“In the late 1800’s new technology was changing the way the world worked, and the way that it looked,” the Vox video above explains. “Some people, especially artists, living through the technological revolution, were not so into all the new industry. To be blunt, they thought it was ugly.” They responded with organic forms and intricate patterns that evoked a pre-industrial world while simultaneously showcasing, and selling, the most modern ideas and products.
Drawing on the handcrafted aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Gothic revival, the florid, ornate paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, a fascination with Japanese woodblock prints, and the strange, beautiful illustrations of sea creatures by Ernst Haeckel, artists began to challenge late Victorian orthodoxies. The style we now know as Art Nouveau emerged.
It went by many names: Jugendstil, Mondernisme, Tiffany Style, Glasgow Style, Stile Liberty, Sezessionstil. Each identified a collection of traits with which we are now familiar from the many hundreds of posters and advertisements of the time. Grand, flowing lines, intricate patterns, vibrant, often clashing colors, bold hand-lettering, feminine figures and elaborate, exotic themes….
The descriptions of Art Nouveau’s qualities also apply to the poster and album cover art of the psychedelic 1960s, and no wonder, given the significant influence of the former upon the latter. The artists of the acid rock period rebelled not so much against industrialization as the military-industrial-complex. At the epicenter of the movement was the San Francisco of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
Venues like the Filmore and the Avalon advertised the hippie revolution with eye-catching posters inspired by those that once lined the thoroughfares of Europe in an age before TV, radio, and neon signs. Art Nouveau-like designs had already returned with the flower patterns popular in fabrics at the time. 60s graphic designers saw these seductive styles as the key to a new psychedelic vision.
It’s easy to see why. Flowers, curves, peacocks, updates of Art Nouveau images from the past (including skeletons and roses)—dialed up to 11 with “eye-vibrating” colors—made the perfect visual accompaniment for the acid-flavored Romanticism that took root during the Vietnam era. Even the fonts were poached from turn-of-the-century graphic art. Famous 60s designers like Wes Wilson confessed their admiration for modernism, “the idea,” Wilson told Time in 1967, “of really putting it all out there.”
Just as Art Nouveau flowered into an international style, with some presciently trippy manifestations in Brazil and other places, so too did the 60s psychedelic poster, spreading from San Francisco to every corner of the globe. And as Art Nouveau became the house style for the counterculture of the early 20th century—celebrating sexual and cultural experimentation and occult interests—it announced the birth of flower power and its recovery of modernism’s expressive freedoms.