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.

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