Victor Horta 1861-1947. L’homme, l’architecte, l’art nouveau

Author : Michèle Goslar.

When seeing the sumptuous volume devoted to Victor Horta (ill. 1), marking the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth, published by Fonds Mercator and the Fondation Pierre Lahaut, for the first time, readers might think this is just another "coffee table book", somewhere between a popular vulgarization and an attractive picture album. This does not mean that a work studying art history or architecture should be boring and poorly illustrated in order to be serious and scholarly, and consequently that a luxurious book is never really very learned but, is sometimes true. In this case, the remarkable work done by Michèle Goslar succeeds in bringing together a wealthy content and a splendid presentation, for the greatest pleasure of both amateurs and specialists. As Werner Adriaenssens points out in his preface, the bibliography on this extraordinary architect, Victor Horta, is both abundant and lean : abundant for its general works, collection of images, superficial or, on the contrary, very detailed studies ; lean for its supporting texts. While we should quote the first important monograph by Franco Borsi and Paolo Portoghesi (dating already from 1970), there was still no real biography of Horta, a discreet and tormented figure, no in-depth and updated look at his writings (including the manuscript of his Mémoires held at the Musée Horta and published in 1986) and no complete collection of his many productions. The book we have here does all of the above. The fact that this publication was conceived as a biography is important ; well-known for her authorative work on Marguerite Yourcenar, the author, is not "strictly speaking" an art historian.

1. Victor Horta working, c. 1905
Saint-Gilles, Archives du Musée Horta,
Fondation Jean et Renée
Photo : Archives du Musée Horta,
Fondation Jean et Renée Delhaye

This did not keep her from labouring away on the subject for twelve years with the necessary scholarly discipline and methods needed to achieve such a publication. There are of course specialists on Art Nouveau or architecture who can explain certain concepts, provide perspective on a certain building, place Horta in the corresponding context ; but, totally fascinated by the subject, Michèle Goslar, tackles the life and work of the master as a whole, establishing a biography based on produced works, unfinished projects and personal sources, not stopping, in the case of buildings, with only architectural studies : by looking at each monument based on the relations between the architect and his patrons, and also following it to the present day, she has written a sort of "architectural biography" whose chapters relate the architectural history of half a century. This is in fact a portrait of the architect through his work as much as a study of the work itself. The humanity of the architect, well captured by the biographer, pervades the stones of his buildings : this is one of the many qualities, but not the least, of this superb publication. Michèle Goslar takes care to point it out herself immediately, Horta’s genius, the major role he played in the history of Art Nouveau was not going to mask the man himself : "Although the architect’s motto ("Through labor to the heights") rendered that a possibility, every effort was expended to reveal the man behind the artisan, the individual behind the architect, urban planner or professor, no matter how extensive the research or the difficulties encountered"). Indeed, we do not doubt the many problems in grasping such a vast subject. The almost forty chapters in this volume, richly illustrated, are ample proof.

2. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
The Autrique house,
Brussels, 1893-1895
Restored facade, 2000
Photo : Bastin & Evrard, Bruxelles

3. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
The Hôtel Tassel,
Brussels, 1893-1896
The grand landing of the bel étage
Photo : Bastin & Evrard, photographes, Bruxelles

If we remember that Victor Horta died in 1947, we can well imagine the man’s psychological state following the end of WWII, in a world which had totally changed, with his work and Art Nouveau contested, neglected, even forgotten, since the period between the two wars already, an "experience" shared by most of those contributing to Symbolism in the 1890’s who were "unlucky" enough to live until the 1950’s. Among the architect’s productions, the years 1885-1919 cover six dense pages, while the rest of his career, that is over twenty years of activity, takes up only half a page. The lack of interest, then hate, in Art Nouveau productions until the 1960’s did much to prolong the sense of disillusion and solitude felt by the architect at the end of his life despite the many awards and various honorific prizes he received, along with his title of nobility pronounced in 1932. A "solitary death" and an "unworthy grave" sadly conclude a book which, for over 500 pages, nevertheless demonstrates Horta’s brilliant genius. The destruction of a certain number of remarkable productions, and the "crime" in demolishing the "Maison du peuple" in the mid-1960’s of course marked the history of urban planning and Belgian heritage in an indelible manner, in much the same way as Paris by the destruction of the Baltard Halles which have still not been replaced by anything we might term real architecture. At the same time, these acts were a catalyst leading to the necessary awareness. Today, Art Nouveau heritage has been rehabilitated and is now protected. Belgium is richly endowed and Horta holds a predominant place in it.

4. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
The Hôtel Solvay,
Brussels, 1894-1898
The honors staircase seen
from the landing of the bel étage.
In the background, Reading in the Park
by Théo Van Rysselberghe.
Photo : D.R.

5. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Horta house and studio,
Brussels, 1898-1901
Façade after the restoration
by Barbara Van der Wee
Photo : Bastin & Evrard photographes, Bruxelles

6. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Hôtel Van Eetvelde
Brussels, 1895-1899
The bottom of the staircase
Photo : D.R.

Chapter after chapter we are spellbound by the discovery or rediscovery of the unique inspiration and ingenuity of this visonary architect ; the first part of the book tells us everything about his family background, his training, the determining ties to the Loge des Amis Philanthrophes, his participation as a student in the projects of Alphonse Balat (particularly for the magnificent royal greenhouses in Laeken) or his early productions, while each of the remaining chapters study one of Horta’s works or a major event in his life. The progressive evolution in architectural style is particularly clear thanks to this choice which, though it varies here and there according to theme, remains chronological. From the building erected to house the masterpiece The Human Passions by the sculptor Jef Lambeaux (1890-1897) to the private residences in Brussels whose relatively traditional design is accompanied by details already prefiguring his unique art, the architect’s personality soon emerges. For each of his productions, Michèle Goslar studies the origins of the commission, Horta’s relations with the intended recipient of a residence or monument, the history of the design and the construction, backed with the plans and correspondence, and gives us a detailed analysis of the architectural innovations as well as of the décor, techniques, decorative motifs and materials. The comprehensive study and overall analysis are based on a detailed review of the sources, many of which are reproduced, while maintaining the connection between Horta’s work and the contemporaneous events in his public and personal life. Reading this book is therefore fascinating on an artistic level but also brings the artist’s human aspect very much to life. The Maison Autrique (1893-1895), the first landmark in his evolution toward a new style (ill. 2), the decisive Hôtel Tassel (1893-1896) with its magnificent central hall and its spectacular staircase (ill. 3) are obviously an important step in the emergence of a "Style Horta". In 1895, a newspaper qualifies the architect as "Horta I, the Builder" evoking "an architecture which is neither Egyptian, Greek, Renaissance, Roman, but simply modern [...]" and further describes Horta’s houses as "extraordinary, practical, comfortable, amazing and rational". The ornementation, both in the architectural structures as well as in the décor itself, are also extremely remarkable. The influence of the Hôtel Tassel on Guimard’s art is pointed out, along with the French master’s surprise when the Belgian told him that "what he preferred in the flower...was the stem." The extraordinary purity of Horta’s drawing, applied to very diverse materials, by exploiting organic forms with a "coup de fouet", found in various ways in all of Art Nouveau, is magnificently illustrated by the images of the Hôtel Tassel and the Hôtel Solvay (ill. 4), the structures of the Maison du peuple, Horta’s house itself (ill. 5) - the crowning achievement of his genius - along with the wrought-iron work of the Hôtel Van Eetvelde (ill. 6). When looking at this creative force and such a pure alliance of "decorative" form and structure, we can see how far removed they are from the sociopolitical analyses heard recently during a Parisian colloquium devoted to Symbolism and which, as presented by an American researcher, identified (demonstrated with accompanying images !) Van de Velde’s "coup de fouet" forms in his productions as corresponding to the blows administered by the Belgian colonizers to the unfortunate Congolese people ! But we will leave behind these stilted divagations which no doubt satisfy at least those who expound them. Reading Michèle Goslar’s work is enough to soon do away with inept interpretations or manipulative instrumentalizations of this sort. In Horta’s work we find the ability to unite an overall design, the harmony of the façades, the use of the most innovative techniques and latest materials as well as a concern for the adequate adaptation to the building’s function, the personality of the future residents or users. The extreme refinement of the décors, more or less luxurious or understated depending on the case, is always integrated into the overall vision of the building and is in fact the essential quality of an architect but, more particularly so with Art Nouveau ; in Horta’s work, the fusion, a total art work, achieves absolute perfection and a comparable manifestation can be found only in Guimard or Gaudi. The UNESCO "World Heritage" listing of no less than four of Horta’s masterpieces is no coincidence !

7. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
The Maison du peuple
Brussels, 1896-1899
The theater, old photograph (detail)
Photo : Gand, AMSAB

8. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Waucquez Department Store
Brussels, 1903-1906
The grand staircase covered over
with a double glass ceiling.
Photo : Bastin & Evrard, Bruxelles

9. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
The entrance door and the marquee
Photo : Bastin & Evrard, photographes, Bruxelles

10. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tournai, 1904-1928
A detail in the central hall
Photo : Bastien & Evrard, photographes, Bruxelles

11. Victor Horta (1861-1947)
Palais des Beaux-Arts,
Brussels, 1919-1928
The sculpture room
Photo : Bastien & Evrard, photographes Bruxelles

One of the great merits of this book is the presentation of the Horta buildings (about one hundred fifty) as they were constructed succesively, while following at the same time the master’s life, with explicit images : this overall vision allows us to appreciate the diverse approaches he used for residences of all types : private, bourgeois, grand bourgeois and artist (Hotels Tassel, Solvay, Deprez, Max Hallet, Maison Frison, Maison Winssinger and many others including obviously Maison Horta as well as beach or country villas) or public buildings : among these there stand out notably great projects such as the Maison du peuple (ill. 7) or various department stores or shops (Waucquez - ill. 8 -, A l’innovation, Wolfers...) but also more modest undertakings such the Jardin d’enfants erected in Brussels in 1899 : with a small building like the last, not intended for widespread publicity, we see Horta’s disinterested love for his profession and his perfection of design. We have here a perfect architectural jewel (ill. 9). The succession of images in the book clearly illustrates how the architect adapted his creation to the specific context of each project, a far cry from a uniform "style" or repetitive practice. Each building is accorded its own technical and aesthetic solution. The book also includes public and funerary monuments, exhibition pavilions and studies the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tournai (ill. 10 ; finally built between 1923 and 1928) which associates the demands of the site with a noble simplicity, reflecting Horta’s refinement and ideas of course but without neglecting his mission : enhancing the museum’s future collections. We can easily say here that today’s architects and museographers with their overdeveloped ego could learn a "lesson" or two from this example. The Palais des Beaux-Arts (recently restored) with its concert hall (ill. 11), the Gare Centrale [Central Train Station] in Brussels (with the restrictions imposed by the complexity of the location) represent Horta’s last major achievements. Michèle Goslar does not forget to mention various urban projects, Horta’s problematic involvement in the contest for the S.D.N. [League of Nations] headquarters in Geneva or even his pedagogical activities and his wish for educational reforms. The unfinished projects, the conflicts and events of a very full existence round out this biography which covers the architect’s personal and family life, closely connected to his work, without becoming a novel or offering excessive interpretations. This perfect balance between "life and work", to use an academic formula designating an approach which has now fallen out of favor, is no doubt the hardest to achieve when writing a monographic work. A purely theoretic approach without the human aspect or on the contrary, offering personal speculations which often ignore the aesthetic reality of the works are both lacking : the work we have here is the exact opposite and we warmly commend the author. In the moving text written by the architect about himself in the 1930’s, we can read : "By looking at these stones, by living intimately in their lives, my friend eventually, learned to know from Them what They think about themselves and what They think about us. How many times, did their secrets surprise his ignorance, he who thought himself already knowledgeable for having walked around them !". Horta’s considerable oeuvre, assembled here in this volume, going far beyond a few well-known masterpieces, will also surprise our "ignorance" : this publication now constitutes a major reference in Victor Horta’s bibliography, as much for its evocation of the man and his milieu as well as a valuable tool in studying his productions.

Michèle Goslar, Victor Horta, 1861-1947 : l’homme, l’architecte, l’art nouveau, 2012, Fonds Mercator, 564 p., 144€. ISBN : 9789061534037.

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Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, mercredi 17 octobre 2012

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