Debora Silverman, “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part 1”, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History & Material Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139- 181.
In Pursuit of The Irresistible Topos
In pursuit of a national art identity, or “gesamtkunstwerk” (143), King Leopold II facilitated the Belgian Art Nouveau, or “Style Congo”, built on carelessness of colonialist’s privilege. This movement beautified symbols of the violent conquest of a distant state through the commodification of Congolese natural resources.
Silverman presents this argument through the aesthetic choices of three “Style Congo” artists: Philippe Wolfers, Henry van de Volde, and Victor Horta. Each was similarly influenced by the materials taken from the Free Congo State and they derived symbols of those materials into their designs. The author connects symbols of the “Style Congo” to clear practices of colonial subjugation. The most prevalent material used was from elephants: ivory and skulls. It symbolized opulence. The rubber vine, symbolized hidden treasures and abundance. The whiplash curve symbolized dominance over the Congo. All were used as ornamentation to obscure the brutality needed to acquire these resources.
The article argues the importance of publicly exhibiting archived artworks illustrating colonial ideologies and practices; while they may initiate from less enlightened times, that shouldn’t negate their social value. Retrospectives can push the unpacking of perspectives on the sourcing of historical and contemporary inspirations. In illuminating the brutal practices of colonialism, they caution us about current modes of consumerism. For example, who and what was exploited to acquire the ivory or rubber.
Wolfer’s “Civilization and Barbarism” (145) is a delicate ornament symbolizing the beauty that comes from the civilizing of savage lands. It exemplifies Leopold’s fictitious vision of the new dual-state of Congo & Belgium. For example, the choice of piercing bolts to attach the silver casing to the ivory tusk could be seen as an allegory for hubristic imposition of the beliefs of privilege over those of the oppressed. This arrogant beautification is illustrated in the description of Van de Strappen’s “Mysterious Sphinx” (147), where silver is used to “disguise the… divided assemblage inside.” (149). Mans (149) labels it an evasion of the inherent traits in these captured materials; it’s a cover-up for the sake of aesthetics.
These artists didn’t initiate this colonialist carelessness; they were raised in it. Henry van de Velde was inspired by books, catalogues, and exhibitions. Easy access to the abundance of Congolese natural resources brought in on merchant ships and spread out like commodities on the docks, must have filled his mind with possibilities; without much sense they were obtained through resistance or negative consequence.
In referring to Victor Horta’s architectural design, filled with elephantine imagery, the author suggests Belgian Art Nouveau propagated Leopold’s imaginary vision of Belgium’s benevolent superiority. However, the “whiplash style” (164), a ubiquitous element in art nouveau design, couldn’t hide the deeper inhumanity it symbolized; the imperial “chicotte” or flogging whip used to oppress the Congolese workers. Silverman concludes the need to review archival works from current perspectives to understand why they disguised the violence that allowed them to be created and to unpack constructs of privilege, potentially undoing our own “great forgetting” (144).