Daddy is a high-ranking functionary, head of board of the road transport department in Vidzeme province and that, according to the title, equals generalship. In Mikhail Eisenstein’s self-designed wardrobe there are 48 pairs of black leather shoes, all sorted according to special features, “cultural Russian spirit” is what reigns in home where fashionable guest-nights are held for the patrician jet set of Riga.
The Eisensteins’ home is characterised by meticulous order and silence, when daddy is working. But he uses to surrender to mirthful adventures as well – every time Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus is performed in Riga, he can be found sitting in the first row with his friends and singing along with the choir “Eisenstein has gone to jail…” Apart from the music that Mikhail loves, he enjoys all the patrician avocations – piano-play, riding, tennis – and that is what he teaches little Seriozha in order to complement his topnotch gentlemanly education. As the boy turns nine, Monsieur, Madame et Bebe (father, mother, Seriozha and governess) all take a trip to Paris, which is where daddy goes every summer and brings home scrapbooks with landscapes of Nica, all tinted pink and light blue with watercolour. Daddy is fond of motley neckties, starchy collars and white gloves even on week-days and, secretly, he is sure of possessing the title of Austrian count, since his surname sounds just like the name of some palace. “Daddy himself is lion de plâtre,” says Sergei, reminding of the alabaster lions that roar victoriously to the heaven form the house-fronts, engineered by Mikhail Eisenstein.
Being meticulously rigid in his parlour amid “templets, rulers, setsquares and drawing-pens”, Mikhail Eisenstein proved to be a passionate visionary in his projects – the brightest page in the history of Art Nouveau of Riga. Amongst the stacks of Parisian albums, there are countless catalogues from international exhibitions that overtake the world with a new style of art – they call it secession in Wien, l’art nouveau in Paris and Jugendstil in Berlin. Little Seriozha knows the album of 1900 world exhibition Exposition Universelle by heart – “from the front to the back not worse than commandments and the lord’s prayer”. The latest samples of the modern architecture have been published there – metro entrances in Paris, designed by Hector Guimard, The Pavillon Bleu restaurant by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy –, Mikhail Eisenstein is affected by the swirl of symbolic ornament, images and associations. He lifts the richness in motifs high above a mere decorativeness, following Richard Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk – cohesion of shape, color and image.
As of 1901 till 1906, Mikhail Eisenstein builds 53 apartment houses in Riga, following the “rabid modern style”. Serpents, birds, plants, animals, half-naked caryatides and muscled atlases, chains, tails and stylized draperies intertwine in a frantic opulence of shapes and images, red and blue-gazed bricks stand in dramatic contrast with relief of a white masonry, oval windows and arcuate balconies make one forget about straight angles and insipid angularity. Mikhail Eisenstein experiments with new materials, and the fine-spun hammered laces on balcony railings complement the whole paradise of fertility and richness. In his time, Paul Gauguin was the on to teach not to paint from the nature, but to derive abstraction of art from it. In the same way, Mikhail Eisenstein is dreaming of nature, yet thinking of architecture – each and every project is started with a drawing of the obverse, carefully working out every single ornamentation, onlay and figure. Stylized boles of trees and stems of flowers, whorls of branches, leaves and blossoms turn into rays of sun, corollas of serpents grow out of female hair, and tortuous roots stretch from male beards. Expressive male and female faces either suffer in silence or scream in pain; one of the obverses is crested with a majestic peacock, and for symbolists its fan tail stands for the canopy of the heavens, but its eyes – for subtle stars. Later, Sergei calls it savage decadence of architecture, still his most flaming childhood impression of his father’s work remains shocking – half-naked female figures are taken down from the obverse of Lebedinski house on Elizabetes Street, and dismembered “as waste pipes”, and “one fine day the vestals end their oddish existence as a stack of torsos, breasts, arms, waists and legs.”