2009 ART TIMES: Belgium and Existential Unrest

The Empire of Light

This past summer I went to England and took a brief sojourn over in Belgium, land of beer and wacky people. Has anyone seen the movie In Bruges? This film nicely summarizes the existential weirdness I have felt in Belgium. At one point in the movie, hitman Colin Farrell sits on a bench in a medieval square of Bruges. The incongruity of a brash Irish assassin plopped into a fairy-tale backdrop is enough to cause a laugh. But then the camera focuses on a dog with bulbous, insect-like eyes and an alien shaved snout. This dog is looking expectantly, or perhaps sympathetically, at our Irish hero. Colin Farrell just stares back in disbelief, and surely he is thinking, “What is my life?!”

It is no coincidence that this nether land evokes the sad revelation that life may very well be a meaningless, gloomy, and absurd jaunt.  Perhaps this existential dismay is caused by Belgium’s uncertain cultural position between Flemish and French; it doesn’t know who it is, (every two or so years someone writes up an article about how the country is on the verge of splitting) so how are outsiders supposed to get it? Or maybe the old cultural centers of Belgium, such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, never got over the descent from their Renaissance-era Golden Age, and a bad Qi settled over them. Or maybe it’s just the weather, or there is a vortex of weirdness settling over the land. Who knows.

But what we do know is that Belgium has its own special brand of bleak absurdism, courtesy of René Magritte. This summer, my trip to Belgium was a lonely one. Like Colin Farrel, I wandered around the beautiful environs, wondering wtf I was doing there. On one occasion, I was merely trying to cross the street, and a parade of people dressed as medieval peasants marched by, smiling maniacally, playing brass instruments and exercising national pride by recalling their cheerful feudal past. I looked at other bystanders, hoping to find a face expressing the same shock as mine. But there were none. People either weaved through the parade, indifferent, or stopped to acknowledge this event as pleasant, as opposed to surreal and jarring.

I had been to Brussels three years prior, in February, and I was struck by the cold, joyless modern buildings of the E.U. capital. Barren gardens surrounded the royal’s castle in the city center, and these ‘jardins royaux’ had, foot-for-foot, far more gravel than manicured grass or stately fountains. At night, Brussels seemed more lively, with waffles and beer and falafels to warm the masses. Strolling down the Rue du Marché aux Fromages in search of dinner, my companion and I were heckled and harassed by the falafel stand owners, inviting us in all tongues to partake in their meilleur/mejor/beste shawarma. From there we took night shots of the buildings in the lovely old town square, which were either unscathed by/well restored after the bombs of WWII. The night literally sparkled, with a few spot lights illuminating the rococo lookin’ facades, while all the tourist traps lining the square exterior were twinkling with candles and art nouveau lamps.

Being in Brussels again this summer was like entering a weird fucking dream, because I walked the same streets and even went to the same waffle stand, only this time it was hot out, I was older, and I was alone. I wondered why I decided to come to the city and I could not come up with an answer. Yes, for some beer, but all the famous beer-brewin abbayes are outside of Brussels, and as an unaccompanied female traveler, I couldn’t do too much drinking alone as it was.  However, I did have one thing to look forward to–the newly opened Musée Magritte of the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts.

On a sunny July day, I entered the new wing, which was three floors of purposely plain, darkly lit corridors. Magritte’s paintings and some of his advertising work was more or less chronologically ordered. The top floor featured his earliest stuff. By the third floor, I was completely overwhelmed. I have never quite figured out whether Magritte has a sense of humor, or if his juxtaposition of opposing sentiments and objects is the result of a serious attempt to create a new order of meaning. There is a lightness and deftness of hand even in his most terrifying work, but there is also a terrible weight in his lighter subject matter; eggs are made of stone, clouds lose their fluffiness and constitute real matter. His paintings, as any art history 101 prof would agree, left me unsettled and uncertain, since on the one hand they are representational and contain mundane, obvious objects, and yet the objects do not cohere to an earthly logical order.

Magritte will be an artist to ponder for a long time, and I left the museum with something other than loneliness on my mind. And so it was, oddly, that a king of absurdism and surrealism gave my trip some telos. And that was one of my great encounters with art in 2009.

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2 thoughts on “2009 ART TIMES: Belgium and Existential Unrest

  1. Well, as a Belgian who just stumbled upon your blog, I think you are missing the poetry of this delightful, quirky yes – nostalgic, still, little country. Belgium is a land of subtle contrasts, colors, and cultures. And yes, the politicians are always stirring up trouble but the citizens get along just fine. To appreciate the gentle beauty our little low country you must slow down …

  2. I love Belgium! I truly do. I would not presume to understand the true nature of the country; this blog post was only a (somewhat melodramatic) chronicle my emotional response while traveling there all by my lonesome.

    Thanks for reading the blog, and maybe we can have a geuze next time I’m in your wonderful pays natal!

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