Switzerland Today

Kitsch me if you can

Photos of Romanian Art Nouveau Buildings on display at the U.N.

Romania, in case you didn't know it, gave us some of the leading figures in the major art movements of the past century. "Dada" poetry came from the Romanian Tristan Tzara before he gave the movement a name at the Café Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, at least according to one version of the story1. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi produced works that look as fresh today as when they were first produced. Dinu Lipatti and George Enescu were giants of the 20th-century music scene. The polymath Mircea Eliade has been a major influence on a number of artists, including Francis Ford Coppola in Youth without Youth (2007). Peter Hulm reports on an exhibition of photos at the U.N. showing examples of Romanian Art Nouveau.

romanian art nouveauFirst, a note of appreciation to the cultural czars of the United Nations Office at Geneva for making a new effort to publicize the cultural activities taking place within the U.N. building. There's a website and a number of attractive posters of forthcoming events decorating the hallways. So it is hard for anyone within the U.N. complex to miss knowing what's going on.

From 23 March to 13 April 2010 the U.N. organized a collection of photos supplied by the Romanian mission in Geneva in the display area at the Door 40 (Pregny) entrance to the new building. Around 25 poster-size panels featured Art Nouveau architecture from the 1890s to 1920s.

The exhibit was worth 15 minutes of anyone's time and could have helped you plan your next visit to Bucharest. Luckily, lots of other examples of Romanian Art Nouveau are available on other websites to map out exactly what is worth a detour.

The U.N. show was part of the commemoration of the "JournÚe internationale de la Francophonie 2010". Francophonie? In fact, that's not so strange to anyone who knows something of Romanian history. Most of Romania's architects in the 19th century and later trained in French art schools, as did many of their artists. Art Nouveau in Romania, in fact, started as a straight import of the French style.

In the words of the architectural historian Sorin Vasilescu, it started with designs based on the "flowing, curvilinear ornamentation recalling the vegetal world" and only later developed the abstract, linear rectangular forms that became Art Deco.

But it has to be admitted that the buildings photographed for this exhibit by no means represented the best in Romanian Art Nouveau. There was nothing from Timisoara. You can see photos by Franz Bauer of much more beautiful architecture in this style on the web, but as the site says "most of them need urgently renovation" and it is a "sorrowful situation".

wikimedia has a selection of Art Nouveau photos from Romania that hit more of the top level and visitors have photographed first-class Art Nouveau buildings elsewhere in the country.

We can only speculate on the reasons for this strange disproportion in the exhibition. This show desperately needed a contextual set of notes to enable us to understand what we were seeing and the environment in which the buildings were put up. It was hard to see any logic, narrative or historical ordering in the photos on display.

Nevertheless, that's no reason to pass the exhibition without at least a glance and I was glad I strolled by. Romanian art nouveau has unique features, and the pictures documented the interesting battle between conventionality and creative art in the world of public architecture.

Though the "new style" was embraced in Romania as the Austro-Hungarian empire sought to prove it could be "modern", by 1924 such architecture was being treated as "gaudy mausoleums" by the artists who gave us Surrealism. From a country that offered "proto art-nouveau" in the work of Horta and Hankar even before Brussels (the pre-eminent Art Nouveau city of Western Europe), the "Europeanization" of Romanian society seems to have ended up with buildings whose empty monumentalism Mussolini would have been proud of. And several of these monstrosities are visible in the Palais exposition.

It did less than justice to Romanian Art Nouveau, whose original contribution came from its unique position in Europe: "a Latin nation adhering to an Eastern Orthodox religious rite, a Western nation by language and ethnic heritage located in an ancient Oriental world of Slavs, Turks, and Magyars" according to S. A. Mansbach in "The 'foreignness' of classical modern art in Romania", published in The Art Bulletin in 1998 (vol. 80 issue 3, p534+).

The Art Nouveau love of patterning links up in several Romanian buildings with the Ottoman empire's predeliction for ornamental decoration. Byzantine pillaring and Islamic pointed window shapes sit next to square and arched windows or heavy-tiled roofs. A house with a fleur-de-lys in stone also sports sharply curved, flame-like window frames, West meets East in an unholy alliance. As Mansbach put it, Art Nouveau at its best took ornamentation (often from the vegetal world) and transformed it into structure, and folk art sources as quotations rather than pastiche. But in these photos we saw intricately worked angels, cherubs and gargoyles (I know they are officially grotesques if they don't have a water spout, but you get what I mean). The creativity, even early on, co-existed with the kitsch.

One house on show does seem to me a masterpiece: the Romulus Porescu house of 1905 by Dimitri Maimarolu. Art Nouveau's combination of humanity and elegance is carried through in all the details, down to the drainpipes. Five years later he built the Armenian Church in Bucharest, though this is apparently a smaller copy of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia.

The Palais exhibition offers a number of other delights, not least the struggle to make something out of the ordinary despite the heavy weight of convention. A small railway station that desperately tries to be more than a redbrick box (1893-1898). The Athenee Palace Hotel (1912-1914) offers overwhelming interiors (nothing as grandiose as Harrods Food Department in London, though) while its fašade could be found anywhere from Biarritz to Zurich. What is now the George Enescu Museum (1890-1899) is worth seeing just because it goes so far over the top. With its shell-like door canopy and metal door decorations of writhing metal branches, it seems like the last gasp of trompe d'oeil architecture. Unsettling and certainly not beautiful to my eye, but definitely a sight to put on your Bucharest visiting list.

From this exhibition you might conclude that Art Nouveau doesn't "do" exteriors. Once or twice a building "gets" it. But most crouch there as if Paladio and the Georgians never taught them anything about materials, not to mention all those marvellous Islamic buildings as light as a tent and cool as an oasis. Given the architects' efforts to rethink everything about the house, and their often Socialist ideals (at least in England), where is the Art Nouveau peasant's cottage? Or did they just specialize in Mansions for Medievalists?

If you want to see what Art Nouveau could really produce take a look at the pbase site with Bauer's photos, even just those devoted to Romania. There's still a lot of really beautiful architecture across the country. You would be missing something outstanding if you skip TÔrgu Mures. In fact this site makes me think it's worth organizing an Art Nouveau tour of Romania to see all these exceptional places.

So I'm still intrigued – and have no answer – as to whether the Art NouveautÚs featured in the Palais expo started off as creative ideas reduced to ornamentation and filigree by their commissioners ("kitsch me if you can") or whether they started out as a copy of what was standard for the time and then the archictects sprung a few surprises on the building committee. One advantage of the Palais exhibition is the struggle you can see taking place, unresolved, in daily life, just as often today.

Many of the buildings, unfortunately, seem in a bad state. The Hotaranu Pharmacy in Bucharest (1892) by Statie Ciortan looks like an absolutely masterful mix of influences, flowing and linear forms. Then you notice all the tiles lifting themselves from the roof. You wonder the building has survived so long.

Peter Hulm is Advisor on Innovative Journalism to the European Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Studies (Saas-Fee/New York) and maintains the crosslines.ch website.