Thursday, December 15, 2011

Market days in Wavre

Brussels boasts several neighborhood markets which are quite noteworthy. However, venturing out of the city, or not wanting to fight traffic on the way in, can lead to an enjoyable morning of shopping.
While the capital of Wallonia, Wavre is a well-located town right off the 411 (exit 6), about 20 minutes from Brussels. The city center offers an abundance of shops, cafés and restaurants to suit any budget, from standard stores like Etam to high-end boutiques such as Max Mara.

Apparently, rubbing his behind brings good luck.
Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. Wednesdays bring the most market vendors and the most people. Shoppers find a variety of items for the home, apparel and good, fresh produce alongside top-notch butchers and a fishmonger. Even when noon comes and the vendors start to pack up their awnings, many high-quality butcheries, bakeries, cheese shops, and chocolate shops call Wavre home.

Saturday's market takes up less streets but includes a solid supply of florists, bakers and cheese-makers. I highly suggest, for entertainment sake at least, to visit the fishmonger at Wauter & Fils on Saturday. His lively personality, stories and jokes pull customers (his favorite audience) from all corners of the streets. His incredibly fresh fish and seafood guarantees a faithful clientele. You can find Wauter & Fils on Place de l'Eglise, and also on Wednesdays but without monsieur and his comedy.

Right in front of the church is now my favorite baker, Laurent Dumont. With a delicious selection of breads (the Maya being my standard), he also sells tasty and beautiful quiche, tarts and pastries. His baquettes are the closest to French baquettes I have yet to find in Belgium.
For fresh, organic produce I go to La Ferme de l'Hoste, found on Rue du Commerce just off of the Place de l'Eglise. The friendly service matches the bright and colorful produce on offer, including fresh eggs. If you're lucky, you'll be offered a bunch of mint for your patronage.

During the month of December, St. Nicolas and Père Fouetta ride their train through the town streets on Saturdays picking up passengers at la Commune and passing out candy to children.
La Commune de Wavre

All year round, Wavre offers special activities which include a Halloween party, a visit through the “village” of St. Nicolas, as well as Carnaval and Easter celebrations. Periodically, visitors may even find that Place Bosche has turned into a fairground of rides and cotton candy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Place Flagey, a Brussels square with a little taste of the Big Apple

If I could take my favorite New York City café and place it in Brussels, it would be at Place Flagey. If I could take my favorite New York City neighborhood and bring it closer, I would plunk it down on Place Flagey. If I could place my favorite indie cinema from NY near by, I'd set it up on Place Flagey.

When I can't be in New York City, I go to Place Flagey.

This rather intimate square in Ixelles, not too deep into the city, encompasses all the “little things” I miss about NYC. When I want to reminisce about walking in Central Park, I take a stroll around the Ixelles ponds. When I yearn for unique theater, music, or programs for the children, I visit Flagey , an art deco mecca of entertainment for the whole family. When I want the convenience of neighborhood commerce, I find small eateries, a bike shop, a book store, and an outdoor market.

For a dose of energy from an ecclectic mix of people, a light meal, a hot coffee drink, or a fresh mint tea, I push through the door of Belga Café – or simply sit on its terrace. With free wi-fi access, Belga Café is the perfect “hang out” for professionals, students and an artsy/literary crowd. The eatery also features live music. What better way to remember jazzy weekends in the Big Apple? For other dining experiences, plenty of restaurants sprawl into the side streets.

People revere NYC neighborhoods because of their energy, hustle and bustle. Place Flagey offers energy without over excitement and enough people without a crowd.

For a weekend brunch, a relaxing walk or unique entertaining, Place Flagey is a small square in Brussels that guarantees a perfect day (or night) out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Playing in the Cabanes at Seneffe Castle

