The exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ is located on the ground floor of the west wing of Rundāle Palace Museum and has been designed as a small museum of decorative art. It represents historical styles from the 15th century to World War I – tracing the development of dominant characteristics in Western Europe and their countenance in Latvia. Special attention has been devoted to illustrating changes over time to ornament, the shape of objects, their function and décor.
The idea behind this exhibition was conceived in the 1960s when the Museum acquired objects from the 18th century for refurbishing the Palace’s interior, as well as valuable works of art from across different historical periods. Some of these objects were acquired because there was a distinct lack of samples from these periods in Latvian museums, whilst the rest were rescued from abandoned churches and manor houses, condemned to annihilation by the Soviet regime.
The first five rooms span the Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods and begin with the oldest period. These rooms are semi-dark and their objects – witnesses of time – are illuminated by spotlights like actors on stage. Interior groups have been arranged from the available objects and include paintings and everyday objects. Texts and engravings succour in further enhancing an appreciation of each period and depict ornament as the most obvious stylistic characteristic together with the overall appearance and fashion by humans. A Gothic style buffet and a monumental portrait of Wilhelm, the Duke of Courland, (1615) stand out among the oldest samples from these historical periods.
The former regular kitchen of the Dukes has been arranged in the styles of Mannerism and Baroque and features a display of Dutch tiles and faience objects, whereas the adjacent room is furnished with Italian Renaissance furniture and a collection of early lace. Meanwhile the Baroque part of the display is dominated by massive wardrobes from Northern Germany, samples of intarsia from the late Baroque, Latvian silverware and German glass goblets.
As visitors traverse though each historical period and begin to approach our current time, the rooms gradually grow lighter as if emerging from the murkiest depths of history
The former vestibule in the Palace’s west wing features a magnificent collection of tile stove ceramics – fragments from the 18th century tile stoves from Latvian manors (Aistere, Lāde, Līvbērze, Mazstraupe, Nabe, Puze, Pope, Zlēkas and others) and residential buildings in Riga and Ventspils.
A separate room has been dedicated to the manifestations of Baroque in Latvian church art. It brings together artworks and other decorative elements from the Lutheran and Catholic churches in Iecava, Feimaņi, Krimulda, Ziemupe, Gramzda, Piltene, Augstkalne, Valtaiķi, Stende, Trikāta, Strutele, Vārme and Skaistkalne.
Three rooms have been devoted to the Rococo period. The first room is like a vision about this time, it exhales a sense of unreality characteristic to the Rococo art. Its walls and ceilings display a photo collage – fragments of images depicting decorative finishes from Latvian palaces, manor houses and churches. Even the floor is a collage consisting of parquet remains from various rooms in the Palace that were deemed too damaged for restoration. Among the exhibits two stand out in particular – a gilded door and a chair from the Svēte Palace, the Duke Peter’s recreational residence where on 14th October 1779 he proposed to Anna Dorothea von Medem. She became a Duchess and a renowned personality in Europe. This room also features an oak bookcase – the only original piece of furniture that has remained to this day from the Palace’s interior in the 1760s.
A realistic environment of the 18th century is achieved in the room with built-in painted green panels and silver-plated woodcarvings. The author of these panels is thought to be the sculptor and woodcutter Joseph Slawitzek (also referred to as Slawitzky or Schlawitzky). The panels were transported to the Rundāle Palace Museum from Puze Manor House and were thus rescued from obliteration. The Green Hall is the only complete example of wooden wall finish in the Rococo style in Latvia.
The porcelain cabinet represents a ‘golden era’ in porcelain manufacturing in Europe. Porcelain and faience objects on display in this room were manufactured in the 18th century in Meissen, Sèvres, Ludwigsburg, Berlin and elsewhere. There are also rarities – two allegorical figurines from Carl Christian Fick’s manufacture, which operated in Tallinn from 1772 to 1782 and was the only manufacture of this kind in the Baltics.
The Neoclassicism room features furniture, plates and dishes, decorative bronze and other art objects inviting the viewer to reflect on the countenance of this style in France, England, Russia, Germany and Latvia. The portraits of 18th century personalities and ornamental engravings further enhance this display.
The room dedicated to the Empire period, the concluding stage of Neoclassicism, features an interior typical of the first half of the 19th century – dominated by the sombreness and monumentality of Greek-Roman architecture, in addition to menacing military style ornaments and harsh colour arrangements. The clock ‘Diana on a Carriage Drawn by Deer’ is displayed in this room – it is a unique object made in 1829 for the Russian industry show in Saint Petersburg.
In the 1820s the Empire was gradually replaced by the Biedermeier style. It was superbly evident in the fine arts and decorative art, while interior designs reflected the main values of civic society at the time – family, cosiness and the virtue of work.
The penultimate room in the exhibition provides an insight into the Historicism period when in the mid-19th century the development of new historical styles concluded and all previous styles were replicated with exaggerated decorative characteristics. Small interior groups represent neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Rococo periods, as well as variations in decorative art in the style of Louis XVI that were exceedingly popular in France. The dense layout reflects one of the characteristics of Historicism – a demand for opulence and ostentation.
The exhibition concludes with the Art Nouveau style, which replaced the Historicism in the 1890s and was the dominant style until World War I. A collection of furniture and glass objects made by French masters stands out among other objects. A group of furniture in the Neoclassical Revival style signifies new tendencies that emerged around 1905 as a reaction against decorative overstatements of the Art Nouveau period.
Whilst working on the exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ the overall collection of objects held by the national museums of Latvia was enriched with valuable decorative art articles never obtained in Latvia. To this day work continues to fill any ‘gaps’.
Alas locally produced items have mainly perished during several wars and political turmoil. However, silverware, objects made from tin and a few examples of intarsia reveal the high level of decorative art in Latvia.
Some of the exhibited objects are directly associated with the Duchy of Courland.
Author of the exhibition conception and annotations – Imants Lancmanis
Exhibition design – Lauma Lancmane
Graphic design – Ieva Lūse, Ints Lūsis
Restoration of exhibits – restorers at the RPM led by Aina Balode