‘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 learned about Beguinages for the first time last year while visiting Delft, Netherlands. It wasn’t called a Beguinage, rather Klaeushofje in Dutch (a courtyard of 12 houses for Catholic single women), established in 1605. I had no idea that it was part of an order, or something important in world history. The courtyard was not a large one but it had small apartments surrounded by gardens that are open to public. I was just thrilled to visit a courtyard that was originally built in 1605 and still retained the ancient essence of that era.
Cut to 2021 – we made a day trip from Brussels to another ancient city in Belgium – Leuven, just 26 kms away. As I always research a bit before a trip, Leuven seemed to be insistent on a visit of the Grand Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof). Intrigued at having learned a new term, I looked up Beguinages on the internet. The extent of history that came up is stunning and awe-inspiring.
The Beguine movement started in the 12th century when single women (unmarried/widowed) decided to form a community and live in a semi-religious environment. Women were supposed to live and be cared for by their father/brother, husband or son. The only other choice they had was to become a nun. Doesn’t the first part sound pretty familiar even in the 21st century in most parts of the world? However, at the beginning of the 12th century, single women in the ‘low countries’ (Netherlands, Flanders, Belgium) had few options to survive in the patriarchal society. The convents were mostly full and could not accommodate most of them. They started to devote their life to serve the poor and work for the society without taking religious vows. A new lay religious order was created under Christianity, termed Beguines. They were pious and religious but weren’t bound by the rules of the convent. The Beguines could leave the order at any point of time and get married to start a family. It was more of a spiritual order than a religious one. Some Beguinages were built by the local town officials while others were built by the Christian authorities to house these women. The Beguinages are a beautiful example of communal living by, for and of women. They were architectural marvels as well. The structure included huge open spaces, gardens and cobbled pathways around each house/apartment. The houses were very similarly constructed to each other to impart that community vibe. Bit of utopian socialism in the 13th century, eh? But like every other movement, the Beguines declined since the Council of Vienne by the Catholic church in 1312. Their ambiguous religious status created confusion in the society and in some regions, Beguines were termed obnoxiously religious as well. Marguerite Porete, a mystic Beguine was burned in Paris in 1310 on charges of heresy. Most Beguine orders were absorbed into Christianity hence but some of them survived, especially in Belgium and Netherlands. The last traditional Beguine passed away in 2013 in Kortrijk, Belgium.
We made it a point not to miss the Grand Beguinage in Leuven. It was established in 1232 and is one of the oldest Beguinages in Western Europe. The gate mentions the date it was built and leads to the St. John’s the Baptist Church post the entrance.
None of the oldest houses exist in the Beguinage now. They were demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century during the religious upheaval. There are around 100 houses nestled within 12 alleyways that surround them, including bridges on a narrow portion of river Dijle. It is almost a little town in its own right. I particularly love the local and traditional Flemish Baroque architecture from the 16th-17th century, that is evident in these houses. There are hand pumps and wells from bygone eras that remind of the life Beguines had.
This Beguinage was in dire state in the 196os as the inhabitants couldn’t maintain the ancient houses in their deplorable financial state. The Catholic University of Leuven purchased the property and restored the houses. They turned quite a few apartments into housing for students and visiting professors. The premise is accessible for public viewing but most of the houses are private now. The site was announced as a U|NESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
Did you know? One of the most famous personalities of the Beguine order was Dorothy Day, the American journalist, anarchist and activist?
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.
Spring. Just the mere mention of it invokes a riot of colours in blooms and a clean slate of a sky to rejuvenate the year. It’s the season of rainbows and unicorns, daffodils and fresh blooms. What if there is a blue forest somewhere? Imagine walking past a valley in a forest lined with a carpet of blue and not the usual green. Imagine the entire expanse of your sight awash with blue and purple, slightly swaying in the spring breeze, the bells of the flowers making a silent noise. Well, if you are in Western Europe, do not waste time on imagination and head straight to Hallerbos forest in Belgium which turns blue every Spring.
How blue is my valley?
I haven’t been to many forests, but this one tends to welcome you with its open arms of beeches and sequoia, their young tender leaves imparting a serene hue of green all around. The leaves have just sprung up at the advent of spring, their colour and density changing by the day. Their transparent leaves filter the sunlight and spread their warmth upon the bluebells.
The blue in Hallerbos hits you right at the start of the trail. There’s a simple theory – the bluebells start blooming somewhere from April and last till mid-May, depending on the weather. The large beeches also begin their sprouting season almost simultaneously. Their young green leaves filter the sunlight that reaches the bluebells on the ground and determines the growth and shade of the flowers. For instance, we were in Hallerbos in the third week of April and the sunlight was fairly abundant, helping the bluebells bloom and retain their bright blue hue. In the subsequent weeks, the beech leaves have increased in density, filtering very less sunlight, resulting the bluebells to turn into a greyer shade of purple and start wilting.