Editorial of June 17th 2005
 


Rossella Froissart
the decorative arts in the service of the nation, 1880-1918

 

Jean-Yves Andrieux arts ans crafts vs. art nouveau ? art and the turn-of-centuries debate on nations

Seminar of June 17th 2005
Rossella Froissart After studying at the Louvre School and at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Rossella Froissart defended her doctoral thesis on the Art dans Tout group (1896-1901) at the Blaise Pascal-Clermont-Ferrand University. There, she investigated questions connected with the reappraisal of the “minor arts” in the nineteenth century, recognition of the status of the decorative artist, and the emergence of a social conception of the latter’s role. Her thesis was published by Les Éditions du CNRS in 2004.
Froissart was charged by the French Office of Activities and Heritage (DAP) with a research mission that helped to reconstitute the history of Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Arts décoratifs. She also participated, at the French National Institute of Art History, in the development of the dictionary of historians of French art, contributing to the section on the decorative arts.
She has just been named an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History at the University of Aix-Marseille I.
the decorative arts in the service of the nation, 1880-1918



 “Old man, . . . Next year at the Universal Exhibition you will see a dining room that will be neither English nor Belgian: My hope is that it will be French--dare I say that it will resemble the Louis XV style!! Made up of wood paneling, furniture, plates, glassware, rugs, napkins, cups, especially, a clock, etc., etc., the only thing missing will be the soup.”(1)

        This statement by the sculptor Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909) to the Belgian lawyer and patron Octave Maus raises straight off the question of a “French” decorative art. At the turn of the twentieth century, when the decorating industries were going through a deep crisis on account of their inability to adapt to upheavals in the way goods were being produced and sold, several historical factors seemed to militate in favor of the “national” solution conjured up by Charpentier. Among those factors were the painful awareness of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, economic slowdown, and echoes of the Dreyfus Affair as well as the prewar climate of competition and latent conflict. How and to what extent did decorative artists, who had been actively trying over the previous half century to make their presence known in society by endeavoring to create a “modern” style, yield to the demands of a timorous industry and a hesitant clientele still strongly attached to the “national tradition” ?
        Let us return to Alexandre Charpentier. The dining room in question was fully integrated into the new manufacturing and marketing circuit, for it was commissioned by the Louvre Stores and was presented with success at the 1900 Exhibition. As the fruit of an acknowledged compromise, its aesthetic pertains to a toned-down--and even rather middle-class [embourgeoisé]–Rocaille style that harks back to the tradition of the “Louis.” Moreover, the wood--solid and not stained, extolled for its warm beauty and full of eloquent detail--was not unreminiscent of late Gothic rinceaux patterns, just as the solidity of the furniture and the extent of the wainscoting remind one of the rooms decorated by Viollet-le-Duc in the Pierrefonds chateau.
        The Gothic and the Eighteenth Century being the reference periods for French art, the kind of modernity being offered by England and Belgium could not help but be rejected, for it was lacking the formal elements that could identify it as being part of the national heritage. The “English style” to which Charpentier was alluding was that of rectilinear and unornamented “furniture-crates.” At the opposite pole, the “Belgian style,” thought to be afflicted by its “whiplash” curves, went against the visual habits of classical clarity and harmony attributed to the “French mind.”
        How is one to explain this rejection on the part of someone like Alexandre Charpentier, who was close to anarchist circles ? For, Charpentier otherwise fully shared the social ideas of people like William Morris and Henry Van de Velde, alongside whom he had exhibited his works in the Modern House of the German Julius Meier-Graefe or in the Brussels-based Free Aesthetic of Octave Maus--who was, moreover, the recipient of this surprising nationalist declaration of faith ?

