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.