The UNESCO Courier Agosto 1990
An aesthetic revolution
BY JORGE O. GAZANEO
A.ROUND the turn of the century, the new visual and structural language of Art Nouveau won a following among many young Latin American intellectuals who had studied in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Barcelona, and among a prosperous middle class whose members were frequent visitors to these and other European cities.
One South American country in which it found a particularly receptive terrain was Argentina, where its products found favour with an élite of rural and city landowners, bankers, merchants and investors. Some members of this élite were descended from families established in Argentina since the late eighteenth century, but most came of more recent immigrant stock and belonged to an expanding well-to-do middle class of first-generation Argentines. Many of them would become key reformist and modernizing figures in politics, the economy and the arts.
Argentina at the beginning of this century was a democratic, progressive society in the throes of change.
In the late nineteenth century the country had been host to large'-scale immigration from Europe and a massive infusion of foreign investment. There had been a railway boom, major irrigation projects had been undertaken, and residential areas had been constructed for a burgeoning middle class employed in government, commerce, industry and banking.
A new generation was coming to the fore with political ideas that were more outward-looking than those of the old Creole Spanishcolonial families which had painfully constructed the republics- Settlers and investors were welcomed by the host society, especially in the port areas of Buenos Aires, Rosario and Bahia Blanca, and by the end of the century the original identity of these cities had been modified to the point where their colonial roots had almost vanished. Buenos Aires in particular was an emporium of banking and finance, the hub of government and state employment. It was in these urban areas that Art Nouveau flourished.
Recent studies suggest thai the coming of Art Nouveau was part of a wider intellectual trend in Argentine society in the late nineteenth century. As one historian has written, "when in 1885 or there abouts some of the more thoughtful young intellectuals directed their interests to socialism and politics, others chose to engage in the fight for the renewal of the arts".
Just as there were political links between the Partido Socialista Argentino and the Belgian Workers Party, there were also aesthetic links between Argentina and the Brussels group La Libre Esthétique and the periodical L'Art Moderne, both of which played an important role in the genesis and diffusion of Art Nouveau.
Preserved in the library of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Buenos Aires are collections of European periodicals which popularized new trends in the arts, such as The Studio, Art et Décoration and La Revue des Arts Décoratifs, also suggesting that the adepts of the new style were well informed and connected with their European colleagues.
Argentine architects and decorators imported building materials in bulk from Europe, mainly from France and Belgium. Complete sets of furniture came from the Belgian architect Gustave Serrurier-Bovy; mirrors, stained glass, bronze and ivory from Lauque and Gallé; iron structures from Usines Eiffel. Space was handled in accordance with what European masters had accomplished using the new technical resources that had emerged from the Industrial Revolution. Buildings were more open to the air and sun since the use of iron made it possible to design wide openings in what had formerly been exclusively load-bearing walls.
The colours of new materials such as majolica and iridescent glass offered local craftsmen a range of decorative possibilities never seen before. The results were exciting and eye-catching when compared to the prevalent drab Victorian or French Empire styles, and rich in pastel colours. Today most of these interiors have disappeared or look diminished as parts of the furnishings have been dispersed or replaced with unsuitable intrusions.
The aesthetic impact of Art Nouveau was destined to be short-lived in Latin America where, a late response to the Belle Epoque way of life, it faded away after the First World War.
JORGE O. GAZANEO,
Argentine architect and member of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), teaches at the Belgrano University and at the University of Buenos Aires.