posted on 22/01/24
Emerging most strongly in the subject nations of wider polities, for example Finland, Norway, Hungary or Polish Galicia, as well as in newly independent countries like Romania, the search for a ‘national style’ in art looked to a range of different sources: historical, mythological, vernacular, or rooted in local landscapes and nature. The results were vivid, fantastical and powerfully political. From Norwegian dragons to Karelian myths, from the Hungarian rehabilitation of Attila the Hun to the Polish fascination with the Górale peasants of Zakopane, these ‘national styles’ partook in a pan-European promotion of the distinctly local. Their legacy can be felt in the carefully curated and naturalised mythologies of national identity in these regions today.
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Ruled from the 14th century by Denmark, then by Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars, Norway only gained independence in 1905. In a search for national identity, artists and architects turned to the rediscovery of Viking heritage, to Norway’s ancient wooden stave churches and to renewed interest in vernacular culture and husflid (home industries). The resulting ‘dragon style’, developed by designers like Gerhard Munthe and Lars Kinsarvik, became hugely popular both at home and abroad, while the work of the Lysaker artists and Stavanger weaver Frida Hansen exemplified the international dynamics at play in the creation of a ‘national’ art scene.
Intensified Russification at the end of the 19th century stimulated a strong national romantic movement in the Finnish lands of the Romanov empire. Vibrant interest in the eastern region of Karelia, following the publication of Elias Lönnrot’s The Kalevala (1835), drew ethnographers and artists to study building types, music and folk art. The result was an extraordinarily innovative new language of national form pioneered by the architectural partnership of Saarinen, Gesellius and Lindgren and conveyed to the world at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle.
The 1867 Ausgleich Agreement made Hungary a separate unit within a dual Habsburg monarchy and stimulated a vigorous search for the essence of Magyar identity. The Hungarians turned East, to their nomadic ancestors from the Asian steppes, and began a process of self-orientalising that foregrounded Attila the Hun and gave special value to the remote Székely people of Transylvania as the preservers of ‘true’ Magyar forms. Architects such as Ödön Lechner (the ‘Hungarian Gaudí’) evolved a distinctive national style that married modern innovation with Eastern forms and vernacular textile patterns.
As a nation without a state in the 19th century, partitioned Poles sought national identity through art, with romantic painters and poets becoming national memory and voice. Habsburg-ruled Polish Galicia, which enjoyed greater freedom from censorship than the Prussian or Russian partitions, saw vibrant centres of artistic experimentation emerge in Kraków (which produced the universalist, nationalist and visionary Stanisław Wyspiański) and Lemberg/Lwów/L’viv (a focus not only for Polish national aspirations but also for the Ruthenian national revival movement). Other artists, such as Stanisław Witkiewicz, turned for inspiration to the Górale culture of the remote Podhale region around Zakopane.
As an independent kingdom from 1881, Romania’s national style was driven by different dynamics to the countries already discussed. Shutting its doors on the East, it initially embraced Western forms (most notably in the ‘cradle of the nation’, Castle Peleș) as a way of gaining a foothold on the world stage. By 1900, however, it witnessed increasing criticism of wholescale Westernisation and a search for an intrinsically ‘Romanian’ language of form, drawn from its own Byzantine traditions and the artistic ‘spirit’ of the Romanian peasant. As well as the rich ‘neo-Romanian’ architecture of the followers of Ion Mincu, the ‘national’ movement also found original expression in the projects of British-born Queen Marie.
Associate Lecturer in the School of Art History at St Andrews, is a specialist in Romanian art and architecture. She trained at the Warburg Institute and the University of St Andrews, and did part of her PhD research at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture in Bucharest. She is currently a Senior Research Fellow at New Europe College in Bucharest where she supervises an ERC-funded project Art Historiographies in Central and Eastern Europe: an inquiry from the perspective of entangled histories. She has published widely on Romanian architecture and design and is the author of, among other things, Art and Design in Romania 1866-1927: local and international aspects of the search for national expression (East European Monographs, 2006).
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