Leonie Beiersdorf




"Henry van de Velde - the Master of European Secession" by Leonie Beiersdorf, a research worker of the Secession Department at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg

' Henry van der Velde - the Master of European Secession'

I am very glad to be here today and analyse with you the figure of Henry van de Velde - an artist and a person as well as his work in Trzebiechów.

When one has to, as I have to today at this conference on Henry van de Velde, conduct a survey of the output of one of the most important artists of the 20 th century and at the same time the most important representative of European Secession, one is faced with a problem of what to select.

Here in front of us stands Henry van de Velde (photo 1), an extraordinary person, who was active as an artist, painter, architect, writer, pedagogue and an entrepreneur. Even in his lifetime he enjoyed considerable success with the exception of business activity (admittedly, he was not a good entrepreneur). His output is very complex, including paintings, drawings, typography, clothes designs, jewellery, cutlery, china and ceramics, single items of furniture as well as complex interior designs and buildings, among which one can find his own houses, art museums and . a theatre. Henry van de Velde's output also includes numerous essays, in which he expressed his criticism of contemporary art and support for artistic craftsmanship and Secession. In his diaries, which he finished writing in the 1950s, one can find further information on both his public and private life.

Since this is an international symposium, I would especially like to select certain works of art which are well - suited to illustrate one particular characteristic of van de Velde. Not only did he act on the border of various cultures but also crossed state borders; in other words, Henry van de Velde is a European artist.

It is much more than just a recurring motif. In light of van de Velde's life, it is a significant achievement. He lived in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Also, for professional reasons, he made numerous trips to Paris, Riga, and later on to the USA. The turn of the 20 th century was shaped by nationalistic fervour and growing political unrest, which resulted in two world wars. Van de Velde survived both. During World War I he protested against being discriminated for spending the war outside Belgium. He suffered greatly as a result of extreme politics. Nevertheless, his artistic output is permeated with multi-culture border - free aesthetics. The artist's main aim was to raise the aesthetic consciousness of the society, thus making its life more valuable. Van de Velde called for creating beauty and declaring war on ugliness. He used fighting rhetoric in his social mission, which was typical of the times he lived in as well as of his own advocacy of socialism: "Beauty is a weapon, a means of revolution." Nowadays, one may say that van de Velde was one of the most prominent protagonists of the reform movement in Europe.

Would you please allow me to sketch Henry van de Velde's journey through life:

the journey begins in Belgium. His family roots are in Flemish Antwerp. In 1880, having passed his matriculation examinations (photo 2) and against his parents' will, van de Velde enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in order to study painting. Although he was quite successful there, he was not fully satisfied. He showed increasing interest in the French artistic scene and its avant-garde painters. In Antwerp, he established an association for independent art - "Association pour l'Art Indépendent", which attracted artists, intellectuals and art lovers. The creation of such a forum is characteristic of Henry van de Velde, who, throughout his life, first sought and then cultivated close contacts with intellectuals and artists. His address book, one may presume, was a 'who is who' of his times. Van de Velde also became a member of the exclusive Brussels-based avant - garde "Les Vingts" group, whose exhibitions received international recognition. At that time van de Velde met many eminent French artists. He exhibited with August Rodin, Henri de Toulouse - Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh. One can see their influence in van de Velde's early paintings, especially in the linear form so characteristic of them. In photo 3, for instance, one can see an abstrakt floral composition from 1893. The arch - shaped line testifies to the artists's inclination towards dynamics and abstract though. Similarly, in the area of symbols, in photos 4 and 5 we can see the painting 'Haymaking' from 1892, the artist draws delicate parallel lines across the green background.

In Brussels van de Velde was looking for further artistic directions. So far he had worked as a painter, a fact that is often overlooked in present-day assessment of his output. Perhaps this early period of his artistic creation, including the sanatorium in Trzebiechów, should be highlighted in the interest of pattern painting. Van de Velde also showed interest in social and political issues; he read Nietsche, the Bible and anarchistic literature. He rejected the classical division into free and applied art. He first exhibited works of applied and decorative art in 1891 at an exhibition held by the Les Vingts group. Initially, he was interested in book illustrations and ceramics because of the revolutionary potential that they conveyed and that he wanted to spread throughout the society. In his diary he wrote with a sense of pride: "Artistic craftsmanship has again found its proper place and rank among liberal arts." ( p.58 ).

