Prelovsek AHAS 10angl


Plečnik and English art

English culture of living considerably influenced the Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957). He already became acquainted with it as a pupil at the School of Applied Arts in Graz, where he was trained as a cabinet-maker, since Austrian schools of this type largely relied on English examples. Also later, during the years of his study at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, English models were very popular in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The imperial domination of Great Britain also resulted in the enrichment of English art by Asian cultures, which was especially interesting for the continental Europe around the year 1900. The two best known foreign architects in the Continet at the end of the nineteenth century were Baillie Scott and Charles Robert Ashbee, while at the eighth exhibition of the Secession the Austrians also had an opportunity to learn about the Glasgow Group under the lead of Charles R. Mackintosh.

Unlike Josef Hofmann or Adolf Loos, who tried to copy, each one in his own particular way, everything that was created in Britain, Plečnik only accepted – in addition to better standards of hygiene including better illumination of living spaces in the first place –construction and functional advantages of English furniture. He was attracted by its refinement and simplicity that were in great contrast to the heavy and artificial products of late historicism. He never visited England and was thus bound to receive indirectly any ideas from abroad, without knowing the background of the way of life on the Isles. Many aspects attracting his contemporaries – for example the picturesque traditional English houses with visible wooden construction or open fireplaces combined with inglenook seats – can not be found in his work. This was mainly due to his strong attachment to the Mediterranean tradition and to the rational doctrine of his teacher, Otto Wagner. During his stay in Vienna Plečnik repeatedly tried to draw on English products of applied arts without imitating their characteristic forms. His approach, based on the combination of the admired models and of the tradition of the native Biedermeier, led him to some interesting results. Influenced by Mackintosh, Plečnik designed some chairs with high backs at the beginning of the twentieth century. The item that is most closely reminiscent of what he saw exhibited in the rooms of the Vienna Secession is probably his chair from around 1903 designed for the waiting room of Dr. Jernej Demšar in Ljubljana. But he captured the “spirit” of English cabinet-makers even more accurately in his suite of chairs, dating from the same period, for the gynaecologist Emil Knauer of Graz. The backs of the chairs are composed of thin slats arranged in a fan shape, by which their elasticity is stressed, giving an optical impression of comfortable seating. The ideal of English furniture art is also demonstrated in the broad “roof” board supported by metal columns on the sideboard designed for the same client.

Also the high ethical goals of the English reformers of the applied arts were very close to Plečnik. As their writings were often translated in that time, he was familiar with them even if he knew no English. In the circle of his students he promoted Ruskin’s claim for a morally irreproachable life, which – in Ruskin's opinion – was a prerequisite for good art. And Plečnik’s attitude to social issues was more strongly influenced by Dickens's touching descriptions of social conditions in the era of the industrial revolution than by political slogans of the time. After leaving Vienna, Plečnik moved away from direct English models, however he remained faithful to the principles he had adopted in his youth all his life. For this reason, English applied arts, together with the moral and hygienic standards set by their reformers, kept playing an important role in his architecture.