Isn’t taste a curious thing? When a new decorative style suddenly catches on, then it can spread quickly, taking hold in far-flung lands. This was the case with Art Nouveau, which emerged in Europe in the late 19th century. Though it went by different names in different places – Modernisme (Catalonia), Jugendstil (Germany), Stile Liberty (Italy), and so on – its sinuous, organic look (think Tiffany lamps or Hector Guimard’s cast-iron gates for the Paris Métro) was unmistakable. In the blink of an eye, it had even flourished in America.
So, where, exactly, did it begin? Belgium and France are the usual suspects. Yet according to a new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, if Art Nouveau were a tree (and what an exotic, faintly monstrous hothouse specimen it would be), then its roots would extend all the way to England.
Over the years, there have been lots of Art Nouveau exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre, built around the collection of fin-de-siècle objects donated by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson in 1978, when the institution opened. It is, frankly, an odd setting to consider Art Nouveau. With corporate-bland grey carpets underfoot, and exposed white struts supporting the roof, Norman Foster’s brightly lit Grade II-listed hangar – more airport terminal than conventional gallery – provides an incongruous backdrop for Victorian candlesticks and stained glass.