Friday, May 5, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Art Nouveau and Victor Horta

Brussels was the home of Belgian architect and designer Victor Horta (1861-1947), considered one of the most important names in the Art Nouveau movement.  Although many of the buildings that Horta designed in this city have sadly been destroyed, there are still traces of his influence as you head south into the municipalities of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles, culminating in the architect’s former home and studio, which has been turned into a museum.  The Maison & Atelier Horta plus three other townhouses (called “Hôtel” in French) remain in Brussels and have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Only the Horta museum is regularly open for visits by the public, while the other three are privately owned, and made available for tours only several times per year.  As part of a self-guided Art Nouveau tour that we planned in advance, we walked by and looked at the exteriors of the Hôtel Solvay, built for wealthy patron Armand Solvay, and Hôtel Tassel, built for Belgian scientist and professor Emile Tassel.  While the façades of the houses have Art Nouveau features such as decorative, curvy woodwork and wrought iron patterns, they are relatively modest compared to the designs of the interiors where no expense was spared in terms of materials used, including marble, bronze, onyx and exotic woods. Horta designed all aspects of the décor and furnishings including the carpets, light fixtures, tableware and doorbell.  It is too bad we could not see the inside of these homes, but photos from the Internet and from books on Horta were available to give us an idea of what we were in store for when we visited the museum.  It is interesting that the Hôtel Tassel had a “For Rent” sign hung on its railing, and also unfortunate since the sign blocked out much of the beautiful ironwork.

En route to the Horta museum, we strolled through the streets of the Ixelles area and spotted more examples of Art Nouveau buildings by other Belgian architects.  One of the most prolific architects was Ernest Blerot (1870-1957), who was responsible for designing numerous homes that are still standing today.  Blerot designed functional homes that were affordable for the middle-class with a standardized layout for the interior, but unique and customized façades and interior décors.  He designed his own stained-glass, plaster, stucco, ironwork, mosaics, and woodwork ornamentations.  We found examples of Blerot’s houses on multiple streets in Ixelles including rue de la Vallée, rue Villain XIIII, avenue General de Gaulle, rue Ernest Solvay and rue Saint-Boniface.  We saw some fabulous buildings with asymmetric, curved forms notable in the Art Nouveau style, as well as doors and windows adorned with curlicue and floral designs, and decorative mosaics on the façades with motifs of plants, flowers, animals and fresh-faced females with long flowing hair, all meant to represent the beauty of nature.

We saw a couple amazing works by Ernest Delune (1859-1945), which both have stunning stained glass windows as their central decorative highlight.  The structure at 6 Rue du Lac was built as the workshop for master glassmaker Clas Gruner Sterner, who made the stained glass windows decorated with floral motifs for his studio.  Described as “Geometric Art Nouveau” in style, the facade features marked asymmetry, combining circular and rectangular windows in off-centred, staircase formations, surrounded by stone mullion pieces that accent and accentuate the shapes.  His work at 32 Rue de la Vallée is slightly less extravagant and elaborate, but still features a beautiful semi-circle shaped stained glass window over the door that is adorned with purple flowers.  The asymmetrical windows on the white door and the decorative wrought-iron balcony add to the overall design of the façade.

Albert Roosenboom (1871-1943) designed the Beukman House at 83 Rue Faider.  The multi-storied house features blue and white stone surrounding ornate wooden doors and windows containing frosted window panes decorated with floral iron trim and a large convex arched bay window on the middle floor.  A magnificent sgraffito (a decorative work made from layered coloured plaster) by Henri Privat-Livemont depicts two children on either side standing in a poppy field under bright stars and a woman in the centre making a shushing motion with her finger.  All three figures have their eyes closed and together, they represent sleep and nocturnal silence, with poppies being considered as the flowers of sleep.

Finally on Rue Defacqz, we saw two homes designed by architect Paul Hankar (1859-1901), another one of Victor Horta’s contemporaries. Built in 1893, Hanker’s own home at #71 Rue Defacqz, along with Horta’s Hôtel Tassel, were considered the first two houses to be built in the Art Nouveau style.  Maison Hanker is a three-story narrow, box-like structure with murals by Adolphe Crespin featuring flowers and cats at the base of the large bay windows.  The primarily red-bricked structure is accented by white, grey and yellow bricks.  Hankar signed his name in one of the stone blocks near the front door.  Just down the block at #48, another masterpiece is the Hôtel Ciamberlani, which Hankar built in 1897 for painter painter Albert Ciamberlani.  This mansion features bricks, natural stone and iron work in its façade and a pair of gorgeous sgraffiti murals.  The one flanking the rounded windows on the second floor depicts scenes of nature with nudes picking flowers in the forest while peacock-like birds look on.  The frieze just under the eaves include various scenes of wild horses battling other animals.  The murals were designed by Ciamberlani and created by Crespin.  The result is truly magnificent to see up close.

