"Vase au profil (with profile)," made by Jacques Gruber in 1897, is displayed with other items at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, France. For mored photos, see the link at the top of the story.

"Vase au profil (with profile)," made by Jacques Gruber in 1897, is displayed with other items at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, France. For mored photos, see the link at the top of the story. (Helen Hu / S&S)

Photo gallery: Art nouveau at Nancy, France

Examples of art nouveau are everywhere in the lively city of Nancy, France. You can see them on building fronts, in store windows and in art museums — all creations of the relatively short-lived art movement that embraced nature and flourished at the turn of the last century.

You can see samples in a museum dedicated to the Nancy branch of art nouveau that features entire rooms decorated in that style, including grand pianos with legs that look like plant stems and lamps that resemble strange plants. An art museum on the city’s main square displays hundreds of striking vases and sculptures with nature themes. Shops around town sell glowing, alien-looking mushroom lamps and jewelry made to look like petals and gingko leaves. Balconies, windows and doors in dozens of buildings are encased in graceful metal vines and tree branches, making them almost look as though they’re alive.

The art nouveau movement, which swept through more than a dozen cities in Europe including Barcelona and Glasgow, gained momentum in Nancy after the Lorraine capital began attracting young, well-heeled people who had fled areas in France annexed by Germany in 1871.

Nancy began to thrive economically, and its residents wanted nice things. Local artists began to develop decorative arts — furniture, jewelry and objects such as vases, goblets and lamps — that were scorned by those who thought painting and sculpture were more important.

The Nancy artists created asymmetrical and elongated shapes and infused their work with flora and fauna, in some cases borrowing from Japanese art. They wanted to make affordable pieces in an era when mass production began to lower the costs of things, and they collaborated with manufacturers, a rarity among artists.

Their mottoes were "Art in all," and "Art for all." But they never achieved their goal of art for all people, in part because the artists demanded perfection, and their wares became costly.

Emile Gallé, a ceramicist, glassmaker and cabinetmaker, was the founder and leader of l’École de Nancy, as the movement was called. Thin, moustachioed and alert-looking in his portraits, he was knowledgeable about botany. Other creators included the Daum family, known for their glassworks; Jacques Gruber, who created vase designs and non-religious stained glass; sculptor and glassmaker Louis Majorelle; and furniture-maker Eugène Vallin.

Some of what the artists created is delicate and exquisite, and some of it is exaggerated and evil-looking, sort of "Invasion

of the Body Snatchers" meets Jules Verne. The colors can be strange and evocative, such as the brown-green hue of rotting seaweed, the mottled purple of a bruise or the dark maroon of a dried-up scar.

The movement ended with the start of World War I, but there was a temporary surge of interest in the mid-1960s.

Not everyone appreciated what the artists were trying to do. Some of the objects were considered garish or in bad taste.

When the Musée de l’École de Nancy opened in 1964, many people didn’t see the use for it, said Véronique Baudoüin, the museum’s press officer.

"A nightmare, rubbish," is how some people regarded the stuff, she said. "It took a long time for people to see the value of it."

What is striking, she said, is the way the art was done. "The love of material, love of the work itself is very deep and strong," she said.

The point of the movement was to bring nature indoors, but for some people, it was just too much.

Indeed, some of the items in the Musée de l’École de Nancy are feverish in their intensity. They’re crammed with petals, leaves, branches, seaweed, seashells and other images of nature.

The pieces can be a bit malevolent-looking. For example, carved vines seem to be writhing on the ceiling of a room in the Musée de l’École, a mansion formerly owned by art patron Eugène Corbin. Wall lamps depicting giant thistles have dark, curled, sharp leaves.

The museum shows very unique items as well as objects sold in quantities, all laid out in rooms that visitors can view or pass through freely. A short, well-paced film in French on the second floor shows how art nouveau developed in cities across Europe, with recaps of what was happening socially and culturally at the time.

About 300 Daum goblets, wine glasses, bowls, lamps, and sculptures — some showing the light-hearted, whimsical side of art nouveau — are showcased in the Musée des Beaux-arts. Daum has become famous for its art nouveau and other styles. Both the museum and a Daum boutique are on the city’s Stanislas Square.

Truly dedicated fans can see more wares at a Daum factory showroom a short tram ride away. Free tours of the factory are offered in French on Friday morning.

If Daum is simply too high end, you could visit Aujourd’hui 1900, a shop across the street from the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, which sells lamps, jewelry and other objets d’art in the art nouveau style at friendlier prices. Martine Jacques, who runs the store, said the pieces are designed by her uncle, whose mother worked for Daum, and made by local artists.

You might not want to have art nouveau in your house, but just gazing at its various forms can be fun. And it can be an enjoyable way to explore Nancy.

Enthusiasts can get a map from the tourism office and go on four self-guided walking tours that go by more than 60 buildings sporting art nouveau touches. Guided bus tours are also available. Some of the stops can be a bit difficult to find, and some of the sights are more striking than others.

L’Excelsior, an upscale traditional brasserie near the train station, is a required stop for its art nouveau chandeliers and windows edged in stained glass. Have a meal, or just go inside for a look.

Villa Majorelle, which has balconies and big windows embraced by fixtures that look like tree branches and a recessed panel of stained glass, is an extreme example of art nouveau architecture and also on the map.

Know and go ...Musée de l’École de Nancy

Where: 36-38 rue du Sergent BlandanHours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; closed Mondays and Tuesdays, Jan. 1, May 1, July 14, Nov. 1 and Christmas.Admission: 6 euros, 4 euros for those qualifying for discount; free first Sunday of each month.Web site: phone (+33) (0) 3-83-40-14-86; Fax (+33) (0) 3-83-40-83-31; e-mailée des Beaux-Arts

Where: 3 place StanislasHours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Monday; closed Jan. 1, May 1, July 14, Nov. 1 and Christmas.Telephone: 03 83 85 30 72Admission: 6 euros adults, 4 euros for those qualifying for discount.Web site: phone (+33) (0)3 83 85 30 72; fax (+33) (0)3 83 85 30 76; e-mail: mbanancy@mairie-nancy.frTourism office

Where: Place StanislasHours: 9 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. SundayWeb site: www.ot-nancy.frContacts: phone (+33) (0)3-83-35-22-41; fax (+33) (0)3 83 30 23 39; e-mail tourisme@ot-nancy.frWeb sites with information on Art Nouveau— Helen Hu

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