Décoration was the highest achievement for fin-de-siècle printmakers. By working decoratively, they could demolish the barrier between the ‘high art’ of painting and the ‘low’ applied arts, unifying art and daily life.
The Nabi and Art Nouveau artists designed modern prints in a decorative style, often using these images to beautify their immediate surroundings.
Decoration in printmaking
Translating their designs for the lithographic stone or wooden block helped modern printmakers to achieve ‘flat’ compositions of lines, planes, patterns and colours.
For inspiration, these artists looked primarily to Japanese wood block prints, admiring their bold outlines, elongated silhouettes, large expanses of colour and unconventional viewpoints.
Symbolist printmakers learned from these examples that it was not necessary to represent the world as a naturalistic illusion.
By carefully arranging their prints into decorative compositions, they sought — like their Symbolist counterparts in music and poetry — not only to stimulate their viewers’ senses, but also to touch their souls.
Printmaking as decoration
Artists introduced decoration into everyday life by producing autonomous fine-art prints and commercial graphic work, primarily for their own, closed cultural worlds of theatre, music and literature.
On the other hand, their posters and magazine illustrations were intended for everyone.
Brightly coloured advertisements adorned the grey streets of Paris, where these ‘frescoes for the crowd’ could indeed be admired by all.
Patricia Eckert Boyer, ‘L’Estampe originale and the Revival of Decorative Art and Craft in Late Nineteenth-Century France,’ in L'Estampe originale. Artistic Printmaking in France 1893-1895, Zwolle 1991, p. 26-49
Gloria Groom, Nicholas Watkins, Beyond the easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel 1890–1930, New Haven 2001
Katherine M. Kuenzli, The Nabis and Intimate Modernism: Painting and the Decorative at the Fin-de-Siècle, Ashgate 2010