After our tour of the Art Nouveau homes in the area, we finally reached the Horta Museum, established between 1961-1971 by acquiring and restoring Victor Horta’s own private house and adjacent work studio, which he built between 1898 and 1901.  The house included a basement storage area for provisions, wine and coal, the ground floor containing the kitchen, lavatory and cloakroom, the “first floor” where the living room, dining room and music room (used as the reception area) are found, bedrooms on the “second and third” floors and servants quarters found in the space under the mansard roof.  The smaller building housing Horta’s studio included a sculpture room, offices for his employees, his own office and reception area and a designer’s studio.  The adjoining buildings are connected and accessible from several of the floors.  While the exterior of the house (and the studio to a much lesser extent) exhibit Art Nouveau features such as decorative wrought iron designs on the balconies, doors and windows and curved lines in the woodwork, it is less ostentatious than the works of Blerot, Hanker or Delune, eschewing the use of mosaics, sgraffito or stained glass windows.  Instead, Horta saved his most of his ornamental flair for the interior designs.

Art Nouveau is described as “harmony between architecture and interior design, transforming the home into a work of art”.  This is definitely true of Victor Horta’s creations as you can see the creativity and expertise of craftsmanship in the use of high-quality materials, fine finishings and details found in the railings, banisters, stained glass designs in the doors and windows, decorative door handles and hinges, swirly, floral patterns in the mosaic floors, colourful carpets, curvy wood trim and the floral designs of many of the light fixtures.

Once we paid our entrance fee, we were left to wander around this beautiful home at our own pace.  Photography was prohibited but I hoped that I could buy some postcards or a souvenir book of photos in the gift shop after the visit.  Surprisingly there was not much of a selection to choose from.  Luckily there were some photos on the museum’s website and more from some books of about Victor Horta’s works, so I was able to retain some memories of what we experienced.  From the colourful glazed panels in the doors of the entrance vestibule to the expansive skylight in the roof that provided natural lighting, everything in this house was just stunning.  A central staircase led to each of the floors while a back staircase was available for the servants.  Despite describing this as a “3-storied house”, the distance from the basement up to the servants quarters was actually 6 flights, which made for much stair-climbing.

One of the most impressive rooms of the house is the large dining room with double doors leading to the outdoor garden.  Although a book that I read described this room as “lacking in continuity and cohesion” in terms of materials and design compared to Horta’s earlier works, I thought it was gorgeous nonetheless.  I liked the rounded archways leading into and within the room as well as the ornate cabinet and fireplace, and the various carvings that were built into the mini brick-tiled walls.  Horta must have had a taste for Asian art as there were several examples of paintings hung throughout the home.  It is interesting to note that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a similar penchant.

Even the furniture including the beds, cabinets, tables and chairs exhibited Art Nouveau features including plant and floral patterns and shapes.  It was not clear whether Horta personally designed these items or if they were period pieces of the time that were added during the renovation process for the museum.  It is easy to believe that these were works by Horta himself since the designs fit in nicely with the rest of the architecture of the interior.  I wish that we had been able to tour the interiors of the Hotel Solvay or Tassel in order to see more examples of Horta’s masterpieces.  It is easy to understand why the Art Nouveau style did not last very long, since it must have cost a fortune to build and maintain.  But the results certainly were spectacular and it is fortunate that there are still a few such fine examples around.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Art Museums + Exhibitions

During our week in Brussels, we planned to visit the four main sections of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, where we would see large collections of works by Belgian artists ranging from the 16th Century up to the current day.  But even before making the trip to these museums, we unexpectedly and fortuitously stumbled upon several smaller art exhibits in locations close to our apartment rental that were fascinatingly varied and interesting.

Each time we went out, we could see the pretty St Michaels and St Gudula Cathedral looming atop a hill just a few  blocks north-east of our apartment.  When we spotted the poster advertising a tapestry exhibit on display in this Gothic Roman Catholic church, we decided to go take a look.  Named after the two patron saints of Brussels, the stone cathedral flanked by two towers was built between the 11th and 13th Centuries.  Upon entering, the first thing that we spotted was the elaborate 17th Century Baroque pulpit whose base includes a scene of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden.  Other ornamentation that we admired included the stained glass windows depicting royalty as opposed to religious imagery, the gilded sculptures of Saint Gudula with her crown, the winged archangel Saint Michael and the haunting marble relief dedicated to the Belgians who died in World War I.

The Tapestry of Light exhibit featured large works by Australian artist Irene Barberis that ran 36 metres long and 3 metres high.  The vibrant, intricate pieces of tapestry depict the full text and context of the Book of Revelations, the last book in the bible where it is revealed to the apostle John that good will ultimately triumph over evil.  Barberis took inspiration for the depictions of the apocalypse or revelations from multiple artistic and historic sources, adapting their form, colour and context for modern consumption.  The tapestries are illuminated with ultra-violet light, providing a dramatic effect.  Some of the images include the Lamb of God with Seven Horns, scenes of war and judgement, angels and heaven, and Christ returning on a white horse. 