If you have ever walked into your child's bedroom to find sheets sprawled from the dresser, then tucked under the mattress over to the arm chair and tied unconvincingly to the window handle, keep reading. If you have ever walked into your living room and found blankets thrown over the dining table and clothes-pinned to its matching chairs, keep reading. Finally, if you have ever walked into your garden only to find plastic bags hanging from tree limbs and little heads peaking out to say, “Look at our tent!”, I have got the perfect outing for you.
Until November 2011, the Château de Seneffe is host to a magical exhibition that will please the child in, and with, us all. In French, cabane refers to any sort of little house whether up in a tree or down on the ground and usually the home-made variety using sticks, planks of wood, fabrics, etc. Just as any child, and any helpful adult, feels proud of her creation, the artists who have participated in “Cabanes” have produced real chefs-d'oeuvre. The concept behind each cabane may seem more sophisticated than child's play. But, one necessary aspect is irrevocably the same as what motivates any child to dig through the linen closet or through the garage... imagination.
This outdoor exhibition is entirely free – good news when thinking of how to entertain the little ones on the weekends. Upon entering the front gates into La Cour d'Honneur, Frederic Geurts demands attention with his metallic sphere cabane. Upon seeing this almost weightless construction, my six year-old Belgian surrealist immediately remarked, “Ça, c'est pas une cabane!” Imagination is the word of the day. There is no harm in reminding children, nor adults, that everyone can perceive differently what we all may be looking at. Immediately to the left of the gates is La Chapelle showcasing, in video, each cabane. This overview prefaces the very unique houses the visitor will be experiencing.
Guests to Seneffe can roam freely throughout the grounds. I recommend, however, stepping into the castle to pick up a brochure detailing the where and what of each exhibit. Since the drive from Brussels to Seneffe can take a good 45 minutes, this is also an ideal time to stop into the restrooms (to the right and down the stairs).
Stepping out of the entrance, my daughter and I turned left and proceeded to the Jardin des Trois Terrasses. Pierre Courtois works with cubical red designs to produce four cabanes. One sits like a tall rectangle framed by walls of greenery. The second one lacks walls but limits are marked by four red poles. The third one is the highest. This red cube literally hangs above the visitor. The final cabane resembles most what someone might find in their own garden made from mosquito netting. These four creations are a perfect introduction to the variety of forms a cabane can take and will take throughout the exhibition.
From the Jardin des Trois, we headed behind the shrubs and past Le Théâtre. Near the stream and its bridge, we were both eager to run into a cabane by Dimitri Vanggrunderbeek. His three red, green and yellow cubes tempted us all too strongly to peek our heads through their square windows.
We continued up the path to a rather American country scene – a saloon. Jason Van Der Woude creates a cabin one could find in any western movie. We walked around and glanced inside to find boots lined up as straight as the glasses on the bar. So real was the scene, I expected the upright piano to start playing itself.
Towards the Grand Bassin, my daughter and I arrived with a beautiful view of the château. She ran ahead as soon as the next cabin was in sight. Van Der Woude now contrasts the dark, closed in wood beams with an open, glass structure. On this particularly sunny day, the shadows shown as much a part of the cabane as its recycled beams.
Immediately following, Loreta Visic's cabane reminded me of all the washing waiting for me at home. She has created a house with very imaginative, and yet very appropriate, walls. Shirts, skirts, pants, underwear - wardrobes of colors, textures and styles - hang straight until the wind blows. “Look, I have the same stockings!” My daughter exclaimed. I could only imagine what she was conjuring up for her next cabane.
The rest of the promenade lead us back around to the castle. We walked into large boxes and admired towering spheres. While strolling through the grounds, more than just our voices rang in between the trees. Speakers, cleverly disguised as hanging flower pots, play recordings from works by Casanova and Madame de Sévigné. Once at the Orangerie, we took advantage of the cafe to have a refreshment and talk about our favorite exhibits.

If, during your visit, the weather is not as sunny and warm as we had it, the castle is definitely worth a visit. For more information, visit the website of the Domaine du Château de Seneffe at There is a variety of exhibitions and entertainment to enjoy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Joan Miró, the Lyrical Painter: an exhibition at the ING Cultural Center in Brussels

