Elpidiforovich Borisov-Musatov

Russia • 1870−1905

Russian Art Nouveau. Power of artists, spectacular of designers, and architectural ecstasy

We present a detailed illustrated overview of the Russian Art Nouveau works: from paintings and posters to architectural and decorative masterpieces.
The new style has completely conquered Europe and become cosmopolitan, like a nord express carriage, which runs through Germany, Belgium and France in one day,” Sergei Diaghilev wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. Fleeting — that’s the word for Art Nouveau. Indeed, it did not stay in Russia for a long time, no more than ten to fifteen years: it appeared in the 1890s, existed until the early 1900s. And at the same time, it gave the name to an entire epoch, as it managed to leave the museum halls and take root in all spheres of everyday life of cities and provinces, from the appearance of buildings to household items, clothing, jewellery, posters and even postcards.
Ryabushinsky’s mansion is a residential building in the early Art Nouveau style, built in 1900—1903 by architect Fyodor Shekhtel.
At present time, it is the A. M. Gorky Memorial Flat, Moscow. Photo source

In Russia, this art movement was most often called the modern style or the new style. In France, they called it Art Nouveau and fin de siècle, in the USA — Tiffany, in Germany — Jugendstil, and in Austria, Poland, Czech Republic — Secession... In Europe, it was associated with Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons, the most famous theatrical tours of Russian artists, dancers and musicians. However, it appeared much earlier: the Seasons began in 1908 and lasted until 1929, and the Russian Art Nouveau made itself felt back in the 1890s.
Alexander Golovin.
Portrait of Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold, 1917

By that time, the “frantic avant-gardist”, Vsevolod Meyerhold had already put his art colleagues’ attempts to bring something new to art in the pillory. “It’s awful when the stage is filled with familiar motives from ‘modernist’ magazines like Die Kunst, The Studio, Jugend. It’s awful, if art nouveau and modern style, which are everywhere now, on canes, on houses, in pastry shops and on posters, will penetrate the stage, albeit in more noble forms,” the director was indignant. And he was not alone: many contemporaries did not accept the new style, considering it decadent.

Meyerhold’s “fears” came true: Russian modern style hastened to go beyond the framework of “pure art” and penetrate into all spheres of life. However, although it came from the pages of magazines, it were the Russian ones, such as Mir Iskusstva, Iskusstvo i Khudozhestvennaya Promyshlennost, Vesy. As well as from art studios in the estates of Talashkino and Abramtsevo, where in the late 19th — early 20th centuries, folk traditions were revived and the new style was born.
1.1. Vesy magazine cover. Nikolai Feofilaktov, 1904
1.2. Iskusstvo i Khudozhestvennaya Promyshlennost. Monthly illustrated edition of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Arts, No. 1—3, 1898

Renaissance & handicrafts

Although Russian Art Nouveau had many features in common with its Western European branch, its departure from angles and straight lines, preference for curvy lines, emphasized attention to plant motives, interest in new architectural technologies, the rise of applied art had a pronounced national character.
The adherents of Art Nouveau and Secession in the West worked striving to return to the simplicity and practicality of the Middle Ages, the early Renaissance, and followed the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites and the philosophy of John Ruskin in applied art, whereas Russian artists drew inspiration from folk art, reviving domestic art handicrafts.

Joint cultural events of Russian and other artists contributed to the spread of the new style. One of them was the International Exhibition of Posters, which took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. Among the participants, there were Art Nouveau artists recognized in the West, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Eckmann, Grasset.
Photo Source

For the first time, the word “poster” in the commercial sphere was used by the Russian art critic and curator of the Imperial Hermitage, Andrei Ivanovich Somov. In 1898, he wrote the Poster article for the new Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, which stated: “The forms of nature are only a pretext for the flight of fantasy; the human face, hands ... are barely visible in them, only in the main, beautifully altered, widely drawn outlines, women’s hair turns into ornamental curls and convolutions, flowers, trees and animals take on an unprecedented, bizarre look."