En route to the St Michaels/St Gudula Cathedral, we came across an outdoor installation called “Interfaces” that featured portraits created by 40 graffiti artists, painters, illustrators and photographers, who were given the mandate of representing cultural diversity.  Each portrait is 3.4 metres in height and 3 metres wide with the set of 40 renderings covering a full city block.  The project was sponsored by Urbana, a non-profit organization that supports street art in the city.  This was a fantastic way to brighten up a construction site while promoting urban art, globalization and multi-culturalism.  Every city should have an organization and a project like this.

Another serendipitous treat came to us when we passed by the ornate building that was formerly the Brussels Stock Exchange while on our city walking tour.  We noticed the posters advertising the exhibition of works by American photojournalist Steve McCurry, who won world-wide recognition for his haunting 1984 photograph that came to be known as “Afghan Girl", which graced the June 1985 cover of National Geographic.  We actually have a copy of a "Best of National Geographic Photos" issue with her image on the cover, so it was a thrill for us to see other shots that McCurry took of the previously unidentified 12-year-old orphan and learn about how he found her again 17 years later.  Part of the exhibit featured his photo of the grown-up woman who had aged and weathered through hardships but still had those telltale piercingly defiant eyes that dominated the original photo.

As part of the exhibition, there was a screening of the 2002 National Geographic documentary “Search for the Afghan Girl” which documents Steve McCurry’s last attempt to locate the Afghan girl, after previously unsuccessful attempts.  This time, he would be accompanied by a respected Pakistan photojournalist with good ties and connections.  If he located a candidate, he would have the help of FBI forensic specialists in facial recognition, as well as eye specialists to help verify the match.  The Centre for Missing Children also used age-progression techniques to create a simulation of what she might look like 17 years later.

In the documentary, McCurry describes how he initially spotted the girl in the tent of a makeshift school within an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.  He was told that she had walked through snowy mountains for two weeks to reach the camp after her parents were killed when their village was bombed.  In 2002, he traveled back to that refugee camp, which was about to be demolished to build a housing project.  McCurry showed his iconic photo to the local people in hopes of locating the girl.  Finding the former teacher at the camp, he was led to a woman who looked quite a bit like the girl.  But his expert resources determined that the eyes did not match and this was not the right person.  Continuing the search, the team finally located the right woman when they found her brother.  Her name is Sharbat Gula and she had moved back to Afghanistan where she lived with her husband and three daughters.  Gula recalled the photo shoot and described several facts that corresponded to McCurry’s memories of the event.  She explained that she was wearing the red shawl with holes in it that had been burned that day while cooking, that she was the last one to be photographed and that there was a lot of sunlight that day.  This time, when the experts examined her photograph, they confirmed that Sharbat Gula was the same person as the one in the photo taken by Steve McCurry all those years ago.  The Afghan girl had been found.

The photography exhibition was called “The World of Steve McCurry” and featured around 200 photographs taken from his travels around the world, including ones from Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, China, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar,  Yemen, Ethiopia, United States, Brazil and Italy.  Often capturing images of the human spirit and the consequences of war, McCurry’s photos are stunning, powerful and sometimes heartbreaking.  This exhibition was touted as the largest and most complete retrospective of his works to ever be displayed, and we were lucky enough to stumble upon it.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is comprised of four major museums located in adjoining buildings in the city centre and two smaller artist studios situated a few kilometres away.  The four main museums cover works of the Old Masters, Modern Art, the oeuvre of surrealist Rene Magritte and the Fin de Siecle (encompassing works from 1863 through 1914).  Jointly these museums hold over 20,000 drawings, sculptures and paintings spanning 7 centuries, with a major focus on Belgian artists including the works from the 15th to 16th Centuries known as the Flemish Primitives.  Connected from the inside by a spacious main lobby that displays examples of the types of the art in each museum, you can buy tickets for any of the individual museums, or a discounted combo ticket to see them all, which is what we did.  When traversing between the various museums, we took one of the coolest elevators that I have ever ridden, that included seating on either side of the large space.  I felt like riding up and down several times just so I could sit in the seats.