Henry van de Velde stopped painting in the 1890s. Instead, he directed his interests and efforts towards artistic craftsmanship. In his early woodcuts and a well - known carpet design by the name of 'the Angel's Vigil' (photo 6), one can easily recognize the same linear art and the strong and clear choice of colours as in his earlier paintings. Van de Velde himself commented on the fact with a touch of irony: "Even after I abandoned painting, the demon of lines has not left me and when I was creating the first ornaments, they came into being out of a dynamic interplay of their elementary forces." (p.68)

In the early 1890s Henry van de Velde was enchanted not only by the French avant - garde but also by the English Arts and Crafts movement, which was introduced to him by his wife, Maria (photo 7). During her stay in London she purchased a variety of graphics and other works of art, which provided invaluable food for thought for her husband. As a master teacher in Antwerp and at the University of Nouvelle in Brussels, van de Velde underlined the role of industrial art and ornamentation in order to assert the importance of artistic craftsmanship. He also transferred this finesse to his private life. One might even risk saying that his life has become an exhibition of his aesthetic convictions. The first house that the van de Velde couple built and lived in was located in Uccle, in the suburbs of Brussels. The house was called Bloemenwerf (photo 8) and was designed solely by van de Velde. He was the architect, the developer and the furniture, wallpapers and fabrics designer (photo 9). No wonder that the house caused a great sensation in contemporary press.

Van de Velde even designed clothes for his wife (photo 10). They reflected the artist's new aesthetics. Soft fabrics flowed freely down a woman's body. Numerous pictures of the new fashions portray van de Velde's wife as a propagator of art. Their house became an extraordinary culture mecca for friends and acquaintances, including foreigners. Among the visitors were an influential art critic Julius Meier and a Parisian art dealer Siegfried Bing. They were so enthralled by van de Velde's art collection that they became the young artist's propagators in Berlin and Paris respectively.

In late 1890s Henry van de Velde received a number of commissions from wealthy Berliners who wanted their apartments to be designed in the new style. One of them was Harry, Count Kessler, who was later to assist van de Velde's career. To meet the growing demand, with the help of foreign capital, van de Velde set up a crafts workshop in Uccle, where he employed a few assistants. Those in turn were supported by craftsmen from outside. Henry van de Velde also designed patterns (forms) of products as well as advertising graphics, f. ex. the very elegant design for Tropon works in Cologne - Mühlheim. He was also commissioned to design a luxury edition of "Also sprach Zarathustra" ("Thus Spoke Zarathustra") (photo 11) by Nietzsche for Harry, Count Kessler. In the same period he produced designs of fabrics for the textile works in Krefeld. Since 1900 the owners of the works in Krefeld had closely watched the clothes designs of van de Velde's wife. They were especially interested in changes of fabrics used in female fashions. The above examples clearly show that the artist's private life and public activity cannot be separated.

In 1898 Henry van de Velde established the firm "Henry van de Velde GmbH Kunstwerkstätten. "It was a branch of a Belgian workshop in Germany. The artist also brought his family to Berlin. The establishing of the business was possible with the substantial aid of foreign capital. Despite initial commissions, it was certainly a risky venture. In 1900 the firm was on the brink of bankruptcy. Therefore, van de Velde decided to close the firm. As a result, the artist went through an acute financial and mental crisis. Hermann Hirschwald, his former commissioner, took over part of the workshop and employed Van de Velde in it. In return, Hirschwald also received ownership rights to the artist's former works of art. A dispute arose, resulting in the firm being put out to tender. That was when Harry, Count Kessler came to van de Velde's aid. Acting together with Elizabeth Förster - Nietzsche, the famous Friedrich Nietzsche's sister, he offered van de Velde the post of seminar director in Weimar, where he was to lecture on artistic craftsmanship. Weimar was to mark a new stage in the artist's life.

The years 1902 - 1910 mark the best period in van de Velde's creative work. It was possible thanks to massive support from the Grand Duke's family. Henry van de Velde became one of those influential artists, whose reformatory ideas gained appreciation of others. As a craft and small-scale industry advisor to the Grand Duchy of Saxe - Weimar, he worked both in town and outside its limits. He became a popular figure, a fact that he initially disliked. I would like to discuss three prominent commissions from this period of van de Velde's creative activity:

For Karl Ernst Osthaus, an art patron, van de Velde designed the interiors of a big art museum in Hagen. Osthaus was intensely ambitious for the museum to compete with the art museum in Berlin. In 1902 the Neo - Renaissance Folkwang museum was opened. It boasted lavish interiors designed by van de Velde (photo 12). Both Osthaus and van de Velde as well as the Esche family were deeply engaged in the reform movement aimed at bringing the real world and art closer together.

In 1902 van de Velde designed a big charming avant-garde house for Herbert Esche, a textile manufacturer from Chemnitz. Unlike the previous series of commissions for interior designs, it was the first architectural project that van de Velde was commissioned to realize in Germany. The yellow ochre façade, ascetic in form, is a far cry from the cozy and carefree architecture of Bloemenwerf near Brussels. The finish reflects the highly functional direction towards the Secession style that van de Velde had adopted. The entrance lobby, relatively crude in form, speaks through straight lines. One can picture the restrained arches of intense blue walls and the gently arched door framing in the gallery. Other organic forms, however, are not present here (photo 13).