A Nostalgia for Corporatism

        The 1881 investigation ordered by Antonin Proust, French Minister of the Arts in the government of Léon Gambetta, was published in 1884. It took stock of the state of the decorative arts industry shortly before the economic crisis of 1882, when France dropped to fourth place, behind Germany, in the ranking of industrial powers.
        The same assessment was shared by all industry leaders : the problem was the crisis in the training of apprentices for a sector that had a high demand for skilled labor. Foreign competition was becoming a threat, they stated, because of the loss of know-how brought on by the abolition of guilds [corporations] in 1791. Most of these industrialists and decorative artists, who in the years surrounding 1848 and 1870 were generally active in the ranks of revolutionaries, had little by little begun to withdraw to defensive positions. As early as the 1880s, they had initiated a pullback whose motivations were to be found both in a fear of things foreign and in a nostalgic look back upon the corporatism of the prerevolutionary period. A reform in the teaching of drawing had been put into effect in 1878 that was designed to counter the apprenticeship crisis by placing positive knowledge in the service of quality industrial production. Yet, this reform was already being viewed with skepticism at the time this investigation was undertaken.
        It was Marius Vachon who, despite being a member of the Commission, manifested the strongest (and loudest) opposition to French republican interventionism, which was deemed too centralizing as well as unsuitable in relation to the flexibility of action enjoyed by England or Germany. When one looks into the question of nationalism and the decorative and industrial arts between 1880 and 1918, the figure of Vachon is not to be overlooked. Starting in 1881, this prolix and combative writer-journalist was entrusted with a number of official missions whose aim was to study how institutions created in Europe and in France to promote the development of industries involving the arts were organized. His voluminous reports published by the French Government drew a very critical picture of economic and manufacturing realities in France after its 1870 defeat. It is in Vachon that we find, already clearly knotted together, the connection between nationalism and corporatism that would be taken up again and again by numerous artists and critics after World War I and would later become one of the foundations for a new ideological conception of the arts during the 1930s, just one step away from being carried out between 1940 and 1944.(2) It was also Vachon who, as early as the 1880s in official artistic circles still quite firmly committed to French republican ideals, called for a return to prerevolutionary values, combining the most rigid kind of corporatism and an ultraliberalism rather favorable to big capitalist concentration. In particular, Vachon deplored the fact that the new bosses, who did not come from among the old “masters,” were entirely “unfamiliar [étranger] with the trade” and wanted only to make top profits through their use of the sweating system. From “unfamiliar” to “alien” or “foreign” [étranger] without further qualification: this new employing class could not be said to be French in his view, and it would exploit a rather unskilled labor force before returning to its native soil, leaving behind it a national industry in ruins.(3)

Art Nouveau and National Tradition

        In 1895, less than a year after the inception of the Dreyfus Affair, the industrialist, collector, and merchant of German origin Siegfried Bing opened his gallery-store named Art Nouveau. It is not surprising that, in France’s tense social climate at the time, an avant-garde with clearly cosmopolitan intentions would engender a highly hostile reaction. The same response came when the art critic and collector Julius Meier-Graefe opened the Modern House.(4)

“Art Nouveau saw the light of day in Brussels, in the Brabant region. It was sent to be suckled in London, whence it came to Paris to teethe. The snobbery of Parisians, who are made up of immigrants and foreigners, adopted it immediately, as it was later to adopt Cubism, Futurism, and so on. This snobbery had an inborn taste for all sorts of defects, all sorts of physical and intellectual deformities. . . . Based on anarchy and internationalism, Art Nouveau recognized no aesthetic and technical doctrines or principles or laws or traditions. . . . In the living rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms of the homes and apartments of the rich bourgeoisie, where furnishings in precious woods, with inlays and mosaics of a sumptuous decor were the signs of wealth, luxury, and an inherited sense of exquisite taste, it did its utmost, through a mania for unhealthy inversion, to sneak in kitchen furniture, if not in farmhouse-style, at least in plain wood, barely squared off. . . . In short, in Art Nouveau everything is topsy-turvy, everything is upside down.”(5)

        The reproach that Art Nouveau, as well as some other avant-garde movements hastily associated with it, were encouraging a tabula rasa attitude is not very original. It elicits one’s surprise only if one notices that more than ten years had passed since the near-official “death” of the movement during the Turin Exhibition of 1902. And yet, in his blind attachment to the past, Vachon ended up offering a new reading. Associating “social and moral order” with “aesthetic order,” he accused Art Nouveau of subverting the former by its straightforward rejection of the laws of symmetry and classical order. Like the decorative artists he abhorred, Vachon relied on the theories of Charles Henry and Ferdinand Helmholtz (as popularized by Charles Blanc and Henry Havard), but with an opposite aim : while each agreed upon the educative power of lines, of colors, and of their layout, the meaning given to the moral regeneration of the “race,” of which these “unambiguous signs” were supposed to have to have been the weapon, was not the same for the writer-journalist Vachon and for someone like Alexandre Charpentier and his Art dans Tout (Art in Everything) or Art Nouveau colleagues. Vachon was not mistaken when he cast his public opprobrium on that for which the history of art has coined a variety of labels, starting with the oppositions between curve and line, stained wood and natural wood, organic structure and decorative covering. What allowed Vachon to join together all of the manifestations of European Art Nouveau--beyond the play of “national” references and within a very drawn-out chronology--is ultimately the social project adopted by this movement which sometimes claimed to be “popular” and, in any case, generally “democratic.”
        Vachon’s remarks take on their full meaning if the adjective democratic is read as a synonym for “bourgeois.” This class that Vachon abhorred had accomplished the Revolution and prospered upon the rubble of the corporatist system. The clearest symptom of its decadence was the place it made for woman and for her emancipation : Did not an American book look into the new domestic fixtures conceived to facilitate the chores of the modern woman? Was it not Art Nouveau that, in its most avant-garde circles, had begun to refine and simplify decoration, making air, light, and bright colors-in a word, a “hygienist” view of domestic and everyday life–the prime value ? It is not surprising that among Art Nouveau’s rare sponsors in France one finds the Touring Club. Vachon considered this association of cycling tourists responsible for the spread of hygienist theories where abundance and a large domestic household staff prevailed. The Art Nouveau of “ocean liner-interiors” (from Charpentier to Van de Velde to Bing), as well as the Anglophile elitism of Adolf Loos and the spare elegance of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret’s pre-War furniture, fit, under the same heading, into a broad category of bourgeois and cosmopolitan art that was decried by Vachon and by those whom he represented, the “Faubourg” industry and the Employer’s Federations, with their idea of a “national decorative art.”

