Provence in Paris. The title soon was conveniently abbreviated in popular conversation to l’art nouveau and with the success of the gallery and with the equal success of the gallery’s displays at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the phrase became attached to a type of decorative and design style that was to become increasingly popular.

The term (and the style) came about in reaction to what had preceded it. After all, there can’t be a “new” art/architecture without there having been an “old” one before it. Until the advent of Art Nouveau, almost all styles of architecture and decorative arts drew heavily on historical precedent. The 19th century was rife with revivals: Gothic, Romanesque, Greek, Renaissance (adapted with Beaux Arts) and more. Connected to this attraction to earlier forms and contributing to the need for and development of a new direction in art was the fact that the 19th century also saw a huge growth of wealth as a result of the industrial revolution, the expansion of the railroads, and other technological improvements. In most cases, wealth was concentrated in relatively few hands. In the United States, the period went under the name of the Gilded Age. In France it was La Belle Époque (the “beautiful era”), and other countries had their own names for this period. Many of these newly rich (the nouveau-riches) sought extravagant examples of these same revival styles. Others, sometimes but not always younger, sought a style that did not look to the past. They wanted something new. Art Nouveau fit the bill.

Sadly, and despite its earlier success, the popularity of Art Nouveau began to wane as early as the First World War (though certainly examples of fine Art Nouveau came later). And it spread out, turning up almost all over Western Europe (and even in Russia, as I discovered when I was in St. Petersburg a few years ago). Not surprisingly, there were many variations, and these variations were based on many factors, including geography, national interests, styles, and the specific tastes of many of the movement’s patrons.

One of the
Paris Metro entrances
designed by Hector Guimard
As Art Nouveau became more recognized, the style was referred to by a wide variety of names. The original designation — l’art nouveau — was generally capitalized when written in English but written in lower case in French. The term began to appear in many forms, reflecting the several languages of its different locations. In France, for example, in addition to the popular term (l’art nouveau) the style was sometimes spoken of with an English phrase, the “modern style,” related to the Arts and Crafts Movement. And in either case, when Art Nouveau was (and is) discussed in Paris the names of architect and designer Hector Guimard and the furniture designer and industrial designer Eugène Gaillard are often heard. Across the Channel, we hear about the Glasgow style and in most cases in the same sentence, the names of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish architect and designer and his artist wife Margaret Macdonald, both of whom were noticeably influential to the Art Nouveau movement. Although different from what most of us might think of as Art Nouveau, Mackintosh became one of the most respected of the Art Nouveau specialists (as did — in his own way — Louis Comfort Tiffany, who led this work in America).

Victor Horta
Entrance Hall to His Home (Brussels)
In Brussels there's the style coup de court, reflecting (jokingly I presume) the nickname "whiplash" and associated with architect Victor Horta and the architecture and furniture designs of Henry van de Velde. In a different part of Europe, if you visit Barcelona you’ll hear much discussion about a style that is similar to Art Nouveau. There it is known as Moderisme, reflecting the critical work of architect Antoni Gaudí and others. In Vienna you’ll hear Secessionsstil for the movement, with Otto Wagner’s name prominently associated with it, as well as that of designer Josef Hoffman. Germany has its Jugendstil, and in Italy we hear about Stile floreale or — the one I like — Stile Liberty, after the store in London that for Italians of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries seemed to evoke what we think of as Art Nouveau. As I say, these are just a few examples but, hopefully, they give us a snapshot of how this style had so much influence in the short time in which it was such an important part of the architecture, art, and design movement.

Eugène Gaillard
cabinet displayed at the
Bröhan-Museum, Berlin
As you’ve noticed, I’ve used not only the term “style” to identify Art Nouveau. The term “movement” comes up often when we discuss Art Nouveau, and others speak about the “philosophy” underlying Art Nouveau as a style or movement. This is, I think, because of some of the external forces I mentioned above, the growth of wealth, the desire to move beyond artistic and design attributes of earlier historical times, and — not least of all — perhaps a late 19th century interest for exploring a style to “live with,” to create an environment that was not only pleasing to the people who created it and offered it to the (obviously well-to-do) public, but to the patrons themselves who were willing and even enthusiastic about having this particular style as part of their lives. There are indications that for many who were drawn to Art Nouveau — despite its brief popularity — they wanted to surround themselves with this particular style.