Some works by Joan Miró may provoke certain on-lookers to remark, “A child could have done that.” To which, I do not believe Miro would have been completely insulted. In fact, years of process brought Miró to the simplicity and the innocence of the art he sought. Keep in mind that the words simple and innocent do not mean childish, even if child-like.
To begin, Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893. In 1919, a transitional year for Dadaism and Surrealism, Miró moved to Paris to be with his favorite artists and poets. He read Mallarmé and Baudelaire. He titled his works in French because that was the language of his favorite poets.
Poetry became a support of Miró's artistic exploration. He studied words so that those words could transmute themselves onto his canvases as letters or as symbolic shapes. As with poetry, a good poet must know the rules to be able to break them effectively. Likewise, a true artist is trained classically to be able to explode that education effectively. Miró's cubist work certainly does not resemble his later work, but he needed that stage to evolve. Looking at the full picture of his artistic journey, the eye witnesses the progression of straight-edges into the dreaminess of his curved line.
The start of this exhibition unveils how some of his forms literally took shape - by taking on the contour of print images he cut and pasted into collages. He would eventually paint the placement and form of the cutouts onto a canvas. Beyond black lines on a white background, his primary colors bleed behind the dark outbursts in his subsequent series.
As with many exhibitions, the viewer starts to recognize patterns, colors and lines unique to each artist. We, as spectators, can experience the personal journey of the artist. Miró had been studying art in Paris. The formality of that education gave him the yearning to reach out, stretch out, find a freedom. During the fearsome years of fascism and war, Miró went to the Normandy coast. He would peer out to the black sky above the sea. His anger and frustration during this period created Constellations. The vibrant colors would always be present in Miró's work. However, the war years splashed more black - his personal explosions against the fascist regime. As the enemy entered France, Miró moved back to Barcelona.
Advancing in his personal quest for freedom, Miró reached a point where he had had enough of painting. Still by every means an artist, he experimented with different materials like a poet explores different sounds and rhythms. He used cardboard, metal, fabric, rope, among others. He burned, molded, disfigured, manipulated the materials as if he were searching for their essence, and at the same time, his own. Half-way through the exhibition, the patron can see the evolution from painting to tapestry. A collage of fabrics and materials replace his canvases and acrylics.
Down the next hall, color starts to seep back into the foreground. Miró's colors provide meaning. For example, blue represents the spiritual while green represents the material.The artist enters his last years of life fully aware of them. He strives then to master the art of simplicity. To paraphrase, he once said that the line on the canvas may seem simple, may not have taken long to produce, but the idea behind the movement had taken him years to master. This statement is evident after his trips to Japan. In that far away land, he comes closer to home, to his inner freedom to produce a precise stroke of the brush or of the bamboo pen.
This tightness and sparseness of line and form could have only arose from his life's journey. From collage, through poetry and text, into forms atop which splotches a black scream, Miró stretches and tightens and controls the end product. He returns to a humble canvas and paints with respect the final strokes of his life. Helas, when someone looks at a work by Miró, he might say it looks like a child would have or could have done the same. And as far as the artist's reaction to that, Miró might be all too content to hear it.

In the end, art is never above a child's grasp. The organization, Art Basics for Children (ABC), has masterly set up artistic stations on the bottom floor of ING to grab onto young creativity and encourage the exploration of different techniques and styles unique to Miró. In this sense, a visit to the Miró exhibition at ING is a worthwhile outing – either as a quick run-through during your lunch hour or as an afternoon destination for the whole family.
Photo taken at the Foundation Jaon Miro in Barcelona

Hopefully, this taste of Miró entices an interest to see the collection of Miró at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona. I had first visited the foundation in 2004 after having already an appreciation for the artist. I was in absolute amazement of so many of his masterpieces in one place. I was thrilled yet again to pop into the Espace Culturel ING and bask in a small part of Miró's world.

For more information, refer to the following sites:

