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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Sensual Moderne Beauties




If a building can be said to have sexuality, then Moscow's voluptuous turn-of-the-century edifices clearly represent architectural erotica. While there are plenty of coy and coquettish maidens to be found, they yield pride of place to more flamboyant, shamelessly adorned beauties.


It is no accident that Art Nouveau gained momentum as Europe's flourishing new bourgeoisie flocked to the cities. Shops and apartment buildings designed to appeal to the new rich adopted this opulent style, and Moscow's budding merchant class hurried to follow suit.


In Moscow Art Nouveau, Kathleen Berton Murrell captures this vibrant period on the eve of the Revolution, when Moscow's robber barons were building sumptuous mansions, sprawling hotels and even factories bedecked with the sinuous and stylized details that typified the period.


The book deftly demonstrates that the Art Nouveau phenomenon in Russia was not merely derivative of European models, but had legitimate Russian roots. Yet on a semantic level, Murrell's choice of the French term "Art Nouveau" to describe this broad and eclectic period suggests Eurocentrism. Art Nouveau proper evokes images of the Belgian Victor Horta's Hotel Tassel or Hector Guimard's Paris metro stations.


Russians at the time used a different French term, "Style Moderne," to differentiate this new, modern style from previous ones.


In Russia, "Style Moderne" may have shared some elements with its continental contemporaries, but, as Murrell's book attests, it strayed into areas as disparate as Gothic revival and neoclassicism, albeit lending them a new playfulness.


Murrell traces Russian Moderne roots back to artist colonies like Abramtsevo, where such aesthetic luminaries as Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Polenov, Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov worked together in the late 19th century to recreate and reinvigorate medieval Slavic artistic traditions.


On the Abramtsevo compound, the Church of the Saviour Untouched by Hand, completed in 1882, was based on the medieval country churches of Russia's north, and perfectly characterized this fusion of the arts from metal work to mosaic.


The sensuality of the Moderne movement is nowhere more apparent than in the Stepan Ryabushinsky House, built by one of a brood of heirs with a hand in a number of lucrative businesses and industries. Designed by the doyen of the Moderne, Fyodor Shekhtel, the 1902 building is one of a number of contemporary houses built by wealthy merchants and industrialists in the Patriarch's Pond area.


Enclosed by a wrought-iron fence of sweeping, wave-like forms, the house typifies the emerging style with its asymmetrical silhouette, irregular window placement and overhanging flat roof. It is clad in pastel tile and stucco that culminate in a fantastic floral mosaic frieze under the eaves -- a playful, otherworldly fantasia that nearly erupts from the ground.


The unquestioned high point of the interior is the central staircase, where lava-like stone flows downward as if nature had simply deposited it there. This sense of fluidity resonates throughout the house. Colorful stained glass windows in geometric patterns, molded brass handles and curvaceous bentwood window mullions suggest the last gasp of decadence before the avant-garde Constructivism of the 1920s took hold.


While many of the elements of the house can be traced to Shekhtel's European contemporaries, like the Scotsman Charles Rennie Macintosh or the Austrian Josef Olbrich, the house undoubtedly testifies to the Russian penchant for fantasy in its own right. But perhaps the most Russian feature of the house is a space that catapults the sensuality of the Art Nouveau to a spiritual level but simultaneously betrays Russia's long history of religious intolerance: Ryabushinsky's secret chapel.


Ryabushinsky belonged to the Orthodox sect of Old Believers, who were not allowed to worship publicly at the time of the building's construction. So the pious Ryabushinsky built a small chapel accessible only by a back stairway. Rendered in a rich palette of reds and greens, the space has the air of an early medieval chapel, but the abstract motifs are quintessentially modern.


The fourth of Murrell's books on Moscow architecture, "Moscow Art Nouveau" is a welcome addition to the current bibliography. What is most refreshing about Murrell is that she does not take the dry academic approach to architectural history that so often bedevils the field.


In a comparatively brief 160 pages, her prose is accessible to a general audience and is punctuated by lusty color images of the buildings as they stand today, as well as black-and-white archival prints.


She describes the technological advances that made the Russian Style Moderne possible, such as the ferro-concrete construction that allowed for expansive windows, and she does not neglect the social history that is integral to the development of any art movement.


While Murrell's survey covers a number of buildings that are staples of any survey of turn-of- the-century Russian architecture, she also treats many lesser known structures in detail. Well outside of fashionable Moscow, Lev Kekushev, another prolific architect of the period, designed a modest house whose roots lie, not in Europe, but in America.


In 1902, on remote Electrozavodskaya Ulitsa, Kekushev built a two-story house for textile manufacturer Vasily Nosov, who had his factory compound nearby. Apparently inspired by a picture of an American country cottage in Scientific American magazine, Nosov engaged Kekushev to create a similar house for him. Constructed of wood and brick, and centered around a main hall as was the American norm, with a veranda decorated with lacy woodwork, the house has little in common with classic Art Nouveau, but celebrates American bourgeois counterparts.


Western interpretations of Russian architectural history are often riddled with inaccuracies, and here it is unfortunate that Murrell does not employ the academic practice of using footnotes to support her statements. This also strands the inquisitive reader who might like a bit more background or detail.


The marvelous photos by Igor Palmin and John Freeman bring the text to life and vividly attest to Moscow's status as a world class architectural treasure.


"Moscow Art Nouveau," by Kathleen Berton Murrell, Philip Wilson Publishers, 160 pages, pounds 35 ($58.95)