The “Sedan” of the Art Industries

        What exactly, then, is the meaning to be given to the missive sent by Charpentier to Maus ?
        The sculptor’s dining room as well as the Bing pavilion for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 and, for example, a rather large portion of Émile Gallé’s furniture designs are obviously the result of a compromise made between the “national tradition,” on the one hand, and the free study of forms, needs, and materials. Such a compromise ought to have made it easier for Art Nouveau to adapt itself to the tastes of a bourgeoisie whose lifestyles were becoming more modern but whose ways of inhabiting remained obstinately attached to the decor of the Ancien regime. There was nothing of the sort : Vachon extolled the reproduction, pure and simple, of the old styles, succeeding even in rehabilitating the cabinetmakers and upholsterers of the Second Empire, who were past masters in this practice. Nor was he alone in defending such a position.
        The Employers’ Federations who organized the Furniture Salons in 1902, 1905, 1908, and 1911 stood firm, adopting similar positions. Did not the program for the 1908 competition center around a Louis XVI bedroom, though in a “modernized Louis XVI style” ?
        One need only read the reactions of the press and of numerous artists and industrialists to the opening of the Autumn Salon of 1910, to which Frantz Jourdain had invited the Munich Werkbund (Work Federation), in order to hear once more the nationalist tones of 1895. The hostility was tenfold among a few former advocates of the Art Nouveau, in remembrance of the bitter setback they experienced at the 1900 Exhibition, where the French avant-garde was able to gauge the gulf that separated it from industry.
        Eugène Gaillard, even though one of Bing’s former collaborators, did not hesitate to brandish warlike metaphors and to compare the arrival of the Munich artists to the invasion of the German troops in 1870. Faced with the compact and organized forces of the Werkbund, the artist exclaimed :

“For my part, I left there enraged, shouting Love live liberty ! Long live independence ! Love live personality and long live the battle for art in scattered formation ! Everything will come together, everything will be unified spontaneously, and all the better thanks solely to our racial unity and to the unity of our competing tendencies.”

And yet he could not hide the fact that “on the French side . . . the battle order is overly dispersed and offers no decisive defense against the German offensive.”(6)
        The sculptor and cabinetmaker François-Rupert Carabin was more lucid than Gaillard and free from any hint of nationalism when he was sent by the city of Paris and the Provincial Union of Decorative Arts to the Munich Congresses in 1908 and 1911. And yet the powerful unified stance of the Werkbund could at the time only suggest to him the artistic and commercial “Sedan” that would result from an impending confrontation.(7)
        Taking up some old lines of argument, Vachon--but also Camille Mauclair, someone who was listened to more attentively in the early twentieth century, and other critics supported by the neotraditionalist movement tied to Maurice Denis--thought that the reasons for France’s weakness lay in postrevolutionary liberal and bourgeois “democratism” and in the abolition of the guilds.(8) “The secret of French industrial and decorative art lies in this tomb,” Mauclair stated, “and nothing has come back out of it.”(9) In the place of a Trianon Palace and of its “absolute harmony,” wherein may be recognized “the cohesion of a corporatist age,” Mauclair sees only “a kind of complicated (or deceptively simple) junk, which calls itself industrial art or Art Nouveau.”(10)
        Denis’s commentary on Roger Marx’s 1909 initiative to organize an Exhibition of Social Art brings together in a few lines the basic motivations behind this debate, one of whose aspects we have just recounted :

“Why don’t we have an aristocracy that would set the tone for the various decorative arts (furniture, etc.) ? It is not popular universities and lectures to the people about beauty that will make the people into aesthetes or aestheticians. They could give a . . . . What moves them are café-concerts or mechanical inventions. Given the chance to buy some everyday objects, they invariably choose, for the same price, the ugliest ones. . . . All schools of art in the past have started out in this way : it is an elite that has imposed them on the people-as it is the taste of two or three big socialites or of some couturier that dictates fashions for dresses or hats. . . . Where mechanization is possible (in Germany and elsewhere), the craftsman’s sensibility is almost worthless : it can be sacrificed. Not so among us ! Whence the impossibility of reconciling industrial manufacturing and art in France.”(11)

        “Arts for Everyone” vs. elitism, cosmopolitanism vs. national tradition, modernization of mechanized manufacturing vs. neocorporatism : started in the years after 1870, the debate went on in the same terms, but with a tone that hardened during the second decade of the twentieth century, so as to continue beyond the First World War and into the years of France’s fresh defeat. Art Nouveau was to have been but a brief interlude during which a few artists (and those who supported them) believed that they could find a modern style without obliterating [faire table rase du] the past. It did so in the name of a social project that was understood especially by its adversaries.