And they — many of them — took the idea of “surrounding themselves” seriously, to such an extent that some critics and scholars in the field came to recognize that with Art Nouveau its creators and patrons saw the movement as an “ideal” or “total” work of art and design (connecting, perhaps, with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, in which all elements of the art combine to provide a unifying experience, all supporting a single form of expression). That idea might be a little grand but in fact with Art Nouveau the style (as short-lived as it was) became an almost universal way to think about architecture, art, design, furniture, jewelry, household utensils, silver, and a vast array of other art and craft applications. Indeed, the word “universal” is used in the current digital exhibition, through mid-May, Art Nouveau: A Universal Style at the Europeana Collections site, a delightful little display that provides considerable pleasure in and of itself. Had those of us who have so much fun with Art Nouveau today lived in the movement’s heyday, we too would have loved surrounding ourselves with Art Nouveau all over the place (or at least visiting places where it was available to be seen, even if we were not in the financial bracket for acquiring it for ourselves. 

So with all that background, how do we define Art Nouveau? The best definition, to my way of thinking, comes from looking at examples. As I say, it’s not all the same, but the similarities are there: the focus on nature and natural structures and, in particular, botanical shapes, the curving, almost sensuous lines, and, a special joy to me, the many bold and dynamic color combinations. Like any artistic movement, Art Nouveau did not develop in a vacuum. Indeed, it was in many ways made possible by technological changes in fields as varied as building, printing, furniture production, and more. Thanks to the openness of architects, designers, and artists (especially in reaction to what had come “before”), new opportunities to aesthetic possibilities led to graceful, eye-pleasing forms, demonstrated in what we have in our minds’ eye when we think about Art Nouveau.

[Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is For this blog, Guy thanks Andrew Berner for his subject matter expertise and his editorial assistance.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Elephants and Hotels

Everyone who knows me knows of my interest (obsession?) regarding elephants, an interest that originated during my time living in Kenya. Recently, I've become aware of various connections between elephants and hotels.

"What?" you ask. "Elephants and hotels?"

Well, yes.

Here are a few examples. 

The first involves Somers, a small town in northern Westchester County, about fifty miles north of New York City. There stands a Georgian brick edifice on which are clearly painted the words "ELEPHANT HOTEL." In front of this elegant structure stands a column atop of which is a statue of, yes, an elephant.

When friends in Somers introduced me to the story of the town’s Elephant Hotel (now the town hall, with the Somers Historical Society and Museum on the third floor), I wondered about the connection between the town and elephants. In fact, I discovered that this can be traced to one Hachaliah Bailey, an early 19th-century resident whose family could trace its presence in the area back to colonial times. Perhaps if you're good at solving puzzles you may have already noticed a connection between the name Bailey and the subject of elephants, and you're on the right track. The Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus was James Anthony Bailey, a nephew of Hachaliah. At a time when "the circus" is moving definitely into our past with the closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May, it is interesting to look back on the days before formal circuses existed. 

The Elephant Hotel is not named for the species in general but for one very specific elephant, “Old Bet” (originally “Elephant Betty”). Hachaliah Bailey, sometimes referred to as the “first menagerie entrepreneur,” acquired Old Bet sometime in the first decade of the 19th century. In the rather convoluted story of Bailey’s work as a menagerie manager, Old Bet became joint property, with ownership rights shared with others. As told in the Somers history: "Sometime in 1815 or early 1816 Hachaliah leased an interest in his menagerie to Nathan Howes of Southeast. On July 24, 1816, while on tour near Alfred, Maine, enroute to Berwick, Old Bet was shot by an angry farmer named Donald Davis who thought it was sinful for poor people to spend their hard-earned cash to see a wicked beast."