The largest event of this kind was the World Exhibition of 1900: Elena Polenova and Maria Yakunchikova participated in the preparation of the Russian pavilion, the project was created by Vasnetsov and Vrubel, and the architectural solution was made by Golovin and Korovin. The main building for the exhibits was the Pavilion of the Russian outskirts designed by the architect Robert-Friedrich Melzer in the style of the Moscow Kremlin. It looked like a Russian town that grew up in Paris by a miracle.
The public was also delighted by another pavilion, the Kasli cast-iron one, was specially created for the exhibition in the city of Kasli near Chelyabinsk and awarded the Grand Prix. As well as other exhibits and works of art by Russian artists, presented on the largest exposition area, in comparison with the rest of the participants, which measured 24,000 m2. “We are still under the influence of the feeling of surprise and admiration we experienced when we visited the Russian section,” the French Liberté wrote.
Viktor Vasnetsov. Bayan
1910, 303×408 cm
Viktor Vasnetsov.
Boyan, 1910

Almost from the very moment of its appearance in Russia, Art Nouveau turned to the historical past. Perhaps that is why the works by Viktor Vasnetsov, who was its pioneer, enjoyed such popularity.

The peculiarities of Russian Art Nouveau were subjected to influence from another direction, the interest in the philosophical and aesthetic problems of man, which was especially manifested in the art of Mikhail Vrubel with its fabulous mysticism, the precious stones splendour, the themes of Christ and the Demon.
Don’t you miss the aesthetic Mir Iskusstva, the magazine that united the artworks of Vasnetsov and Vrubel, Alexander Golovin, Mikhail Nesterov, Viktor Borisov-Musatov, Elena Polenova, Ivan Bilibin, Konstantin Somov, Léon BakstMstislav Dobuzhinsky on its pages! And for many years, under the strict guidance of the first Russian producer, impresario Sergei Diaghilev, it actively promoted the new style.
Mir Iskusstva magazine cover.
Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova-Weber.

History getting along with mysticism

The concept of “stylization”, important for modernist aesthetics, which was essential in every article about the style peculiarities, came into use in the 1890s thanks to the artist Elena Polenova, who was looking for methods of “aesthetic transformation of nature”.

In our Russian ornament, I could notice a feature that I have not seen in other nations. It is use of not just geometric combinations, always somewhat dry, but also more lively motives, inspired by natural impressions, i.e. stylization of plants and animals, for example, the development of a leaf, flower, fish, bird,” Polenova wrote.
1.1. The Beast (Snake) Elena Dmitrievna Polenova, 1898
1.2. Viktor Vasnetsov. Sketches for the St. Volodymyr Cathedral, 1893

Looking for inspiration in nature is a common principle of art, common to all mankind,” one of her contemporaries echoed her in 1901. “But as the artist’s personality is reflected in his work, the work of a whole people reflects those features, ... which are characteristic of its race, its life, its historical past.” Fortunately, there is an immense scope for this.
Viktor Vasnetsov. Heroes
1898, 295.3×446 cm

Valkyrie of Russian Art Nouveau and Savva the Magnificent

Originally, the Mir Iskusstva magazine was sponsored by Princess Maria Tenisheva and the philanthropist Savva Mamontov. Both were notable for the fact that at the end of the 19th century, they founded art-industrial studios on their estates, which became centres of education and revival of the national culture: she was in Talashkino near Smolensk, he was in Abramtsevo, near Moscow.
1.1. Konstantin Korovin. Portrait of M. K. Tenisheva, 1899
1.2. Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait of S. I. Mamontov, 1897
Teremok Historical and Architectural Complex.
Talashkino-Flonovo. Photo

Both Talashkino and Abramtsevo united painters, musicians, artists who not only came, but lived and worked there for a long time.

1.1. Abramtsevo. The Teremok bath
1.2. Teremok Historical and Architectural Complex (Flonovo-Talashkino)

“I have long wanted to implement one more plan in Talashkino. The Russian style, as it has been interpreted until now, was completely forgotten... I wanted to try my hand in this direction, calling on the aid of an artist with great imagination, who was also working on this old Russian fabulous past, to find a person with whom I could create an artistic atmosphere that I lacked,” Tenisheva wrote in her memoirs.
Ilya Repin.
Portrait of Princess M. K. Tenisheva

The dreams came true: Mikhail Vrubel created sketches, and architect Sergei Malyutin built a neo-Russian style temple of the Holy Spirit in Talashkino, designed by the artist Nicholas Roerich. Nikolai Konstantinovich also decorated the building with paintings and mosaics. Ilya Repin and Konstantin Korovin painted their portraits of Tenisheva in Talashkino.