Thursday, April 07, 2011

La Maison Autrique, chez un ami

by Michelle Nott

Eugène Autrique, an engineer and friend of Victor Horta, lived at what is now 266 Chaussée de Haecht in Schaerbeek. One of Horta's first creations, the house was commissioned in 1893. Already by walking up to the facade, and back across the street for a thorough view, the visitor gets a glimpse into the life that inspired the home. Horta and Autrique were both “Franc-Maçons”. Symbols of this discreet organization appear in the door frame, in the sculpted stone and in the iron design of the window décor. Although the turn-of-the century thought protested traditional neo-gothique style, that and the Egyptian motifs present in Autrique's facade possibly refer to the Grand Temple in Brussels.
Horta's Art Nouveau style is well-known for considering the specifics of the inhabitants as much as of the building materials themselves. Autrique came from a middle-class family and stated that he wanted nothing luxurious. Economically-speaking the choice of glass was particularly considered. The architect chose different qualities of glass for the upper and lower sections of the guillotine windows. Also, white stone was rare for such a bourgeois house of the time, but Horta was adamant. He took charge of those himself. Despite Autrique's more modest budget (compared to their friend Tassel, for whom Horta creates a house the same year), the architect still succeeded in creating a noteworthy example of art nouveau.
Before ringing the bell, I looked up to Horta's first arabesque. These unique sgraffiti appear between the third-floor windows. I rang the bell. This early into Spring, not many tourists were about, just another woman taking photographs alongside me and a mother/daughter pair from Australia. The house was ours. Once in awhile, our flashes crossed paths, but otherwise, I walked right into the end of the 1890s, alone.
I appreciated the light of the entryway, accented by clear walls sharing only enough space for a couple of golden light fixtures. I then stepped into the living room, in between the marble pillars towards the grand piano past the fireplace mantle, and under chandeliers hanging from wood panels. I looked out to the garden. In a small room to the right was a coat rack. A hanging hat gives the impression that someone just might be home. I turned and looked down a staircase.
I got much more than I expected from my visit to la Maison d'Autrique. I went looking for the banister curves, stained glass and metal work I appreciated so much in Victor Horta's own house on rue Américaine. In fact, after coming from Horta's own house, la maison d'Autrique seems relatively simple and yet still so rich. I ventured down to the basement.
The smooth wooden railing slid my hand to the last curve, bringing my foot onto the small, maroon and off-white tiles. As soon as I walked into the main hall of the domestic area, I looked left into the kitchen. “Here's where everyone is!” This thought caught me by surprise... and yet seemed so obvious.
This area of the house was less an example of Art Nouveau, strictly-speaking, than it was an example of the art of life. Copper pans sat on the stove burners. White and blue ceramic pots stood on the counter under the street-level windows. I peered up the small service staircase almost expecting someone to be bringing down groceries.
The tiles in the laundry area combine to form blue flowers resting in the center of hexagons. Feet stood many hours ironing and folding at a table. They went kilometers peddling under the sewing machine. A thread hangs loose from its bobbin. At the back, light comes in through the windows pretending to sear the linens that have been hanging past their drying time. According to his “Mémoires”, Horta was careful not to bury too deeply the basement, assuring a certain amount of light without having to raise the ground floor more than necessary. The habits of the people living within the walls, in between the stories, from the cellar to the attic, indeed designed the home.
After a peek in the wine cellar, where bottles still stack high, I continue my exploration.
The banister guides my hand along its smooth surface back up to the ground floor. I turn left down the hall and left again to follow my wooden guide. Before my foot steps up, I admire the beautiful arabesque in the floor tiles. At a certain angle, I could make out a swervy A. Coincidence or intentional?
Although the majority of the banister looks rather traditional, Japanese art influenced the start of the railing.(The same design is not seen in the service stairs.) Besides all the hands who have helped Luc Maes restore this home, how many have held on to this house in one form or another? I imagine Mr Autrique climbing these stairs every evening. Tired from a long day at work, how much did he notice the amazing Japanese-inspired stained-glass window that welcomed him at the top of these stairs? Its natural tones color the tree, flowers, and sky differently in the evening than the shades provoke under a morning sky.
Autrique's bedroom is behind the next wall. Despite the large space, the beige and green-patterned wallpaper induces a cozy feel. Wood panels reinforce the strength of this room, supporting a chandelier above the elaborately carved bed frame. The freshly fluffed duvets just beg someone to lie down. A certain spirit in the room is further enhanced by the painting above the headboard – an angelic scene of doves flying to the heavens. This relatively classic work of art contrasts the Japanese-influenced décor associated with Art Nouveau. And so, a work by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano (born 1952) stands beside the bed. More examples of the artist's dreamy landscapes, creatures and fairies are appreciated throughout the house.
Facing the back garden, a vanity area with a sink, mirror and toiletry bags convinces the visitor of a presence in the house. To the left, a dumb-waiter opens ready to descend a tray of tea. A bathroom door cracks open just enough to reveal the claw-footed tub. Thanks to Luc Maes' renovations, a certain life breaths again within the space.
A small passage connects Autrique's bedroom to a large room facing the street. Yoshitaka Amano's video display peers down under the chandelier, onto photo albums lying open on a dining table. Floral-patterned curtains hang like secrets, tied to the sides just enough to hint at an outdoor light.
The floral design continues at the base of lamps and into the hallway onto the tiles. A burgundy and green palette swirls into arabesque patterns. My wandering leads back under the stained-glass windows around and up to another floor before reaching another story. An open space soaks up the sun. The warmth through the window panes create a lightness Autrique must have felt standing on the terrace overlooking the garden.
Up another flight of stairs, I find an office space, a possible sitting room and a bedroom. Three hats hang on a coat rack next to a globe tempting me to wonder where they must have hung in their previous lives.
In the street-facing room, lacy white bed covers lie and hang just barely above the rug. The brown and gray-loomed tones create a delicate floral pattern softening the hard wood floors. This chandelier is much more simple than the previous metal branches blooming into glass petals. An almost bare ring surrounds the light source decorated with two bowing stems of leaves.
I almost venture back down to the ground floor before remembering one last set of stairs to my left. They lead to the attic. Having spent this home tour in my own solitude, the statue of a man on the top floor startles me. This attic was Axel Wappendorf's space. He spent many years working in this office area as an inventor. Unfortunately, his most reputable creations have not been found. But before hurrying back down to the entrance, my curiosity takes the best of me. A peep-hole is open. I look through. I hope curiosity takes the best of you and you venture to this Schaerbeek home.
If it weren't for the skill and talents of craftsmen, be them from the turn-of-this-century or last, Victor Horta's architectural masterpieces would be less than that. Any aesthetic beauty catches people's attention, but it is a beautiful soul that holds on to it.
I will surely return to Autrique's home and visit more of Horta's creations. Whether an old friend or a new acquaintance, the architect studied his clients well - their daily routines, qualities and expectations. It is now, in venturing back through their doors, that each generation can resuscitate the lives that inspired them.

