Tom Wilkinson reviews the career of this Belgian painter, architect and interior designer whose defense of artistic individuality led to artwork commodification
Source: Goni Montes
Asked to play the rather cruel parlour game, ‘name 10 famous Belgians’, it is probably fair to say that for most people, Henry van de Velde would not trump Poirot. Yet he was a central figure of European architecture before the First World War, one of the creators of the style we know as Art Nouveau, and a living embodiment of the contradictory impulses of the fin de siècle.
Born in Antwerp in 1863, van de Velde first set out to be a painter. He produced competent copies of works in the latest styles, whether by Van Gogh or Seurat − an ironically plagiaristic start for a man who would wind up championing artistic individualism. However, his reduction of these artists to their gestural essences revealed the core of his future practice, which was distinguished by a single-minded linearity applied to all aspects of his habitable Gesamtkunstwerke.
Perhaps despairing at his own facility, and inspired by William Morris’s ideal of a fallen world redeemed by good design, around 1890 van de Velde chucked in the palette in favour of the applied arts. It was a task he approached with remarkable range and radicality, applying himself to everything from doorknobs to dresses for his wife, Marie Sèthe. The patterned trimmings of these garments were designed to match the interiors of their 1896 Bloemenwerf house, his first, untutored architectural work. This was an expression of that impulse to bring life and art together that would survive the peacock-patterned fin de siècle and, stripped of ornament, characterise the age of High Modernism. It also offered, for those who cared to notice, a warning that this strategy risked reducing life itself to a commodity, by taking the objectification of women to an extreme only surpassed by Allen Jones’s pop-art furniture.
‘The writhing whiplashes, offspring of a marriage of Japanoiserie with the Arts and Crafts, were infused with Nietzschean vitalism’
After trying without much success to gain a foothold in Paris, in 1900 van de Velde moved to Germany, where he found a more receptive audience. It was here that his distinctive aesthetic crystallised, and he set up workshops producing all sorts of objects, from candlesticks to advertisements and packaging. His (self-evidently contradictory) aim was the manufacture of an artificial zeitgeist to heal the fractures of modern society, which many feared was splitting into antagonistic classes and producing an incoherent culture. In order to remedy this, like his great rival Victor Horta, van de Velde rejected the historical revivals of the 19th century in favour of abstract organic motifs. These writhing whiplashes, offspring of a marriage of Japanoiserie with the Arts and Crafts, were infused with Nietzschean vitalism, and would be termed Jugendstil, ‘youth style’ (the German equivalent of Art Nouveau).
In Berlin, among other patrons (including the Prussian court hairdresser, for whom he designed a cutting-edge salon) he met his future friend and patron Count Harry Kessler, the homosexual aesthete and diarist, who introduced him to the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar. The two friends had high hopes of this association: the Duchess was artistically inclined and nudged her husband into commissioning an entirely new Jugendstil town centre. Weimar was the home of German classicism, of Goethe and Schiller, and this development seemed to offer the hope of a new dawn for national culture. The two planned a theatre as centre of this idyll, and even a monumental shrine to Nietzsche, who had died a syphilitic vegetable in the town in 1900. However, in 1907 Kessler fell out of favour with the court after commissioning a risqué nude from Rodin for the Duke, and the bottom fell out of their utopia.
Henry van de Velde
Bloemenwerf House, 1895-6
Folkwang Museum, 1901
Weimar School of Arts
and Crafts, 1907
Villa Hohenhof, 1908
Werkbund Theatre, 1914
Library of the University
of Ghent, 1933-8
Kröller-Müller Museum, 1937-53
‘A line is a force’
In any case, monarchic patronage was on its way out, and a new age of masses and machines loomed. But van de Velde was no anachronism: indeed, he designed the rather plain, factory-like building in Weimar that would eventually become first home to the Bauhaus, and was head of the art school that preceded it − until he was kicked out due to wartime xenophobia in 1915. Gropius was one of the men he named as a possible successor, and after the war he stepped into van de Velde’s shoes.
By symbolic coincidence, in 1907 − the same year as that little Ducal unpleasantness in Weimar − the Werkbund was founded by a group of industrialists, artists, writers and architects, led by another Morris enthusiast, Hermann Muthesius. They aimed to reform German design, which they saw as falling behind the artistry of France and the industrialism of Britain − indeed, as combining the worst of both worlds in shoddily made, naff trinkets. Instead they aimed to introduce the artist to the factory; to spiritualise the commodity. Van de Velde, who had never followed his idol Morris’s luddism, and was now bereft of a royal patron, shared this aim, and he soon fell in with the Werkbund.
In 1914 he designed the central theatre for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition of 1914. The result was pivotal for both his own development and that of the wider cultural scene: a low concrete structure in which his signature organic line was tamed, pointing the way to Expressionism. It realised his Wagnerian vision of theatre at the heart of community, but it was demolished shortly after its creation by the same event that would pave the way for real German democracy: the exhibition site was turned into a barracks on the outbreak of the First World War.
Contrary to their communal dreams, the 1914 exhibition was also the scene of a fatal rupture in the Werkbund. Despite his qualified support for industrial production, van de Velde was determined to protect artistic individuality − and (as Frederic Schwartz points out in his acute analysis) the designer’s intellectual property rights, which were not yet recognised under German copyright law. However, a rival faction led by Muthesius favoured the design of anonymous types instead. This was nothing to do with ‘truth to materials’, but an attempt to pare back gestural excesses in order to avoid the faddish turnover of styles that characterises consumer capitalism, in the hope of attaining a harmonious culture. An acrimonious debate broke out between the two groups, and van de Velde was trounced by the supporters of standardisation.
During the Great War, van de Velde retreated to Switzerland, returning to Belgium in the 1920s to teach. He had a late flowering in the ’30s, designing the University of Ghent’s library, a towering rectilinear monument in concrete and glass, and the long-gestated Kröller-Müller museum in Holland. But after being accused of collaborating with the Germans during the occupation, he retreated once more to the Alps, where he wrote his peevish memoirs, and where he died in 1957.
But despite losing the battle, van de Velde won the war. Indeed, his design ideas were quickly adopted by industry, and could be found in cheap, mass-produced objects in middle-class homes across Germany, marketed as ‘van de Velde-style’ candlesticks, chairs, etc. This use of his name irritated van de Velde, and pointed to the contradiction inherent in his insistence on artistic individuality as a means of resisting mass culture trash: individuality could easily be co-opted, and the artist became just another brand. He had succeeded in spiritualising the commodity, but in the name of marketing − and so commodified the artwork. Warhol’s soup can was the inevitable second course.
Illustration by Goni Montes