We started in the Old Masters Museum which covered art from the 15th to 18th Centuries.  Like the other art museums that we visited throughout Belgium, one of the main attractions in the Old Masters Museum is the body of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  More than ever, the Belgian museums are currently focused on Bruegel in preparation for 2019, which marks the 450th anniversary of his death.  In addition to seeing the masterpieces on display in the galleries, there was a special exhibit called “Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces” which uses digital technology to provide in close-up views, detailed descriptions and explanations of each major work.  In a room named the “Bruegel Box”, an image of each painting is blown up to cover 3 of the 4 walls.  Various sections of a painting are zoomed in upon, with written explanations shown next to them to provide more insight and context.  The most effective use of this immersive experience was in the presentation of Bruegel’s "Flemish Proverbs"(1559), also known as "The Topsy Turvy World".  In this work, small vignettes combine to illustrate about 112 Dutch proverbs or sayings.  You need to look very carefully to spot them and be familiar with the adages to understand what you are looking at, which makes the explanations so useful.  For example, in the upper left corner of the painting, appearing by the windows of the house are two men each holding the other’s nose.  This refers to the proverb “To lead by the nose” which means to fool someone.  In the lower right corner, a monk is tying a false beard onto the face of a Christ figure, depicting the idea that “Deceit is often masqueraded under the guise of piety”.  As with most of Bruegel’s works, humans are shown as being absurd, wicked or foolish.  Being surrounded by these images made you feel like you had walked into the middle of Bruegel’s crazy world.

In addition to the Bruegel Box room, all the works by Bruegel held in the museum have been digitized using Gigapixel technology  and are presented on digital kiosks situated throughout the Old Masters Museum.  The kiosks provide another vehicle to learn more about Bruegel’s works and provide a higher level of detail than is visible to the naked eye.  There was an excellent presentation for “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (1562) which depicts the moment when Archangel Michael condemns Lucifer to hell.  With sword brandished, St. Michael expels Lucifer and his band of rebel angels who were transformed into demons out of paradise in a confrontation between Good and Evil.  Unlike typical religious paintings of the time, Bruegel borrows a page from Hieronymus Bosch in his depictions of the demons that are part human, part animal and part fantastical creature.  In the digital analysis of this work, it is postulated that Bruegel is using this story as an allegory to foreshadow the political and religious upheaval that was threatening the Netherlands at the time.  The painting is divided into two halves.  The top half representing heaven is painted with light, bright colours while the bottom representing hell is depicted in sombre ochres and browns.  Various parts of the painting are isolated and explained.  Bruegel took inspiration from artifacts found in cabinets of curiosities as shown by images of butterfly wings and a bloated blowfish.  It was quite the experience to be able to review the content and context about this painting on the digital kiosk, and then be able to walk up and look at the actual painting.

An interesting and accepted practice of the times was for apprentices to make copies of their masters’ works, which the elder Bruegel’s son, aptly named Pieter Bruegel the Younger, frequently did.  In the main gallery dedicated to Bruegel, there were two copies of “The Census at Bethlehem”, one by the elder (1566) and one by the younger (1638).  It was so much fun comparing the two and noting how they were almost identical but there were some differences to spot.   For some reason, the two paintings were hung at different ends of the room so I had to run back and forth to compare them.  It was so much easier to inspect my photos after the fact.  Some of the elements in the Elder’s version that are missing from the Younger’s include a setting sun, a barrel at the top of the inn in the foreground, the man lacing up his skates and the bird on the ice at the bottom right of the painting.  In the Younger’s version, the trees are bushier and he changed the colours and styles of the clothing worn by the people but maintained their body positions and relative places in the painting.  The digital kiosk analysis explains why the paintings are so similar and yet have a few distinct differences.  It is because Bruegel the Younger did not have an actual copy of his father’s finished work since they had all been sold.  Instead, he worked off preliminary sketches which accounts for the discrepancies.  The title of the work refers to Joseph leading Mary on a donkey towards the crowd of people at the inn who have gathered to register in the census of the Roman Empire under the orders of Caesar Augustus.  Surrounding this main theme, the rest of the villagers go about their lives.  People trudge through the snow, children play on sleds on the ice and throw snowballs, a man prepares to go skating, a woman is cooking something in a large pan, people are unloading goods from their wagons and  a pig is being butchered.  Some historians interpret the pig slaughter as a metaphor for the peasants being “bled dry” through excessive taxes levied by Philip II of Spain.

Although not as extensive as the collection of Bruegels, there were also works by two other iconic Flemish artists, Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Paul Rubens.  With his typical fantastical imagery, Bosch’s triptych Temptation of Saint Anthony describes the series of supernatural temptations faced by the Christian monk during his pilgrimage to become a hermit in the desert and his ability to resist the them.  Saint Anthony is presented with temptations of the flesh, of wealth and is exposed to horrific demonic visions.  The demons are fanciful, grotesque figures with features of birds, fish, deer and other animals.  Looking at Bosch’s piece, it is clear that he influenced Bruegel, although the features of Bruegel’s demons involved more realistic depictions of nature based on his detailed study of the natural world.  We saw multiple works both large and small by Rubens in the Masters Museum.  Most of them are similar in style to his classical depictions of muscular warriors and voluptuous, “Rubenesque” females, like the figures in his masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents.  By looking for these features, it is possible to guess which works were created by Rubens.  But there was one painting called “Four Studies of the Head of a Moor” (1614) which was surprisingly different in subject matter and style.  Without reading the plaque, I would never have guessed that this was by Rubens.

