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City Beat

Art Nouveau at Its Best: The Ryabushinsky House
Text and photos Ross Hunter

oscow’s architecture is all too easily thought of as having two classes: overdone, grand and monumental or underdone, drab and commonplace. Crowded pavements, gridlocked traffic, overhead wires and underground travel conspire to make it hard to look up and around. But there are exquisite riches to be spotted from most eras, and the more you look, the more you discover. One of the city’s most enjoyable Art Nouveau creations is the Ryabushinsky House (now the Gorky House Museum).

Art Nouveau hit Moscow in style, and played a full part in that astonishing period, say 1895 to 1910, when Russia moved from catch-up-and-copy to the avant garde and revolutionary thought… to revolution. The philosophy of the Art Nouveau movement lent itself particularly well to the revolutionary moment: a holistic vision to be applied to all artistic forms, from typography and fine arts to furniture and architecture; welcoming of new technology and materials (unlike the Arts & Crafts movement) and expecting style and quality to be available to all.

The parallel with the present is unsettling. Moscow in the belle époque, the early years of the last new century, was full of contradictions: poverty and struggle for most, extraordinary wealth for the elite, with very conspicuous consumption in the retail, entertainment and housing sectors. Brilliant and stylish buildings (which the 2000s have yet to emulate) were not enough to ward off catastrophe when the good times crashed. Déjà vu, anyone?

Moscow’s industrial rich vied with each other to build the most elegant houses. The Ryabushinsky family made money in several areas of industry, trade, and banking, and were keen on the arts and liberal politics. Dynastic son Stepan hired Moscow’s best and most prolific epochal architect, Fyodor Shekhtel, to build him a mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa. The result, completed in 1900, is a classic of world class, inside and out. Today the house is now overshadowed by larger, less sculpted erections, which shade its impact a bit, but no matter. The house grows out of its garden and reaches skyward with balance and grace.

Chrysanths ceiling

Tree window

Stair base

Art Nouveau defers not to symmetry but evolves into the space it inhabits, the ideal method to make functional buildings that maximize useful space. The house’s large windows have exquisitely sculpted, curving wooden frames, reflecting and honouring the surrounding glade. Cream tiles, characteristic of Moscow Art Nouveau, are plain in themselves, but enhance the glories of the proportions, the windows and especially the orchid frieze all round the house, offering a view of nature, space and sky under the crisp, angular eaves.

The organic theme is the essence of Art Nouveau: taking hard, solid materials – stone, cement, wrought iron and hardwoods – and moulding them into flowing, living forms. Throughout the Ryabushinsky House, all these textures are worked together into a living whole. The characteristic ‘whiplash’ curve – enjoy it in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Aubrey Beardsley, Alfonse Mucha and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – is resplendent in the floor’s inlaid marquetry, the door frames, the stained glass windows, and most of all in the gorgeous staircase.

There are several naturalist themes around the house – including flowers, snails and the undersea – and the staircase flows with such elements. A standing wave glides up the incline, watched by a jellyfish lamp from below and writhing lizards from above, and lit by a house-tall stained glass window replete with delicate curves, blue hues and optical images. The sculpting of the balustrade is astonishing. I cannot tell if it is natural marble or reconstituted – can you? If I lived there a decade or two, I am sure I would understand at least half of the marvels of this dwelling.

Lest I wax too lyrical, which is almost impossible, a few words of caution. The house is also the Gorky Museum, a fact that has mixed ramifi cations. The museum is wonderfully unreconstructed: entrance is free, photo permits cost a bargain 100 Roubles, the staff know and love their subject, modernity has no place, the brochure – choose any language – is absurdly cheap and the atmosphere is timeless. But it is also dim and musty. Half the light bulbs are out and the jellyfish is suffocating under a plastic sheet. This is a house that needs to be lived in, not pickled. If you are a Maxim Gorky fan, enjoy your visit (even though he hated living there). If not, enjoy it anyway, but always imagine living, or at least dining, there. Please invite me if you get the chance.

The good news is that the outside is wreathed in scaffolding, as are a remarkable number of Art Nouveau buildings all over Moscow – giving hope that this unique art form is coming back into fashion, not a moment too soon before dilapidation sets in.

Art Nouveau fans shouldn’t miss the hotels Metropol and National, (to be featured in future issues of Passport) as dazzling from within as they are from without. For more suggestions of local Art Nouveau specimens to admire, consult The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture by architecture historian William Craft Brumfield. It lists and maps a number of fine Moscow Art Nouveau buildings and is available on the Internet (simply Google, then ogle).

Ryabushinsky House (Gorky Museum)
6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya Ul., (495) 290-0535
M. Arbatskaya
Open Wednesdays and Fridays, 12:00-19:00
Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 10:00-17:00
Closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and the last Friday of each month

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