The story that follows unfolds slowly over hundreds of years to unveil one of Brussels’ hidden treasures, a secret that had been living on for a long time, under layers and layers of art, craft, paint and decorative wallpaper. So put the kettle on, feed the cat, make yourself comfortable and come with me for a walk through time and space. We begin in Japan…
During Kitagawa Utamaro’s lifetime (1753-1806), Japan was undergoing a long period of self-imposed almost total isolation – two centuries long – known as sakoku or ”closed country”. But in the mid-nineteenth century, forced open by the dynamics of global economy, Japan, its politics, traditions, arts, crafts and culture were discovered by the rest of the world. The two international exhibitions, in London in 1862 and Paris in 1867, brought the beauty and elegance of Japanese decorative arts in the international limelight. Its increasing popularity influenced countless European artists and genres and gave its name to a new trend: Japonism.
Rich in symbolism, Japonism found its way into the leading philosophical, artistic and architectural movement that was gaining popularity in Europe reaching its pick during 1890-1910: Art Nouveau.
Round about that time, Europe was rediscovering a decorative technique, originating in the 16th century, the sgraffito. From the Italian word graffiare (“to scratch”), originally from Greek γράφω (gráphο) “to write”, sgraffito was initially developed during the Italian Renaissance as an affordable way to decorate entire walls. A layer of dark coloured plaster was applied and let to dry, followed by another layer of a lighter coloured plaster, the surface of which was then scratched while still damp to reveal lines of the dark parts from underneath, forming the design. Paint was applied to the outlines, bringing to life elaborate wall decorations the designs of which reflected the properties owners’ personal tastes.
Paul Cauchie (1875 – 1952) was one of the artists living at the crossroads of all that creativity. He studied architecture in Antwerp but his artistic inclination soon brought him to the Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts where he moved on to study painting and the technique of sgraffito. While still studying, Paul Cauchie also had to work for a living and Brussels offered ample fertile ground to put his talents to good use. He applied his designing skills on a variety of artistic disciplines but he soon specialised in designing sgraffiti.
While still studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, Paul met Caroline -Lina- Voet (1875 – 1969), also a student, who excelled in decorative art and painting. Lina was awarded a first prize on the women’s painting course and another in art history, a reward which enabled her to teach painting and drawing privately.
Even though contact between young men and women was not encouraged at the Academy, it is here that Paul and Lina met and fell in love with each other.
They married in 1905 and decided to build a house on the six metre wide plot of land which Paul had bought on the upper part of rue des Francs, close to Cinquantenaire Park and visible from all the neighbouring roads. The building was going to double as their home and workplace. Paul designed the facade which had to be at once striking to draw passers-by attention and functional, advertising and selling their work. Together with Lina they designed the interior and their ateliers. It became known as the Cauchie House.
Par Nous Pour Nous
His & Hers
Prominent evidence of Japonism at the centre of the facade: two letters, M and A, on the balcony of the top window. The two letters are engraved into the flat iron sheet as the graphical representation of the ideogram ”ma”, the Japanese concept of ”space and time”. In architecture, ”ma” is translated by the rhythmic alternating between solid and vacuum, full and empty, in the way in which items and furniture are placed in relation to one another.
Besides Japonism, Symbolism, Pre-Raphaelitism, Art Nouveau and Sgraffiti, techniques and influences that blend effortlessly to create the unique facade and interior of the Cauchie House, there is still more. Cauchie is the only architect-decorator in Belgium to have been influenced by the Glasgow School of Art and Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the predominant strict, geometrical lines where the basic shapes of the square and circle are counterbalancing the curved lines and structures inspired by natural forms and vegetation of the Art Nouveau movement.
Following Paul Cauchie’s death in 1952, Lina and her daughter Suzanne decided to carry out some restoration. In their quest for ”modernisation” they removed several decorative elements and covered large parts of the sgraffiti designs with wall paper. When Lina also passed away in 1969, Suzanne considered a redevelopment project which would have resulted in demolition. Although the worst was avoided thanks to the intervention of Maurice Culot (Director of the Modern Architecture Archives), who succeeded in having the house listed as a monument in 1975, the building became neglected and fell into disrepair over the years.
Until one day, Guy and Léona Dessicy, both keen Art Nouveau enthusiasts, saw the house during one of their walks, found its dilapidated condition unacceptable and decided to buy and restore it. The purchase was done in 1980 and the restoration works lasted fifteen years. The wallpaper covered sgraffiti was only brought back to light seven years after commencement of the restoration, when all other more urgent repairs were completed!
The new owners initially intended the Cauchie House to become a Tintin museum, project which had been approved by Hergé but was later abandoned in favour of what has now become the ”Belgian Comic Strip Centre”, housed in the former Waucquez warehouse designed by Victor Horta.
In the end it was decided that the main rooms and cellars, transformed into a gallery, would be open to the general public. But, wishing to protect the intimate character of what is essentially someone’s home, its opening hours are extremely restricted: just two days, the first weekend of every month. With such restrictive visiting hours it took many months and a lot of conspiracy from the whole universe to make a visit happen – but for that we were all the more excited to finally make it there on the first weekend of March.
The elevated ground floor comprises three successive rooms: a dining room, a sitting room with a sgraffiti decorated fire-place and a smaller, informal dining room at the back. The rooms are brightly lit by natural light from two very large windows, their glass symbolically tinted yellow for sunrise (front) and purple for sunset (rear).
In the front dining room, sgraffiti on all four walls portrays feminine, willowy figures of Pre-Raphaelite beauty, symbols of the five senses:
Taste, Smell, Hearing, Touch, Sight
Japonism is evident in traditional hair ornaments and this Japanese Nô mask:
The omnipresent Rose links Paul Cauchie’s association with the Glasgow School and doubles as his signature. He rarely signed his sgraffiti, preferring to let the rose, this symbol of beauty, love and art to mark his work.
The middle room with its sgraffiti decorated fireplace is the shape of a perfect cube, symbol of stability and wisdom. The concept of ”ma” seen on the facade, is repeated on the portal giving access to the back, smaller dining room with its simple furniture painted white. A staircase gives access to two more floors where modern apartments are rented out to those lucky enough to find themselves the right time at the right place. Just imagine coming back home every day to the most exquisitely decorated facade in all of Brussels!
If you made it to this point, for which you deserve congratulations and a big thank you for reading through, you’ll know that to the rest of the world, the Cauchie House is open the first weekend of every month. A guide will escort you, in French or English, to a journey where symbols, painting, interior design, architecture and family life blend into time, space and history.
Visited on Sunday 2 March 1014