We found works by many other old masters that we were not familiar with.  A couple of the most interesting ones were actually attributed to an “anonymous artist of the southern Netherlands from the second half of the 16th century”.  Described as “Anthropomorphic Landscape” portraits of a woman and a man, these paintings initially look like pretty landscapes with plateaus, trees, houses, livestock and farmhands.  But take a closer look and suddenly you see the heads and faces of a female and male each seeming to be lying on their backs looking face up.  Once you see this, it is impossible to simply see the landscape again.  The other painting in the collection that I found amusing was called “The King Drinks” by Jacques Jordaens.  While the painting is named for the drinking royal at the centre, what catches your eye is the woman in the bottom right, calmly wiping her child’s bare bum.

We didn’t find much of a Modern Art collection when we visited the Brussels Museums of Art.  I’m not sure if some of the space was closed for renovations or if portions of the collection were moved into the two newer museums—Rene Margritte and Fin de Siecle.  There was one of Francis Bacon’s iconic “pope” paintings, this one called “The Pope With Owls”, as well as one of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’ sculptures of mussels overflowing out of a red casserole dish.  There was a special exhibit of works by Belgian artist Pierre Lahaut, who seems to specialize in abstract still-life paintings.  It was very interesting trying to figure out what his paintings represent, especially given their very unique and provocative names.  The one called “The Bloody Cardinal” originally looked like an eggplant to me, but I can now see a cardinal with a green cape, purple robe and tiny red head.  Another painting was called “Widow For an Unjust Cause” and a third that looked like a slab of raw meat was inexplicably called “The Bridal Bedroom 3”.

The Magritte Museum contains the world’s largest collection of works by Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte.  Ironically, the paintings that Magritte is most known for, or at least the ones we were most familiar with, were not on display when we visited, although there were images of them on various souvenirs in the gift shop.  The painting titled “Son of Man”, featuring a self portrait of the artist wearing a suit, tie and bowler hat with his face obscured by an apple, is currently held in a private collection.  We were first exposed to this painting while watching the 1991 version of the movie The Thomas Crown Affair, where it was featured in a major plot point.  There was reference to the famous bowler hat in both a sculpture displayed in the outer lobby of the museum, where a video image of Magritte dressed in the suit and hat was also projected.  The other painting that we were hoping to see was “The Treachery of Images”, which depicts a pipe captioned with the ironic text “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (This is not a pipe).  Magritte cheekily explains that since he could not use the painting to smoke, it is indeed not a pipe but just the representation of a pipe.  While that iconic painting was not on display, we did see a similar one with a caption translating to “This continues to not be a pipe”, as well as a deliberately erotic version of the pipe, which Magritte titles “The Sexual Pipe” for obvious reasons based on the shape of its stem.
 
It was a bit frustrating looking at the rest of Magritte’s works since we were not given any context or explanation as to what we were looking at, making the art difficult to appreciate.  Even reading the titles did not give us a clue.  For example, the image of the pig in a suit in a cemetery is called “Lyricism”, while the one with a man sleeping below a giant rock is called “Cape of Storms”, but why??  Magritte does seem to use some repeating motifs such as the big rock.   You get the feeling that there is some deep meaning to be deduced but what is it?  For the most part, even Googling the titles once we got home did not help, but I did find reference to two paintings.  The painting of the face enclosed in a string of pearls is called “Sheherazade” referring to the heroine of 1001 Arabian nights who saves her own life by entrancing the king with her captivating stories.  Another one depicts the shape of an eagle carved into a mountain with two eggs in a nest sitting on a ledge in front of it.  The painting is named “The Domain of Arnheim” after and inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe story about a man trying to achieve a landscape of “supreme loveliness”.  I read somewhere that “Arnheim” is German for “Home of the Eagle”.  I would love to go to another Magritte exhibit where a curator takes the time to provide notes explaining what I am looking at.  It might feel like I’m asking to be spoon-fed, but I would enjoy the works so much more.

The final museum that we visited was the Fin de Siecle, meaning “End of the Century”, which is dedicated to decorative and fine arts from 1863, marking the founding of the Société libre des Beaux-Arts, through the end of the 19th Century, up until the beginning of World War I in 1914.  The collection includes paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints, sculptures, photographs, films, models,  Art Nouveau-styled furniture, light fixtures, and decorative arts including vases and figurines.  We saw some gorgeous pieces featuring the ornate floral patterns and undulating, curvy lines that Art Nouveau is known for.

