Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
“Art Nouveau” in French literally means “the new art” and “Jugendstil “ in German—“ a young style”. Art Nouveau is a direction in the arts, which was most popular in the second half of the 19thbeginning of the 20th century. It denied straight lines in favour of more natural or “nature” lines, it was interested in new technologies (especially in architecture) and the applied arts.
Art Nouveau tried to combine artistic and utilitarian functions and to involve all the fields of man’s activity in the world of beauty.
In the 1860-70s, Europe was domineered by eclecticism, which was all about repeating the previous art styles. In the 1880s some masters started to work out a new style, rejecting eclecticism. William Morris (1834-1896) created interiors inspired by flowery patterns, while Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942) used elegant wavy lines in book illustrations.
Japanese art had a marked impact on the style of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau artists also drew inspiration from the art of Ancient Egypt and other ancient civilizations.
The spreading of Art Nouveau promoted World Expos, which demonstrated achievements of modern technologies and applied arts. Art Nouveau was at its peak at the World Expo of 1900 in Paris. After that the significance of Art Nouveau began to fade.
In architecture, Art Nouveau applied all kinds of natural lines as well as the then new technologies of metal and glass. Art Nouveau architecture is both aesthetically beautiful, and functional. Great attention was also paid to the interior. All the elements of the construction— staircases, doors, balconies— were designed to work aesthetically.
One of the first architects working in the style of Art Nouveau was a Belgian, Victor Horta (1861-1947). In his projects he actively used metal and glass and gave the metallic constructions unusual forms reminiscent of phantasmal plants. In France, the ideas of Art Nouveau were developed by Hector Guimard who created, among other things the entrance pavilions for the Paris Metro. Antonio Gaudi took Guimard’s ideas further. His buildings blend with the landscape so organically that one can only wonder if they were created by man or nature.
In painting, Art Nouveau is connected with Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard in France, Gustav Klimt in Austria, Edvard Munch in Norway, Aubrey Beardsley in England, the Czech artist Alfons Mucha and some others. Among the Russian representatives of Art Nouveau one may mention Mikhail Vrubel, Viktor Vasnetsov, Alexander Benua, Leon Bakst and Konstantin Somov.
Since we have already talked about the Russian artists in the previous issues of PASSPORT in connection with Symbolism and the World of Art group we decided to concentrate on architecture in this article. Apart from painting and architecture, Art Nouveau also embraced applied arts, furniture, glass and china, jewellery, ladies’ dresses, posters and billboards.
The turn to the rational in architecture was supported by Russian architectural criticism, which was unanimous in condemning the eclectic stylized architecture. That brought about a search for new directions. Apollinary Krasovsky (Russian engineer, architect, professor of architecture) had long been predicting that “iron will make a coup in the architectural forms and produce new ornamental forms, which will probably create a new style.” His prophesy came true: iron, steel, reinforced concrete, big-sized glass, glazed brick as well as new building constructions became one of the material preconditions for the rational architecture, which was called “contemporary”, “new” or “ the Art Nouveau” architecture.
Russian architects learnt the new architecture of the West. Art Nouveau advocates required architects to deny artistic traditions. The buildings of this new style did not fit within contemporary schemes. Their plans were formed freely, so the structure of these buildings became fluid and picturesque.
The broad use of metal and reinforced concrete constructions and structures helped to create large spaces, and were ideal for trading premises, banks, transportation facilities, industrial and other public edifices. To light up all these big halls and galleries, big stained glass windows and fanlights were used. In private houses, bay windows became very popular, sometimes over several floors while the windows themselves had all kinds of shapes. All these innovations changed the buildings’ exteriors dramatically giving them an individual architectural look.
The leading architect of the Russian Art Nouveau was Fyodor Shekhtel (1859-1926). At the beginning of his career, Shekhtel paid tribute to retrospectivism, working with Gothic architecture —for example, the mansion of Zinaida Grigoryevna Morozova at Spiridonovka, 17 (1893-1898), but after the 1900s he become a convinced partisan of Art Nouveau. He created a great number of buildings whose striking feature is the simplicity and rationality so characteristic of the new architecture.
The most typical of Shekhtel’s Art Nouveau work is the mansion that belonged to Stepan Ryabushinsky at Malaya Nikitskaya, 6 (now the Maxim Gorky House Museum). It was completed within just two years (1900-1902) and became a kind of “architectural manifesto” proclaiming the new style of Art Nouveau. It’s really worth visiting this unique house.
Underneath the huge window that stretches over three floors, is a side door which leads you into an underwater kingdom with a marble staircase crashing like a wave against the background of a 10- metre stained-glass window. A chandelier in the form of a jelly-fish hangs overhead.
In this house, Shekhtel sought to express the interconnected nature of different worlds—the natural and the man-made, inside and outside. From the outside, the house appears to have two stories, while in fact the interior is divided into four floors of living space, and an attic housing the secret Ryabushinsky family chapel— secret because the Ryabushinskys were members of the Old Believer movement, which was repressed until 1905.
An example of the somewhat different, national romantic direction of Art Nouveau in Moscow is the Yaroslavsky Railway Station (1902) also built by Shekhtel. If you look at its high roofs, the tower and the multi-coloured incrustation, the asymmetric building is slightly reminiscent of the folk architecture of the Russian North. But if Yaroslavsky vokzal has a subtle national flavour, the Tretyakov Gallery (1900-1905), whose façade was the project of the artist Viktor Vasnetsov, looks like a clear example of national Russian architecture. And this is quite understandable: the building serves as the Museum of National Art.
Shekhtel built quite a number of mansions in Moscow: the Derozhinskaya mansion (1905), apartments for rent of the Stroganov Art School (1904), the press of the Utro (Morning) newspaper (1909), the Ryabushinsky family bank (1904) and others. All of them are very simple, even ascetic in their architectural looks, which reflects the author’s understanding of beauty as usefulness or functionality.
A remarkable example of early Art Nouveau in Moscow is the Metropol Hotel, located in Theatre Square. It was designed by architect William Walcot and built in 1899-1903. Its complicated asymmetric composition is brightened up by glazed bay-windows, decorative sculptures and mosaic panels.
The architecture of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th сentury on the outskirts of the Russian Empire was marked by eclecticism and had a stylized character taking the forms of the local architecture.
The Russian Art Nouveau soon began to break up into various branches. The stylization of the Russian Art Nouveau testified to the fact that architects wanted to incorporate their classical artistic backgrounds in their designs.