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In November, I was invited to the re-opening of the Wolfers Frères Jewellery Shop in Brussels. As of 29 November 2017 the interior of the exclusive jewellery business of the Wolfers family, completely designed by Victor Horta, would be revealed once again. This collaboration between Victor Horta and Philippe Wolfers promised to be a spectacular one, and the exhibition would knock my socks off… but did it?!? 

Wolfers Frères Jewellery Shop 1912 by Victor Horta

Exactly 105 years after the official inauguration of the Wolfers Frères Jewellery Shop on the 4th of November 1912, visitors can once again admire the shop in its original setting. To make this happen, the Royal Museum of Art and History (location Cinquantenaire Museum) has cleared a room of approximately the same size and shape as originally foreseen by Victor Horta in the building at rue d’Arenberg in Brussels.

Re-opening of the Wolfers Frères Jewellery Shop

I knew about the upcoming exhibition for quite some time, and had been looking forward to finally see it. The collaboration between Victor Horta and Philippe Wolfers promised to be a spectacular one, and the re-opening of the shop would knock my socks off…

…but somehow, it didn’t.

Original Interior Magasins Wolfers Freres Brussels by Victor Horta 1912

Interior Magasins Wolfers Frères by Victor Horta, 1912 (©SOFAM)

According to the press release “the Cuban mahogany furniture was cleaned and the original layer of varnish refurbished. The velvet interior furnishing of the showcases was re-woven based on the original material. The patina of the bronze decorations was refreshed. The harmony of the colours desired by Horta emerged once again: a sublime combination of the deep red polished mahogany, the dark green velvet, and the golden accents of the bronze decorations, all in total agreement with the mauve colour of the walls. Thanks to this detailed restoration and refinishing, visitors will have the illusion of crossing once again the threshold into a Brussels shop for luxury goods.”

Interior Magasins Wolfers Frères

But somehow, something was missing. Or were my expectations too high? I have visited so many Art Nouveau museums already… And I had not realised that Victor Horta, by 1912, was already ‘over’ his curly phase. I think I expected the furniture to be more like below picture frame that was designed by Philippe Wolfers. Instead the furniture was beautiful, but sober; tasteful, but restrained. Very restrained.

Also, they had taken great measure to discover the colour scheme of the original interior, and yet we can clearly see the walls of the original interior were decorated with wallpaper as opposed to the bare exhibition walls. Furthermore there were rugs and seats and tables to fill the original interior while the exhibition space felt the opposite: empty.

This comment on Facebook by Jos Vandenbreeden (who is a highly respected architect and professor, amongst others responsible for the restoration of Horta’s Solvay House) expressed perfectly how I perceived the display myself: “It took them 45 years and this is all they could come up with?”

So, don’t go there expecting to enter the original Wolfers Jewellery Shop.
You won’t.

Spectacular Art Nouveau Collection Safeguarded for the Future

The displayed collection of Art Nouveau artifacts by Philippe Wolfers and his contemporaries was spectacular though! Personally, I don’t understand why the whole exhibition could not be displayed at the Fin-de-Siècle museum (which would have made much more sense to me), but that isn’t relevant now… it was spectacular!

Curator Werner Adriaenssens with a portrait of Sophie Wolfers-Willstädter

Curator Werner Adriaenssens with a portrait of Sophie Wolfers-Willstädter, Philippe Wolfers’ wife

Curator Werner Adriaenssens: “After the sale of the Wolfers building in 1973, Philippe Wolfers’ granddaughters, Janine Wolfers and Claire-Nelly Wolfers, donated the shop’s interior to our museum. The majority of it however, stayed in the museum’s depot until now.”

And it turned out there was more in the depot. Much more. In 1889, as the first institution in Europe, the museum was commissioned by Royal decree to actively develop a collection of modern decorative arts. From 1893 onwards the collection began to develop. A vase by Emile Gallé was the very first purchase. She cost 350 francs, the annual wage of a cleaning lady. After that, many more exceptional objects were acquired. Some at the legendary salons of La Libre Esthétique, while the universal exhibitions also offered the museum exceptional opportunities to acquire creations of the highest level. The Cinquantenaire museum thus became the first owner of a majority of the objects. Ninety percent of those acquired objects though, never left storage!

On top of that, the King Baudouin Foundation recently acquired an exceptional collection of masterpieces by Philippe Wolfers (1858-1929); a selection of the best pieces Wolfers cherished his entire life. Crucial for this acquisition was the good relationship the Royal Museum of Art and History established over the years with the Wolfers family. After the death of granddaughter Claire-Nelly Wolfers, the museum was given the freedom to choose the most special items from the collection of the Wolfers family (The Wolfers & Petrucci Collection). For this the museum could count on an important facilitating role of the King Baudouin Foundation, whose mission it is to preserve and safeguard important heritage for future generations.

Pendant Dragonfly by Philippe Wolfers 1902-1903

In addition, the Wolfers family donated a considerable part of the family archives, which is an important source for the study of Philippe Wolfers’ oeuvre. The archive includes the famous ‘Catalog des Exemplaires Uniques’ by Philippe Wolfers, drawings, a large batch of correspondence and a photo collection with ca. 1400 original photographs by the famous photographer Alexandre who photographed the work of Philippe Wolfers.

On the opening day, curator Werner Adriaenssens rightfully added how remarkable it is that the exhibition actually includes – in many cases – both the drawing ánd the object. Or in the case of the Swan and Snakes pendant which Philippe Wolfers created for his own wife, both the pendant and a painting of his wife wearing it!

So, considering most of the displayed objects have been hidden in the museum’s depot for the past 125 years, or remained the exclusive heirloom of the Wolfers family, I took as many pictures as I could. As a result, the number of pictures and the beauty of the objects may be a bit overwhelming. That is why I organised them in sections: vases, glass and jewellery. Of course there was more, but it is impossible to show you everything. Which gives you another reason to visit Brussels, and spend a few hours at the museum. I’m sure you will enjoy it!

The Art Nouveau Vases at the Cinquantenaire Museum

The Art Nouveau Glass at the Cinquantenaire Museum

The Art Nouveau Jewellery at the Cinquantenaire Museum

I discovered below video about the opening of the exhibition; it offers you a nice chance to ‘have a look around’ yourself, so to speak. And if by then, you still haven’t had enough, you can always order the comprehensive book that was published about The Wolfers Dynasty. It weighs almost 3 kilo’s and counts 500 pages!

De Wolfers Dynasty - from Art Nouveau to Art Deco

De Wolfers Dynasty – from Art Nouveau to Art Deco

Exhibition Horta & Wolfers – Cinquantenaire Museum
Parc du Cinquantenaire 10 – Brussels – Belgium

Read more:
Auction Catalogue Wolfers & Petrucci Collection
The Jewelry Loupe: Art Nouveau master Philippe Wolfers
Collection Wolfers & Petrucci: Hidden Treasures
Cultural Heritage: Philippe and Marcel Wolfers Collection
Design Museum Gent
Horta en Wolfers herleven in Jubelparkmuseum
Kunstbus: Philippe Wolfers
Les vitrines du magasin Wolfers, rare témoin de l’Art Nouveau
Philippe Wolfers, un artiste Art Nouveau à la tête d’une entreprise industrielle
Uitzonderlijke stukken van juwelier Wolfers voor het eerst tentoongesteld
Wolfers Frères at the Cinquantenaire museum
Wolfers Jewelry on Pinterest