Monday, February 28, 2011

H. P. Berlage: Total Artist

During the Christmas holiday I spent a few days in The Hague and visited the H.P.  Berlage exhibition at the Gemeente Museum. The museum itself was designed by Berlage, his final architectural commission - he died just before its completion in 1935.  This was a rare opportunity to see the work of an artist in a museum that had been built by the very same artist whose work was being exhibited.

Gemeente Museum The Hague by Berlage

As Mallgrave reports in his Modern Architectural Theory: "In Holland, modernism during this period is more or less synonymous with Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934)". Berlage studied architecture at Zürich's Federal Insititute of Technology (the ETH) but the exhibition revealed his versatility of talent and proves him to have been a Total Artist. Not simply an architect, he was also a maker of furniture, china, glassware, wallpaper and a book designer. The exhibition helped me understand why he was such a dominant influence on Dutch Art Nouveau and why he is remembered as the father of Modernism in The Netherlands.  His rational, spare approach to design and his abhorrence of superfluous decoration left its mark on later developments of Dutch design right up until today. Here is his own working desk, designed when he was still working within the Jugendstil ideals, but you can see that he has pared down decorative details to a minimum. Although heavily influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement Berlage rejected the more floral, decorative Art Nouveau style that was coming from Belgium and gradually developed the taut, constructive style that he considered to be in keeping with Dutch character.

Here is another desk, this time for a boardroom and with chairs. The picture on the wall shows one of the buildings that Berlage designed for the insurance company "De Nederlanden van 1845". The beautiful chairs are an indication of why Berlage is considered to be the harbinger of the new, emerging style, Art Deco.

Berlage was deeply interested in creating the perfect chair.  His admiration for the chairs of ancient Egypt knew no bounds.  He wrote a number of books on chairs and claimed that the Egyptians had never been surpassed. Here is one example of his own Egyptian style chairs.

Here is a design that Berlage made for the collected works of Louis Couperus.  It is for the cover of Couperus' debut novel Eline Vera, a novel that, by coincidence, I happended to be reading at the time of my visit (and that I highly recommend).

Around 1904 and 1905 Berlage worked on a number of wallpaper designs, inspired by the prints of micro-organisms that had appeared in biologist Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur. Berlage based his designs on microscopic patterns found in the natural world. In 1927 a number of these designs were printed by the company R and D (Rath and Doodeheefver), including this one.

Berlage was a towering figure in Dutch design, with convinced socialist, even utopian tendencies.  He strongly believed in community art - creating art projects that would improve society and involve furniture makers, various craftspeople as well as architects. It is ironic therefore that his most famous building was the Amsterdam commodities stock exchange or Bourse.

Beurs van Berlage Amsterdam, now a conference centre


  1. I think Art Nouveau is a fascinating phase of modern art when creativity was at its highest as artists were not scared of pushing the limits! They were basically the second wave after the Impressionists.
    It’s interesting to see the variations of style from a country to another.

  2. In Holland, modernism during this period may well have been more or less synonymous with Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).

    I am not ignorant about the Art Nouveau period, yet here is a name and a body of work that I don't know the first thing about. Thank goodness for blogging.

    Where could I read about his art projects that would improve society and involve furniture makers, craftspeople and architects? Were they based on the Viennese experience or any other?

  3. Hi Hels,
    Berlage is indeed a giant in modern Dutch design and architecture. In fact one of the leading post-graduate institutes of architecture in Holland today is the Berlage Institute. Berlage was hugely influenced by his teachers in Zurich, Semper and Violett-le-Duc, and by his travels in Italy, especially Romanesque and early renaissance architecture (Siena). In 1911 he travelled to the USA and when he came back he introduced Frank Lloyd Wright's work to many Europeans, including Le Corbusier. Hans van Dijk, in his Twentieth-century architecture in the Netherlands (OIO Publishers 1999) says "Berlage is regarded as the father of modern Dutch architecture" while Harold Allen Brooks, in his Writings on Wright: Selected Comment on Frank Llyod Wright (MIT Press,1983) says: famed architect of the Amsterdan Bourse was revered by the younger generation in Europe as one of the founders of the modern movement". The best book on Berlage and his socialist and utopian vision is "H.P. Berlage: Idea and Style - the quest for modern architecture by P. Singelenberg (Utrecht, 1972). Check out the website of the Amsterdam Bourse click on English on the top right hand corner. This building combined furniture makers, poets, painters (Jan Toorop). designers etc. As far as I know Berlage did not have a lot of contact with Vienna.

  4. I agree DeeBee - I love Art Nouveau.

  5. Padraig Rooney - Enjoyed this. I remember the Amsterdam Bourse very well: I swept around it once with my twig broom