The elephant’s death was a great blow to menagerie followers (apparently a great entertainment business in many parts of the United States). Indeed, Old Bet was eulogized in such papers as the Boston Gazette and the New York Herald, and even an advertisement about a display of her skeleton in New York City appeared in the New York Evening Post.

And Old Bet wasn’t forgotten by Hachaliah Bailey, either, for by 1820 he had begun the construction of his new large hotel (his new business venture), destined to become a popular stopping-off point for travelers. The Elephant Hotel opened in 1825, and Bailey erected the statue (later restored) in front of the hotel.

But Somers wasn't the only site of an elephant hotel. In fact, some chose not simply to name their hotel after the elephant, but to make the hotel in the shape of the eponymous animal. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something about the 19th century imagination that drew hotel operators (and their clients) to the “idea” of the elephant. One of the most famous — as described by Marcia Reiss in Lost New York — was “Coney Island’s Elephantine Colossus,” built in 1885.

How I would have loved to have seen this one! At twelve stories (150 feet to the top of the howdah) and located right on the Atlantic shore, this elephant would have been visible to those traveling by sea to New York, even before they entered New York Harbor. Beginning in 1886 — on entering the harbor — they would have seen the Statue of Liberty, also 150 feet in height without its pedestal. 

From the viewing platform atop the Coney Island Elephant Hotel, visitors could see all the amusements of Coney Island in one direction and the ocean in the other. There were thirty-four rooms (some descriptions say thirty-one rooms) and it became a popular attraction, if only to look at from a distance. And from our 122-year perspective, you can’t help but wonder at the brashness displayed by J. Mason Kirby, the hotel’s builder, when he said, as noted by Reiss, that the building was the “eighth wonder of the world” and could hold 5,000 people (of course he also claimed that from the observation platform, visitors could see the Grand Canyon). 

Another telling of the Elephantine Colossus’s story names the designer and builder as James V. Lafferty, who had earlier built Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey (see below) and then later influenced the building of the now-gone “Light of Asia,” an elephant-shaped building in Cape May, New Jersey. But at Coney Island — whether it was J. Mason Kirby or James V. Lafferty — the Elephantine Colossus was a great sight to see, and attracted many New Yorkers.

Still, despite its great novelty, the structure didn’t last long, and it was gone by 1897. For one thing, pickpockets and prostitutes became an on-going problem, and going into the building became less interesting (for ordinary beach visitors) than just looking at it from a distance. Old Bet may have fallen victim to a crazed farmer with a gun, but the Elephantine Colossus was totally destroyed by fire on September 27, 1896, by which date the building had not been occupied for several years.

As for Lafferty’s Lucy the Elephant (originally called “Elephant Bazaar”) over in Margate, New Jersey, the six-story building wasn’t a hotel — but we can include it here anyway. It was originally built to promote real estate sales, and interested buyers would climb up to the howdah at the top to view parcels of land on offer. The building later was used as a restaurant, business office, and for other purposes and despite some old postcards calling the building “The Elephant Hotel of Atlantic City,” the actual hotel was in another building, nearby.

Lucy is still there, although about 100 yards away from its original location. A civic campaign to save the structure was taken up in the 1960s and considerable repair work was done, to ensure that the building would be safe. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

So there is fun to be had thinking about elephants and hotels. And while they are located all over the world, I like to think about these from our local history.

But I mustn't conclude this "connection" between elephants and hotels without returning to my beloved African elephants and sharing the story of how some of them were discovered behaving in a very different way in a particular hotel. I could try to tell the story, but it’s best told in this brief video, shared by another good friend (not the Somers folks this time):
An Entire Herd ofElephants Walks through this Hotel Lobby Every Spring. 
[Historical Notes based on Somers — Its People and Places: 1788  - A 200 Year History – 1988, published by the Somers Historical Society in 1989 and Lost New York, by Marcia Reiss (Pavilion Books Group, 2011.]
Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is