In this exhibition of French Art Nouveau at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, the drama and spectacle of contemporary life will be explored across a range of media through a selection of works from the legendary collection of Victor and Gretha Arwas. The exhibition marks the initiation of a collaboration between the Sainsbury Centre and Gretha Arwas, whereby the Victor and Gretha Arwas Foundation, dedicated to the study and presentation of Art Nouveau, will be established.

The period 1890 to 1914 was complicated. Known as the fin de siècle, it has often been depicted as an age that represented the end of many things, but it was also an age of beginnings. It was a turbulent time: millions of people migrated to rapidly growing cities, becoming urban dwellers in a modernised environment. How people lived, worked, and took their pleasures was transformed in a single generation and, alongside the physical shift, how they thought about the world also began to change. It was an age of contradiction, in which aspiration sat alongside anxiety and doubt, and in which values of the past clashed and mingled with ideas about the future. It was in this atmosphere that Art Nouveau was born and, from 1895, Paris was its capital. In the intense emotional maelstrom, alternative religions, novel art forms, sexual liberation, and the new science of psychology, were all symptomatic of a widespread questioning of values.

Responding to this environment, the new generation of artists and designers began to explore the human condition through the creation of a dreamlike, mystical world, inspired not least by Symbolist poetry and art, which came to the fore in Paris from the 1860s. The great writer Charles Baudelaire was inspiration for a younger generation of poets, led by Stephan Mallarmé, who were interested in creating worlds where logic, rationality, and normal values were forgotten. Similarly, the major Symbolist painters Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin and their followers pushed the boundaries of art. Collectively, Symbolist art and poetry affected the artists and designers of the Art Nouveau style and its imagery is often mystical, erotic and dreamlike: collectivised, it can have a cultish feel. Emile Gallé, Eugène Grasset, Alphonse Mucha, Jean Carries, René Lalique, Rupert Carabin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Berthon, Georges de Feure, and others represented in this exhibition reveal the vibrant, tense energy of a young generation exploring a new-found freedom.

Art Nouveau is sensual, and can be erotic. The period was one of sexual awakening, and this is reflected in the style. Its organic, curling, rounded forms are clearly derived from the body – male and female – intermingling in a powerful but often disturbing way with the shapes of flora and fauna. All this lived just below the surface in much architecture, furniture, glass, jewellery and ceramics, where curving lines round volumes appear to be based on plants and landscapes but were often representations of limbs, breasts, buttocks and phalluses.

More overtly, the depictions of Art Nouveau woman in posters, paintings and sculptures was often sexually charged. With or without her clothes, and whether still, dancing, self-consciously posing, or smoking a cigarette, she was not a quiet, shy or unassuming character like her Victorian forerunner: she had confidence, with flowing hair, a coquettish smile, and eyes provocatively closed. She could also have a darker, crueler aspect to her personality. There was something subversive in her smile. Interestingly, it was an age in which powerful women artists came to the fore, a number of these dominating as impressarios as well as artists. It is very much the age of Sarah Bernhardt, sculptor as well as actress, and Loie Fuller, one of the most innovative dance artists of the 20th century.

It is clear in retrospect that the erotic tone could work for and against Art Nouveau. Even in its own time, the style was considered by many to be at best a short-term movement, and at worst just a fad. It was accused of being superficial, and of not penetrating to deep levels of society and culture. By 1911, many critics openly attacked it as being decadent, promiscuous, and even debauched. Even later, Modernists, many of whom were committed to a moral, even puritanical vision of the role of design, castigated it for its promiscuity. Further into the 20th century, it was frequently dismissed as being degenerate, reactionary, and more to do with corrupted 19th century life rather than the modern age.

But the style has always had its champions and, more than in any other decade, it was during the 1960s that it began to re-emerge. It was once again studied and collected, and a new generation of artists and graphic designers showed an interest in its organic forms and its sensuality. It became the style of choice for the stage sets and record cover designs of progressive rock and pop musicians, and it clearly affected aspects of the Pop Art Movement.

Vitally, a new generation of scholar-dealers began to reestablish Art Nouveau as a major style, and key among these were Victor and Gretha Arwas. A prolific writer, Victor produced a number of seminal texts on Art Nouveau and, with Gretha, created a superb collection of French examples. Victor, an inspiration to the next generation of scholars, passed away in 2010. The creation of the Victor and Gretha Arwas Foundation will enable the Art Nouveau style to be studied, exhibited, collected, and preserved for posterity. Paul Greenhalgh, Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, said: “This exhibition illustrates how Art Nouveau was a radical development in both art and design, as well as in attitudes to modern life. It shows the style as being an examination of the intimate, and perhaps the more mystical and dark side of life”.