The building now houses a museum. The dining room and the music hall downstairs, with their largely original furnishings, purposely create the impression of 'living space'. The upstairs houses a permanent exhibition presenting a contemporary bedroom, a children's room and a bathroom. The exhibition provides valuable insight into the many-sided creative thought of the versatile artist.

At approximately the same time Henry van de Velde was commissioned to re - design the Friedrich Nietzsche archives in Weimar, which was re - opened in October 1903. In contrast to Villa Esche, in the archives one can notice the characteristic arch - shaped lines. Photos 14 and 15 present the reading room. In the organically charming curves the architecture and the interior furnishings mutually permeate each other, creating an elegant and harmonious composition. Photo 16 highlights the details of a door handle in the Nietzsche Archives in Weimar. In the centre of the cross, on both sides, there are two not easily recognizable door handles. The areas above them are delineated with delicate ornamental lines of concentric unequal circles. That may remind one of the green areas in the painting 'Haymaking'. The same line can undoubtedly be found in all works by Henry van de Velde.

In 1905 van de Velde reconstructed the portal, the vestibule and the rooms downstairs. That made the archives a monument of high value in the history of art. The aesthetically demanding ambience of the Secession rooms hung with portraits of Nietzsche was designed as an external frame for the New Weimar to be later arranged by Elizabeth Förster - Nietzsche and Harry, Count Kessler. One hundred years after the classical Goethe and Schiller's Weimar, they wanted to bring Nietzsche to a new climax. Indeed, the archives attracted many influential artists, writers and intellectuals to Weimar. Henry van de Velde met them, too.

It was also during his first years in Weimar that van de Velde was commissioned by Duchess Marie Alexandrine Reuß to design the interiors of the sanatorium in Trzebiechów. Since we are going to hear a lot on the subject soon, consider it just a brief mention.

In 1907 van de Velde (photo 17) established the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, which he ran until 1914 (it was closed in 1915). The school may be considered the predecessor of the University of Bauhaus in Weimar. Van de Velde also became a member of the German Work Federation, established in 1907.

During discussions with craftsmen van de Velde used to take a conservative line, protesting against the idea of typification and speaking in favour of individual design. In general, one may say that during his stay in Germany his numerous contacts as well as his membership in a variety of associations and groups placed van de Velde in the avant-garde of the artistic world.

During World War I Henry van de Velde found it hard to work in Weimar. As a Belgian living in Germany, he had to report to a supervisory office three times a day, each time covering a long way from his house to the centre of Weimar and back. He longed to return to his homeland.

In 1917 van de Velde emigrated to Switzerland, where he met Else Lasker - Schüler, Paul Cassirer and Ernst Kirchner, and then to the Netherlands. Kirchner did a wood engraved portrait of van de Velde (photo 18).

In 1919 in the Netherlands he made an acquaintance of Mr and Mrs Kröller - Müller, for whom he designed the famous art museum in Otterlo, with its substantial collection of van Gogh's works (photos 19 and 20).

In 1925 van de Velde was appointed professor at Ghent University and returned to Belgium. A year later he moved to Brussels, where he was appointed director of the Institut Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs. He still received private commissions. For instance, he designed the furnishings in the monarch's, Leopold III's, study. Van de Velde also acted in an advisory capacity for the Belgian office for the protection of historic relics.

In 1937 he received another prestigious state commission. In cooperation with Jean - Jules Eggerieux and Raphael Verwighlen he designed the Belgian pavilion for the world exhibition in Paris (photo 21). Two years later he once again participated in the arrangement of the pavilion, this time in New York. His designing thought earned him wide recognition. During World War II, as Belgium was occupied by Germany, van de Velde still participated in the programme for the reconstruction and protection of historic relics. After the war, that brought him accusations of collaboration with the enemy. His reputation was seriously damaged, something that even years of court proceedings were not able to repair.

The year 1947 saw his second emigration to Switzerland, where, in his opinion, the political and cultural atmosphere was more liberal. In 1952 in the museum of artistic craftsmanship in Zurich an exhibition was held entitled 'Around the year 1900', showing the changes in art at the turn of the century. Van de Velde occupied a central position in it. He went down in the history of art for his artistic achievements. Van de Velde (photo 22) left behind copious notes for his memoirs, which constitute a valuable source of information for us today. They were published after his death in Germany in 1957.

Henry van de Velde miraculously and fundamentally restored the idea of functional art in Europe. He achieved that through active personal involvement and notable perseverance. His efforts resulted in the functional art gaining wide recognition. The fact that 45 years after the artist's death another of his works was discovered comes as a small sensation. Even more so that it epitomizes his achievements, leaving a lasting impression on us. I am looking forward to the following papers on the subject of the Nursing Home in Trzebiechów. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, for your attention.

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