Exhibitions Prophet of Modern Design

By Cook, William | The Spectator, September 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions Prophet of Modern Design


Cook, William, The Spectator


Henry van de Velde - Passion, Function, Beauty Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels, until 12 January 2014 In the Musee du Cinquantenaire, a grand gallery on the green edge of Brussels, those bureaucratic Belgians are welcoming home a prodigal son. Henry van de Velde - Passion, Function, Beauty is a celebration of the 150th birthday of Belgium's most prolific polymath, yet a lot of people here in Brussels scarcely seem to know his name. While Victor Horta is feted as the father of Art Nouveau, his great rival, van de Velde, is frequently forgotten. It's ironic that this prophet of modern design wasn't honoured in his own country until he'd made his name in Germany, the nation that invaded his homeland twice in the course of his long career.

Wandering around this stylish show, you're overwhelmed by van de Velde's extraordinary range: architecture and furniture; glasswork and metalwork; illustration and typography . . .His energy and diversity make you giddy. Even in his early career as a painter he showed remarkable versatility. A couple of paintings in this exhibition could easily be mistaken for van Goghs.

Several others could quite comfortably pass as Seurats. Had he not forsaken fine art, he would have made a brilliant forger. He was a man who could turn his hand to almost anything he chose.

Van de Velde's decision to swap painting for applied arts was inspired by the utopian ideals of well-heeled socialists such as William Morris. Like Morris, he wanted to make everyday objects that would be both beautiful and functional. Like Morris, many of the things he made were affordable only for the moneyed upper class. However, the best exhibits in this show are marked by their simple ingenuity - like the dining table he made for his first marital home (which he built himself, in Brussels) complete with its own hotplate.

That van de Velde's sparse designs seem so familiar to the modern eye is a testament to his immense influence. In the ornate 1890s, his no-frills approach was positively revolutionary. He became well known in France, but his avant-garde work was best received in Germany. He moved there in 1900, and created a whole new aesthetic, branching out into ceramics and textiles, even leatherwork and wickerwork. A leading member of the Deutsche Werkbund (a pioneering organisation founded to forge closer links between art and industry), he laid the stylistic foundations for the Bauhaus.

Van de Velde remained in Germany after the outbreak of the first world war, attracting harassment in the Reich and opprobrium back in Belgium. He moved to Switzerland, and then to Holland, but returned to Belgium in the 1920s, as a professor at Ghent University (despite the best efforts of Horta, who disapproved of his war record). …

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