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Commotion within the royal family and the Church caused by a surplus of sensuality and a decadent flirtation with death; artistic envy between a star architect (Victor Horta) and a sculptor of humble descent (Jef Lambeaux); political wrangling between the Belgian catholic authorities and the Saoudi sheikhs... These are only a few of the ingredients in the extraordinary life of Les passions humaines, a relief by the sculptor Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) which stands in the centre of Brussels. Guy Cassiers has featured the artwork as the leading character in a new documentary drama with a mixed Flemish and Walloon cast and with a script by Erwin Mortier. Around the sculpture they play out a panorama of human drama, social friction and ideological disputes – confrontations which are just as violent and full of passion as those portrayed in Jeff Lambeaux' relief.
In the final scene of his impressive staging of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen in 2013, the Belgian director Guy Cassiers brought onto the stage a huge reproduction of Les passions humaines ('The human passions') by the 19th century Belgian sculptor Jef Lambeaux. Becoming increasingly fascinated by this work of art and its eventful history, Cassiers invited the author Erwin Mortier to write a new play about it. Their joint venture is called Passions humaines and premiers in Cassiers' own company Toneelhuis in April 2015.
Lambeaux' bas-relief Les passions humaines is a monumental work of art sculpted from Carrara marble, in which many human figures are depicted in scenes of good and evil – all overseen by death. The work shows the artist's passion for the sensuality and strength of the human body.
The unveiling of the work in 1898 was preceded by a complex history. Whilst Belgium's liberals were enthusiastic about the artwork, which was presented nine years earlier, the country's catholics were furious about its blasphemous and pornographic character. In 1890, the Belgian king Leopold II then exacerbated the controversy further by ordering that the work be sculpted in marble.
The collaboration between Lambeaux and the young architect Victor Horta was not without its setbacks and difficulties either. Horta had been invited to construct a pavilion to house Lambeaux' relief in Brussels' Jubilee Park, but Lambeaux thought the building – one of Horta's first projects – did not do justice to his work. From the opening of the park in 1898 until his death in 1908 he did not once visit the pavilion.
Even long after Lambeaux' death the Pavilion of the Human Passions still stirred the emotions. On a visit to Belgium in 1967, king Faisal of Saoudi Arabia, on business to buy weapons, was granted – possibly as a compensation – a 99 year lease of the Northwestern part of the Jubilee Park by the Belgian king Baudouin. This was the part of the park where the oriental pavilion - later the location for Belgium's Grand Mosque - as well as the Lambeaux-Horta building were situated. Horta's temple and Lambeaux' sculpture soon fell into disrepair and for years access was restricted to a minimum. After a recent restoration, the pavilion finally re-opened its doors to the general public in 2014. The fact that during a time-span of almost 50 years this fascinating sculpture was seen by so few people, made Cassiers turn the story of its inception and the many issues surrounding it into a play.
In his script, the writer Erwin Mortier has turned the controversy surrounding the artwork into a panorama of human drama, social friction and ideological dispute. His piece shows the polemic between the opposing ideals and views of liberals, socialists and catholics, the clash between romanticism and modernism as well as the relationships between the various colourful individuals surrounding Lambeaux. They include the Belgian king Leopold II and his mistress Blanche Delacroix (whom he would marry later on); the young architect Victor Horta; the art critic Sander Pierron, who had a secret affair with the writer Georges Eekhoud; and both their wives Cornélie van Camp and Adèle Deforge. Their encounters reflect the passion and intensity of the people portrayed in Jeff Lambeaux' relief.
Mortier has said about Les passions humaines: 'Lambeaux was made into a political football of the different factions in society at the time. He was seen as progressive to one party, a pervert to the other. (…) To me, Les passions humaines is an iconic image which sums up a complete era, just like our own times are epitomised by the image of two airplanes crashing into the twin towers. It's an image that can be used to describe the situation the world is in today, from which you can point to the future and to the past. This is how I view Lambeaux' sculpture. It's about the king and his mistress, catholics and liberals, sensuality and spirituality, men and women, the Flemish and the Walloons, etcetera. The central character in my play is the sculpture, rather than Lambeaux himself. It's an artwork which is caught up in a whirlwind of political, social, religious and artistic passions, as well as – of course – the language and cultural divide that extends throughout Belgian society. I have tried to paint a fresco of a country which was – and still is – in search of its identity.'
In order to punctuate the divisions between the Flemish and the Walloons, the play is performed by a mixed Dutch and French speaking cast.