There were eclectic styles of paintings on display, including a fine example of Pointillism by Théo Van Rysselberghe, who’s work “The Promenade” (1901) is both a landscape and a group portrait, depicting four women walking on a beach while on holiday at a French coastal resort.  It is amazing that such detailed images can be created through the use of dots.   The Dancing Nymphs (1898) by Constant Montald is a Art Nouveau painting where the elements of the background landscape are meant to be purely decorative as opposed to realistic representations.  Montald used metal particles to increase the luminosity of his work.  James Ensor’s oil painting on wood called “Skeletons Fighting over a Smoked Herring” feels like a satirical political cartoon.  The skeletons are a metaphor for art critics who had been disparaging of his work.  The pronunciation of the French word for smoked herring (hareng-saur) is a play on Ensor’s name and reflects a deprecatory term that the critics had used in describing him (“art-Ensor”).  Ensor takes the criticism and uses it to mock his detractors.

The artistic periods represented within the domain of the Fin de Siecle Museum include the Realism style of painting, which aims to represent subjects truthfully and realistically without artistic artifices or tricks.  It also deals with mundane, every day subject matters, often focusing on social politics and the conditions of the working class and the poor.   A classic example of this is the painting called “At Dawn” (1875) by Charles Herman, which depicts members of the working class on the left looking disapprovingly at the debauchery of the wasted group of bourgeoisie who are pouring out of a den of pleasure.  The symbolism seems clear as the drunken man in the forefront, flanked by two women, is headed straight towards a pile of trash.  The title of the work is telling since "at dawn" is the time that poor are making their way to work while the rich are just starting to stumble home.  Painted in large format usually reserved for historic or religious paintings, this representation of the upper class in such a degrading manner caused quite the stir in the Brussels Salon.  Eugene Laermans continued with paintings of the working class with his “Evening of the Strike – The Red Flag” (1894) and “Immigrants” (1894) showing large gatherings of poor labourers and downtrodden migrants, trying to improve their lots.  In midst of these paintings looms Constantin Meunier’s large, evocative sculpture, a realistic depiction of the hard life of an industrial worker.

A series of heartbreaking black and white sketches by Henry de Groux were created based on photographs from the front during World War I.  They depict scenes of death, sorrow, trauma and horror caused by a war that brought about new fighting techniques including trench-warfare and the use of poison gas.  His works have morose titles such as “Serving as Human Shield for the German Army” and “Prisoner Gravediggers”.  It has been noted that it was mostly the artists like de Groux, that remained at home and did not face the atrocities of battle first hand, that took on the task of turning these experiences learned second-hand into artistic impressions.

Baron Léon Frederic’s cheeky (pun intended) named "The Stream" (1890-99), a giant triptych of hordes of naked infants congregated around waterfalls and streams, was a fun and welcome sight after viewing all those depressing war pictures.  In the left panel, the infants seem to be flowing down the waterfalls, reminding me of the spoofs of Japanese painter Hokusai’s Wave painting, where rabbits and other figures fall from the giant wave.  In the middle panel, the toddlers are running through a stream that winds through a forest, but by the final panel on the right, they have all fallen asleep after a tiring day.  Frederic is considered to be a “Symbolism painter” so I wonder what is the symbolism of this triptych?  It took us all day to walk through the various parts of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and it was well worth the effort.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Brussels Comics

After the iconic Mannekin Pis sculpture, another major cultural influence that seems to define Brussels is Belgian comics.  Even more so than in Antwerp, Brussels has a strong affiliation with comics, with over 40 full-scale murals of popular comics gracing the sides of buildings throughout central Brussels, and more in the suburbs.  In addition, Brussels is home to the Belgian Comics Strip Centre, a large and comprehensive museum covering the history of comics including current works, focusing mainly on Belgian as well as a few French artists.  At least from a North American perspective, the most famous Belgian comics series must be the Adventures of TinTin by Hergé (a.k.a. Georges Remi).  The TinTin mural was the first one that we found, located prominently in the midst of the busiest tourist area, just across from the Mannekin Pis fountain.  A few blocks from there was “La Boutique TinTin” where you could buy postcards, drawings, toys, mugs, and clothing.  I’m not sure if I’m doing it on purpose subconsciously, but for the fourth European trip in a row, I misjudged the weather and did not pack enough warm clothing.  While in our home swap in Antwerp, I was able to borrow a sweater from our hosts, but now that we had left the home swap on our final leg in Brussels, I decided once again (like the other 3 times) to buy a sweater.  To my delight, a pretty green knit sweater with an embroidered logo of Tintin was on sale for only 12 Euros, so I snapped it up.  I was warm and also had a nice souvenir.

