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Art nouveau: Belgian masterpieces on show at Brussels’ BELvue museum
As art lovers celebrate World Art Nouveau Day on 10 June, what better way to mark the occasion than a trip to Brussels’ beautiful BELvue museum?
Until 7 January, the museum is showcasing some fabulous art nouveau pieces, along with 150 drawings and 1,200 photos, from Belgium’s philanthropy institution, the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF).
This free exhibition presents around 50 works from art nouveau greats, including architect and designer Victor Horta, architect and decorator Henry van de Velde, jewellery designers Philippe Wolfers and George Morren, and painter and jewellery designer Gustave Serrurier-Bovy.
Behind each of the exceptional items is an interesting anecdote – hence the exhibition’s title: Art Nouveau. Unique objects with a tale to tell.
“Perhaps my favourite piece is Wolfers’ Medusa necklace,” curator Professor Werner Adriaenssens told the Bulletin at the exhibition launch. “And we wanted it for a long time,” explained the art nouveau expert who was involved in its acquisition process.
The arresting ivory, enamel and diamond pendant designed in 1898 is recognised as an iconic piece of jewellery for the design movement, which flourished at the turn of the 20th century. Its opal fixated eyes were described at the time as “producing a sensation of human, indescribable horror.”
“You need to be a special person to wear this,” Adriaenssens said, pointing out that Wolfers’ wife was wearing the imposing piece in a majestic painting adjacent to the display cabinet.
He also singled out a yellow and red gold, platinum, pearl and diamond ring by Henry van de Velde – the only jewellery piece that can be attributed with certitude to the master. The ring bears a rich history. It was commissioned by art critic Raphaël Petrucci for his wife Claire Verwée to celebrate his daughter Clairette’s birth. Years later, Clairette, a landscape painter, wore the ring when she married famous sculptor Marcel Wolfers, son of the famous jeweller.
Another fascinating object and Belgian treasure is a lamp in the form of a nymph by François Hoosemans and Egide Rombaux. The ivory sculpture of a woman set in swirling silver is so graceful that you almost overlook the lightbulbs that reveal its function – a marvel of modernity when electric lighting was in its infancy.
One more highlight is Horta’s tripod pedestal table. Designed for the winter garden at his Rue Américaine home (now the Horta Museum), the fossilised wood side table reveals how the interior greenhouse served as a link between the house and garden.
Among Horta’s full dining room suite and office furniture is a cabinet boasting stylised beveled glass and a stained glass feature. The beautiful maple and sycamore wood pieces were designed for the 1902 Turin International Exhibition of Decorative Arts – gaining Horta a diploma of honour, the jury’s highest distinction.
The BELvue does not shy away from controversy; it includes Wolfers’ dramatic ‘Civilisation and Barbarism’. This document holder was a gift from Belgian industrialists to secretary-general of the Congo Free State, Edmond van Eetvelde. Made in silver, onyx and Congolese ivory, the piece is supported by a swan to represent civilisation (‘the white man’) and a dragon to represent barbarism (‘the black man’).
Even at the time, the work was a shocking symbol of colonial propaganda, as it pointed to the white man’s ‘civilising influence’. Critic Sander Pierron noted: “In art, we must make an effort to conciliate everything.”
Finally, the exhibition reveals that art nouveau was not only the domain of luxuriously expensive items but also everyday objects such as carpets, cutlery and beautiful ceramic tiles from the Pozzo collection. They evoke its connection with the influential arts and crafts movement in the UK.
There’s also striking art nouveau tiles from La Louvière (Keramis - Boch Frères), Brussels (the Maison Helman), Hasselt Ceramic Manufacturers and numerous Walloon firms, including the Faïenceries of Nimy, near Mons.
These various objects, usually scattered around different museums, are now presented for the first time. The show is part of the Art Nouveau Brussels 2023 initiative, which is celebrating this distinctive Belgian style of art, marked by creativity, craftsmanship, fluid lines and ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total artwork), all year long.
Art Nouveau. Unique Objects with a tale to tell
Until 7 January
Place des Palais 7
Photos: (main image) ©firstname.lastname@example.org; Philippe Wolfers, Pendant Méduse, 1898. Acquired in 2022 by the King Baudouin Foundation, entrusted to the Art & History Museum, Brussels; Henry van de Velde, Marquise type ring, 1899. Acquired by the King Baudouin Foundation in 2008, thanks to the Léon Courtin - Marcelle Bouché Fund, entrusted to the Art & History Museum, Brussels; Égide Rombaux and François Hoosemans, La Lampe aux Nymphes, 1900. Acquired in 2011 by the King Baudouin Foundation, thanks to the Braet-Buys-Bartholemus Fund, entrusted to the Art & History Museum, Brussels; Follised wood table ©email@example.com; Philippe Wolfers, Civilisation et Barbarie, 1897. Acquired in 2001 by the King Baudouin Foundation, entrusted to the Art & History Museum, Brussels; Victor Horta, furniture designed for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, 1902; Tiles ©firstname.lastname@example.org