“In Russia the conflicting desires of pan-Slavism and Western modernisation were both fulfilled by Art Nouveau.”1
They may have called it Stil Modern, but it absorbed all the Slavic vitality and craving for the new that occupied the Russian intelligentsia from the late 19th century onwards. And it was sparked by the tension between St Petersburg, the modern, outward looking imperial capital, and Moscow, the old heart of the country, conservative and nationalistic.
The journal Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) was the chief disseminator of the Russian Art Nouveau. (You may recall several references in this blog to this art movement: notable artists and critics included the Benois and Lanceray clans, relatives of the celebrated Zinaida Serebriakova.) Between 1898 and 1904, it had an enormous impact on Russian modernist art, and was the chief propagator of that tension alluded to above: the likes of Leon Bakst who were Occidentalists pulled against the likes of Konstantin Korovin, who was a Slavist.
Some of the earliest manifestations of the Stil Modern were in decorative arts, in particular, silverware. Orest Kurlyukov’s Slavophile tea sets are masterpieces, determinedly antiquarian in outlook, using representations of ancient Russian literary and romantic styles. Meanwhile, Mikhail Tarasov produced an antiquarian cup with a dramatic Art Nouveau handle.
The humbly-born architect Fyodor Shekhtel was another titan of the Russian Art Nouveau. His design of the Ryabushinsky House is based on the internal arrangement of a medieval church of spaces surrounding a central area under a dome, but where the lighting is via a skylight and an ornate stained glass window, and the dome painted with traditional religious allusions.
Shekhtel was also involved in the design of the grand Russian pavilion at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.2 The buildings were characterized by a combination of forms that, although based on Russian architectural traditions, were united with the flowing linearity of Stil Modern.1
While the Stil Modern achieved considerable attention and influence in Europe, Russian exponents of the form continued to innovate back home as well. They collaborated with Art Nouveau masters such as Olbrich and Mackintosh. Even if critical coverage was not always favourable (one critic said: ‘Flabby … as if for a special race of small, affectionate and spineless human beings.’) and if nationalists were worried about the style’s foreignness and conservatives were appalled by its modernity, it could still admirably achieve a superb consummation, representing at once a dying empire and illuminating a country reaching for the new in the new century.