Art Nouveau arrived on the scene as a reaction against 19th century Positivism, which saw animals — and humans — as mechanistic actors driven by natural laws, biology and evolution.
It also rejected the “standard” conventions that art, at the time, was supposed to convey: notions of patriotism, glory or piety. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than my fill of last suppers, JC’s on the cross, and Mary’s holding the young saviour.
It was definitely time for something new…
This youthful style presented a fresh aesthetic vision that had overtones of amorality and decadence. And it sought to investigate a metaphorical reality behind surface appearances and scientific analysis.
I suppose art nouveau could be described as “otherworldly”, but it rarely fell into line with any one religious or mystical cult.
And it affected more than just the fronts of buildings… This was a total style which was also expressed through painting, architecture, book illustrations, advertising and sculpture.
Art nouveau swept across the capitols of Europe, and for some strange reason, it took particular root in Riga, an up-and-coming city on the far northeastern fringes of the continent. And it gave the artists in that city their first wider European recognition.
To me, art nouveau expresses a desire for there to be more to urban life than just industrialization and functionality, or wealth and trade. A desire for stories and dreams to be interwoven or exposed on the everyday facade of our existence.
Over 750 buildings in Riga are alive with art nouveau — more than any other city in Europe.
I walked through those streets this past week with my head tilted back and a constant kink in my neck from looking upwards.
Up there, entire imaginary worlds project out from the fronts of common apartment blocks, and vegetation swirls upwards, crawling and creeping and taking over the facade, as though linear concrete and stone has surrendered to nature and is being engulfed by it.
Mythological figures emerge from various structural elements too, such as Atlas holding up a balcony pillar. Satyrs leer from among clusters of grapes. And gorgons with swirling heads of snakes glare down at those bold enough to knock on the door.
Other buildings are adorned with mythical beasts, screaming masks, hideous goblins, and futuristic robot-like faces that stare with eerie blankness into the distance of our collective future.
Shimmering blue tile work and elaborate stained glass windows add bursts of soft colours to this display.
And the entire district displays an overabundance of… well… very abundant bare breasted women, who add a rich sensuality to these expressive stone facades through curves you can almost feel.
Every facade in Riga’s Quiet District seems to tell a story in symbols that speak directly to our collective unconscious. It’s a wonderful place to wander around.
Art nouveau’s early influence was said to be Japanese print art that came to Western Europe at that time. But the creative output was expressed in distinctly European, rather than Asian, ways.
Greek and Egyptian aesthetics were combined with nature. And in Latvia, those natural elements — vines, floral motifs, and depictions of animals — took on local forms.
These buildings became an expression of the indigenous Latvian essence, a proud local heritage joined and intermingled with the common classical expressions of Western creative thought.
Despite the neglect of the Soviet period, art nouveau in Riga feels very much alive today.