The Belgian Comics Strip Centre is located in the former Waucquez Department Store designed in 1905 by the famous Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (whose house and museum we would be visiting on a later date).  We spotted the first exhibit on the street at the top of a flight of stairs leading down towards the comics museum.  It was a giant sculpture of the titular character from the comics Gaston, a lazy and accident-prone office worker with his black and white cat by his side.  Inside the museum, we admired the Art Nouveau lobby with the glass and ironwork in the ceiling, and Art Nouveau features in the lamp stands and railings.  Several more large-scale sculptures were on display in the lobby as teasers for what was to come upstairs.  These included 7-year-old Boule, his dog Bill and their red Citroen CV car, cowboy Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper, a sculpture of TinTin positioned next to a photograph of Hergé, as well as the red and white rocket ship from one of TinTin’s adventures, and to my surprise, a character from the Smurfs, which I didn’t know was a Belgian comics series.

The museum starts with a bit of history about comics in a permanent exhibit called "The Invention of the Comic Strip".  There is a reference to Christian monks from the Middle Ages who reproduced sacred texts of their religion, embellishing them with colourful illustrations, dividing the story into panels and conveying dialogues in balloons.  Another pre-cursor to the advent of the comic strip was the political satire cartoons such as one that showed the British and French carving up Europe like a Thanksgiving turkey.  Cartoon characters were also used to decorate commercial products like calendars, as shown by one from 1906.

We are given a definition of the “comic strip” followed by some of the earliest examples.  According to the write-up in the exhibit, a comic strip is “a series of images incorporating a scenario which forms a narrative”.  The Yellow Kid is an American comic strip created by Richard Outcault between 1895 to 1898 about a good-natured, bald, toothy, barefoot boy wearing an oversized yellow night shirt who speaks in slang.  Set in the slums of New York, the comic strip used humour and social commentary to comment on class and racial tensions and was published in newspapers owned by the two major news moguls, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  Created by Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1926) is also an American comic strip  which depicts the fantastical dreams of the titular character before he wakes up in the final frame.  One such scenario includes his bed coming to life and taking him for a stroll.  A reproduction of Little Nemo’s bed is on display in the museum.  In 1914, McCay also created one of the first animated films, Gertie the Dinosaur, which lay the groundwork for modern day cinematic animation.

A large section of the museum called “The Art of The Comic Strip” is devoted to detailing the steps involved in creating and publishing comic strips or comic books.  An author (who may or may not be the same person as the illustrator) creates a synopsis and scenario, which is then passed on to the illustrator or artist.  Rough pencil sketches are made to create a story board that delineates the panels and speech bubbles.  From the storyboard, the actual drawings are made using inking, colouring and graphics techniques.  Multiple examples are shown of an artist’s rough sketch, displayed next to the final drawing.  If this is a black and white comic strip, issues such as lighting, contrast and shadow need to be taken into consideration.  For coloured comics, several methods are discussed for painting with watercolour onto printed or scanned images, followed by final online touch-ups using a computer program such as Photoshop.  Also discussed are the concepts of cover design for comic books and steps required for publishing.

Next came examples of different types or genres of Comics and I was surprised by how many were listed.  These included drawing styles such as Realistic, Graphic Novel or Expressionist, topical genres such as Humorous, Educational, Historic, Science Fiction, Heroic, Gothic, Political, Family, Animals and target audiences ranging from young children to adolescent to adult comics.  It was very interesting comparing the look and feel of the various genres as well as the subject matter and tone.

After our tour through the history and technical aspects of comics, we were treated to in-depth looks at some of the more popular Belgian comics.  My favourite is based on a character called Boerke in Dutch and Dickie in English, created by Pieter de Poortere.  This dumpy, semi-bald sad-sack everyman with the little black moustache has tough luck in everything that he attempts. While he was originally depicted as a farmer wearing overalls, he later becomes a stand-in for a variety of historic or otherwise well-known characters. In general, there is no dialogue in the 9-12 paneled scenes, relying instead on visually depicted humorous situations.  This makes Boerke much more accessible and universally appealing since there is no language barrier to understanding the joke.   In addition to the comic strips, de Poortere recreated a series of famous paintings and inserted Boerke into them.  So in the rendering of Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, there is Boerke to the left of the man in the black coat and top hat.

De Poortere also made a series of “Where’s Waldo” styled cartoons where Boerke is hidden amongst a large scene involving many other characters.  The cartoonist recreated scenes from famous situations such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Tsunami in Thailand, and the trenches from a World War II battle.  Another one of these cartoons that paid tribute the world of comics, featuring many of the items in the Belgian Comics Strip Centre including TinTin, his rocket, a Smurf, Lucky Luke and Gertie the Dinosaur, as well as other iconic comics characters from around the world including Hagar the Terrible, Asterix and Obelix, Superman, Astroboy, Mickey Mouse, Maus from the famous graphic novel, and many more characters that I didn’t easily recognize.  It was such fun closely inspecting these drawings as well as the ones that spoofed famous art, in order to spot Boerke or just to take in all the detail.

