L'Ecole de Nancy Three major exhibitions at Nancy, Lorraine until 26 July; other events until late September
Nancy has declared 1999 the year of L'Ecole de Nancy - both the version of Art Nouveau for which the town is rightly famed and the art school founded to develop it - with three major exhibitions, numerous building restorations, and signposted walking and cycling tours around Nancy's Art Nouveau heritage. Given that L'Ecole de Nancy was founded in 1901, this is in fact less a centenary celebration than pre-election publicity for Nancy's mayor, under whose aegis several venues have been refurbished or extended.
The principal exhibition, 'L'Ecole de Nancy 1189-1909', in the Galeries Poirel gives a spectacular view of nearly 400 objets d'art. The school's subtitle was 'the province's alliance of art industries', and the heading 'Art and Industry' recurs throughout the movement's publications, verbally and graphically. Aesthetic deve-lopments often depended upon technical ones (such as Galle's glass marquetry or Daum's multi-layer crystal technique). Artists relied upon local industrialists or businessmen as patrons; Corbin, a depart-ment store owner, commissioned the house which now contains the Musee de L'Ecole de Nancy (men) and several of the works now displayed within it.
While this exhibition aims primarily to flatter local citizens and attract cultural tourists, a smaller show in the Hotel du Departement, mounted by the region's Archives of Modern Architecture, unravels the crucial yet fragile link between art and industry. Contrary to the now general view, most major industrialists remained aesthetically conservative, indeed hostile to Art Nouveau.
Virtually all civic buildings (including Galeries Poirel) were designed in Classical or eclectic styles, and even the majority of domestic developments hid their modern interiors behind Classicising facades. Our image of 'Nancy 1900' is due to a few private developments, on sites beyond the town walls.
Yet Nancy's 'modern style' developed from crafts traditional in the region - metalwork, glass and ceramics, woodcarving and inlay, cabinet-making, leatherwork and textiles. Galle took over and updated his own family's ceramics and glassware firm, extending it to include cabinet-making, whilst Majorelle similarly modernised his family's ceramic and cabinet-making business. The construction industry demonstrated the same principle, with the products of local craft traditions being industrialised to satisfy the mass market of a burgeoning middle-class.
The adoption of nature as the source for renewal of the decorative arts was another reaction to industrialisation. The fact that rural landscapes were being ruined may have contributed to this, but it also reflects an international current, influenced by Japonaiserie and Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament. 'Fleurs et Ornements', the exhibition at the men, is perceptive in this respect, showing drawings of plants (from life) alongside designs derived from them, and corresponding art objects.
Nature was not, however, used simply objectively but was imbued with symbolism. The political situation stimulated both patriotism for Lorraine (the ubiquitous thistle is its conventional symbol) and belief in imminent liberation. Nature provided much imagery which could be elided with that of the region's Golden Ages - expressed through Gothic and Rococo - so that an Art Nouveau style became symbolic of Lorraine.
Although today's architecture provides the most evident expression of the Ecole de Nancy, it did not really take off until 1901, after the town had acquired its reputation for Art Nouveau decorative arts. That year, Majorelle commissioned his own home as a 'built manifesto' from the young Henri Sauvage, with decorations by local and Parisian artists; the construction of the Vaxellaire department store by the Ecole's leading architects, father and son Charles and Emile Andre, signalled the beginning of the city centre's modernisation; and Emile Andre and Henry Gutton laid out their ideal (but uneconomic) residential estate of Parc de Saurupt.
The architectural exhibition hints that the younger industrial producers of objets d'art, such as Majorelle, turned to Art Nouveau less for aesthetic reasons than for technological ones, with concrete frames and metal floors enabling the fast-track construction required by their rapidly expanding businesses. The specificity of Nancy's 'modern' architecture is derived from the simultaneous presence of big industrial companies producing steel structures (designed by engineers) and small craft workshops making decorative ironwork and the like (designed by architects) - a collaboration at once fruitful and dogged by inter-professional tensions.
Any visit to Nancy should include walking (or cycling) around its Art Nouveau heritage. Exceptionally, some buildings (such as the Chamber of Commerce) are being opened during this spring and summer. Numerous restaurants typical of Lorraine, and weekend deals on Eurostar and at several hotels should tempt British visitors. Begin with breakfast in the Art Nouveau Brasserie Excelsior opposite
Judi Loach teaches at the Welsh School of Architecture