Since I started my ‘Journey into getting to know Art Nouveau’, I have often wondered why there is so little Art Nouveau architecture in the Netherlands, and why the existing objects are so different (more austere) than the Art Nouveau objects in for instance Belgium or France.
Most of the Belgian and French varieties are lusciously decorated whereas the Dutch variety is often hardly recognisable as being Art Nouveau.
The only explanation I could think of, lay in our ‘Calvinist’ roots. Unofficially, ‘Calvinism’ stands for a set of characteristics that would be typically Dutch: modest behavior, restrained in expressing emotions, not to flaunt one’s successes, capital or property and not to value them; rigidity in principles, soberness, thrift, patience and work ethic. From this point of view it makes perfect sense that our ancestors did not lusciously decorate their houses, as that was simply ‘not done’. Calvinism was immensely strong, and even though we think we live differently today, these principles are still influencing our lives. (Just think of that cliché about the Dutch and their cookie jar that is closed and put back into the cupboard immediately after you have received your one biscuit!)
And now I have come across an ‘open letter’ from Maria Brekelmans, that has been published in a UNESCO publication Museum, No 167 (Vol XLII, n° 3, 1990), Museums and art nouveau: an ill-known heritage revives. Brekelmans studied Economics and History and basically concluded the same thing as I did: “…we need to look back into our religious, social and cultural history, back to the Reformation in 1572.”
“The Protestant northerners practised total discrimination against Roman Catholics in their half of the country, disallowed artistic production in their style, and in fact closed down their churches and other buildings. Religious freedom was not granted by Dutch law until 1848. The result of this long oppression was a staleness and an emptiness in cultural as well as social and political life. And when it again became possible to build and rebuild churches, schools and houses, the Catholics looked back to the latter Middle Ages and began by using its Gothic style.”
According to Brekelmans the term ‘Art Nouveau’ was introduced in the Netherlands by the magazine Avis aux Artistes in 1895, reporting on an exhibition held in Paris. The curved motif, so basic to the style, was very badly received by Dutch artists. They compared it to stringy pasta and suggested it was less suited to artists than to what are known in Dutch as ‘bacon butchers’. They proposed that the movement should, for this reason, be called ‘lard nouveau’, and generally wanted none of its decorative madness, which they felt would disrupt the balanced unity they sought in an object’s decoration and form, and undermine the practical utility of an object.”
And I think Brekelmans’ analysis is correct! It would explain why H.P. Berlage was so enormously popular in The Netherlands: Berlage reduced his designs to efficient shapes subject to the geometry of the masonry and the construction of the building. It would explain why the designs of Kuipershaven 40 and Voorstraat 180 are so much more intense, so much more passionate than the other Art Nouveau buildings in my hometown: the architect, C.J.J. Tenenti, was a Catholic of Italian descent. And it would also explain why it took the church council of the Remonstrant Church two whole years to decide on an acceptable design for the mural behind the pulpit: they were simply not used to decorative murals and insecure about what the public reaction would be.
Taking all this into consideration, it makes me appreciate the Dutch Art Nouveau architects even more. They did not only have to fight the historical view on architecture; they also had to fight the pressure of public opinion! Not only their fellow Dutch architects would ridicule them for decorating their objects lavishly; much higher was the risk of potential customers staying away! Carefully balancing between what was internationally pushing them forward and socially pulling them back, they have created a delicate socio-architectural heritage which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
So, from now on, I will appreciate Dutch Art Nouveau even more and I hope my fellow Calvinist countrymen and -women will do too. Let us be aware of the architectural heritage these pioneers have left us, and safeguard their creations for future generations!