Photo Essays

A Visit to Belgium’s Wondrous Art Nouveau Museum

Victor Horta, like many architects at the turn of the century, wanted to eliminate the distinction between major and minor arts by creating immersive environments.

Horta Museum exterior (all photos by Paul Louis)

BRUSSELS — This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the fantastic Horta Museum in Brussels. Designed in 1898 and completed in 1901, this Art Nouveau chef d’œuvre was originally called the Maison and Atelier of Victor Horta, the fin-de-siècle Belgian artist-architect and teacher who co-founded the Art Nouveau movement. Horta built the first Art Nouveau building in 1893, the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For his home and studio, Horta’s bravura brainstorm was to construct lyrically enchanting spaces rife with whimsical arabesques, motifs that are often used in exquisite Art Nouveau architecture and art. The sensuality of Horta’s sinuous designs — which can be considered gesamtkunstwerks (total artworks) — extends to everything, from doorbells to doorknobs to home furnishings to façades. As such, the Horta Museum plunges visitors into the illusion of supple space created through the use of fine, undulating lines and planes. Indeed, the eel-like whiplash lines here made me feel like I was swimming with a colossal Roman water deity, long hair floating freely about.

Horta Museum interior
Horta Museum lamp

At the end of the 19th century, Art Nouveau was enthusiastically received by much of the Brussels haute bourgeoisie. Belgium’s extensive industrial development during that period — the mining, iron, and steel industries — created a new upper class eager to exhibit its recently acquired wealth and social status by commissioning original architectural in the whimsical style of the day. Yet, local high society of the Catholic faith rejected Horta’s Art Nouveau, considering it dangerously decadent because of its emphatic use of chimerica lines and warped curves. Consequently, Horta was associated with the secular movement of the period.

Horta Museum window

Horta, like many architects at the turn of the century, wanted to eliminate the distinction between major and minor arts by creating immersive environments that infused every feature with a feeling of sweeping fluidity. In opposition to the stylistic clutter of architectural styles that preceded it, the Horta Museum’s rhythmic vernacular flair was cultivated as a synthetic concept for articulating space based on the unity of an ecstatic expressive style.

The first thing that one notices within the flamboyant Horta Museum is that elements of the building, from the façade to most of the interior (including some gracefully gnarled furniture), have a similar unsharpened and surging feel. The overall space is characterized by an organic, almost oceanic or wind-blown flow, its forms shifting and shimmering in tan and golden tones. Sometimes, the structure can feel as if it’s virtually fluttering between forces of expansion and contraction.

Stairways carry you up, up, and away, their walls warm and welcoming. Turning and twisting railings are supplemented by softly heaving lamps; biomorphic carved doors and stained glass windows add to the rippling effect. In some places, one sees almost no right-angled corners or straight lines, which creates the impression of being caught up in a surge of golden sensuality. To be ensconced in a truly encompassing architectural environment, the Horta Museum is a must, and certainly a unique experience.

Horta Museum stairs

The Horta Museum (25, rue Américaine, Brussels, Belgium) is open Tuesdays through Sundays.

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