Sincerely, I do not believe that Art Nouveau can truly discard or deny the artistic flavor it gave to the world — and what could be wrong with that? — but highly practical or not, Victor Horta is another icon of the period. Check below the house where he lived in Brussels (I apologize for having lost my own photos; I found these on the web).
So where was I? I was in Vienna, in the Secession Building in winter, looking at Klimt’s poster for the first Secession exhibit (showing the aggressive Theseus who slew the Minotaur, like the new Jugenstil fighting the traditional values). I was wearing layer upon layer of wool to compensate for my tropical background. Once, during a dinner, my friend Rosa counted how many sweaters, cardigans and jackets I took off: ”I can’t believe you had eight layers on top of this shirt.” In Brazil we only have one word for coat: casaco. When referring to a heavy coat, an outdoor coat, a sweater or a light cardigan, you must add a bunch of words to describe it. Europeans and Americans have the culture perfected: one word for a heavy, outdoor coat, one for the coat that goes underneath — and that’s basically it. The German language is even more precise. You need no more than two well-insulated “coats” to hit the streets during winter. My vocabulary and understanding of cold was expanding. Now I only needed to see snow.
In 1903 Klimt, though normally no traveler, journeyed twice to Ravenna, where he viewed the mosaics of San Vitale. Meanwhile, his Secession colleagues were turning to interior design and crafts, mosaics and gold leaf.
In his later phase, Klimt turnet to allegorical or figure painting. The Kiss carried Klimt’s golden style to its apex. The most popular of Klimt’s painting, it escalates the intensity of the sensuous effect by expanding the symbolic at the expense of the realistic field. In it, the flesh is covered, yet the sensuous effect is heightened by the gestural, caressing line. In the clothing, as in the flowering base on which the lovers kneel, the ornamental elements serve also as symbols. The drapery of both male and female stands uncompromisingly distinguished by its ornamental designs. These are not traditional symbols, but inventions drawn from Klimt’s unconsicous. The two defined fields of sexual symbols are brought into a union of opposites by the vibrant cloth of gold that is their common ground.
I only wish I could walk in Vienna by the beginning of the twentieth century! Freud and the unconscious, the Secessionists, Mahler, Schonenberg and the atonal music, Schiele, Kokoshka -not to mention temporary visitors, like Jung.
I spent some of my time in Vienna also looking at buildings designed by Otto Maria Wagner (an architect that belonged to the Secession). I recall almost being shocked by how contrasting the new architecture was (it was the early 1990s). For example, in the very heart of the city, in front of the Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral — a gothic icon) sat the Haas Haus – a mall designed by Hans Hollein. I didn’t feel like exploring it; it had way too much mirrors for me and I was not in that mood. There was another “avant-garde” group of architects that attracted me much more in their deconstructivism, and they were Coop Himmelblau. But I saved my visit to their office for the next time I was in Vienna.
Apart from the art nouveau and the narrow streets with lanterns, what took my heart in Vienna was a fantastic architect (and painter /sculptor) named Hundertwasser (you can see some amazing photos of his work here and print at Gallery Direct). He was certainly ahead of his time with free shapes, green roofs, organic-shaped floors (yes, even his floors were covered with “bumps” — he claimed that humans were not suited to walk on flat surfaces or live in angled corners), colors, more colors and textures. His buildings in Vienna (and everywhere) are one of a kind, and I can’t forget the Hundertwasserhaus, with the soothing sound of the water that runs inside the structure. Hundertwasser died recently (2000) and was not part of the Secession. Well, at least not directly!
I also remember visiting Freud’s house, where he spent most of his time. It was converted into a museum, and today displays objects that Freud collected and his furniture as it was set when he lived there. After visiting his house, I was compelled to read Peter Gay’s biography of Freud. Last year I watched A Dangerous Method and thought of that house again. Today I would be much more curious about seeing Jung’s house, but that is another trip and another subject.
After Vienna, I returned to Brussels, then resumed college in Freiburg, then went back to Brussels (the train trips are an extra chapter; I think I learned more in trains than anywhere. What weird encounters you can have in a train when you are young with a backpack! I will leave this to your imagination for now).
In Brussels I discovered Victor Horta, one of the most important names in Art Nouveau. Horta was an architect, designer and everything else (Art Nouveau is considered a ‘total’ style, as it includes a hierarchy of scales of design — architecture; interior design; decorative arts including jewelry, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils and lighting; and the visual arts). While we are on it, check all the Art Nouveau amazing images that Gallery Direct carries. You can have an idea of what a rich artistic period this was.
My favorite story about Victor Horta is that he was kicked out of music school (where he first went) for disciplinary reasons. Because of this rejection (I do not know what he did, but would love to), he entered architecture school in the early 1870s. What a blessing that he did.
Between 1878 and 1880, Horta worked in Paris, where he saw the possibilities of working with iron and glass. Iron was the perfect material for the twists and curves of Art Nouveau. In subsequent years he focused on the curvature of his designs, believing that the forms he produced were highly practical and not artistic affectations. He won a great number of prizes for his work.