Portrait of Paul-Gustave Van Hecke by Rene Magritte
Vank Hecke: Gallery L'Epoque and the Review "Variétés"
In the magazine Variétés and the gallery L'Epoque the interest of the Flemish art world for surrealism was most obvious. The art critic Paul-Gustave van Hecke was the driving force behind both. The gallery L'Epoque was founded by Van Hecke in October 1927, the purpose of the gallery being the defence of the expressionist and surrealist paintings. Van Hecke let the surrealist Mesens run the business. Variétés was created in May 1928 as a fancy magazine with glossy paper. The newest fashion, cinema, photography, dance and urban news were discussed and gave Variétés a very modern and eclectic touch. Van Hecke was the director of the magazine and the editors were Albert Valentin, who had been accepted for a while in the Parisian surrealist group, the literary critic Denis Marion and, again, Mesens. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that a lot of surrealists published their texts or pictures in Variétés and that the newest surrealist publications were discussed in the magazine. In June 1929, a special publication of Variétés, called 'Surrealism in 1929' was even edited by André Breton and Louis Aragon themselves.
Variétés certainly had some features in common with surrealism because of its anti-bourgeoisie and its anti-Catholicism, its predilection for the fantastic and the irrational and its desire to shock. In particular the use of images in strange juxtapositions could be regarded as surrealist. But still, Variétés cannot be labelled as a surrealist magazine. Two tendencies characterised the art magazine. Firstly, Variétés was preoccupied with surrealism and secondly, it was an art magazine from the North, permeated by a typical Northern sensibility which differed from the Latin one. (Delsemme 129-145) Variétés was happy to quote for example the French writer Pierre Mac Orlan who had argued that Latin clarity veiled the eye, in opposition to the Flemish imaginative mysticism and went on to declare: 'I am Flemish!' Also, the gallery L'Epoque was not univocally orientated towards surrealism and mixed expressionism, and, more in particular, Flemish expressionism, with surrealism.
Van Hecke's contact with the French surrealists was not without problems. Already before the time of L'Epoque and Variétés, Van Hecke became interested in surrealism. In the mid-1920s, Van Hecke and his friend André de Ridder were involved in the expressionist art magazine and gallery Sélection, which supported especially Flemish expressionists like Gustave de Smet, Constant Permeke and Frits van den Berghe. Through Mesens, Van Hecke met René Magritte who, in 1926, made his first surrealist painting. This was the start of Van Hecke's attraction to the surrealist movement. He and De Ridder even wanted to dedicate an issue of Sélection to surrealism in 1926 and they asked Breton to write an article. Breton declined, as did the Brussels ' surrealist Camille Goemans who turned down the proposal. 'Surrealism is not a school,' he said, 'it is until now an absolute restricted group to which nobody is admitted without the consent of the surrealists themselves.' De Ridder protested against the monopolization of a 'universal phenomenon' and claimed his independency to judge surrealism and appreciate the movement, as he comprehended it. (Mariën 24) Van Hecke too refused to recognize the exclusivity: 'I despise all the dictatorships from Lenin to Mussolini - Breton included.' (Mariën 24)
De Ridder and Van Hecke finally abandoned their plan, but other so-called surrealist projects would follow - a recital of surrealist poems in the gallery - an exposition of De Chirico - both projects were protested against by the Parisian surrealists. Also in Variétés, finally, most of the surrealist texts were not written by the orthodox surrealist clan of Breton, but were produced by dissident surrealists like Tristan Tzara and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes or the excluded Phillippe Soupault and Roger Vitrac. The publication of the special surrealist issue of Variétés in 1929 was more the consequence of Mesens' intervention and to the lack of self-publication opportunities in Paris at that moment.
Van Hecke, though, did not yield to the recurrent attacks of the French surrealists, but formulated an alternative and Northern variant of surrealism. Typical was the remark in Sélection in October 1924 that 'surrealism did not differ from the expressionism that we have been promoting from the start. In Variétés, Van Hecke changed the term 'expressionism' to 'fantastic art' and this art referred also to the Flemish expressionist friends. In the art criticism of De Ridder and Van Hecke the emphasis was shifted. No longer were the formal qualities of the paintings of the Flemish expressionists accentuated but, in contrast to the early 1920s, now the 'spirit' of the paintings was discussed. Even a separate 'canon' of Flemish surrealist precursors was created. Not only the Flemish Primitives but also James Ensor was associated with the 'spirit of surrealism' by Van Hecke.
Norine was run by a charismatic couple: the cultural and intellectual polymath Paul-Gustave Van Hecke and the grande couturière Honorine “Norine” Deschrijver. They established their couture business during World War I. For the first time, a Belgian couture house created its own designs instead of buying them from Paris, and offered an attractive and highly original local alternative. After the war, they became the most important couture house in the country. Their avant-garde designs boldly transcended the modest conventionality of Belgium. The national and, to some extent, international artistic intelligentsia were their customers. The history of Belgian avant-garde fashion begins with Norine.
Norine was a prominent representative of the Modernist movement in fashion. In fact, Van Hecke and Norine’s environment was entirely modern and was a hub of Surrealism and Expressionism: their private home, Van Hecke’s art galleries and journals and the couture house’s salons featured work by national and international contemporary artists. They firmly embedded art in fashion; this symbiosis with modern art gave their creations high art status. The couture house’s beautiful graphics were conceived by Belgian artists such as Frits Van den Berghe, Leon de Smet and—most importantly, by René Magritte. Also the techniques and imagery of modern art were literally incorporated into the house’s creations. Their signature dress of the second half of the 1920s, the “robe peinte” (painted dress) displayed hand-printed Art Deco motifs. A photograph from 1925 shows us a dress that was embroidered with a Raoul Dufy composition. In addition, Norine was unique in its pioneering use of Surrealist imagery with Modernist fashions. In 1927, the embroidery on a sports ensemble refers to the work of Max Ernst. When Surrealism in fashion became well established in the late 1930s, Norine turned to Ernst’s and Man Ray’s imagery for their embroideries. Among the few extant garments (only 8 so far), we have a blouse dating from this decade of which the print mimics the vocabulary of Surrealism.
Norine enjoyed its largest success during The Roaring 20s. Funded at the expense of Van Hecke’s art business, the couture house survived the world economic crisis of the early 1930s. Even during World War II, they continued to be influential. The late 1940s saw the decline of Norine. After a persevering struggle for survival, the Van Heckes officially closed their couture house in 1952.
Norine can be considered a precursor to the development of avant-garde Belgian fashion, which gained worldwide renown from the late 1980s onwards. For almost forty years, this Belgian couture house was at the intersection of different visual art disciplines and the elite vanguard of European art and fashion. No account on the history of fashion in Belgium, and even worldwide, can be considered complete without Norine.