The forgotten hero of Art Nouveau
Siegfried Bing is little known today. But the cosmopolitan dealer played a key role in the rise of modern art, Julius Purcell writes
ether it is a brooch, a chair or even a typeface, most people recognise a piece of Art Nouveau when they see it, even given its many local variants. Rather fewer have heard of the dealer Siegfried Bing, whose L'art Nouveau gallery was a magnet for the aesthetes and Japonistes of 1890s Paris. Art Nouveau: The Legacy of Siegfried Bing, which has just opened in Barcelona's CaixaForum, aims to redress that disparity. This exhibition not only gives Bing's gallery credit for providing the catch-all name for the modern style, but also celebrates Bing's own role as a prime mover in its unification: helping to draw together Arts and Crafts, Liberty style, Jugendstil, Sezessionstil and Catalan Modernisme into the undulating language that we read so easily today. Assem bled by Professor Gabriel Weisberg, who has dedicated his career to the German-born dealer, the show has come to Barcelona from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. If this was a highly appropriate setting, given that the Dutch artist often sought Bing's advice on Japanese woodblocks, the space in Barcelona is no less so: CaixaForum's immaculate new gallery is housed in a building by Antoni Gaudi's contemporary, Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Its rectilinear brick reliefs in Catalonia's own Art Nouveau style are a fitting display cabinet for Bing's treasures. Some 350 of these are on show, all of which were. at some time, displayed in the sumptuous showrooms of L'art Nouveau. Opening with contemporary Japanese combs and sake jars and ending with Bing's triumph at the Universal Exposition
of 1900,it charts his progress from dealer in Japanese art objects to international taste-maker. This progress emerges as organic, even inevitable. Bing used his formidable networking skills to encourage and extend the use of Japanese traits in European applied arts, urging on a style revolution whose "chuck out the chintz" tenet resonates today. In 1895,the year he opened L'art Nouveau, Bing wrote that his mission was "to eliminate what is ugly and pretentious in all things that presently surround us". The future lay in a "total art" for living. The uncluttered, simple, nature-drawn lines of Japanese design were to be applied to everything, from wardrobes to teaspoons. Bing's love of Japan reflected the obsession of his time. In the 1850s, when
Degas' dancing scenes - was the subject of a lecture Bing himself gave to the Japan Society of London: a rarefied club to which Bing introduced large numbers of important recruits. Despite his networking brilliance, Bing was an obsessively private man, who has left us scant records, portraits or photos of himself - a problem for an exhibition with a biographical theme. Yet while at times Bing seems strangely absent, the show manages to hold the central focus: Bing's decision in 1894 to shift away from Japanese imports and create "salons" or showrooms to give exposure to the new style of interior design. The contents of these show just how international Bing's reach had become: panels by Frank Brangwyn, Edouard Vuillard ceramics, sun-bathed pictures of Spanish gardens by' the Modernpainter Santiago Bing said his aim was isme Rusifiol. A picture by Paul shows the extent of 'to eliminate what is Serusier Japanese influence: the subof a country pilgrimage ugly and pretentious ject is thoroughly European, but not the procession of rigid, in all things that repeated figures ascending a church-topped presently surround us' nor the rosy cloudmountain, abstracted to a caterpillar shape. Bing also exhi bited Japan was opened up to "Woman with a Bird-Cage" trade, the woodblock prints by the Hungarian J6zsef that flooded into the west Rippl-Ronai. Clothed and fascinated Europeans, weary backgrounded in the rich, of the prevailing classicism sombre colours of Whistler, and anxious about the the cage she holds aloft is effects on art of mass pro- glimmering emerald. Her duction. The stuff from gaunt-beautiful face glows Japan, by contrast, was pre- white, similar to the pale lady in the poster by industrial and refreshingly strange. Monet was later to Toulouse-Lautrec hung oppobe in thrall to its colour jux- site, and soon to crop up as a taposition, Toulouse-Lautrec muse over all the surfaces of Art Nouveau. to its flat poster forms. It was precisely these Hokusai's celebrated "Thirty-Six Views Of Mount eclectic elements of Bing's Fuji" - whose quirky compo- salons that provoked sition had such an impact on huge critical disdain at the
Showcase for a new aesthetic: Siegfri Bing's l'art Nouveau gallery in 1895 time. "A scream of being bundled together," sneered one Paris critic, appalled at its internationalism: "The depraved Englishman ... the morphine-addicted Jew." Littie wonder, then, since this was the time of the Dreyfus affair, that the Jewish-born Bing kept his head down. Such contempt is hard to understand now, given the commercial and stylistic success of the international ceramics studios Bing promoted. You can only wonder now how the vases by Louis Comfort Tiffany inspired anything but awe, with their
Jnutely separated skeins of enigma1 dour. Perhaps one thmg orne of e exhibition lacks is a ref- could sl ence point: some example fluctua I the interior that the chauretreat nist critic would have pre- an age, 'rred the very "ugliness try, w ~d ~retentiousness" that the enl ling helped to eliminate. enougl Bing's career culminated But h '/lith the triumph of hiS pr.esen pavilion at the 1900 Univer- still m sal Exposition, whose con- very ( tents conclude the exhlbl- parad tion. He died five years later, his name falling into an obscurity so deep that, even on leaving this exhIbItIOn, he still seems intriguingly
Hampton knows what to leave out. and his dramatic talent such that he effortlessly conveys all his character's ambiguity.IUl?ql?
