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The Cinquantenaire Museum presents "Henry van de Velde: Passion, Function, Beauty"
Queen Mathilde (2nd R) of Belgium visits the exhibition 'Henry van de Velde-Passie- Functie-Schoonheid/ Passion-Fonction-Beaute/ Passion-Function-Beauty'' on Belgian painter, architect and interior designer Henry van de Velde, on December 10, 2013 at the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels. Van de Velde was one of the main representatives of Art Nouveau in Belgium. AFP PHOTO / BELGA / NICOLAS MAETERLINCK.

BRUSSELS.- The Cinquantenaire Museum is mounting a large-scale retrospective exhibition Henry van de Velde – Passion Function Beauty presents the extensive and varied oeuvre of this great designer, architect, art educator and artistic adviser.

The retrospective is being held to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry van de Velde (1863-1957), the spur for it coming from the German co-organizer, the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. It was in Weimar that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Van de Velde enjoyed his greatest successes. This Belgian leg of the exhibition has been somewhat revamped and features certain Belgian highlights. For example, attention has been given to van de Velde’s influence on glass production at the Val-Saint-Lambert factory, and the bureau of King Leopold III is on public display for the first time. The thread running through the exhibition is the long life of this artist, seen through the various disciplines in which he excelled. There are nineteen sections and no less than 463 works of art, pieces of furniture, articles of use, photographs and scale models, all serving to showcase van de Velde’s versatility and unceasing creative flow. It is clear to all that he was not only a brilliant Art Nouveau artist, but, in his striving to achieve functional beauty for everyone, also a trail-blazer in respect of modern living, design and present-day art education. The exhibition ‘Henry van de Velde – Passion Function Beauty’ is under the High Patronage of His Majesty the King and the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck.

Five star items from the collection of the Cinquantenaire Museum in the Henry van de Velde exhibition

The Cinquantenaire Museum has a number of works that are either major designs by Henry van de Velde himself or creations by artists whom he admired or with whom he was friends. He would have seen various of these works at the high-profile exhibitions of the Brussels art circles Les XX (Les Vingt) or La Libre Esthétique, of which he was a member. Between 1894 and 1900, the museum bought a considerable number of items especially for the section of the Modern Decorative Art collection devoted to him. The then management was rightly aware of their importance, even though their purchase sometimes created controversy. Much later, the museum acquired yet other works, thereby enhancing even further the historical and artistic value of the collection of decorative art from around 1900. Below is a selection of five star items linked to van de Velde.

1894 purchase
Georges Lecomte, L’Art Impressionniste, Paris, Chamerot et Renouard, 1892
Book with cover design by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), bound by René Wiener (1855-1939), Nancy
Mosaic leather on cardboard, paper
Exhibited by La Libre Esthétique in 1894

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the virtuoso artist of Parisian nightlife, designed this book cover for the famous bookbinder René Wiener. The style is Japanized, after the fashion of the time. It is a unique binding and was first exhibited at the 1894 exhibition of the recently founded La Libre Esthétique. The Cinquantenaire Museum purchased it immediately. In order to make an impression in Paris, Wiener had to commission a second design from Toulouse-Lautrec. These two book designs were the only ones ever made by Toulouse-Lautrec. The Brussels example has never been on display in a museum or lent to another institution, which explains its excellent state of preservation. Its presence at the exhibition Henry van de Velde – Passion Function Beauty is thus an absolute ‘first’.

Toulouse-Lautrec regularly visited Brussels, not least to visit the much talked about art exhibitions. Van de Velde greatly admired him and possessed his Divan Japonais poster, as can be clearly seen from photographs of the interior of van de Velde’s villa Bloemenwerf. In his memoirs, van de Velde wrote that the artist could be highly comical, giving an instance of him jumping on the table after dinner at Bloemenwerf to execute a dance, to the great amusement of the van de Veldes and their guests.

1896 purchase
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
Ernest Chaplet (execution)
Vase, 1886-1887
Glazed stone
Exhibited by La Libre Esthétique in 1896

This vase was designed by Paul Gauguin during his stay at Pont-Aven, when he was looking to the traditional folk culture of Brittany for new inspiration for his art. It was only later that he was to seek more exotic climes and depart for Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Henry van de Velde knew Gauguin’s work through, among other things, the canvas Vision après le Sermon, which was displayed at the 1889 exhibition of Les XX. For his own key work Engelenwake, van de Velde found inspiration in the mixture of folklore, symbolism and religiosity underlying Gauguin’s thinking.

The Cinquantenaire Museum purchased this unique vase for its collection in 1896, thereby signalling the importance it attached to Gauguin’s work.

1900 purchase
Henry van de Velde
Pair of six-branched candelabras, 1898-1899
Silvered bronze
Exhibited by La Libre Esthétique in 1900

What van de Velde achieved in this dual masterpiece was a sublime translation of his concept of functional beauty and the power of the abstract line. It is for very good reason that these candelabras are displayed at the beginning of the exhibition Henry van de Velde – Passion Function Beauty. Van de Velde took nearly two years to design and execute them, exhibiting one of them at the 1899 exhibition of the Munich Secession, and both a year later at the exhibition of La Libre Esthétique. He left Belgium in 1900 to forge a career in Germany.

The Cinquantenaire Museum acquired this pair of candelabras for its Modern Decorative Art collection for the price of 850 Belgian francs, the most expensive purchase the museum had made up to then. At the time, a civil servant in Brussels would have been earning two to three francs a day.

The candelabras were commissioned by the German Count Harry Kessler, who received his pair only later in 1900. Even this very wealthy art collector found the price excessive. He was shocked by it and in a letter wrote that the matter had almost cost him his friendship with van de Velde. The whereabouts of this pair are not known, which probably has something to do with the count’s exile in the troubled 1930s.

Post-1957 purchase
William Morris (1834-1896)
Fragment of the Bird fabric, 1877-1878
Origin: estate of Henry van de Velde

The Bird fabric was designed by the Englishman William Morris, the driving force behind the Arts and Crafts Movement. Henry van de Velde took him as his great exemplar, studied his publications and adopted his socio-artistic ideas. During his early career as a decorative artist, he often used Morris textiles.

Van de Velde kept this fragment of textile throughout his life, an indication of how high his esteem for Morris was. The fragment came into the Cinquantenaire Museum’s possession at the same time as a substantial quantity of van de Velde’s own textile designs that post-dated it.

2006 purchase
Henry van de Velde
Ring, ca. 1899
Yellow, red and white gold, diamonds, pearls
Origin: Claire Petrucci-Verwee
King Baudouin Foundation, Léon Courtin and Marcelle Bouché Fund, in the reserve stock of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels

Van de Velde designed this ring at the request of the Belgian art critic Raphaël Petrucci, who gave it to his wife Claire Petrucci-Verwee on the occasion of the birth of their daughter Clairette in 1899. Clairette late married the sculptor Marcel Wolfers. Van de Velde and Petrucci knew each other through the engineer and photographer Emile Tassel, whose residence was the first Art Nouveau house designed by Victor Horta.

Van de Velde’s jewellery production was particularly limited and this ring remained long unknown. It was discovered in 2006 by the curator of the Cinquantenaire Museum and purchased at his request by the King Baudouin Foundation via the Léon Courtin and Marcelle Bouché Fund.

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