Abramtsevo: Colony of Russian Art Nouveau
Text and photos by Katrina Marie
Whether fleeing from Moscow’s choking smog, or simply in need of a quick salve for the pounding head, consider a day trip to the peaceful 19th century artists’ colony and estate at Abramtsevo, located just south of Sergeyev Posad. The winding country road off the M-8 is a tranquil omen, with rolling hills of white birch, fields speckled with wildflowers and, yes, a river running through it.
Established in the 1870s, the artists’ colony gave rise to Russia’s rich art nouveau and modernist periods. It was home to such well-known talents as Vruble, Repin, Serov and the Vasnetsov brothers. The expansive estate, made up of several architectural delights, also contains parks and gardens perfect for picnicking—but mind the bees.
The estate’s main house, built by writer and Russian traditionalist Sergey Aksakov (1791-1859), later passed to industrial entrepreneur Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), who founded the artists’ colony and had a taste for the modern. The house was the model for the manor in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and it also briefly accommodated Gogol, who wrote part of Dead Souls here.
The real gem, however, is the separate studio, placed in a quintessential Russian kottedzh with an ornate fretwork roof. Across the threshold, the aesthetics of Mother Russia are expressed in shining ceramic. Writhing intertwined, are layers of color as lush as the tangled ivy dripping from the studio’s exterior.
The love of the natural world with a mystical dream-like twist draws heavily from Russian fairytales. Vruble’s work is dominant, from the brilliantly tiled fireplaces to gleaming decorations. One can see much of the style he later incorporated into the Metropol Hotel. The vivid metallic sheen captured produced pieces so freshly modern, they’d be at home in any gallery today.
A reverence for peasant or folk art is also prevalent. No less intricate, remarkable examples of hand-carved housewares, including primitive irons and utensils, are a must-see in the neighboring Museum of Folk Art, particularly with its fanciful purple and green checkerboard roof.
Artistic periods of Russia’s past continue to converge with the splendid Church of the Savior, built in 1882. The church curtsies to medieval Russia, but guides her into the modern era with what many consider to be Russia’s first monument to the Art Nouveau style. The elegant flowering mosaic flooring, Art Nouveau frescoes and icons, and again, lustrous tiling perfectly convey the period.
The whimsical House on Chicken Legs, built by the Vasnetsov brothers for the colony’s children, sadly now appears to be missing its clawed feet, but its charm still lingers. Inspired by the fairytale of Baba Yaga, the Russian equivalent to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the diminutive cottage pays homage to Baba Yaga’s sinister threats to gobble up little kiddies who come too close.