In Abramtsevo, Valentin Serov painted his Girl with Peaches, the daughter of Savva Mamonotov, Vera; Vasnetsov painted his Alenushka, Vrubel created his majolica in the studios there, Vasily Polenov made the scenery for the performances of Mamontov’s Private Opera, in which he himself took part with other distinguished guests. According to art historians, it was there that a new type of theatrical scenery emerged, which Diaghilev later adopted in the design of his Seasons.

By the way, the artistic settlements in Abramtsevo and Talashkino were signs of the time: they were somewhat similar to the colonies of the French impressionists, who settled in Argenteuil near Paris at about the same period. The difference was that neither Monet, nor Renoir, nor their colleagues tried to find the national ground of art. And the Russian “villagers” put this idea at the forefront: artist Elena Polenova and the wife of Savva Ivanovich, Elizaveta Mamontova, the protectress of the Abramtsevo club walked many miles to collect decorative elements of peasant huts and household items.

Oh, Those Storytellers, or To the Past — for the Future

Art is too little part of our life!” Alexander Benois lamented, assuring that it should not look like an everyday reality, boring and inexpressive.

Plunging into the past, sometimes fabulous (which was especially evident in the works of Bilibin, Vasnetsov, Polenova), “royal hunting”, the conventional “gallant age” (which Dobuzhinsky, Benois, Somov were fond of), they modernized the images of “distant old times”. And they used the power of beauty to fight with the greyness of the surrounding world to transform buildings, interiors, clothes, jewellery, household items.
The interior of the mansion of A. I. Derozhinskaya.
Built in 1901-1904. Designed by architect Fyodor Shekhtel.

The new trends also touched on theatrical scenery (decorators have become very influential persons in the production), and book design. Since then, an individual design has been created for each performance, rather than selected from old stocks, as before. Books were illustrated in a unique style, while graphics were revived as an independent art. This happened largely thanks to the “saviour” of woodcuts, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva.
Aleksander Benois
The King’s Walk, 1906
Graphic art.

You love the past too much to appreciate at least something modern”, the painter and art critic Igor Grabar scolded Alexander Benois. The gaze of Alexander Nikolaevich and some of the “modernist hailers”, indeed, was turned to the past, but fictional, poeticized and fabulously beautiful, organically blended into the reality of the turn of the 19—20th centuries.

The Art Nouveau artists strove to bring to life the main idea, the synthesis of arts, which emerged the universal artist: architects were successful painters and graphic artists, and painters worked in the field of decorative and applied arts. But the main thing is that each their work, whether it is a private mansion, a tenement house, a public building, interior design, furniture, household items or decorations created according to their sketches, reflected the personality of the artist.

1.1. The project of the theatre façade by architect I.A. Ivanov-Schitz, one of the Russian Art Nouveau maîtres, who developed his own recognizable style based on the Vienna Secession and Greek classics. 1899
1.2. M.A. Vrubel. Mikula Selyaninovich and Volga fireplace, 1899. Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery. Photo source:
Vrubel created these decorative panels for the Gothic study in the house of A. V. Morozov in Moscow.

The trendsetters

Léon Bakst, the set designer for Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons and the author of a gallery of spectacular portraits, was an innovator in every way. It was he who became one of the trendsetters of European fashion, especially for exoticism and orientalism. He also influenced the fashion preferences of the early 20th century: he created designs for fabrics and sketches of stage costumes, the models of which so much impressed the top Parisian couturiers Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, Charles Frederic Worth, and other world fashion designers thereafter.
Ladle. The Firm of Carl Fabergé, 1889—1908

Not only Art Nouveau outfits have become fashionable, but also jewellery in the form of stylized flowers, dragonflies, butterflies, and intricate decorative elements. As well as dishes, even spatulas had intricately curved handles.

Elena Polenova was one of those who enthusiastically created ornaments for furniture and household items based on Russian folk ornaments. Vasnetsov, Korovin, Benois, Lanceray, Golovin created interior sketches and thus raised the aesthetic bar of the townsfolk.

Architectural ecstasy

Tenement buildings, banks, shops, Art Nouveau mansions are a story of its own. Art Nouveau architects sought to convey not only the “aesthetic spectacularity of the façades” through flowing lines, floral motifs, asymmetry, decorativeness, stylization, but also to create an atmosphere of intimacy, comfort and cosiness inside the room itself. The architecture of Russian Art Nouveau had other features as well.

