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Art for Art’s Sake

The Art Nouveau ceramics market is ready to welcome a new collecting generation.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Cosmic Firestorm, circa 1895,

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Cosmic Firestorm, circa 1895, earthenware, 10 x 8 in.;

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If there’s one thing that unites Art Nouveau ceramics collectors, it’s this: They are driven by an intense love for the unique, particular beauty of these objects. Certainly, an appreciation for an art form’s beauty forms the basis of any art collection, but so often, there are other motives. There’s the drive to possess. The desire to support a museum or institution by building a collection and then giving it away. A quest for intellectual satisfaction. The hopes that certain pieces will prove to be good investments.

In Art Nouveau ceramics, these other motives generally appear to be muted. Instead, those who find themselves haunting galleries, auction houses, and antiques shows in search of pieces by greats like Louis Majorelle, Clément Massier, and Paul Dachsel are moved by a deep-seated response to the work’s exquisite beauty and the almost primal liberation of form.

Art Nouveau, as a movement, lasted just about 20 years, from 1890 to 1910. Characterized by an emphasis on natural forms, asymmetry, and curvilinearity, Art Nouveau—like the nearly contemporaneous Arts and Crafts movement in the decorative arts—challenged the idea that artwork belonged only in the salons and academies. Artists working in this style sought to bring beauty into everyday objects that people actually lived with. “Art Nouveau was the most democratic of all the previous art forms,” says Jerry Suqi, owner of Galerie Fledermaus in Chicago. “It was a revolt against industrialization, and the ugliness that ensued from it. Really it was the final rebellion against what’s happening now: an essentially disposable culture.”

Tiffany lamps, ceramic vases, and amphora, floral architectural iron and metalwork—these were all examples of Art Nouveau’s insistence that beauty belonged to the public. It was, in many ways, an art movement for the middle class, which itself was just coming into its own as a result of the Machine Age. During this time, middle-class people were earning disposable income and enjoying hours of leisure and recreation. They finally had the time and the resources to purchase art for their homes.

As Ben Macklowe, owner of Macklowe Gallery in New York and a frequent lecturer on Art Nouveau, says in his lecture Art Nouveau: A Jewel in Every Medium, “I really believe that the artists of this period made a definitive choice not to be painters, not to be sculptors of grand marble, but instead to work in the applied arts that people lived with. So that makes it a very definitive break with what came before.” Perhaps it’s this aspect of Art Nouveau ceramics—their purpose as objects for the home, to imbue one’s daily life with meaning and pleasure—that explains collectors’ enduring connection with the medium.

It’s difficult to make broad generalizations about Art Nouveau ceramics collecting, because there are many different styles within the artistic movement. However, gallery owners have their own observations on how Art Nouveau ceramics collectors tend to divide themselves. Macklowe Gallery, for instance, has been dealing in Art Nouveau ceramics and decorative arts for more than 40 years and is one of the world’s foremost dealers of museum-quality decorative artworks from the Art Nouveau period. Once you’re hooked on Art Nouveau ceramics, Macklowe says, you’ll likely find yourself drawn to one of several particular styles. One is the more traditional style of fine porcelain that mainly came out of Sèvres in France, as well as the Rorstrand Company in Sweden. These pieces are largely botanical in nature, depicting delicate flowers, vines, and other vegetation. “They’re exceptionally beautiful, and very expensive,” Macklowe says. “They’ve always attracted collectors.”

Another group of collectors is drawn to the Japonist works by great European Art Nouveau masters. The wave of interest in Asian art forms, or Japonisme, that hit Europe in the late 19th century affected ceramics artists, too, and many studied the building and glazing techniques that Japanese artists had been using for centuries. “They were very influenced by the aesthetics,” Macklowe says. “Asymmetry instead of symmetry, drip glazes, pieces that look like they’re collapsing in on themselves. For a long time these weren’t so popular in our collecting circles, but in the last 15 years they’ve come into their own.” Then there are the collectors who are drawn to amphora and the more flamboyant design elements that many of us think of when we think of Art Nouveau. “The beasts, the dragonflies, the maidens, all that stuff that you see with the amphora—that’s a different collector still.”