The largest exhibit of course was for Hergé’s TinTin comics, which the museum was originally going to be dedicated solely to, before Hergé himself convinced the other stakeholders to expand the museum’s focus to the entire Belgian Comics industry.  Several plaques provided quite a good explanation about the appeal of the TinTin character, a red-headed teenager with a tuft of hair that sticks straight up in the air who travels the world as a reporter and adventurer.  Very few lines or details are used in drawing TinTin and his face is usually relatively expressionless, allowing him to be a stand-in for the reader.  Meanwhile his innumerable costumes and disguises lets him take on any role, nationality or occupation.  Accordingly, as the exhibit puts it, Tintin is nobody and everyman at the same time.  Tintin’s exploits include chasing thieves and spies, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle and a horse, deep-sea diving, swashbuckling and even traveling to the moon.

Tintin interacts with a slew of other friends and adversaries.  His closest companions are his little white dog aptly named Snowy and the volatile seafaring Captain Haddock.  Tintin also frequently encounters the absent-minded Professor Calculus, the bumbling police detectives Thompson and Thomson, and the opera singer Bianca Castafiore.  Some of his adversaries include the evil Rastapopoulos and Doctor Mueller.  A comprehensive chart maps out all the characters and which TinTin comic books they appear in.  There were 24 comic albums published between 1929-1976 in 70 different languages with over 200 million copies sold.   The stories span many genres with elements of fantasy, mystery, political thrillers, and science fiction, often providing satire and political or cultural commentary.

The other major exhibit was dedicated to the Smurfs, a colony of little blue creatures wearing white cone-shaped hats, who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest, in a world of sorcerers and dragons.  Created by Belgian artist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in 1959, there are over 100 Smurf characters mostly named after personality traits such as Jokey, Dreamy, Grouchy, Lazy, Brainy, Greedy or professions such as Farmer, Poet, Barber, Doctor, Tailor, etc.  They are led by Papa Smurf (the only one dressed in red, with a white beard) and for a while, the sole female character Smurfette (with long blond locks and wearing a dress).  The Smurfs’ main enemies are Gargamel, the evil wizard who wants to use them in an alchemist process that changes metals into gold, and Gargamel’s cat Azarel, who just wants to eat them.  The Smurfs first appeared as part of a plot in one of Peyo’s previous comic strips, Johan and Peewit, but quickly became more popular than the source material, especially in North America.  The Smurfs have been portrayed in comic books, movies, TV series, merchandising, theme parks, video games, music recordings and more.

The top floor of the Belgian Comics Strip Centre concentrated on the merchandising of comic books or albums, providing examples of current titles and describing the various factors and considerations involved in creating a finished product.   This includes tips for the design of the front cover including the content and layout of images and text that lead the eyes from left to right to encourage the book to be opened, and providing imagery that piques the reader’s interest without giving away the plot.  Also considered are the use of colours, lighting, positioning of the title and authors names, typography including font size, and style, the role of the publisher and marketing strategies.

We ate lunch at Brasserie Horta, the beautiful designed Art Nouveau bistro located inside the Belgian Comic Strip Centre.  The entrance way is decorated with a cut-out of the comics character Spirou, a bellhop and elevator operator created by French cartoonist Robert Velter in 1938.  Open since 1906 as part of the original department store,  the eatery provides further examples of Victor Horta’s design including more ornate ironwork and cornices at the top of the supporting beams.  Cartoon sketches cover the walls of the second floor en route to the toilets.

The ground floor was decorated with Victor Horta’s sketches of his building design including the majestic, ornate staircase and elaborate ceiling found in the lobby, as well as several large cartoon paintings.  Our place mats were whimsically covered with Smurfs.  Traditional Belgian fare was available on the menu.  I ordered an asparagus soup and cheese fritters while Rich had smoked salmon on toast.  It was a nice way to end our visit to the museum.



In addition to the titles that we had seen in the museum exhibits, the souvenir shop in the Belgian Comic Strip Centre contained some interesting books including comics about Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and even Weegee, the New York crime photographer of the 1930s and 40s.  Tintin books were available in a multitude of languages including ones featuring Chinese characters.  There were so many miniatures and figures in the gift shop that we dropped our plans to next visit MOOF, the Museum of Original Figurines.
 

Instead we spent more time walking around the downtown streets of Brussels looking for more comics murals.  It was like a bit of a treasure hunt since we didn’t have a comprehensive map of where the murals were, like we did in Antwerp.  Whenever we did find a mural, there would be a small map underneath that showed which other murals were in the vicinity.  But there were no street names shown on the maps so we had to figure out where they were relative to where we currently were.  Amongst others, we found the mural for Lucky Luke, and many more that we did not recognize including “Oliver Rameau and friends”, “Nero and friends”.  We did find a large mural of Asterix and Obelix, which I guess are still popular in Belgium even though it is a French comic strip. One of my favourite cartoons seemed to be a graffiti drawing as opposed to an officially sponsored cartoon mural.