Review of Art Nouveau in Buenos Aires: A Love Story
Ediciones Polígrafa, 2017
242 pp. Trade, US$ 55; 45.00€
After the recent election in the United States, I was drawn to the title of Anat Meidan's exquisite book, Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story. How I longed for a love story to escape the raucous tone! Meidan's book seemed like a particularly apt vehicle since Art Nouveau was the first art movement I fell in love with as a young artist. As it turned out, this volume was the perfect salve. The author both conveyed her love for this city and shared the joy she found in exploring it:
A museum curator with a special interest in the Art Nouveau movement, the book succeeds because Meidan's love story combines a passion for the art with a scholarly perspective. We learn that the project was seeded when she purchased a postcard with images of local Art Nouveau buildings in the city. (An image of the card is among the book's illustrations.) This postcard led her to become a "collector of buildings" as she turned the city into an open-air museum. The large format of the volume, it measures 10x12 inches, readily conveys the elegance of her "building collection." Credit is also due to Gustavo Sosa Pinilla, a leading architectural photographer who accompanied her on the expeditions around the city. Indeed, the use of multiple photographs helps her present both the architecture and its details. Her presentation was also helped by the generosity of people she met. She tells us that in many cases her evident interest in a site led to personal tours of private spaces. Looking back, Meidan sums us the project as follows:
"My years spent in Buenos Aires observing researching and studying the delights of its Art Nouveau architecture, in all its forms of expression, made me feel that my 'scholar's curiosity' had been satisfied to a great extent, and this encouraged me to write this book. However, it was my imagination that was not completely satisfied and kept looking beyond the bricks and mortar. Because behind every exterior of each building I have written about, behind each beautifully decorated stone wall, is a human story. What sparked my imagination were the people who had a dream, fulfilled it and ultimately lived in each of these buildings." (p. 100)
Like many, I tend to associate Art Nouveau with Paris. Learning about its Argentinian history filled a gap in my understanding of the style, a gap I didn't even know existed. What makes the volume most successful, however, is the way the extensive visual documentation complements the enthusiastic textual commentary. The style and the city come together as we visit the exteriors and interiors of these extraordinary buildings, learning about the city and its architectural history. We come to understand, for example, that Art Nouveau buildings mark a number of historical developments in Buenos Aires. The style was a protest against the Spanish Colonial past, in some ways; in other ways, it grew within the city organically as immigrant designers and architects arrived from Europe.
Essentially, Buenos Aires was founded in 1536 and underwent major changes with the onset of the industrial revolution, as did cities throughout the world. Although the first railroad tracks were constructed in 1857, it wasn't until around 1900 that the process of modernization was fully evident in all walks of life. The architectural changes both reveal and date the city's transformation. We also discover that even as both the wealthy and the new immigrants laid the foundation for change, it was the middle class that propelled it. In other words, the moneyed class, the porteños, grew rich by adopting and implementing technical advances and innovations. By contrast, the immigrants–laborers, well educated professionals, skilled artists and craftspeople–brought European ideas with them:
"But despite the wealth and splendor that characterized the palaces of the noble families and wealthy classes of the city, they tended not to be the early adopters of change, and to a large extent remained committed to the conservative, classical style. It was the middle classes who were the true drivers of change. This openness to innovation was a result of the sway that Europe held over the upper middle class of Buenos Aires." (p. 51)
I liked the sections outlining the projects of noteworthy architects the most, with work by Juliám Garcoa Núñez, Enrique Folkers, and Virginio Colombo standing out. Born into an immigrant family, Núñez was the first native Buenos Aires architect of great significance. He studied in Spain, where practitioners of the Modernismo movement influenced him. His renovation and expansion of the wonderful Hospital Español, at 2975 Belgrano Avenue, is characteristic of his work, which uses a combination of materials such as metal, wood, glass, and ceramic tiles, interlocked in refined geometric patterns. One fascinating project Meidan mentions is an elevator he designed in 1913 at 684 Paso Street that was like a curving stalk climbing through a building with the stairs and balustrade winding alongside it. The lines of the stalk are repeated in rectangular stained glass also in this space.
