Preservation for Preservation’s Sake: William Morris and Domènech I Montaner

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution that took Europe by storm in the eighteenth century, the continent was swept off into a river of modernization. As the industrial machine began to solidify itself into the nineteenth century, anti-industrial sentiments grew steadily, as many Europeans began questioning the effects of this sudden industrial boom. The Industrial Revolution tapped into every sector of society, and had a profound impact upon the art world, where it’s influence left many artists disenfranchised and suspicious, giving rise to a revolution of its own, which would alter the art world’s path forever after- the Art Nouveau movement. The movement was initially invented to be a “reaction” against industry, and that the modern “art” produced by these industrial machines went against the delicate aesthetic the arts was meant to preserve and treasure. Art Nouveau shunned all machine produced “sham” materials, and prompted artists to regress back to earlier days in which all art was hand-crafted, and hence unique and beautiful, not mass-produced, utilitarian and uniform.

The Art Nouveau movement gave rise to several movements within the art world, such as William Morris’s “Arts and Crafts Movement” which called for a worldwide regression back to “hand-crafted” art, and followers believed that any craft had the potential to be called “art,” doing away with former societal discriminations between so-called “high and low” art. Morris hailed from an upper-middle class English family, yet over time he grew disillusioned with the overwhelming presence of utilitarian art and architecture, believing that modern utilitarianism had tainted the once sacred moral fiber intrinsic to classic and Medieval art. Hence, Morris decided to become and architect and founded the Arts and Crafts movement in the process. Morris, a deeply religious man, rejected the modern architectural styles around him, deeming revivalist Gothic buildings as ugly, horrific “travesties” and sought to concoct buildings that could be both functional and aesthetically pleasing, whilst incorporating hand-made “craft” in the hopes of creating a harmonious work of all the arts in one! Morris worked to incorporate this notion of hand-crafted art into every aspect of his architecture, construction and furnishing alike- for Morris, “decorative art” was an value that had been lost since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and throughout his career he fervently sought to revitalize the lost sacred “crafts” of old. All crafts, from stained glasswork, metal work, embroidery, furniture making, and the like, played pivotal roles on behalf of the Arts and Crafts movement. In his own words, “that it is not desirable to divide the labour between the artist and what is technically called the designer, and I think it desirable on the whole that the artist and designer should practically be one” (William Morris and the Decorative Arts). This idea was epitomized in his design for Red House, for which Morris spared no expense- every aspect of the building’s construction was well-planned, incorporating art and beauty into every last bit of the house, from the hand-crafted stained glass windows and tiled fireplace to the delicately crafted hand-made furnishings. Morris went so far as to commission expert craftsmen of each respective field, resulting in a final product that inspires awe to this day- a standing memorial to the beauty of all crafts united within one concrete architectural canvas.

The social and political implications of Morris’s radical methods were troubling at first, earning him a number of unscrupulous competitors who attempted to discredit his work (deeming his materials “fake” on a number of occasions) whom also attempted to kick him out of several art exhibitions, yet Morris persevered through it all. Though his “decorative” theories were greeted with opposition from these “philistine” critics, who disapproved of his unorthodox ideals and methods, over time, Morris’s style won the approval of the wealthy, and his efforts began to pay out big time.

Catalan architect Domènech I Montaner shared many of Morris’s beliefs as well, who incorporated said values into the architectural Art Nouveau style native to the region of his homeland in Catalonia, Spain- a movement dubbed the “Modernisme” period. The Modernisme movement was not only influenced by the Art Nouveau movement (and Arts and Crafts) but also heavily influenced by fervent nationalistic attitudes present within region at the time, and sought to represent regional “nationalist” pride in opposition to the regions growing industrialization and utilitarianism. Montaner strongly opposed Spain’s “modernization” efforts, and believed in the Modernisme movement’s national call for a regression back to “the old empire” in reverence of the glory days of old, when Spain was an imperial superpower.

Domènech I Montaner was devoted to incorporating the spirit of Catalan nationalism throughout his work. Montaner believed that Catalan nationalism was a core influence at work within Catalan architecture at the time, a nationalism that thrived due to “the energy of a fertile concept” (In Search of a National Architecture, Montaner) an energy fostered by the overwhelming nationalist pride resonating throughout Catalonia at the time. Both Morris and Montaner believed that great movements in the arts shared roots steeped in tradition and contemplations surrounding morality. While Morris sought to inspire a Medieval artistic revival through “the Brotherhood” in response to utilitarianism- on the other hand, Montaner sought to revive the spirit of Catalan nationalism- both men believed that their respective artistic movements would work to bring about a revolutionary social change within their respective communities. Both men also agreed that traditional values core to Christianity were being clouded with the rise of utilitarian immorality, and a replacement of these values and the purposes said values once served through architecture and the arts, were being tainted by the supposed “need” for practicality in this new modern age- both men acknowledged that the “practical” building trends present in “modern architecture” to be the main architectural issue of the time, for these buildings undermined the traditional role architecture once played- a role which once served to inspire the people, buildings acting as representative monuments, physical testaments surrounding sacred religious and moral values within their respective societies.

Both men felt that this collective societal push for “practicality” and “modernization” were the root causes of continued societal distresses within their respective communities, and both men were advocates for all things “holy” and “true” within the arts. In Montaner’s words, “matters of form and personal concerns, rather than ideas, are at the root of this continual strife that is consuming the strength of modern society” (In Search of a National Architecture, Montaner). And in Morris’s words, “both my historical studies and my practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society have forced on me the conviction that art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profitmongering” (William Morris and the Decorative Arts). For both men, past historical trends in the arts were not only to be remembered, but brought together and expanded upon in the form of “eclecticism.” Montaner stated the need to “accept the principles of architecture that we have learned from past ages, all of which we need, so long as they are viewed in the proper perspective” (In the Search of a National Architecture).

Both men maintained until their deaths, that an artistic regression to the past was necessary in order for society to thrive on into the future- for both Morris and Montaner, the past held the key to the future. For both Morris and Montaner, the arts were meant to serve a greater cause- they weren’t simply decorative and pleasing to the eyes, but as Morris called it, a “battlefield” fighting for the preservation of holy traditions and values, of which global modernization and utilitarianism had scarred and replaced.

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