Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Art Nouveau

“Wow,” I said stopping mid-stride on the sidewalk.
“What?” said my Belgian friend swinging a small shopping bag.
“Look at that shop window.”
“I’m looking.”
“See the architecture’s squiggly lines and curls along the windows.”
“That’s Art Nouveau. In Belgium, it's everywhere.”
“Wow!”


One of the pleasures of traveling is being able to do the things you’ve always longed to experience. Going to the summit of the Eiffel Tower: Check! Riding elephants in Nepal: Check! Seeing the Taj Mahal at morning, noon and night: Check, check and check! Despite the exotic nature of these traveling experiences, it is expected that when one is in those locales, one will do them. These are what I call travel’s “Popular Pleasures”. But in the realm of adventure there’s another category of pleasure that comes from discovering something you’ve never seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, thought of or dreamed up. Those are what I call the “What the—?! Thrills”.

For me Art Nouveau in Belgium was a “What the—?! Thrill”. Coming from the Midwestern region of the United States I’d never seen buildings designed with such large glass windows that looked like they had been drawn with a paintbrush and decorated with the exotic flowers of the rainforest. My American background explained why I didn’t know this architecture: Art Nouveau was an artistic and architectural movement popular in Europe from 1890-1914. As an example of how how widespread it was across that continent, it went by different names in different countries: It was called “Art Nouveau” in Belgium and France, “Jugendstil” in Germany, “Arts and Crafts” in the United Kingdom, “Modernisme” in Cataluna and “Drop-Dead Gorgeous” by me. 

Art Nouveau embraced organic lines and drew its inspiration from nature—hence the flowers, trees and foliage used to decorate its paintings, sculptures, ceramics, furniture and buildings. Which raises another element to Art Nouveau—it was a complete art movement that influenced all the decorative arts, as well as furniture design and home architecture. Yet Art Nouveau manifested itself differently in different countries. In Cataluna, the exteriors of the Art Nouveau homes are bland but on the inside they are elegant. Meanwhile in Belgium the Art Nouveau homes were designed to be exquisitely beautiful on the inside and the outside. They are the complete package and completely stunning. 

My Belgian friend, Astrid, had spent her whole life walking around Belgian streets filled with Art Nouveau architecture. She had visited her grandmother’s house which was full of Art Nouveau furniture, lamps and ceramic candy dishes and didn’t see the appeal. Instead Astrid liked modern things with straight lines. Nevertheless, when I asked her to show me more Art Nouveau in Belgium, she obliged because she was a good hostess.

Together we visited Antwerp’s Cogels-Osylei street to see the string of Art Nouveau private residences—one after another, after another—like so many pearls on a string. One house was decorated like a boat, another a sunflower. In Brussels we visited the Musical Instruments Museum in the former Old England shopping mall. We didn’t go to see the instruments but the design elements used to create such a structure of metal and glass. Astrid and I strolled countless Brussels streets with Art Nouveau homes restored to their colorful glory. Finally we arrived ensemble at the pièce de résistance: the private residence—now museum—of Victor Horta.

Victor Horta wasn’t just an architect, he was one of the finest architects of the Art Nouveau movement. He designed countless structures in Belgium, some of which were destroyed in the wars or torn down by later generations’ changing tastes. But some of his houses are still standing and beautifully so. And none more beautiful than his own house. Here you can see his designs—inside and out—how he made metal bend, twist and float. How he preferred light, neutral colors. How he decorated the dining room in subway tiles.   

“What a house,” I said in  quiet voice out of respect for Mr. Horta. Astrid shrugged.
“In Belgium, this style is everywhere.” She wasn’t dismissive but realistic. But I could tell this tour of the inside of an Art Nouveau house had had an effect on her. “I’ve lived in Belgium my whole life but this is the first time I’m seeing Horta’s house on the inside.”  
Standing at the top of the stairs I looked down at the symmetry, the lines, the beauty.
“Wow,” I said with awe. 
Astrid followed my gaze. “Wow!”

In that house I experienced another “What the—?! Thrill” and even though she was traveling in her own country, Astrid experienced a “What the—?! Thrill”, too.

Who says you have to travel far from home for a “What the—?! Thrill”. “What the—?! Thrills” are all around. All you have to do is look for them.