La Maison Autrique
Chaussée de Haecht, 266
1030 Brussels
Tel : 02/2156600
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 12 until 6pm (last entry at 5:30)

By the way, there is a fabulous little organic shop and tea room just around the corner:
Avenue Louis Bertrand, 25
1030 Schaerbeek
Open Tuesday to Friday, 9am until 6pm and Saturday, 9:15am until 5:30pm

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding Form and Sense in Freek Wambacq's exhibit, currently at M in Leuven

by Michelle Nott

To walk into the town of Leuven is to expect towering carved men to look down onto you from the town hall. Yet, if you keep walking beyond the cathedral, you will eventually come upon M, the museum of Leuven. A transformed city school, the building's now modern lines marry with the old structure seamlessly.
The inner walls display a visual history of the town of Leuven: its people, its families in everyday labor and bourgeois life. The higher floors allow space for temporary exhibits. Currently, modern design artist, Freek Wambacq, is the Belgian of choice until May 15, 2011.
Be sure to pick up the pamphlet at the top of the stairs before entering gallery 28. These sheets give the name of each work of art which adds just as much to its composition as does its colors and shapes.
The first work of art Wambacq throws out, or rather sprays out, covers the back wall. As the eye's first contact with the exhibit, the black splotch looks like an over-sized example of splatter painting. In fact, this technique is referred to as the “piss effect”. The photograph propped up on the floor to the right explains Lester Taking the piss out of Hammons. In reference to Pissed Off, a performance by David Hammons, the artist Gabriel Lester pretends to urinate in the corner of a gallery in Cork, Ireland. Right away, the visitor questions what is art and how it displays itself.
To the left of the entrance into this first gallery is Ideen muss man haben (One must have ideas). An art manual lies on its side propped up on a shallow metal shelf. Just opposite stands a wooden support for a stone block, popular among sculptors. The manual specifies to turn “this page sideways or upside down for ideas and inspiration.” What stuck with me, however, are the following words, “One thing sure – Nature can never combine colors or designs that are not attractive.” This quotes adds to the necessary mindset to delve into Wambacq's objects, organic and man made.
Dimensions du XXe siècle 1900-1945,” a hardcover book as well as the title of this particular piece, stands on the floor to the right beside which is a piece of tropical wood. The cover picture is a modern form which shadows the curves of the weathered piece of root. Immediately, the visitor understands from where our appreciation for lines and curves come. Obvious, and yet looking at a photo of the Milky Way next to Jackson Pollock's No. 4 appears as a revelation.
Gallery 29 is a hallway connecting 28 to 30, but do not overlook it. Maybe Wambaq expected the visitor to do just that. The artist's work plays with our senses, or maybe even our sense of senses. Braille-Malevich is a frame of pages from Malevich's Suprematist Composition; White on White written in braille. Even if Malevich's words are colorful to the mind, placing them in braille behind the glass of a golden frame transforms them into a simple monochrome image.
In the final gallery are two rectangular work tables. The first is an army green surface. On which lies a stack of yellow workman's gloves, a scattering of halved coconut shells and a crumpled mass of plastic. The ideas this combination provokes may vary eye to eye. What is attractive is his choice of colors and how well they compliment each other. Citing the title of the work, however, explains everything. Twelve bird, five horses, and a small fire refers to the sounds the objects make – the flapping of gloves, the click-clock of the shells, the crumpling of the plastic.
Another perfect color combination lies on the next work table whose red surface is the background to sprinkled white salt and a stalk of green celery. Salt provokes thirst. Celery is mainly made of water. Salt falling on paper sounds like rain drops...Imagine for yourself a possible reason behind its title, Rain showers and a broken leg.
Playful images as displayed in Freek Wambacq's current exhibit are nothing new to the artist. In Exercise In Seeing, Queens' Nails Projects (2009) in San Francisco, he participated in an exhibit displayed entirely in the dark. Excluding vision, all other senses were forced to take over. He requires visitors to now add to their sense of vision thoughts of smell, touch, taste and sound. Depending on the work, the effect may be disturbing or calming or just plain fun.