Notes

1. Undated [1899] letter, published in Madeleine-Octave Maus, Trente années de lutte pour l’art, 1884-1914 (Brussels: Librairie de l’Oiseau bleu, 1926) reissued edition (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1980), p. 240.
2. Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, “L'Ordre des artistes et l'utopie corporatiste, 1940-1944 : les tentatives de régir la scène artistique française, juin 1940-août 1944,” Revue d'Histoire moderne et contemporaine, 37 (January-March 1990): 64-87.
3. Marius Vachon, Pour la défense de nos Industries d'Art: l'instruction artistique des ouvriers en France, en Angleterre, en Allemagne et en Autriche, Official Investigative Missions (Paris: A. Lahure, 1899). On Marius Vachon, see Nadine Besse, “Construire l'art, construire les mœurs. La fonction du musée d'art et d'industrie selon Marius Vachon,” in : L'édification, morales et cultures du XIXe siècle, ed. Stéphane Michaud, (Paris: Éditions Créaphis and PPSH, 1993), pp. 51-58; Stéphane Laurent, “Marius Vachon, un militant pour les industries d'art,’” Histoire de l'Art, 29-30 (mai 1995): 71-78.
4. See Nancy J. Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France : Art Nouveau to Le Corbusier (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991).
5. Marius Vachon, La belle maison. Principes et lois esthétiques pour aménager, meubler et orner sa demeure (Lyon: J. Deprelle et M. Camus, 1924), p. 87.
6. Eugène Gaillard, Nos arts appliqués modernes. Le mobilier au Salon d'Automne de 1910. Impressions et opinions (Paris: E. Floury, 1910), p. 13.
7. Anonymous [François-Rupert Carabin], “Rapport présenté au nom de la Délégation envoyée par la Ville de Paris au 2e Congrès de l'Union Provinciale des Arts Décoratifs à Munich,” L'Art et les Métiers, 3 (January 1909), pp. 62-67. [Translator’s Note: The September 1, 1870 Battle of Sedan marked France’s decisive defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.]
8. See also the responses to the investigations of 1902, 1910, and 1914: Anonymous, “L'idée de corporation”, Art et Décoration, special issue (May 1902): 2-5; Pascal Forthuny, “Enquête sur l'art décoratif et sur la crise de l'apprentissage,” Le Matin, November 1, 1910; Guillaume Janneau, L'apprentissage dans les métiers d'art, Une enquête (Paris: H. Dunod et E. Pinat, 1914).
9. Camille Mauclair, Trois crises de l'art actuel (Paris” E. Fasquelle, 1906).
10. Ibid., p. 252.
11. Maurice Denis in Roger Marx, L'Art social, preface by Anatole France (Paris: E. Fasquelle), 1913), pp. 227-228.


Bibliography


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BERTRAND DORLÉAC, Laurence, “L'Ordre des artistes et l'utopie corporatiste, 1940-1944 : les tentatives de régir la scène artistique française, juin 1940-août 1944.” Revue d'Histoire moderne et contemporaine, 37 (January-March 1990): 64-87.
CARABIN, François-Rupert, “Rapport. Reconstitution du travail par l'apprentissage et l'enseignement du dessin.” L'Art et les Métiers, 2 (December 1908): 48-56.
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Fig. 1 G. Rémon, Bedroom plan, Intérieurs modernes, 41 (1900), plate 16.


Fig. 2 Léon Benouville, Working-class home or farmhouse furniture; copperware: P. Brindau;  woodwork: J. Le Coeur; interior decoration: F. Aubert (Art et Décoration, 1903).

 

Fig. 3 Alexandre Charpentier, Dining room for the banker Adrien Bénard, c. 1901. Mahogany, oak, and poplar, gold-colored bronze, ceramic washbasin and tiles by Alexandre Bigot, Orsay Museum (Paris).

 

Fig. 4 Alexandre Charpentier, The Happy Family, bas-relief, plaster, 1898-1905 (destroyed), L’Art décoratif, 1905.

 

Fig. 5 Henri Foudinois, Model bedroom, Revue des Arts décoratifs, 1882-1883.

 

Fig. 6 Alexandre Charpentier, Dining room for the Louvre Stores, Universal Exhibition of 1900.