Henry van de Velde
"An enemy of excessive ornamentation, Van de Velde was not the most cherished artist of his era. The body of work he left behind shows how unfair history was with him." Jean-Pierre Stroobants, correspondent for Le Monde in Brussels
Henry Clemens Van de Velde, Belgian artist, first a painter and then an architect and designer, was born in Antwerp on 3 April 1863. Even before Europe’s unification, he had worked in five different countries, travelled widely in spite of two world wars, and pursued a passionate personal career. In the early 20th century, he played a decisive role in the field of architecture and decorative arts, primarily in Germany.
Henry Van de Velde began studying painting in 1880. He took courses under Charles Verlat at the Antwerp Academy of Arts and Émile Auguste Carolus-Duran in Paris. A champion of the neo-impressionist style, he joined a group of artists founded in Brussels, "Les Vingt" (the Twenty), in 1889. In 1892, he gave up painting and went into the field of decoration and architecture. His own house in Uccle, “Bloemenwerf”, draws its inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement, a revolutionary artistic movement in the fields of architecture, decoration, painting, and sculpture; the movement was born in England in the 1860s, and expanded throughout the 1880-1910 period, at the close of the Victorian era. It can be seen as the basis for the "modern style", the English-speaking world’s counterpart to the Franco-Belgian Art Nouveau style.
Van de Velde also designed interiors and furniture for the "Art Nouveau" exhibition organised in 1895 in Paris by the art merchant Samuel Bing. Art nouveau is an artistic movement from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is based on the aesthetics of curved lines in a coup de fouet (whiplash) style. Born in reaction to the excesses of industrialisation and the uniformisation created by the reproduction of famous styles, as a movement it was very sudden, sharp, quick – but it was also very powerful despite its brevity, thanks to its simultaneous expansion around the globe. Though there were subtle differences between countries, the criteria were the same: art nouveau was characterised by creativity and by the presence of rhythms, colours, and ornamentation that brought a touch of sensitivity into everyday decoration. It drew inspiration from Japonism, in fashion at the time, emphasising nature in both its plant and animal forms, as well as a representation of the free and sensual modern woman. It was also an all-encompassing style of art, taking up every inch of available space, breaking down barriers between major and minor art forms, and placing a spotlight on new materials and new techniques.
Van de Velde was one of the first architects and furniture designers to work in the abstract style with rounded lines that would become one of the characteristics of Art Nouveau. In his work, ornamentation is "where it should be", "form follows function", or as he said, "function gives birth to form", a form that became more stripped-down with time. "A line is power" is a sentence that illustrates his career. Ornamentation had to be abstract.
In April 1894, he married Maria Sèthe, a painter and pianist from a family with German roots. The following year, his mother-in-law Louise financed their first home, the Bloemenwerf villa in Uccle.
During this same period, he founded his workshop, which produced furnishings and decorative objects, but as a businessman, Van de Velde was mediocre at best, and his business affairs quickly went sour. He would leave for Berlin in 1900.
Why Germany, where he would turn out to become a leading figure? He chose Germany because at the time, it was the European country with the greatest thirst for modernity. The greatest modern art collectors of the era were German, at a time when France and Belgium were much more conservative.
In 1902, with the help of his friend Harry Kessler, he put down roots in Weimar on the request of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, who was counting on Van de Velde to confer new prestige upon the city of Goethe and Liszt. The Grand Duke tasked him with "reviving" decorative arts. Van de Velde went across the region, breathing new life into ceramics, basketwork (he created wicker furniture that took Berlin by storm), upholstery, etc. In 1907, he established the Weimar school, which in 1919 became the Bauhaus under the direction of Walter Gropius, a man recommended by Van de Velde himself. He also founded the Nietzsche-Archiv in this very same city. During World War I, he left for Switzerland, and dreamt of founding a colony of artists there. He never ran out of new projects. In 1919, he was invited to the Netherlands by Helene Kröller-Müller, and there, in Otterlo, amidst the dunes, he built the magnificent museum that we still know today. Helene Kröller-Müller had already called upon architects, but had not yet found satisfaction, and it is the Dutch architect Berlage who gave her Van de Velde’s name. His strength was imagining a museum designed to work in the service of the works it contained. Near the end of World War I, the situation in Germany became impossible to endure, and Henry Van de Velde was forced to leave Weimar and spend several years in Switzerland.
In late 1925, he returned to Belgium, but this was no simple matter. He was met with reproach for having spent time in Germany during the war. But Van de Velde had an impressive backer in the form of Queen Elisabeth, who convinced Albert I to bring Van de Velde back to found the "La Cambre" school of decorative arts, an echo to the Bauhaus, which would be a place where a new generation of designers would be formed, helping to breathe new life into Belgium’s economy.
During World War II, he became the director of the architecture department of the Commissariat Général à la Reconstruction du Pays (General Commission for the Reconstruction of the Country). At the end of the war, these years of service would be severely held against him, as Van de Velde was assailed with accusations of collaboration. Although he was found innocent, he willingly chose to emigrate to Switzerland after his wife’s death. From 1947 to 1957, he lived with his eldest daughter Nele in Oberägeri, where he would work on his memoires until his death at age 94.
While Ghent has his "Boekentoren" – his university library –, Brussels still has several of his homes, including the Wolfers home – in which the Stoclet family lived and in which the collector Herman Daled now resides –, the Grégoire home in Uccle, and his own home in Tervuren.