Vanderkelenstraat, 28
3000 Leuven
32 (0) 16 27 29 29
For more information on the artist, refer to Freek Wambacq's website at

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

At the Home of Victor Horta

I entered Horta's home through the large wooden door. The flowing woodwork was like a wave in. On the left is the coatroom, but not the one we visitors of this century use. The coat rack is of brilliant design, one solid piece to hold coats, hats, and a mirror to check yourself before coming and going. The design is, of course, typical Art Nouveau. The hooks blend in as well as the screws.
I wondered what it would be like, in fact, to be a guest of Victor Horta in his own home. I followed the designated path the little guidebook indicates to all visitors of the Horta Museum. I looked at every detail, of every lamp, door frame, window frame, from the marble entry steps to the carpeted stairs and hardwood floors leading all the way to the glassed ceiling of the top floor. I looked out the windows to his garden from the dining room, to the street from the sitting room of his office. I even admired the silver contraption that heated his water directly into the bathtub. This was Horta's house. The house is decorated and functions according to his daily routine and envies (which explains the urinal built into the wall on his side of the bed).
I imagined turn-of-the-century Brussels. There were new technologies and nouveaux riches. The new century was a time when people were decidedly Catholic or Freemason (designated on the houses with a cross or a triangle), when subsequent conflicts rose between the liberals and the socialists. All together, there was the “tried and true” thinking and innovative ideas. I imagined what it must have been like to wake up as a guest, from America, in this remarkable townhouse located at 25 rue Américaine.
The guest room sits on the top floor. A morning Belgian light sneaks in under the curtains on either side of a mirror. Exquisite, deep woodwork frames the windows and the looking glass as one entity. The space is not enormous but cozy. Shallow balconies protected by wrought iron vines tempt me to look out, to look down on the street where I always ever only looked up. Turning around, I see a woman' s writing desk facing the wall to my right. I pass on an occasion to write down my impressions. My eyes haven't had enough. The beige, almost golden, detail in the upholstery brings a warmth the sun only pretends to.
My feet immediately meet the staircase leading to Simon Horta's bedroom. But before I continue, the glass ceiling and wall, their golden secrets, hold my attention. Then, I advance without taking one step. What could have been a very closed-in stairwell, is an extraordinarily open and lit area. Looking over the banister, I imagine seeing my host walking out of his bedroom a couple floors down and across the hall toward his office. Lamps that could be mistaken for glass calla lilies point in all directions from their intertwined metal stems. Two shapeless, yet full of form, mirrors face each other. I notice one is next to me only because I see the infinite reflection across from me, yet not quite close enough to actually catch me. I realize that the space and the design so unique to Horta can go on and on.
Victor Horta thinks of every liveable, functional space in his home. As I am daydreaming, more visitors have come and gone out of the guest room. And yet, I have not heard one, “Pardon” or “Sorry” for the simple reason that I am not in the way. A landing the width of my two feet and a bit is just outside the guestroom door, just next to the stairs. I had stepped aside to get a better look at the reflections of the lamps and the branching iron against the golden, floral-painted walls. I had been swept away into this mystical, metallic garden without noticing.
In fact, the rest of the house spirals down from this idea, from Horta's perception of light, form, reflection and color. Brief steps pass in between landings leading to the bedrooms, the family room, the sitting room, the music room and into the dining room and its sitting area overlooking the garden. From golden to pastel green-blue painted walls, floral patterns overtake the scenery as a guest proceeds down to join her hosts. The detail of the wooden door frames, hinges and knobs remind the admirer of the organic nature of the setting. The fact that the heaters ware hidden behind matching curtains or mirrors emphasizes Horta's notion of displaying only what will enhance the surroundings.
The light fixtures down the staircase and in most rooms are variations of the same lily design pointing in different corners of a given area. Once in the dining room, the chandelier above the table honors dinner guests through pink and green-shaded glass. If only I could pull out one of the American ash chairs and sit facing the warm fireplace surrounded by shelves, receive a nice hot plate of a Brussels' specialty while admiring the bas-relief by Pierre Braecke...If only I could sit on the couch still in its original position and admire the garden without thinking of the time hanging over me... The architect designed the wall clock himself.
Early in his career, Victor Horta knew it was time for a new architectural philosophy. He made sure his name was on it.

