‘If you happen to live in Belgium, you can’t escape the Art Nouveau architecture all around the cities, most of it in Brussels though.’
That opening is a repetition from my first article on Art Nouveau architecture in Belgium. We are blessed to be living in the EU quarter of Brussels, surrounded by wonderful Art Nouveau buildings from 1890-1910. We participated in an Art Nouveau walk on the occasion of World Art Nouveau Day, organised by Dorka Demeter and We Love Brussels. The purpose was to know each other in a group of AN enthusiasts on social media and find some hidden gems in the EU quarter. Presenting a few from the ones we spotted.
Palmerston Avenue 4 – Victor Horta (1895)
Victor Horta designed this famous house for Edmond Van Eetvelde in 1895. The house has four levels, designed symmetrically in riveted metal beams. The designs are subtly exquisite and the garden grill has interesting details. We haven’t been inside the house yet, but it has a stunning winter garden.
Palmerston Avenue 3 x Rue Boduognat 14 – Victor Horta (1896)
Dorka, our guide, shared an amazing story about this enormous house. Georges Deprez was the director of the crystal factories at Val Saint-Lambert. His wife Mrs Van De Velde liked the Hotel Van Eetvelde right across the street and they commissioned Victor Horta to design this house. Horta used his distinct style of waves and created this beauty. The façade has intricate blue stone carvings.
Rue Philippe le Bon 51, 53– Edouard Elle (1902)
This set of twin houses, mirror images of each other were designed by Edouard Elle in 1902. In the last image, note the identical doors, stained glass windows, sgraffito and geometrical windows. I particularly liked the blue stone low arches over the doors. These are a delight to look at, number 53 has been recently renovated.
In this part of the world, one would have to be on a constant lookout for statues/sculptures in public places. Some of them might have a piece of history to fall back upon, while others are installations/artworks that might be labelled as quirky. Part of the world where I grew up rarely indulges a concept of artworks on public display. I think we have more murals or graffiti in India than sculptures or installations. A lot depends on the state or central governments for permissions, bureaucracy and the intention to let art permeate into the lives of citizens. In the past few years, I have felt strongly that public artworks play a monumental role in defining a city and shaping its people. The mere mention of Brussels will make you recall the statue of Mannekin Piss, since it has reached the status of a national treasure here. I would not be writing about that overhyped piece though, there is a lot more on the internet if you’d like to search. Travelling through Belgium, I’ve come across quite a few quirky statues/sculptures. Jotting down a few of them, more will follow later.
Leuven is a perfect example of the archetypal European university town. With ancient buildings, cobbled streets, enough greenery and a university founded in 1425, Leuven is often perceived as the perfect city for education in Western Europe. To commemorate the university’s 550 years, they had commissioned for a quirky bookish statue and it had been installed in 1976.
Named ‘Fons Sapientiae’ and fondly called ‘Fonske,’ the statue represents the eternal student. He refills his source of wisdom with water (or beer?) and reads along. The statue is periodically dressed in different costumes around the year. We found him without a costume since its summer, probably. The artist who created Fonske is the famous Jef Claerhout.
Horse Head Fountain (Bruges)
Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities, not only in Belgium, but entire Europe. Bruges in autumn is one of the prettiest sights that you would enjoy. Apart from canals, alleyways and ancient houses though, there are quite a few quirky installations that have a bit of history behind them. We have been to Bruges twice and discovered this horse head fountain the second time.
The troughs below the horse heads are actually filled with water for tired horses. Bruges is famous for horse carriages that impart an old world feel to the tourists. This fountain is placed in midway of the carriage route and the city rules insist that carriage horses should be fed, watered and taken care of. I could not find the artist’s details or date of this installation though.
Zinneke Pis (Brussels)
The last of the ‘piss’ series in Brussels, I like this one much better, it seems more fun. This quirky bronze statue of the third in pissing trio is a cute little dog peeing on a pole. I hadn’t known the history or etymology behind the Zinneke. Research showed that the word can be divided into Zenne-ke – zenne is the Dutch word for the river Senne and the prefix -ke is ‘little’. This dog seems to be peeing in the spot where the Senne river flowed and Brussels was established on its banks.
Zinneke is not fortunate enough like Manneken to be dressed up on occasions though. I think most people in Brussels aren’t even aware of this little one on a street corner. The statue was set up in 1998 and created by Tom Frantzen.
The Bandundu Water Jazz Band (Tervuren)
I must admit that this is my favourite in the list. The Bandundu water jazz band is one of the unique ones that I’ve ever seen. Situated in Park Tervuren, just on the outskirts of Brussels, this large installation was created by Tom Frantzen in 2005. The animals in the band represent the ones that are displayed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The frogs play the accordion and trumpet, crocodiles play the double bass and drum, and a hippo plays the tuba. All the animals are placed on round leaves of water lily that are arranged like a rotating gramophone record.
We have just been to Leuven a week ago and this giant Thai jewel beetle installation on a pole was surprising to say the least. Situated right before the huge bibliotheque of KU Leuven, this was created by world-famous Belgian multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre in 2000. The university wanted to commemorate its 575th anniversary and commissioned Fabre to create an installation as a gift to the city of Leuven.
Fabre conceptualised the beetle as the memory of nature, an ancient computer that has been here long before human existence. He named it ‘Totem.’ The beetle represents the collective memory of humans and is placed before the library, which is the repository of knowledge and books. Sounds intriguing, right?
I will keep writing about more such sculptures/statues across Belgium whenever I come across them. There are a lot of historical ones, not necessarily quirky.
If you happen to live in Belgium, you can’t escape the Art Nouveau architecture all around the cities, most of it in Brussels though. The buildings are old, yet beautiful and intricate, to say the least. The Art Nouveau style has its roots in Brussels, started by two legendary architects – Paul Hankar and Victor Horta. Interestingly, both of them worked on a building each from 1890 and they were completed in 1893, simultaneously. The Art Nouveau wave lasted from 1890-1910 and was replaced by the modern and austere Art Deco. It sounds amazing that Brussels still retains more than 500 Art Nouveau style buildings, the one I live in might be among them too, it’s from 1900! The key features of Art Nouveau architecture were to deviate from traditional styles and build windows/doors/balconies/facades inspired from nature. You can see waves from the ocean, leaves and branches from trees, animal motifs and colourful facades with golden murals called Sgraffito.
We did a photo walk of a few such houses in Brussels. Do take a look at the photos if you’re interested, each of them has a story to tell.
Temporary exhibition on Jan van Eyck at Kunshistoriches Museum, Vienna
I hadn’t heard of Jan van Eyck until I arrived in Belgium three years ago. Now when I think back, it seems a little embarrassing. Van Eyck is one of the best painters in the world, one of the legendary Flemish painters in Belgium, arguably the father of Northern (European) Renaissance art and presumably the first painter to have successfully implemented oil paint on canvas. He’s a part of the enormous legacy that Flemish painters have left behind in Belgium and in Europe, overall. I am, however, not ashamed to admit that I have been properly introduced to art after living in Europe. There’s art everywhere around – inside churches, outside on their façades, in the architecture, in sculptures strewn carelessly within parks, in fountains and little gates – it’s just indescribable. When you discover so much art around you, it inspires in ways that you didn’t know existed.
I can write pages about Van Eyck and his art, but I’d tell you how his inspired mine in a tiny way.