A PROTAGONIST REDISCOVERED
"This cultivated man had conserved the essential qualities of the worker from Liège: his intelligence and technical skill, as well as his amiability, punctiliousness and honesty."
This is what Madame Maus wrote to her husband after seeing the Cabinet de travail exhibited by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy at the first Salon de la Libre Esthétique, organized in Brussels in 1894 by the critic and cultural promoter Octave Maus. The Libre Esthétique had been set up by Maus in order to carry on with the experience of the group Les XX, which had lasted ten years, from 1884 to 1894.
Up until that moment Serrurier had been almost unknown outside the circles of Liège, an industrial and hardworking city but one that was seemingly untouched by the great upheavals in art and thought that were shaking the whole of Europe, and the countries of Great Britain, France and Belgium in particular.
And yet Serrurier, though he came from Liège, was well acquainted with these developments: he followed with genuine enthusiasm the "revolution" of Ruskin, Morris and the exponents of the Arts and Crafts, Violletle-Duc's ideas about architecture and the social humanism of Camille Lemonnier and Paul Destrée, "apostle" of the spiritual and cultural redemption of the Belgian working class.
Before assuming a leading role in the intellectual and artistic circles of Brussels, and then Paris, Serrurier had studied and traveled, experimenting in the field, in theory and in practice, ever since the time when, as a student at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Liège, in 1879, he had given a lecture to his classmates on the architecture of the nineteenth century in which he had made explicit reference to the at once rational and romantic vision of Viollet-le-Duc, as well as to the fundamentals of an architecture that had to renew and modernize itself, lest it succumb to the inglorious fate of pastiche and soulless imitation.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF HIS STYLE
Prior to 1894 Serrurier's style is still eclectic and historicist, with a preference for the Neo-Gothic.
Later this gives way to what he himself defined as an "artisan style," with furniture usually made out of oak in which a certain Gothic reminiscence is mixed with the traditional character of the rustic furniture of the Liège area. Sideboards, dressers and bench-bookcases are solidly built out of frames and panels; an oblique, straight – or sometimes arched – crosspiece braces the uprights of wardrobes; the crosspieces of the underframe of tables are broken by curves and indentations that make them lighter. Some pieces of furniture are crowned by a transverse curved element linked to the rest of the object by vertical boards grouped in threes; on one side this curved crosspiece rests on the structure of the wardrobe, on the other on an upright whose upper pointed end has an almost Neo-Gothic profile. The backs of chairs are treated in two different ways. in one case it is fixed to a frame by means of bolts that are left visible; in the other it is the frame itself that serves as a back, creating a support for the back of the sitter between the uprights.
At first the feet of tables and chairs are made of turned wood, but they soon assume a square shape and are then transformed into elements with curves and accentuated profiles.
The metal parts, the knobs and handles, are treated in an unusual way. Curving in opposite directions, they are reminiscent of the frames of illuminated manuscripts: their gleaming surfaces and sinuous outlines stand out on the slender forms of the wooden uprights.
In 1895, with the furniture for the Brussels home of the public notary Bauwens, Serrurier's style begins to take on a more opulent and lyrical character. Yet it is a wonderfully controlled lyricism using precious hardwoods (almost always mahogany) that extend from wardrobes and dressers in giddy and impeccable curves. It is the foretaste of a conception that is to be found in Serrurier's work throughout the early phase of the art nouveau: continuity of line. Metal is also used extensively, especially ormolu in the panels encrusted with floral motifs, applications and knobs of tables, wardrobes and chests of drawers.
From 1901, after his visit to the artists' colony in Darmstadt, we see a progressive simplification and purification of the lines, with an ever greater attention to the functionality and suitability of furniture.
The new manner makes its first appearance in Serrurier's own home, L'Aube: from photographs taken at the time and from what has survived the alterations and dispersals, we can discern a terse and orderly refinement, a sobriety of construction that renounces any kind of lyricism. In keeping, moreover, with the architectural structure, also designed by Serrurier, which shuns decorative exhibitionism or excessive avantgardism.
A fine house in the English style with two stories and an attic, surrounded by greenery and flowers: "steeped in nature" as Watelet puts it. Living nature in the plants of the veranda, a genuine indoor garden with a pool and plays of water, in the outdoor garden, designed by Serrurier himself, who chose and arranged the flowers and plants, and in the large aviary stocked with various species of songbird. A frequent guest at his friend's house, Jules Destrée described it as follows:" Serrurier has drawn up its plans and supervised its construction; he has designed its decor and furniture down to the smallest details, with a delicate taste and an astonishing practicality, and he has called it 'the dawn,' signifying both his legitimate pride in starting something that had not been done before, and his modesty in believing that it was just a beginning, a vague and hesitant prelude to the brilliant day that would come..."
The evolution of Serrurier's style is fully evident in the furnishings of the castle of La Cheyrelle in Auvergne. Here we find an entrance hall with tables and armchairs of audacious cubic form, with straight uprights and plaited bottoms; in the main entrance, a tall light fitting mounted on a structure made up of flat plates of iron painted greenish blue is set above the flight of the monumental staircase. The staircase leads down to the basement, which forms a single large volume. The single-span ceiling is supported by a wooden framework whose uprights terminate in broken arches. The room is divided into different spaces by drapes hanging from the framework: antechamber, small drawing room, library corner and large dining room.
The staircase also leads to the living room with its immense open fireplace, inviting you to sit down and enjoy its warmth.
The whole décor of the dining-room recalls the villa at Cointe in spirit.
Solidly gathered around the family table, fitted with extensions, the oak furniture has a simple decoration of metal plates painted a gray-green color. The bedrooms are furnished with Silex furniture in birch wood assembled with bolts that are left visible and decorated with punches, created contemporaneously with the design for the furnishing of a working- class house that was shown at the Liège Exhibition in 1905.
The last example and final testimony to the development of Serrurier's style is provided by the furnishings for Villa Ortiz Basualdo at Mar del Plata.
An extraordinary set of furniture and decorations, which remained anonymous for decades until it was attributed to its creator by Jacques-Grégoire Watelet in 1986, after the acquisition of the villa by the municipality. Here, on the other side of the ocean, we find Serrurier's purest "style" again in the architectural conception of the interiors, in the discreet magnificence of the furnishings and in the use of Silex furniture in the "green room": furniture that to people unfamiliar with Serrurier's work looked like a product of the twenties or even later.
by Anty Panser