Museum Van Buuren

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Around the same time that Rudolf Koppitz was changing photography with his Motion Studies in Vienna, David Van Buuren, a Dutch Jewish banker from Gouda, Netherlands who had settled in Brussels since 1909, was working his way to becoming a prominent figure in the art world of Belgium.

Our story begins in 1922, when Van Buuren married Alice Piette from Antwerp and decided to build for them a home. He drew the plans himself with the help of his nephew and architect Johan Franco and commissioned Belgian architects Léon Govaerts and Alexis Van Vaerenbergh to build it. The construction took place between 1924-1928 on a plot of land the van Buurens purchased in Léo Errera Avenue, in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Brussels, the suburb of Uccle/Ukkel.

Outwardly, the villa is built entirely of red brick in an architectural style typical of the Amsterdam School. Intentionally nondescript, it gives away no hint of the stunning Art Deco interior nor of the eclectic collection of rare furniture, carpets, stained-glass, paintings and sculptures, amassed by the couple over their lifetime. It seems that the Van Buuren villa was destined to be an exhibition space by design – first for friends and family while the couple resided in (and for the last twenty years of her life, solely by Alice), later open to the public when it became a museum in 1973.

For in her will, Alice Van Buuren left the house, the art collection, the magnificent garden surrounding the property and enough capital for their upkeep, to ”The Friends of David and Alice Van Buuren”, a public institution which she had created since 1970 to ensure the establishment and preservation of this gem, so that we may all enjoy it today.

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The Dining Room

Sycamore, Brazilian rosewood and Macassar ebony were used for the furniture and panelling, made to order by Belgian cabinet maker Joseph Wynants. The chairs are covered with natural horse hair, chosen by Alice Van Buuren herself. The work is so unbelievably fine I had to go back twice and touch discretely some hairs protruding from a corner of a chair, to be convinced. If I hadn’t read it in the guidebook handed by the receptionist for the duration of our visit (which is where all my notes come from), I would still go on believing the chairs were covered in a kind of wild silk fabric.

The still lifes are by Gustave van de Woestyne. His paintings dominate the walls of the ground floor and staircase, since Van Buuren was the artist’s patron and close friend, their friendship lasting more than 30 years until van de Woestyne’s death in 1947.

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The sky blue ceiling paneling between sycamore beams and the large lights in the style of the Amsterdam school, blend harmoniously and add a Japanese flair to the decor.

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The Music Room

The piano, encased in rosewood, is a collector’s item. It belonged to Erik Satie before becoming the centrepiece of the Van Buuren music room. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, one of Alice’s friends(!), used to arrange for pianists who participated at her contest (Queen Elisabeth Competition), to play here. Celebrities from cultural, political and literary circles were joining the merry soirées, generously hosted by the Van Buurens between the two wars. Raoul Dufy, René Magritte, David Ben-Gurion, Christian Dior, Jacques Prévert and – the usual suspect – Gustave van de Woestyne were just a few names mentioned in the guidebook. The painting hanging above the piano is a van de Woestyne.

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Curtains and carpets were designed in bold colours by Jaap Gidding, just like the hand-embroidered tapestry on the piano. When designing the curves and hue palette of this carpet, Gidding was inspired by the bright colours of the Kees van Dongen’s ”The Thinker”. DSC04807i

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La penseuse||The Thinker (c. 1906-1907), oil on canvas. Kees van Dongen

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The cozy corner

Destined for reading beside the Labrador granite fireplace which was especially designed to the measurements of the picture that hangs above it: ”Night Seascape” (1913), by Constant Permeke. The furniture was designed by Dominique Paris after sketches by David Van Buuren. Each piece is unique.

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Above the sofa I was delighted to discover a version of the famous ”Fall of Icarus” (circle of Peter Bruegel the Elder), painted on oak and was neither signed nor dated. It has been part of the house collection since 1953 and has been hanging in the same place ever since. Another version, painted on canvas, belongs to the collection of  the Fine Arts Museum of Brussels.

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Upstairs

On the wall beside the staircase, ”The Childrens’ Table” (1919), by Gustave van de Woestyne.

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The Study

The large desk is the main feature in this room, the only reminder that Van Buuren was a businessman as well as a devoted art lover. It is a marvellous desk with a double top and a rounded back, its surface decorated with strips of walnut veneer in a solar motif. To protect the precious wood, a Galuchat blotter pad (leather made out of the skin of cartilaginous fish such as shark or ray), a rare and luxurious material whose origins can be traced back to 8th century Japan. The pad was designed by Dominique and made by assembling the perfect skins of the bellies of 19 white sharks.

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The Hall and staircase

The Brazilian rosewood staircase is bathed in warm light coming through the stained glass work in the Amsterdam school style and the glorious glass and bronze lamp designed by Jan Eisenloeffel and clearly influenced by the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession movement. The glasswork is by Dutch designer Jaap Gidding.

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And then, of course, the garden! Consisting of the Art-Deco rose garden dotted with exotic trees; another large rose garden (it used to be a tennis-court) with ”pedigree” varieties where each flower bed has a precise colour; the Maze designed to evoke the labyrinth of King Minos, which looks rather simple but we still had to turn back a few times before finding the exit; the Garden of the Heart, in a shape of a big heart enclosing 12 smaller ones, Alice’s loving tribute to her late husband; and the Orchard a large, green open space.

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Photography is allowed in the gardens only. Some images of the interior were taken before we were kindly, but firmly, reminded of the rules by the watchful ladies of the house. Because, how does one resist taking home a little keepsake of the love for history and culture that oozes out of every precious rosewood pore and transforms every day objects into works of art, as if touched by magic?

Museum Vanbuuren
41 Avenue Léo Errera
1180 Brussels

Open daily (except Tuesdays) : 14:00 – 17:30

Tickets can be sold separately for the house and gardens. Attention: cash only.

Shared photo credits (Konstantinos & Lia)

Brussels, 19 October 2014

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12 thoughts on “Museum Van Buuren

  1. These guys knew how to live and they did it well! There is warmth and a joie de vivre feel about the house – and a sense that items were collected with care because they meant something, not just stuff to impress xoxo
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  2. Just wow! That’s such a beautiful building, inside and out! It seems like there are so many things to see and enjoy there! I feel like that even though you shared with us so many nice photos, there still many things to see! 😀 The decorations are amazing and all the artwork is lovely! Would definitely want to visit this place!

    • You are so right, as in there’s SO much more to see! And I didn’t even mention the Study, or the wealth of paintings, some by Old Masters. The collection is so rich, there has recently been a burglary when around 8 paintings were stolen. I think 2 of them were Van Goghs.The owners were hoping they would be asked for ransom but so far nothing happened. Who knows when and where they will resurface!

      • Oh, i think i actually heard about this burglary, i had no idea that it happened in this place. I hope they can get all the pieces back, it’s really sad to think they might fall into the wrong hands and who knows what will happen to them…

    • It’s really worth the detour – not centrally located but easy to reach. I left the place feeling I got much more than my money’s (and time’s) worth, which is not always the case with houses-turned-museums. A gem.

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