Waiting for the Barbarians
Erfurt Opera. he still seems intriguingly
enigmatic. Austin (Texas) and Cincinnati. it won the hearts of its audience. an omnipresent reminder of state brutality. a neatly made patchwork of tuneful arpeggios and comfortable chord changes. Tel +49 361 2233155
** * * *
The production will go on to Amsterdam. a tidy 2'/2-hour music drama.
'Art Nouveau: The Legacy of Siegfried Bing' is at CaixaForum. What it didn't win was any points for originality. Would this be another third-rate opera based on a first-rate book? The risk of banality was cannily evaded when Glass chose Christopher Hampton
(Sunset Boulevard. the Erfurt Theatre won international attention and the promise of new music that would be easy to listen to. his name falling into an obscurity so deep that. Salter's diction is flawless. best in its attention to detail with character direction. whose contents conclude the exhibition. In fact. This was Hampton's first opera. but you'd never know it. about injustice masquerading as law and order." Philip Glass's newest opera is an allegory for our times. George T. Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice in 2002 fared little better. a man in retreat from the vulgarity of an age of captains of industry. and how to build structures with real dramatic impact. over which the vocal lines run like dry recitative with occasional stabs of lyricism. Guy Montavan's staging is a literal retelling of the book. The ease with which its analogies can be made to fit today's US government ought to give pause for thought. "But I think it's generally understood that this is an emergency. dynamically terraced. with bittersweet vocal purity. A series of gauzes fly in and out. Hank Irwin Kittel's costumes cross British colonialism with a touch of the central Asia implied in Coetzee's novel and a nod to Nazi Germany for J 011 and his Third Bureau thugs. Perhaps one thing . As the Barbarian Girl. His text is a superb distillation of Coetzee's masterpiece.Glass's stroke of genius was to recognise in J. and yet could shrewdly judge market fluctuations. is a scorching portrait of apartheid South Africa at the time. but depressingly conveyorbelt. this exhibitionstill manages to flesh out a very 19th-century cultural paradox. The work. melancholic in mood. for all the vague abstraction of its setting. no mean feat in a genre that requires ferocious concentration from every musician. his tone warmly expressive. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Above. With Glass. Barcelona. except for the fact that film scores generally illustrate the emotions involved in a more direct manner. For his 21st @pera. Glass was a safe bet. swaddled corpses hang on poles.he exhibition lacks is a ref~rence point: some example )f the interior that the chauvinist critic would have preferred. even on leaving this exhibition. Waiting for the Barbarians tells a cautionary tale about the evils of imperialism. He died five years later. metrically steady. Bing's career culminated with the triumph of his pavilion at the 1900 Universal Exposition. about individual responsibility. we would never approve of torture. Dennis Russell Davies draws solid and assured playing from the Erfurt Philharmonic Orchestra." sings Colonel Joll. Dangerous Liaisons) as his
ninutely separated skeins of :olour.ypin's sets profit from the new theatre's state-of-the-art stage technology and from Thomas Hase's painterly lighting. The evening's strongest performance comes from Richard Salter in the pivotal role of Magistrate. the moral quagmire of war and torture. Tel +34 93 476 8600
librettist. and his score is just what you'd expect. received its world premiere in the Thuringian capital of Erfurt on Saturday. in the end. where to whittle. Elvira Soukop is also memorable. Pleasant sounds. He was the epitome of the aesthete. It could be a film score. Glass has made selfplagiarism his trademark. the only ones rich enough to buy his goods. the very "ugliness and pretentiousness" that Bing helped to eliminate.. A string of recent flops have illustrated the danger of the novel as operatic template. Germany SHIRLEY APTHORP
"Normally speaking. But however ghostly his presence is. until 29 January.
. shifting from glittering blue ice fields into red-orange desert or grey prison walls with swift subtlety. whose wives were. Coetzee's 1980 novel a prescient parable of today's Bush regime and its misdeeds. Lorin Maazel's 1984 at Covent Garden earlier this year won widespread derision. broken but strong. And as the opening-night standing