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At the end of the 19th century, a band of iconoclasts burst upon the Parisian scene and set the city aflame with their artistic vision. The movement was short-lived, but it would change the face of the city forever.
The architects of Art Nouveau invigorated the Haussmannian monotony of Second Empire Paris with an infusion of movement and color. The development of new building materials and the relaxation of building codes allowed them to create buildings that were revolutionary both in form and ornamentation.
Curvilinear structures with staggered balconies and undulating facades supported an abundance of decor, drawing on a repertoire of naturalist motifs rooted in symbolism, including flowers, animals and stylized feminine forms. Structural materials were used as decor, and colorful new facades sprung up, dressed in sculpted stone and ceramic or covered in tile and accented with wrought iron and leaded glass.
The style took its name from the celebrated Art Nouveau pavilion of dealer Siegfried Bing at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. The exhibitions were driven by national pride, a showcase for national production. The pavilion of the Manufacture de Sèvres included a ceramic portico that now stands adjacent to the Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The uncontested leader of the pack was Hector Guimard, who designed such gems as Castel Béranger at number 14 and the Hôtel Mezzara at 60, rue Jean de la Fontaine, and his own house at 122, avenue Mozart, while his Métro stations dot the Parisian landscape. More than 400 Art Nouveau buildings were erected in Auteuil and Passy.
While most of the remaining Art Nouveau buildings in Paris are in the 16th arrondissement, it is in the reputedly staid 7th that we find two of the most extravagant examples. The hôtel particulier at 29, avenue Rapp, is considered the masterpiece of Jules Lavirotte, a fervent partisan of sexual symbolism in architecture. Salvador Dali described it as the most overtly erotic building in Paris.
Where other architects were sculpting flowers and fantastic beasts or exalting the feminine form, Lavirotte pushed the envelope. It incorporates all of the elements one expects of French Art Nouveau – a facade in tile and allegorical figures, the whiplash lines of wrought iron balconies, and a loggia – but it is the entrance that the viewer will remember.
Crowned with the head of a woman (possibly Madame Lavirotte) framed by stylized foliage and figures of the disgraced Adam and Eve, the central portion of the door features an inverted phallus sculpted in wood and inserts of leaded glass. Sexual symbolism is repeated on the balconies of the ground floor windows.
Despite the provocative nature of his work, Lavirotte was a three-time winner of the Concours des Façades organized by the city of Paris, the first in 1901 for 29, avenue Rapp. His Hôtel Céramic (also a winner) in the 8th arrondissement exhibits elements of Art Nouveau while announcing a more refined style to follow. Lavirotte abandoned Art Nouveau after 1902, feeling his many imitators had betrayed its spirit. No less than nine of his Art Nouveau buildings stand in the 7th arrondissement.
A short walk away, at 33, rue du Champ de Mars, is one of the prettiest examples of Art Nouveau in Paris, the Maison des Arums. The arum (or calla) lily is sculpted in the stone of the facade, around the bow windows and in the consoles supporting the balconies. The motif is repeated in the meticulously executed wrought iron of the grilles and balconies, and blossoms and leaves are superimposed on the windows and transoms, while a marquise in glass and wrought iron is supported by free-form arums.
This profusion of arums might lead one to conclude that this is architecture parlante (speaking architecture), a building whose style reflects the activity within. The arum has represented female anatomy (think Georgia O’Keefe), but contrary to rumor, the Maison des Arums was never a maison close (house of ill repute). The reality is rather tame.
Designed by the architect Octave Raquin, it housed a private school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie operated by the demoiselles Longuet and was later occupied by another school. Today it is a clinic for cosmetic surgery, with recovery suites for patients.
Art Nouveau, of course, had its detractors, who characterized it as “style nouille” (noodle style), and was rejected by those who saw it as too foreign. Even Guimard’s Métro entrances were considered Germanic, and Castel Béranger was soon nicknamed “Castel dérangé.”
The Great War extinguished the last flames of a style that proved too costly for a nation recovering from the devastation of a war. But rumors of Art Nouveau’s demise are vastly exaggerated. You just have to know where to look.