For more information on Horta and his style,  refer to Victor Horta and his Art Nouveau.

Musée Horta
25, rue Américaine
1060 Saint-Gilles
02/ 543. 04. 90
Open every afternoon but Monday from 2-5:30.
Bookstore open during the same hours.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Victor Horta and his Art Nouveau

by Michelle Nott

One hundred fifty years ago, a self-proclaimed genius in architecture and design was born. His name was Victor Horta. Rumor has it that he was an intolerable man. But, personality flaws aside, his brain created some of the most noteworthy buildings of the 20th century.
For the past seven years I have been walking in Brussels and admiring the random facades that whisper, “Look over here. I am Art Nouveau.” Out of careless walks around a pond or down a street, I find myself privileged to see such extraordinary examples of art. Every architectural style brings its own calm or intrigue to its structure, but Art Nouveau seems to be foremost art...that happens to create an incredible and durable living space.
For years, actually until Horta became a professor himself, architects had to study first fine art and then just extend their studies for six more months to earn a degree in architecture. So, at that time, architects just dealt with the look of a structure and left the actual building to the builders. Horta felt this way of thinking was very wrong. During his own studies, he won a scholarship to study under any architect he wanted. He chose Gustave Eiffel – who wasn't an architect at all but an engineer. His choice was disputed but he stood firm saying that Eiffel worked in steel and that was the building material of the future.
All of Horta's houses could still be standing today if they had never caught fire or been torn down. The one flaw in Horta's philosophy is that each house should be completely designed to suit the living habits of its individual inhabitants. In theory, this idea was great. As for its “resale value”, not so much. At least not in the early part of last century. Nowadays, a mere visit to the Solvay home on Avenue Louise can cost 800 euros. Needless to say, the value of any of his Art Nouveau homes are now certainly through the stain-glassed roofs.
Like any great art movement, Art Nouveau is a revolution against tradition. The “nouveau” aspect is influenced by several trends of the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites illustrated romantic, fantasy-like scenes with bright colors. Japonism produced flat, woodblock prints with no shadows. Symbolism went against naturalism and realism, creating spiritual, decadent, even morbid works of art. Finally, the aesthetic movement in design had itself also been influenced by Japanese lines and colors. Wrapping all these attributes together and picking out the most functional of each, Horta became one of the most amazing and acclaimed architects of his time...until WWI.
Horta wanted to build homes using only natural materials and methods. He wanted everything to be functional. He originally worked in such a way to provide his services to a more humble clientele. Then, he realized just how much the wealthier population would spend on his expertise. He not only designed the homes, but also the furniture down to the hinges on the doors, and had to approve any home decor the owners wanted to acquire. He personally designed many Tiffany stained-glass for his clients. After receiving the hand-drawn sketch of a lamp or window in New York, Tiffany would create it, take it apart, number each piece, and send it all back to Brussels to be reassembled. Once WWI came and went, however, the money did not flow as freely and Art Nouveau's popularity diminished. Already by 1922, one of his first houses was destroyed.
Between about 1893 and 1911, Art Nouveau triumphed in the architecture and design world. Although interest in the movement slept for many decades, the 1960s psychedelics woke it up again. The 150 year anniversary of Horta seems like a fitting time to look back and forward at what Art Nouveau can bring to today's and tomorrow's architects and art enthusiasts. 
For information on the Horta Museum, refer to the article At the Home of Victor Horta.
For more information on Art Nouveau and where you can see it in Brussels, you can refer to the following links:

