Brussels Celebrates Art Nouveau Heritage

Christina Horsten, DPA, October 4, 2011

An artist? Paule Mommen laughs so loud that the small spaniel dog in her arms makes a slight jerk. Mommen does not describe herself as an artist. "Unfortunately that's not in my genes," she says.

And that, as she explains, is despite the fact that her house in the Brussels district of Ixelles looks as if an artist lives there. It has a red art nouveau facade with green flower decoration, a high-walled entrance hall with a wooden staircase, an antique lantern hanging from the ceiling and a stained glass window with colourful flowers and white swans.

Mommen's grandmother, the painter Marguerite Mommen-Ithier, moved into the house in 1908 and stamped her distinctive style on it. The house's first owner and its architect were both artists: in 1904 the Belgian painter and sculptor Georges Lemmers commissioned the architect and decorator Gabriel Charle to build the two-storey house.

Today, Paule Mommen lives here along with her son Pierre and has decided to open it to the public for the first time. Mommen's home will be accessible to everyone as part of the 2011 Biennial Art Nouveau Brussels event that is taking place over the four weekends in October. Forty-two guided tours of the building are planned, each of which will last about 30 minutes.

The festival began in 2001 and has been drawing tourists to Brussels to marvel at its art nouveau heritage every two years since. Thousands of buildings including museums, schools, cafes, shops, furniture and everyday objects from the era of art nouveau are on view. About 26,000 people availed of the opportunity in 2009.

The programme includes over 60 buildings to which the public normally have no access such as Mommen's. Some of the guided tours to her home are already booked out.

Tourist guide Valentin Thijis walks hurriedly from room to room. It's not everyday that the art historian gets to see such superb private homes from the inside. He's especially struck by the stained glass window with its flowers and swan images. "It's monumental! That must have been awfully expensive at the time."

Thijis is aware that it's not always easy -- or inexpensive -- to own a listed art nouveau building. On his tour through Brussels he shows his guests a few examples of where that has failed.

The former Brasserie De Ultieme Hallucinatie in the district of Sint-Joost-ten-Node is one such example. "It was once very beautiful. We used to come here very often to have lunch or coffee," recalls Thijis.

The brassiere served mussels in big pots, crisp French fries, tartar sauce with capers and beer in a typical art nouveau setting of elaborate decoration with flowers, animals, female silhouettes, lots of glass work, ceramics and iron. The buildings was constructed in 1850 and has been on sale for the past two years. "Its owner wants four million dollars for it but no-one wants to pay that price."

Another of the 15,000 art nouveau houses in Brussels is up for sale. The Saint Cyr was constructed between 1901 and 1903 by the Belgian architect Gustave Strauven for a painter. Four large windows face the front and each one occupies an entire floor of this narrow house.

Other art nouveau design buildings are still performing their original function to this day. School Number One in the Rue Josaphat was built in 1907 by the architect Henri Jacobs. "He combined the latest insights in teaching with modern technical methods and turned them into a unique architectural style," says Thijis.