Art of Darkness: Art Nouveau, “Style Congo,” and The Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, 1897-2011

Co-presented with the Power Institute

27 June 2012
Professor Debora Silverman


In 2005, The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, mounted a major exhibition, "Memory of the Congo," that attempted to confront for the first time a brutal colonial history in the center of the existing institution of official national denial. As part of this inaugural revision of 2005, the Museum's rarely exhibited core collections of Art Nouveau ivory sculptures and wood furnishings were reclaimed to public view. These objects exemplify a complex and understudied mix of artistic innovation, political radicalism, and imperial enthrallment shared by members of the fin-de-siècle Belgian avant-garde, and they form part of a distinctively Belgian design style made from the raw materials of empire. This lecture, drawn from extensive research and a forthcoming book, identifies the origins of Belgian Art Nouveau as a specifically Congo nature style in the 1890s, and the ways that stylistic forms of modernism expressed a displaced encounter with a distant, but encroaching, imperial violence–what I call the return of the repressor in visual form. More broadly, the lecture brings back to the interpretive field a surprisingly unexamined cultural history of violence in nineteenth century Belgium and suggests its interaction with patterns of violence in the Congo Free State.

Professor Debora Silvermen

Debora Silverman is Distinguished Professor of History and Art History at UCLA, where she has taught since 1981 and holds the University of California President's Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture. Her books include Selling Culture, Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan's America (1986); Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (1989; French edition, Flammarion, 1994; Japanese edition, 1999); and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (2000) which was awarded the 2001 Ralph Waldo Emerson national prize for Best Book in the Humanities and a co-winner of the 2001 PEN American Center/Architectural Digest National Prize for “outstanding writing on the visual arts.”

Recent publications include “Transcending the Word: Gauguin, Music, and the Quest for Abstraction” in Barbara Kelly, ed., Nationalism and Music in Modern France (2008); “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I West 86th Street, Bard Graduate Cente Journal for Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture Fall 2011; “Marketin Thanatos: The Horror of Damien Hirst,” American Imago Fall 2011; and “Modernité Sans Frontières?: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of the Belgian Avant-Garde in King Leopold’s Belgium, 1885-1909” American Imago Winter 2011.

Professor Silverman has received a number of awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Gett Research Institute Scholars’ Fellowship, and Historical Studies Member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She was elected to the American Academy of Art and Sciences in 2008. Professor Silverman is currently Marta Weeks Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center for the Humanities where she is working on completing a book entitled Art of Darkness: Art Nouveau, Style Congo and the Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa, 1897-2011.