However, there’s another side to Art Nouveau ceramics: a more experimental, exotic side epitomized by the Zsolnay company, a Hungarian manufacturer of ceramics and stoneware. Zsolnay ceramics of the Art Nouveau period are innovative, unique, and sometimes even strange. You may find pitchers with undulating necks, amphora that look like a grove of trees, vessels covered in whiplash curves. One of Zsolnay’s most important innovations, however, was the creation of a metallic, shiny glaze called eosin. This glaze gives many Zsolnay pieces a certain otherworldliness. It’s this quality that appeals to New York-based private dealer James Infante, who specializes in French and Eastern European Art Nouveau ceramics, particularly Zsolnay.

“I fell in love with Zsolnay ceramics early on, the first few times I saw them,” Infante says. “That time period, from the 1890s to right before World War I, was so fertile. It is amazing that the factories and the artistic directors around that time gave such latitude to these wonderful ceramics artists to do their own thing. I really think these pieces are timeless.” Indeed, it’s these “timeless,” exceptionally high-quality pieces that are currently still fetching high prices at auctions, antiques shows, and galleries.

“The middle of the market is pretty weak,” says Art Nouveau authority and global dealer Jason Jacques. He’s spent years as a participant in and observer of the market in Art Nouveau ceramics, and holds one of the largest, most expansive collections of European and Japonist Art Nouveau works in the art world. While mid-range Art Nouveau ceramics have gone down in price over the past decade or so—making it ripe and ready for newer collectors to enter the market—Jacques, as well as several other gallery owners, remark that the finest pieces by the great masters are valued extremely highly. They’re also becoming more difficult to find. “There isn’t a whole lot of undiscovered material left,” Jacques says. Infante agrees. “When great pieces come up, they sell quickly for high prices. If at any given time, at any given place in the world, I wanted to buy one, it would be very, very hard to find one.”

And yet it’s these fine pieces that people want. Suqi says that Art Nouveau ceramics collectors today are looking for pieces that are both of their period and transcend the period. “The hyper-Art Nouveau pottery has fallen out of favor. The ones that have more purity are the ones that still have a lot of appeal.” That purity he describes is really a kind of integrity of form, even if that form is unusual or innovative. “You look at the pots that are really pure and the glaze highlights the form, and form highlights the glaze. It’s a real relationship.”

Most often, this relationship is best expressed in works that we don’t immediately think of as Art Nouveau. “A lot of pottery—the amphora, these female forms, the ones that are very much in the Art Nouveau style—although beautiful, they don’t really sustain you. They’re lovely at first. But they’re not challenging,” Suqi says. “There are more of the French studio ceramics, the German studio ceramics that do hold your interest for much longer. Sure, there are some really beautiful pots that unfurl themselves in their totality all at once. But the really sophisticated stuff takes a long-term relationship.”

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get different answers as to which artists are most worthy of that kind of long-term relationship. For Infante, the Austrian Paul Dachsel is a favorite. “He executed such incredible designs, futuristic designs,” Infante says. “His pieces sometimes look like they come from some alien world. I think he’s so underrated.”

Speaking of underrated, there’s another type of Art Nouveau ceramics that is not nearly as celebrated as the French, Hungarian, and other European works: American pottery of the same time period. American ceramics from this era are generally not referred to as Art Nouveau—according to Jacques, American Art Nouveau does not exist—but American artists were responding to many of the same outside forces that European artists were. The Americans were also heavily influenced by many of the great European Art Nouveau masters and incorporated some of that aesthetic, as well as many of the techniques, into their own work.

David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., is one dealer who especially appreciates American ceramics from the early 20th century. Most of his collectors collect American works, and he sees a strong Art Nouveau influence in the American ceramics, as well as interesting adaptations. “To me, in many ways the Americans adapted Art Nouveau, blended it with Arts and Crafts, and came up with a relatively staid, restrained response to the Art Nouveau movement,” he says. “The American works from this time are less curvilinear and, I think, of higher quality at their pinnacle.”

Whether your tastes lean toward American or European, classic Art Nouveau or the more experimental, one thing is for certain. Upon entering into this world, you’ll find a great deal of passion for the art itself. “Art Nouveau is not a trend,” Jacques says. “Nobody’s following anyone else into this rabbit hole because it’s in vogue, or in the magazines. People who love Art Nouveau are obsessed.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2017

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