‘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.
I love Autumn. Well, it is my most favourite season, especially when I’m in a country at the Northern Hemisphere. Autumn has never been more distinctly observed in my part of the world – India. In West Bengal, where I grew up, autumn mostly meant romanticising about clear blue skies with soft white clouds playing around, announcing the advent of Durga pujo. The colours of autumn have been evident to me only after visiting countries into the Northern Hemisphere – USA, Northern Ireland and now Belgium.
Today was a rare sunny day after weeks of rain and gloom. The winds are already rocking the leaves down and just before these coloured ones fade away onto the ground, we decided to make a little trip to the famous Park Tervuren in Brussels. It was breathtaking as we reached late and captured a bit of autumn to cherish until the next one. You will find red/orange/yellow/light green/ochre – basically a warm colour palette planted into nature that dissipate and make a comeback every year, without fail.
Here’s a photoblog of a few of them, hope you enjoy the photos. So long!
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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.
With over two months of confinement, life in the era of lockdown deserves its own epic. Almost everyone has realised something new in them and emerged with traits they probably didn’t know existed. We have learned to cook, clean, wash, stitch on our own and most importantly, co-exist with others under the same roof for days, months now. At times, it feels like a crash-course in evolution within a cave, as there is danger lurking outside (a virus in this case). Our caves have become havens, cohabitation is the norm – to the dislike of many – as I witness these days. As unprecedented in a century, it is unimaginable that stepping out of one’s house could be life-threatening. But, adaptation is an inherent trait of humans and now it seems these norms existed forever, life before lockdown appears on the other side of a magnifying lens, constricting to an unrecognisable molecule.
It took a pandemic to unleash a trickle of compassion into a country for migrant labourers and people suffering due to the lockdown. There are outrages on social and print media, so strong that they would melt even the stone-hearted. But very few offer a concrete solution and very few can extract something out of our megalomaniac government. Pieces of news or stories as they are termed by the media, keep floating around like photons in the air. They cling to you the first thing since you wake up from a slumber each morning. A good sleep is as elusive as the idea of it; hence, millions of worries churn into a perturbed slumber in all the hours of the nights. Each time you open your eyes and check the electronic devices, a little this and a little that seeps in via audio and visuals. It takes an entire day to tile those pieces into a jigsaw puzzle of death and anguish. Most of us haven’t seen a war in our lives; yet, this pandemic is turning into one so huge that wartime measures are employed. I hadn’t imagined in any nightmare that each day would begin with checking the death counters around the world and praying they come down soon.
It also took a pandemic to make people realise the worth of time, now that we seem to have surplus. Many have begun reading, re-reading, teaching how to read and trying to read. This is one of the best outcomes of confinement. Most people have realised the worth of labour, now that they have to endure a teeny bit of it in household chores. Quite a few privileged souls like us have begun to appreciate nature more than ever. The wedges of time saved from commute and rush are well utilised into long walks in the parks and admiration of glazing greens at the prime of spring. Nature this year is behaving like the drunken peacock dancing away in the anticipation of rain and love, oblivious of its surroundings. The flowers are more colourful than ever, the trees are a bursting green this spring and all the birds sound like they’re auditioning for faunal concerts. Life is still beautiful, albeit with a mask and super careful social distancing.
It took a pandemic to realise we’re still alive and thank heavens or whoever for that little favour. Hold onto life as of now and enjoy the little wonders of staying alive that might disappear again once we are back to ‘normalcy.’
Breaking away literally implies running farther, far away from something that bothers you. When we were asked to relocate from Pune to Brussels, it seemed like a blessing in disguise, as we were flabbergasted in our stint there. Life was taking its toll and we appeared to be stuck in a hole, an obscure corner of the cobweb that none can see. Brussels came as a welcome break, to break away from the monotony that Pune imposed upon us. Of course, the primary attraction was Europe, a land that both M and I had dreamt of living at some point of our lives. Off we went packing, though the visa debacle took almost two months of our anticipatory survival. Thus I’d say, March to June has been a blur this year from departure to arrival and acclimatisation in a strange land.
Why strange? The cobbled sidewalks that haven’t yet been converted to smooth concrete ‘footpaths’ we have back home, the entirety and incredibility of living in a house built in 1900 AD, the joy and sheer awe of standing before altars built centuries ago but still sitting pretty beside modern superstores, eye-soothing greenery and little rose bushes that peek at you from unkempt gardens, holding a bowlful of the famous Belgian fries and loving them as well…there are so many stranger things that I’d write about in the days to come.
There have been glitches – slow paperwork by the government and banks, a peephole to live in the initial days, good weather playing truant and torturing us with the summer’s wrath – but these are a few and ought to be ignored comparing the bliss of living amidst such architecture. Yes, both of us are lovers of some good Gothic pillars, baroques, nouveau art, ancient cathedrals and old houses that smell of varnished wooden stairs.
I’d say Brussels has welcomed us with open arms, along with thousands of other immigrants and hasn’t been shy of our Oriental origin. I haven’t spotted any sneering glances or condescending remarks yet. In a sea of expats, we are just two more cogs in the wheels that run Brussels.