Not the most auspicious of starts. But then as I entered the spacious ground-floor room at the back of the house, I felt like I’d walked into a treasure chest. Mosaics, stained-glass windows, ceramics, paintings and drawings fill De Vlamynck’s studio. Picture frames line the shelves like enormous books in one corner, pots of colourful paint lie in another, and scattered all around are scrolls of paper, easels and trestles.
“This is where he used to spend his time painting and creating,” explains Danièle Olivier-De Vlamynck, who turns out to be the artist’s daughter and who also used to live in the house. Her father was born in 1897 in Bruges, later moving to the Brussels commune of Schaarbeek where he spent most of his adult life. De Vlamynck lived and worked in this house and studio at Grondwetstraat 7 until his death in 1980.
A champion of the decorative arts, De Vlamynck not only painted but made frescoes, mosaics and stained glass. There was hardly a discipline within arts and design that he didn’t turn his hand to. He went to art college in Bruges, spent the years of the First World War at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, then continued his studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in Brussels, where he later became a professor. Among his students were the artists Nicolas de Staël and Maurice Wyckaert.
One of the works in the Schaarbeek atelier is a draft for the fresco that de Staël and De Vlamynck created together for the Glass Art Pavilion at the 1935 International Exposition in Brussels. Such collaborations were not unusual, as De Vlamynck would regularly invite his students round to share creative ideas and work together.
The studio-house is one of the oldest still standing in Brussels. It was built in 1862 for the sculptor Jacques-Philippe De Haen and was home to many an artist, including the Belgian painter Eugène Smits, before De Vlamynck bought it in 1924. It’s not hard to see why the space would be an inspiration, with its high ceilings and a large window stretching the height of the room and overlooking the back garden.
Today the house belongs to the artist’s daughter and her husband. Their plans to preserve his work and keep his memory alive started in 1992 when they helped organise a large exhibition, “an homage to De Vlamynck” as his son-in-law puts it, held in Brussels’ town hall on the Grote Markt. From there came the idea to set up the Friends of Geo De Vlamynck association and later, in the 1990s, to turn his former home and studio into a museum.
De Vlamynck is arguably best known for his frescoes (paintings on walls or ceilings) and mosaics (patterns made from pieces of ceramic or other materials), techniques he had the opportunity to study first hand in Italy in the early 1920s after winning a first prize and travel bursary in a competition at the Royal Academy of Arts.
This is also a decade when the decorative arts were gaining visibility. Back in Brussels, Henry van de Velde won approval in 1926 to set up La Cambre institute for decorative arts, which gave architecture and associated arts as important a place as the more traditional fine arts. De Vlamynck, who met van de Velde at this time and also enrolled at the institute, created a fresco for the entrance hall to La Cambre.
Unfortunately, the La Cambre fresco no longer exists. But one of De Vlamynck’s best-known mosaics is at the Neptunium swimming pool in Schaarbeek. Measuring 15 metres long and 2.7 metres high, the aquatic-themed work still dominates the entrance to the post-war modernist building. Plans and preliminary drafts of sections of the mosaic, which depicts swimmers and sea life, can be seen in his studio.
Some of his work was done abroad – frescoes for a hotel in the Czech spa city of Carlsbad, for instance – but most were in his home country. He painted a mural for the pre-history section of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels’ Jubelpark and made a stained-glass window in the Virgin Chapel on the first floor of the Koekelberg basilica.
He also designed stained-glass windows for the Carmelite convent in Jambes, not far from Namur, and murals for the nearby Saint Symphorien church. For the abbey of Clairefontaine in Cordemois, he created frescoes and stained glass. Many of these pieces have since been lost as buildings have been converted. But not all of them, and a good starting point to discover De Vlamynck’s work is his home and studio in Schaarbeek.
As part of efforts to share the heritage of Geo De Vlamynck with the public, his daughter, Danièle Olivier-De Vlamynck, and her husband have set up guided visits that take in three buildings associated with the artist.
The tour starts at the De Vlamynck house and studio, where you can admire his hand-drawn sketches, paintings and mosaics and peer out the enormous picture window to the garden. From there, the walk continues to the Neptunium swimming pool to see his aquatic mosaic in the entrance, before rounding off at the Espace Geo De Vlamynck on Renkinstraat, where a retrospective of his paintings is on show to tour participants.
The tours usually take place on the second Sunday of every month and must be reserved in advance at 02.215.01.26, where the phone will most probably be answered by De Vlamynck’s daughter or sonin- law. The cost of the tour is €7.50, and it lasts about three hours. It is also possible to arrange a visit just to the house and studio.