My favorite building, by the Dutch architect Enrique Folkers, was the Club Español designed between the years 1908-1911 to serve the Spanish community. It brings to mind work by the Czech-Parisian artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) and includes Spanish and Moorish influences. An exquisite building with a wealth of mirrors, ornate decorations, frescoes, paintings, and sculptures, the site includes a room in the basement called the Alhambra Hall, named after the Alhambra Palace in Spain:
"The characteristic features of Moorish art that reached its zenith with the construction of the Alhambra Palace are reflected in the pillars and arches, decorated with glazed tiles arranged in complex geometric patterns in splendid tones of blues, reds, greens and above all an abundance of gold. The colorful floor tiles complete the visual splendor. Along the walls of the hall, between the arches, are sweeping pastoral landscapes on a grand scale that give the visitor the feeling that he is in the Alhambra Palace looking out onto breathtaking views of Granada." (pp. 95-96)
Virginio Colombo (1885–1927) also made tremendous contributions to Art Nouveau of Buenos Aires. An Italian architect who emigrated to Buenos Aires in 1906, his eclectic legacy includes imaginative Art Nouveau ornamentation, sometimes mixed with more classical elements. Colombo's la Casa de los Pavos Reales (House of Peacocks, 1912) brings to mind that the peacock is frequently associated with the Art Nouveau style in general. Some scrumptious tiles of this facade are depicted and convey a surface uneven in size and shape, partly hidden by arches. The images nevertheless evoke an idyllic atmosphere of the Art Nouveau style. As was often the case when pondering the pictures, I wanted to jump on a plane and see the sites in their full size and scale.
Art historians have a tendency to group art in periods and to, then, date these periods in terms of a European chronology that often is out of step with other parts of the world. This is the case when looking at Art Nouveau in Buenos Aires. The European movement took its name from an art gallery, Maison de l'Art nouveau (House of the New Art), which opened in 1895. Run by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing, this venue featured work that was then new and is now characterized as the historical Art Nouveau style. As the book mentions, the Argentinean architects were also influenced the work of both Mucha and his Spanish counterpart Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). Yet when we turn to Buenos Aires, many of the buildings there were constructed in the second decade of the 20th century, by which time Europe was thinking more in terms of Art Deco.
Moreover, and to state the obvious, Art Nouveau is hardly considered "new" today. Yet, the emergence of New Media as a contemporary art form in some ways shares similarities with the Art Nouveau movement. "New" is a prominent feature in both names and both owe quite a bit to innovations and design elements. Art Nouveau, which encompasses all of the decorative arts, was built on high quality craftsmanship, and design and incorporates advanced building technologies and innovative materials. As the luscious illustrations in the book show, the designers were also attracted to nature, which served as a never-ending fund of inspiration. Thus we often see plants that twist and turn, various types of animals, insects, reptiles and fish in the motifs. Innovation, technological advances, design, and resonance with nature are often features of New Media today as well.
While not an element of her love story, I wish Meidan had expanded on the attraction to nature and the technological innovations that propelled Art Nouveau. Because it is sometimes characterized as a style unbounded by rules, I would have liked more information about how the innovations aided the artists in producing the elegant wrought iron fixtures, irregularly shaped glass pieces, and decorative motifs. Many of the shapes bear an unmistakable relationship to some of the biomorphic forms studied by scientists at this time. I could not help but wonder if a cross-fertilization of ideas contributed to the similarities.
Although I am more conversant with two-dimensional Art Nouveau examples, this expressive volume was a real treat. Adorned by beautiful color photographs of remarkable buildings and architectural details ranging from wrought iron work to stained glass, it is a volume anyone who plans to visit Buenos Aires will definitely want to peruse in advance. The scholarly aspects of the volume will appeal to art and architectural historians. As for my initial interest in distancing myself from the political climate, I must add that this book successfully reminded me of how important it is not to neglect elements we cherish as we pay attention to political and social realities.