Why you should care
Because sex and death never looked so good.
On Oct. 1, 1899, Brussels found itself in possession of a bas-relief by sculptor Jef Lambeaux. Lambeaux, a young artist/shit stirrer and member of what was dubbed “the Van Beers clique” — after Jan van Beers, the artist who influenced the group’s increasingly eccentric behavior with a pronounced fondness for cosplay — sculpted a piece called Les Passions Humaines out of 17 blocks of marble culled from Carrara, Italy.
Carrara, a pure white stone favored by Michelangelo but avoided by Greek sculptors who thought it too strong for the eyes, seemed perfect for what Lambeaux had in mind: a 39-foot-long, 26-foot-high bas-relief depicting some very human pleasures and/or sins with Death looking on. Flanking Death were the Graces on one side, the Legions of Hell on the other, with Christ, God and the Fates also assembled. Not content to stop there, Lambeaux dug deep and pulled in figures for motherhood, seduction, suicide, the Three Ages of Humanity, murder, Cain and Abel, debauchery, joy, rape, war and the remorse of Adam and Eve. All of which draws the captivated eye to the monolithic mass of all-too-human passions barely contained, which, when you stand in front of the sculpture, seem to dwarf the very real ones you might be feeling at any given time.
It took a grand total of three days for the public, shocked by those passions, to lose their minds …
Les Passions Humaines was unveiled in a Victor Horta–designed tempietto-style pavilion called, conveniently enough, “the Temple of Human Passions.” It took a grand total of three days for the public, shocked by those passions, to lose their minds, at which point the temple was closed and the sculpture hidden from view by a wooden barricade. In all fairness, no one should have been surprised. When Lambeaux went public with a draft a decade earlier, critics drew their knives; the arts journal L’Art Moderne blasted it as “a pile of naked and contorted bodies, muscled wrestlers in delirium, an absolute and incomparable childish concept. It is at once chaotic and vague, bloated and pretentious, pompous and empty.”
And that was one of the nicer things said about it. The 300,000-franc price tag offended the sensibilities of the day, as did perceived religious overtones (e.g., Christ’s placement underneath Death). In the face of withering criticism, the government shut the exhibit down, wooden wall notwithstanding. When they reopened the pavilion two years after Lambeaux’s death, there was no official opening. This even with fragments of the work that were cast in plaster winning awards at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.
A template had been created for successive decades, one that saw the temple, now known as the Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion, opened, then closed, then reopened, then closed again. In the 1960s, its ownership shifted from Belgium’s King Baudouin to Saudi King Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz. The Saudis finally threw in the towel, finding the nudity disturbing; and, ostensibly to protect the sculpture from vandalism, Belgium closed the pavilion again. For? An 800,000-euro renovation that started in 2013 and ended in 2015. Just in time to? Say hello to a Sept. 20, 2015, closing because of lack of heat and electricity. But there’s good news: This spring the Horta-Lambeaux Pavilion opens again. Maybe for good this time.
“The reason I made the movie,” said Claude François, of Le Pavillon des Passions Humaines, his 1988 pre-restoration nod to the artwork’s grandness, “is because I can’t think of a better analog to our struggles with pleasure and agony than what this has gone through.” And, looking at François’ recent post-restoration photographs, neither can we.