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Art Nouveau is an ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. It is known as Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Modernista in Spain, and Stile Liberty or Stile Floreale in Italy. Art Nouveau has become the general term applied to a highly varied movement that was European-centred but internationally current at the end of the century. Art Nouveau architects gave idiosyncratic expression to many of the themes that had preoccupied the 19th century, ranging from search for structural honesty to calls for an organic architecture. The extensive use of iron and glass in Art Nouveau buildings was also rooted in 19th-century practice.

Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewellery and glass design, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design. Art Nouveau developed first in England and soon spread to the European continent. The term Art Nouveau was coined by a gallery in Paris that exhibited much of this work.

In England the style's immediate precursors were the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris, who established the importance of a vital style in the applied arts. On the European continent,  Art Nouveau was  also influenced by experiments with expressive line by the painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-LautrecThe movement was also partly inspired by a vogue for the linear patterns of Japanese prints.

The distinguishing ornamental characteristic of Art Nouveau is its undulating, asymmetrical line, often taking the form of flower stalks and buds, vine tendrils, insect wings, and other delicate and sinuous natural objects; the line may be elegant and graceful or infused witha powerfully rhythmic and whiplike force. In the graphic arts the line subordinates all other pictorial elements - form, texture, space, and colour - to its own decorative effect. In architecture and the other plastic arts, the whole of the three-dimensional form becomes engulfed in the organic, linear rhythm, creating a fusion between structure and ornament.

Architecture particularly shows this synthesis of ornament and structure; a liberal combination of materials — ironwork, glass, ceramic, and brickwork - was employed, for example, in the creation of unified interiors in which columns and beams became thick vines with spreading tendrils and windows became both openings for light and air and membranous outgrowths of the organic whole.

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V.Horodetsky. Horodetsky's House, popularly known as "The House With Chimeras", 1901-1902. Bankova Street.
76_00.jpg (56241 bytes) This approach was directly opposed to the traditional architectural values of reason and clarity of structure. There was a great number of artists and designers who worked in the Art Nouveau style.Some of the more prominent were the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who specialized in a predominantly geometric line and particularly influenced the Austrian Sezessionstil; the Belgian architects Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta, whose extremely sinuous and delicate  structures  influenced the French architect Hector Guimard, another important figure; the American glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany; the French furniture and ironwork designer Louis Majorelle; the Czechoslovakian graphic designer-artist Alphonse Mucha; and the Spanish architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudi, perhaps the most original artist of the movement, who went beyond dependence on line to transform buildings into curving, bulbous, brightly coloured, organic constructions.

In Russia where the Art Nouvaeu style was usually referred to as “modern”, F. Shekhtel gained prominence as a distinctly Art Nouveau artist.

Artists of Kyiv kept abreast with the trends in European and world art and architecture. Their achievements are not at all inferior to the best samples of the Art Nouveau style. Andri Nakov, a French art historian particularly well-informed about the art movements of the early twentieth century, who was on a recent visit to Kyiv, remarked when he was taken to Horodetsky Street: "Excellent architecture all around. It is clear now that those Kyivan artists who went to Paris to learn a thing or two, already possessed a well-developed taste. This Sezessionstil that we see in the architecture of this street is a sure sign of good taste.”

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Facade of a house in Podil.
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Masks on the facade of a rental house, 1900s. Zankovetska Street.
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E. Bradtman. A mansion
in  Luteranska Street, 1900s.
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F. Sokolov. Decorations of a house, 1900s. Kostiolna Street.

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Facade of rental house, 1900s. Kostiolna Street.

When Mr. Nakov saw the “House with Chimeras” as it is popularly referred to (a house built to the design of the architect V. Horodetsky), he exclaimed : “I’ve not seen anything like this in Paris!”

V. Horodetsky has indeed created something unique. To begin with, he risked to build an imposing mansion on top of a steep hill. The House seems to be an organic growth rising from the rock. Its exterior is ornamented with dozens of  sculptures in the form of plants and animals, mostly aquatic. All these creatures - crocodiles, fish, toads, mermaids,  plus a host of others - seem to have crawled out of the lake at the foot of the hill that had been drained shortly before  the construction of the House began. Some of the exotic animals are a sort of reminder that Horodetsky was an  enthusiastic hunter. He used to go to Africa to hunt almost annually, chartering a ship. Once he was reported to have   brought a live giraffe to give to the local zoo.Horodetsky was an excellent engineer, a man possessing a highly rational mind (the evidence of which is his house, which is still standing, built precariously at the top of the hill) and at the same time he loved fantasy and was endowed with a vivid imagination.

Horodetsky was a shrewd businessman in addition to being an excellent artist. The ornamentation of the House is made of ferro-concrete, a new building material at the time when the House was being built, and it served as the best possible advertisement of the things one can do with the reinforced concrete.

The House combines the rationality of the West with the irrational dreaminess of the Orient. The functional parts of  the building have strict geometrical shapes (oval, round, rectangular) and all the decorative elements look like creations  of the organic world.

The Sezessionstil taught many Kyivan architects to keep developing their own individual styles. Ye. Bradtman, an  architect who tended to create monumental forms, made the walls of the buildings he designed look vibrant, ready to  move, in spite of the fact that they were faced with granite. He also combined mometal-looking parts of the buildings  with wrought-iron tracery-like fences, gates and other supporting structures. Visual lightness of some parts alleviates  the heaviness of the whole structure.

With the advent of the Sezessionstil came what the Kyivan architecture had lacked earlier — refinery and exquisite  taste. Walking the streets of Kyiv one can see a lot of evidence of Sezessionstil in the design of the buildings built at  the turn of the century, in fences and portals. Even traditional caryatids turned into sea waves and plant-like supports. 

On some of the buildings one can see traditional Ukrainian village ornaments and decorations in the forms of triangles,  bunches of grapes, wavy lines and other symbols of fertility and the elements of Nature. A new style in architecture was being created.

But the rural and Oriental influences in decoration did not last long as a new age was coming to affirm itself.

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I.Ledokhovsky. Kachkovsky Hospital (where P.Stolypin, the prime minister of Russia, died in 1911), 1907.

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E.Bradtman. A mansion on Luteranska Street, 1900s.
The city of Kyiv was more and more turning into a major economic and business centre. Banks and new  companies sprang up all over town. A boom in construction of offices and living quarters was registered shortly before the war and  revolution that followed.

Rational elements in architecture began to predominate. Buildings lose ornate decoration, look more ponderous, there is no vibrant life in them anymore and yet they have definitely borrowed a lot from the preceding stage of architectural  development. It can be seen in the freedom with which architectural masses are arranged, in irregular combinations of   prominent and receding parts. The next step was the ascetic constructivism of the twenties.

The Art Nouveau style inspired not only artists but poets as well. Some of the poetic imagery of the time bear a definite  imprint of the predominant style in art and architecture.

After 1910 Art Nouveau appeared old-fashioned and limied and was generally abandoned as a distinct decorative style. It was important, however, in moving toward the 20th-century aesthetic unity of design.

By Dmytro Horbachov
Photos by Oleg Zorin

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