Promoting Central Europe’s Art Nouveau Legacy

Art nouveau certainly left its mark on central Europe: It’s seemingly everywhere in the former parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, from Otto Wagner’s iconic Stadtbahn stations in Vienna to Ödön Lechner’s monumental buildings around Budapest or the numerous fin-de-siécle townhouses in Prague’s center. The highly decorative late 19th/early 20th aesthetic that rejected both historicism and industrial mass production boasts around 300 protected sites built in that style in Austria alone, 33 of which are in Vienna. 

Yet years of neglect during the postwar period – particularly behind the Iron Curtain – has often led to these cultural gems being taken for granted, underappreciated by locals unaware of the treasures they pass every day. Fortunately, the EU-funded project Art Nouveau II seeks to change that by preserving and promoting the stylistic legacy of central Europe’s fin-de-siécle, improving cross-border cooperation among museums, cultural institutions and government authorities to strengthen the Danube region’s art nouveau identity in the public eye.

Under the direction of Oradea Municipality in Romania, the €1,800,000 project builds on the success of its predecessor, Art Nouveau I (2017-2019), expanding its scope from urban planning, conservation, restoration and digital repositories to include establishing a network among stakeholders – so far, a total of 8 countries and 19 organizations have joined their “Interreg Danube Transnational Program,” sharing resources and working together to enhance the region as a whole.  

Having produced various insights regarding restoration techniques and material testing as well as the relationship between existing material and function, “the first project produced surprising, new findings, which must be made available to a broader public. Another EU-project was therefore the best, most sensible option,” Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel, the project manager of Art Nouveau II, explains. Also the chief librarian at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), she is well versed on the subject, having helped organize the museum’s World Art Nouveau Day last June. To her, such annual events contribute greatly to keeping art nouveau relevant, “but above all, it creates continuity,” she points out. “And only through continuity you can move issues forward and change things.”

© MAK-Georg Mayer

Restoring shared identity 

In 2019, the Strategic Document for the Protection and Promotion of Art Nouveau heritage in the Danube Region estimated that 44.4% of the region’s relevant sites were in a bad to very bad state – a wake-up call to public authorities, art historians, and locals. 

In response, Art Nouveau II began facilitating preservation by connecting institutions, encouraging research, and connecting local restorers, scholars, and public authorities. “We increased awareness and self-confidence among the population and generated a desire for more intensive examinations of their own culture and its preservation,” Pokorny-Nagel proudly states.

Indeed, both Art Nouveau I & II have shown that regional varieties can be a source of pride: From the deceptively simple geometrical shapes common in Vienna to the richer, floral ornamentation inspired by folk art that is characteristic further downriver, each country boasts its own take, created by local artists and architects. Yet art nouveau remains part of the common heritage along the Danube, shaping the cultural identity of the region and bringing communities together. “It’s an example of how strong the connections have always been over centuries, even millennia,” Pokorny-Nagel points out. “In 2021, the importance of a stronger common cultural identity is more than obvious.”

Schemlerbrücke, Nussdorfer Wehr- und Schleusenanlage, Otto Wagner, 1894-98
© MAK/Kristina Satori und Mona Heiss

Stronger bonds in times of recovery

The past years have not always been easy, with the steady rise of populism and COVID-19 hampering cross-border cooperation. “It was very challenging to be part of a transnational EU project during the pandemic, but it has shown the importance of building bridges in such times.” Tightening bonds within the region is a stated goal of Art Nouveau II, making it part of the EU’s post-covid recovery strategy: better connections between cultural institution  strengthens the region’s tourist industry as a whole. 

An early milestone took place in Vienna last February, when the MAK hosted the World Day of Tourism Guides under the motto, “From Biedermeier to Historicism to Art Nouveau.” Held online due to pandemic restrictions, there are plans to scale up next year’s event with numerous guided tours, workshops, and discussions, thereby increasing local and international interest among tourists and art aficionados alike. In addition, an extensive educational program is in development, aiming to reach younger audiences and raise awareness of their heritage. “It’s our responsibility to encourage children to discover and appreciate the beauty of art nouveau, and to get to know and understand more about the cultural environment they live in,” maintains Pokorny-Nagel.

All in all, Art Nouveau II has already made great strides despite trying circumstances. Set to conclude in December 2022, there’s still ample time for intensively discussing and developing creative approaches. As Pokorny-Nagel concludes, “as art nouveau contributed to shaping cultural identity in the region, it can be used as a cohesive force to bring communities together,” especially in a post-COVID world.