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"Art Nouveau Tiles: Fantastic Flowers and Other Forms"
2001-02-24 until 2001-06-24
Carnegie Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Art Nouveau Tiles: Fantastic Flowers and Other Forms, a superb exhibition of decorative tiles from the private collection of James Baker are on display in Carnegie Museum of Art's Treasure Room. The 294 glazed tiles in the exhibition reflect the range of stylistic expression within Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau, literally new art, flourished in Europe and America in the decades from 1890 to 1914 and is considered the first modern style in the decorative arts to incorporate themes from nature. In its day, the Art Nouveau style graced everything from household objects to buildings, and went by various names depending on the country of origin (Jugendstil in Germany, Modernista in Spain, Arte Nova in Portugal).

The welcome freshness and freedom of Art Nouveau's treatment of natural and floral themes amounted to a dramatic break from the era's dominant classical and revival styles, which drew their inspiration from the past and used natural designs sparingly and rigidly, if at all. The stylized floral motifs in Japanese art were a major source of inspiration for Art Nouveau style. Other channels of influence also helped create Art Nouveau, including the English Arts and Crafts movement and Celtic designs.

Until the interruption of regular commerce during World War I, there was a ready market for decorative ceramic tiles in the Art Nouveau style. A centuries-old tradition of making tiles by hand in Europe, particularly in Holland and England, coupled with improvements in production, transport, and marketing, helped create a consumer demand for the new machine-made Art Nouveau tiles. Some of the tiles in the show are rectangular or odd sizes, but most of the tiles are 6-inch squares, and most were manufactured by machine.

A common tile-making method, referred to as the dust press process, was used to create most of the tiles in the exhibition. In this process, a powdered clay and water mixture is shaped into six-inch-square slabs of clay, which are mechanically imprinted with a design. The tiles are then hardened, coated with a white glaze and fired. A final glazing and firing imparts color and detail to the tile. The initial imprinting process is necessary for creating a range of hues in the finished tile. By imprinting the tile's surface with a 3D relief, the red, blue, and green glazes of the tilemaker's somewhat limited palette pool in parts of the tile, creating varying degrees of color saturation.

All the tiles in this exhibition came from European building interiors, mostly from England and Germany, with a few from Belgium and one tile from Hungary. They were used to protect walls and other surfaces in shops, domestic kitchens, and lavatories from moisture, heat, damage, and wear, or were simply adornment. The English and German tiles exhibit the stylistic diversity within Art Nouveau. Compared to English tiles of the same decade, German Art Nouveau tiles have a bolder, more abstract look--appearing to our eyes more modern. The English tiles, on the other hand, have designs that, though stylized, owe more to direct observation of nature than do their German counterparts.

James Baker, the collector of the tiles in this exhibition, sees a shift toward the later Art Deco style in the German tiles. According to Baker, Even the earliest German tiles have very inventive, almost experimental designs. You can clearly discern the floral motif, which is a common denominator of Art Nouveau, but the tendrils and linear form of the flowers begin to rely less on nature and more on the human imagination for their expression. It's fascinating to see that aesthetic shift captured on ceramic tiles.

Elisabeth Agro, assistant curator of decorative arts at Carnegie Museum of Art and curator of the exhibition, appreciates the tiles on several levels. First of all, this is an excellent collection that deserves a wider audience, and for me personally, the floral designs and bright colors make me feel that spring is just around the corner, Agro says.


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