by Roderick Conway Morris

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Turin 1902

By Roderick Conway Morris
TURIN 17 December 1994
Private Collection
Paul Hankar Architecte,
an advertizing poster by Adolphe Crespin, 1894



'Life must be brought closer to art, if art is to be brought back to life,' declared the committee of The First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts, held in Turin in 1902.

Art Nouveau - so called in the French- and English-speaking worlds after Bing's rue de Provence Paris shop, though still dubbed 'Liberty' in Italy (after Arthur Lasenby Liberty's London emporium on Regent Street) and Jugendstil (after a magazine) in Germany and Scandinavia - was then at the height of its fashionability: its ubiquitous, sometimes riotous, floral and vegetable motifs, balletically-inclined, long-haired, post-Pre-Raphaelite, born-again Botticellian female muses and whimsical love of asymmetry and decoration for decoration's sake offering a kind of pastoral, Edenesque garden-suburb refuge from the inexorable march of the machine age.

Over 700 pieces, shown in the original exhibition, ranging from furniture, ceramics, glass and metalwork to embroideries, books, prints and photographs, have been painstakingly tracked down and brought back here from all over Europe and the States, for 'Turin 1902: International Decorative Arts in the New Century', a revealing partial re-creation of the most comprehensive international review of Art Nouveau ever staged. The principal venue is the Promotrice Delle Belle Arti gallery in the Parco del Valentino on the banks of the Po, where the temporary pavilions for the 1902 show were built, with an additional section at the City Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (both till 22 January).

Some countries at the time seem to have regarded the Turin Exhibition as primarily an opportunity for nationalistic drum-beating. One French art journal depicted the forthcoming event as 'one of the battles in the war involving all nations for supremacy in industrial art, perhaps even a decisive battle,' suggesting that it was the patriotic duty of all French artists and industrialists to participate 'en masse' (on the Napoleonic principal, presumably, that one cannot have too many soldiers on the battlefield).

Presently, however, all the bodies responsible for the French entry fell out with one another, and with the Foreign Affairs and Fine Arts ministries also at loggerheads over the issue, it appeared that there would be no French entry at all. The Dreyfus Affair - which in 1902 was still not entirely resolved, the Jewish officer having received a presidential pardon after a second court martial had again found him guilty of treason - had deeply divided the country in the preceeding years. But when it came to the Turin show all the authorities involved manifested a remarkable unanimity on one point: that Bing, the owner of L'Art Nouveau, and Meier-Graefe of La Maison Moderne, the two outstanding promoters of Art Nouveau in France, who were both German-Jewish in origin, should on no account be allowed to exhibit under the French flag. (Both were ultimately granted artistic asylum in spaces attached to the Italian pavilion - where they showed the only French offerings worthy of comment, including a striking stained-glass composition, on view here, designed by Toulouse-Lautrec and manufactured using Tiffany's latest techniques.)

Meanwhile, the German authorities also regarded the occasion as a shop-window to promote the superiority of their industry and culture, generously subsidizing their contributors - the Kaiser himself offering a personal contribution towards the mounting of the Imperial German display.

Raimondo D'Aronco (1857-1932), Italy's leading Art Nouveau architect, was selected by competition to build most of the pavilions - a task he had to carry out mainly by remote control, since he had by then been appointed by the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid as 'Imperial Architect to the Abode of Felicity' (the Italian was the last to hold this centuries-old post). Regrettably D'Aronco is now a little-known figure, partly because many of his delightful buildings in Istanbul have been demolished (though some, like the wonderful Sheik Zafir tomb, library and fountain group near the gate of the Yildiz Palace, are still standing). But seeing in the present exhibition his highly attractive and evocative water-color designs for the proposed pavilions, one can easily understand why D'Aronco was the organizers' first choice for 1902. Interestingly, nationalistic and xenophobic reactions emerged again when the architect was accused of imitating Austro-German Art Nouveau trends. In fact, Byzantine and Ottoman influences are far more evident characteristics in many of his designs.

'Whoever wishes to see the New Art should direct his steps not towards London, but to Glasgow,' wrote a German critic in 1902. The artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and the other Scottish contributors (several of whom, unusually, were women and included Mackintosh's wife, Margaret Macdonald) raised considerable interest in Turin, and the originality and stylishness of their work still shines through today. Mackintosh had won a competition to design the new home for the Glasgow School of Art in 1896 (the committee finding his proposals not only 'the best, but also the most economical'), and no Art Nouveau architect ever achieved greater harmony extending from overall structure down to the last detail of furniture and fittings. The year before the Turin show Mackintosh had entered a German publisher's competition to design 'a house for an art-lover'. Although he came second, his typically imaginative and distinctive plans greatly enhanced his international fame, and they are shown here again as they were over ninety years ago.

Among the daring innovations of the 1902 show were pavilions exhibiting photographs (presented for the first time as an art form in Italy), motion pictures, and cars and motorcycles - FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) having been founded there only three years before. (Carlo Bugatti, father of the motor-car designer Ettore, was also exhibiting his futuristic furniture in the Italian pavilion.)

Though not evident at the time, Art Nouveau's impetus was to last barely a dozen years after the Turin exhibition, which celebrated its achievements with such optimistic confidence. The show did, however, have an enormous and lasting impact on Turin itself, which was then undergoing rapid industrialization and urban expansion. Whole new areas of the city - including villas, numerous apartment houses, factories, shops and cafes - were built in the Art Nouveau style. As part of the present exhibition, the city has sponsored 'Liberty', an attractive and extremely useful guide to Turin's still extensive Art Nouveau architecture.

Behind Art Nouveau lay a conscious programme of 'aesthetic socialism' and a desire to elevate the artistic sensibilities of the masses by improving and beautifying their everyday surroundings. The enterprise foundered on the same rock as William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement, from which Art Nouveau drew much inspiration. A William Morris chair cost more than three times what an average worker could afford, and similarly the best Art Nouveau products were usually too complex and intricate and used materials too expensive to be mass-produced. As a result, it was the simplified designs of Art Deco household goods, manufactured in cheap materials and often poorly-finished, that achieved production-line success and mass distribution - along with the cars, motorbikes, cameras and films that made up such a small and novel part of the 1902 Turin show.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024