“Under the sky, which is often gloomy, the building tops should be very expressive silhouettes, and their outer surfaces should be very vivid juxtapositions of light and shadow to achieve greater effect during the long and beautiful summer days. Old Russian architects took these two conditions into account. They not only loved silhouettes that boldly stand out in the sky, but they also knew how to give them an impression as graceful as picturesque,” noted the French architect Viollet-le-Duc. This observation was adopted by the architects of Russian Art Nouveau Fyodor Shekhtel, Lev Kekushev, Fyodor Lidval, Alexander von Hohen, Gustav Gelrich, who created their architectural masterpieces in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Astrakhan, Saratov, Omsk.
Stylization on the Gothic theme, poeticization of the heritage of Russian classicism and Empire style, roofs crowned with dragons, multi-coloured façades decorated with ornaments, sculptures of naiads and lion heads, mosaic panels, stained glass windows, twisted staircases with waves billowing at the lower steps... And also railings through which gigantic lilies, irises, orchids. Each mansion was unique and turned into a kind of standard for a new style.
Image of iris on the façade of the merchant N. I. Kazakov’s mansion (1898)
Architect Karl Hippius. Photo Source
1.1. The Grioza Princess panel by M. A. Vrubel on the façade of the Metropol hotel is called the most famous panel in Moscow. 1898.
1.2. A. Golovin. Cleopatra. Decorative majolica panel, Metropol hotel. Moscow.

The interiors were not inferior to the external appearance of the buildings. The baroque character of the main staircase did not argue with the “fine carvings of doors, close to Japanese graphics”, the fireplace decorated with openwork birds in majolica glaze, and authentic Vrubel’s painting on the entire wall — on the contrary, it was favourably contrasted.
Today the Ryabushinsky mansion is called a masterpiece of Moscow Art Nouveau and a classic of the genre. In the early 20th century, the style enjoyed quite contradictory attitude: “The ugliest example of decadent style. There is not a single honest line, not a single right angle. Everything is spoiled with obscene squiggles, mediocre arrogant crooks. The stairs, ceilings, windows — all this vile vulgarity. Now it has been painted, varnished and therefore became even more impudent,” Kornei Chukovsky wrote in his diary about this building.

For a long time it was believed that the “low taste” of bourgeois clients influenced the aesthetics of the style, but another phenomenon appeared, the passionate desire of Russian modern artists to fight the “ugly” in the world with the help of “art in all its manifestations”. They partly succeeded: at that time, according to Igor Grabar, art expanded beyond the museum halls and surrounded man in his daily life — “on the street, at home, in architecture, clothes, in books, in the theatre”. It seemed to acquire an “independent spirituality”. For the creators of Art Nouveau, everything mattered, every detail became a work of art.
1.1. The three-fold screen. The early 20th century. Russia, St. Petersburg. F. Meltzer factory. Pear, carving, painting.
1.2. At the late 19th — early 20th centuries, the famous furniture manufactory of the Meltzer brothers occupied a leading place in the Russian furniture industry. Armchair. St. Petersburg, late 19th century

In this atmosphere, a work of art turns out to be a magical subject endowed with its own spirituality, capable of self-development,” the poet Osip Mandelstam quipped about it.
The house of Zinaida Morozova in Spiridonovka, a Moscow estate in the neo-Gothic style, 1893—1898. It is considered a masterpiece of early Moscow Art Nouveau. Rumours nicknamed the rich and unusual merchant house “palazzo” and “the Moscow miracle”. Photo Source
Portrait of Zinaida Grigorievna Morozova.

In the early 1890s, Savva Morozov bought a mansion with a garden in Spiridonovka and titled it in the name of his wife. Fyodor Shekhtel took over the reconstruction of the house. The Morozovs arranged a ball on the occasion of the housewarming, which was long discussed throughout Moscow. After the death of Savva Morozov, Zinaida Grigorievna sold the estate to the industrialist and philanthropist Mikhail Ryabushinsky, who emigrated in 1918. The building was later nationalized.
After the eccentric artists who adored pretentious undertakings, other authors came and “made up for the lost time” by mass production of “standard projects”. And the works created by the artists of Art Nouveau remained as a memory of their desire to escape from the ordinary to the world of beauty, where everything was unique, individual, inimitable.

Author: Olga Yankovaya

Main illustration: I. I. Nivinsky. The sketch of a panel for the mansion of N. A. Vtorov. 1913—1914. Source: