Having flourished at the turn of the twentieth century, etched and inked for adverts and featured in decorative periodicals such as Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, The Studio, and Jugend, it feels only fitting that an exhibition of Art Nouveau works is being held on the commercial shop-floor of Sanders, Oxford High Street’s fine print shop. These lithographs, embellished in the boldest of colours and lines, bring together art, advertising and industry in a manner as smooth as the curves and flicks they feature.
Works such as William Nicholson’s ‘Beefeater’ advertisement for a Harper Magazine of 1896 witness the marriage of cultures past and present, experimental and traditional. It features an arresting and almost illusory image of the titular subject, depicted by bold black strokes streaking through a field of scarlet. The theme of commercial art is continued in pieces such as Meunier’s lithograph for Concert Ysaye, with popping primary colours used within an extremely serene scene, centred on a singular star above a night-time lake and a solitary female figure. Grasset’s advert for La Meillure de Toutes les Encres, on the other hand, is a piece brimming with energy, filled with swirls of hair and flurries of ink and paper, centred around the contorted figure of a woman, whose shape embodies the ‘whiplash’ form so characteristic of Art Nouveau images. Perhaps the standout work of advertising, however, is Gorguet & Orazi’s ‘Theodora’ – a lithograph designed for and featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt as the Byzantine empress. Described by Maindron as ‘une affiche parfaite’, its mosaic-like aesthetic is married with a storytelling montage of images reminiscent of the serials and “penny dreadfuls” of nineteenth-century Europe. The whole piece is bedecked with swathes of shining gold, giving a suitably bold, byzantine finish.
Elsewhere, the collection demonstrates the more demure side of Art Nouveau. Armand Rassenfosse’s ‘Danse’ captures a delicately drawn image of a classical figure in desaturated shades. Guinier’s ‘Nuit Douce’ is a sketched study of a young woman’s profile in a style reminiscent of Rossetti, and Grasset’s Froideur is suggestive of a more domestic element to his work, in both its conservative colours and content, and its miniature-like dimensions.Drama and wit are brought to the exhibition in a collection of prints by Aubrey Beardsley. An artist for the infamous and scandalous ‘yellow books’ of the age, Beardsley’s brave works engage his audience with both darkly dramatic compositions such as ‘Salome’s Toilette’ and ‘The Kiss of Judas’ – monochromatic contortions reminiscent of troubled Freudian dreamscapes – as well as a sense of humour; A Poster incorporates a square of blank space that constitutes nearly half the work. Elsewhere, a cover designed for Pierrot magazine depicts a pierrot clown in a library. It is this awareness of and engagement with the intersection of forms so often constituted in Art Nouveau works that makes Beardsley a master of the style, and a highlight of this sensuous and sensational exhibition.