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Worldview by Leonard Freed at Le Musée de la Photographie

by Michelle Nott
When people ask me what I miss about America, I think really hard. New York City, I reply. Logically, the publicity poster for the latest temporary exhibit at Le Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi immediately caught my attention.
The black and white scene of men in gray-toned suits and one wide-striped tie seduces me to walk down Wall Street in 1950 style. Leonard Freed is the photographer. The exhibit is “Worldview” and runs until May 2011. Leonard Freed's view of the world started, indeed, in New York City. The year was 1929. Born of Russian descent into an Hasidic Jewish family, Freed wanted to explore his origins and what they could mean to him.
Entering into the exhibit, the first photographs clearly place the viewer in New York City. Jewish children and teachers look out from their schools, from their lives. Freed catches their regard so that they catch ours. Simple visitors through his lens, we can sense the emotion that provoked the shot, the angle, the moment that left in a flash.
Still in the 1950s, Freed's worldview expands to Belgium via Germany where he was working, He witnesses the mining catastrophe of Marcinelle (1956) near Charleroi, a shocking event in Belgium's memory. From a discreet distance, his photographs frame the mourning of the widows and of the children. Two-hundred fifty coffins line the streets. A woman prays at an open window. Families weep. Freed captures the experience as emotion rather than as a news report. He never did considered himself a photojournalist.
Back in New York City in the 1960s, he uses his lens to discover from where people come, where they are and where they may go. He catches festive moments at office parties, white men and women dancing with cocktails. Their smiles are so wide, I could almost hear the jazz in the background. Down on the streets, Harlem's children play in fire hydrants washing the heat and their troubles away for a cool moment. Other young boys are playing tough while men are handcuffed in the backseat of squad cars. A year later, Martin Luther King, Jr. drives by after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. By the late 1970s, a woman police officer plays, what looks like “Duck, Duck, Goose”, with a group of children on a Harlem street. Freed traveled but came back to his city. He looked within and around himself in search of who he was by where he was. He believed the subject of his pictures was always him.
Leonard Freed's camera has caught history without trying to report on it. Freed took pictures of what he saw, what anyone could have seen. But, his talent and regard immortalizes the emotion in the movement, that blink of the flash.
As much as I love New York City and would go back at a moment's notice for a walk through Central Park, down through Soho or over to Brooklyn, I know its positives and negatives result in many shades of gray. But, the energy for which the streets are so famous are also the breath of life in the Worldview exhibit. That breath luckily blew Leonard Freed where he needed to go as well.
More information
Besides the Leonard Freed exhibit, two other temporary exhibits are also worth the visit: Simon Lueck, the Once and the Future Queens and Fernand Dumeunier, Le Visage et L'Esprit.
Since the mines closed in the second half of the last century, Charleroi is not much to see. However, the Belgian government has given money to the surrounding region and most notably to its photography museum. The collection makes it one of the most important photography museums in Europe.

Avenue Paul Pastur 11 (GPS Place des Essarts)
6032 Charelroi (Mont-Sur-Marchienne), Belgium
32 (0) 71/43 58 10
Open Tuesday through Sunday 10am – 6pm
Admission fees include permanent collection and exhibits:
6 euros for general, 4 euros for seniors and groups, 3 euros for students and the unemployed.
Free for children under 12.
Free the first Sunday of each month.
Light snacks and drinks are available in the museum café.