Back in 1936, Nikolaus Pevsner included - apparently with some misgivings - a chapter on Art Nouveau in his vastly influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement. While conceding the significance of the movement as a protest against the strict historicism and moral certainties of the nineteenth century, Pevsner warned his readers that 'for a revolution, it is suspiciously sophisticated and refined, and ... entirely lacking in a social conscience.' How could people live in a Gaudi apartment, 'under roofs like the backs of dinosaurs, behind walls bending and bulging so precariously and on balconies whose ironwork might stab you at any moment?'
Looking at some of the objects in this monumental exhibition - one of the most impressive mounted by the V&A in recent years - one can understand Pevsner's doubts. Here are objects of wonderful elegance and grace, but equally things as hideous as they are useless. The confections of silver and ivory made by the Belgian jeweller Philippe Wolfers, for example, are an appropriate symbol of Belgium's genocide in the Congo - almost as sinister as the worst excesses of Nazi kitsch. Much of the Tiffany glass shown here is remarkable for its overblown vulgarity, calculated to appeal to the new rich of fin de siecle America.
The adjectives 'bloated', 'tortuous' and 'overwrought' could be applied to a number of the exhibits. A cup by the Norwegian Thorolf Prytz is extolled in the lavish exhibition catalogue (at £40 hardback, a bargain) for its 'breathtaking delicacy', but could equally be described as a triumph of artifice over common sense. You can understand why C F A Voysey condemned Art Nouveau as 'distinctly unhealthy and revolting ... the work of a lot of imitators with nothing but mad eccentricity as a guide.'
So much for the case against Art Nouveau, a style (movement? tendency?) which has never struck much of a chord in the British consciousness, though it flowered vigorously in virtually every other country in Europe. At the heart of Pevsner's critique was, of course, his conviction that the true line of descent lay from Ruskin and Morris to Gropius and the International Style. The moralism of the Modern Movement was in tune with that of the (remarkably resilient) English Arts and Crafts tradition.
Late Ruskinians and Pevsnerians apart, however, most visitors to the V&A show are likely to be bowled over by the visual riches on display, everything from jewellery to a Guimard Metro entrance canopy. In terms of its wide-ranging content and immaculate presentation, the exhibition is a major achievement. Underlying it is a serious endeavour to present the hitherto elusive Art Nouveau as 'the style of the age', a powerful presence in the visual arts from the early 1890s to the outbreak of the First World War. In pursuit of this end, curator Paul Greenhalgh and his collaborators have cast their net wide in search both of its origins (Rococo and Baroque, folk art, and the arts of India, North Africa and Japan) and its ramifications - the work of painters like Gauguin and Seurat, for example, is given a new context.
The Art Nouveau quest for the gesamtkunstwerk led inevitably to the development of Art Nouveau architecture and urbanism. The final section of the exhibition looks at a series of cities - Brussels, Glasgow, Helsinki, Vienna, New York, Munich and Budapest, though not, oddly, Barcelona. No figure, it seems, exemplifies the spirit of Art Nouveau more fully than Antoni Gaudi (though his fervent Catholicism was at odds with the image of Art Nouveau as decadent, amoral and even debauched). The work of Gaudi or Horta seems thoroughly Art Nouveau, but do Sullivan, Eleil Saarinen and Wagner really belong in the same camp?
In fact, as Stephen Escritt makes clear in his excellent, low-price introductory text, Art Nouveau was not so much a coherent style or a movement as an umbrella term - 'the modern style', some called it - for a series of movements in the world of art and design around 1900. Some were bent on serious reform, others had a more iconoclastic agenda. In the end, the Modern Movement swept them all aside.
Yet even Pevsner, revising Pioneers in 1960, conceded the influence of Gaudi on late Corbusier - Ronchamp was its most obvious expression. Escritt also ventures into an area left largely unexplored by the V&A show, that of the Art Nouveau revival of the 1960s. Bizarrely, a V&A exhibition of the work of Aubrey Beardsley was raided by the Obscene Publications Squad. With the certainties of the Modern Movement now as discredited as those of the Victorians, and a mood of free expression pervading the world of architecture and design, the time is ripe for a fresh look at 'the modern style'.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist