19 February 2015


La Condition Humaine.....

The wallpaper in the care home dementia wing where my mother now lives consists entirely, repeatedly, of images of Audrey Hepburn, some with a long, black cigarette holder.  Quite what this does for dementia sufferers I don't know, though I imagine the thought behind it was to present an iconic image from the inmates' salad days, and to repeat it to enhance familiarity.  

What came as a surprise to me is that Audrey Hepburn is ranked as one of the five most famous Belgians in history (at least on www.famousbelgians.net)!  This website is presumably frequented by keen pub quizmasters seeking to baffle the otherwise intelligentsia on quiet weeknights.   What is perhaps most surprising about this is that Audrey Hepburn was not Belgian; (of complex ancestry and born in Brussels, but she was actually half British and half Dutch) ......

Jacques Brel. A la Mort Subite

For those who wish to keep up with the times, I would hazard that the most famous Belgians are, in no particular order, Jacques Brel, Hergé (Georges Remi), Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret), René Magritte, Peter Paul Rubens (actually Flemish), Hercule Poirot (OK not real), Eddy Merckx, Adolphe Sax and Plastic Bertrand.....

René Magritte

Anyway, I am not in Brussels to seek fame (though I do bump into Waldemar Januszczak crossing the road outside the Musée Oldmasters Museum).....  I am here for a flavour; a flavour of Belgitude (to quote Jacques Brel).

Mort Subite (Sudden Death) is a Lambic (a Belgian speciality using wild yeasts) Beer brewed for the bar, A la Mort Subite, which has been on the rue Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7, Brussels, for over eighty years.  If you can take your eyes off this cyclist, the bar is to the right....

Inside is all mirrors and wood, with yellowing bar staff who curl at the edges. It is Paris in the sixties, Strasbourg in the seventies. Jacques Brel is still here, looking a little tired, despite his reported death in 1978. 


Knitted wear and felt hats are de rigueur.  It is the perfect antidote to Belgian weather. The perfect place to be anonymous in a crowd.  I think I will live here.  I think I may die, suddenly, here, one day....

Brussels is a city of contrasts, however. The skyline is part skyscraper, part gothic spire. The heart of the city beats with the choked arteries of hundreds of years of smoke and glasses, but the frilly outergarments sparkle with sequins of euromillions.  

Shiny surfaces reflect the old in the new, and shelter the less fortunate....

Near Bruxelles Central, the crack of cans and the shrouds of smoke embellish the pavement,

Ça sent la bière

De Londres à Berlin
Ça sent la bière
Donne-moi la main

While inside the early 1950s Galerie Ravenstein, the tables are empty.....

There is much to admire in Brussels, from the rooftops,

To street level,

It's a catholic city, so the churches are full of statuary, 

Compassionate tombs, 

And curious memorials

The museums range from the ornate,

To the surreal,

Within the convolutions of the Magritte Museum (opened in 2009) one is not allowed to take photographs.  In keeping with Magritte's own instructions, this is not a photograph.....

In the Rue du Marché aux Herbes, Charles Karel Buls (Mayor of Brussels 1881 - 89) sits with his dog in the rain,

Near the Stock Market, girls laugh and cats make eyes at me from a shop window,

A young Jacques Brel shelters in a bookshop in The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert,

While a barman studiously avoids me on the Grand Place,

And in the Church of Sainte Catherine someone has stolen (I jest not; therein lies a plaintive note) baby Jesus from the crib.....

It is a city of contrasts; from old-fashioned, black and white Rubens....

To the muted gothic colours of the World Heritage Grand Place, which preserves something of its 12th century origins although it was largely reconstructed after Louis XIV bombarded it in 1695....

Away from the grand, much of Brussels feels lived in.  I stay in an attic room above a soap shop in Les Marolles.  


N.A.I.S Bar

The streets are full of bars and shops dealing in bric-a-brac, and not far away, under the shadow of the Palace of Justice and other muicipal buildings, 

there is a flea market, busy with a cosmopolitan crowd.

Cafes line the square, easy with beer or coffee, and cigarettes,

And when the day is done, fragments of different lives will be swept up and recycled in some way.  Bits of Tintin and Plastic Bertrand will find their way into a reconciliation with Hepburn and Brel.  Maigret will argue with Poirot in the depths of a glass of 9.5% proof Trappist Beer, and then Maigret will become Magritte and the snows will fall outside as night rises from the cobbled streets, and Adolphe Sax will serenade the last man standing outside the European Parliament Visitors' Centre, while Eddie Merckx rides by.....

As Magritte suggested, one object makes you think about what may be behind it.....

I don't claim to have discovered the essence of Belgitude, but it doesn't take long, with a head full of Brel and Lambic Beer, to begin to uncover what it is that lies behind the veneer of Brussels.  

And I like it.  

It's called, La Condition Humaine......

La Condition Humaine, 1935

C'est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais

Mais je pars aux fleurs les yeux fermés ma femme

Car vu que je les ai fermés souvent

Je sais que tu prendras soin de mon âme

Je veux qu'on rie, je veux qu'on danse
Je veux qu'on s'amuse comme des fous
Je veux qu'on rie, je veux qu'on danse
Quand c'est qu'on me mettra dans le trou

Le Moribond
Jacques Brel

Une autre condition humaine....

C'était au temps où Bruxelles rêvait

C'était au temps du cinéma muet
C'était au temps où Bruxelles chantait
C'était au temps où Bruxelles bruxelait

Jacques Brel

12 February 2015

Amsterdam and The Hague - The Netherlands - Part 2 - Golden Age

Musées des Beaux Arts....

My visit to Den Haag (The Hague) is singleminded. I have not come to watch the Dutch Parliament in session; to attend the application of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide (CROATIA v. SERBIA) at the International Court of Justice; to visit one of the largest Apple Stores in the oldest shopping arcade in the Netherlands, nor to take a dip off the beach at unpronounceable Scheveningen (apparently this was the word used to get German spies to give themselves away)..... This is a lightning raid on The Mauritshuis, a recently renovated jewel in the crown of the Dutch Golden Age.

Meisje met de parel,
Johannes Vermeer, c 1665

As the publicity says, the girl is back in town, and I have a date.....  Her home was designed and built in 1644 by Jacob van Campen, the most famous architect of his time (who also provided Rembrandt with his grand home in Amsterdam). Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679) commissioned it, hence its name, but he was not at home when I called.  

The new main entrance to The Mauritshuis (or you can take the glass lift)

The museum has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and modernisation which provide an airy and bright entrance lobby, as well as extended space for new exhibitions.  But the original interior, even when lit with LED systems which are calibrated to blend daylight with candleglow is as designed in the seventeenth century.  As Laura Cumming wrote in The Observer, the Mauritshuis is the ideal museum.  It's a home from home for art.  The rooms are on a human scale.....  Vermeer's Girl, for all her Mona Lisa fame, is in a modest wood-panelled chamber..... 

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens,
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, c. 1615

Primary Art - a teacher and her rat instruct young minds....

It is a place to muse, and to amuse. The Greek origin of the word museum denoted a place or temple dedicated to the Muses. Hence it has come to mean a building set apart for study and the arts. One of the more famous pictures on show here is itself of a lesson - Rembrandt's justly acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632).....

Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson: Aris Kindt, armed robber, executed by hanging

As Jonathan Jones commented in The Guardian, the eye is led irresistibly into a dark tunnel between the arm's exposed muscles - and into the body itself. Rembrandt leads the onlooker from the visible world to the invisible darkness within. What lies there?

Self-portrait with Lace Collar, 1629

As Rembrandt himself looks confidently out at the viewing public, I muse on what it is that I am seeing. Why have I come all this way? Jonathan Jones suggests that, the true reason to come here is to encounter some of the world's most profound works of art. Perhaps I should have spent more time in Den Haag, and visited the International Court of Justice. It is fitting perhaps that the Mauritshuis and the Peace Palace are near neighbours. Somehow I feel that Vermeer and Rembrandt still work as ambassadors for peace, and that whatever else we gain from great art the very act of admiring such works is in itself an act of peace:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

But I hasten to Amsterdam.....

And go straight to the also recently refurbished Rijksmuseum, a great palace of art, exhausting in its dimensions and in its scope. 

The Rijksmuseum is the museum of the Netherlands.  It was first opened in 1800 (ironically in Den Haag), but moved to Amsterdam in 1808 and then to its current location in 1885. It has recently been extensively refurbished, and when I was last here, about five years ago, less than half the collection was on view.  

Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht, 1642

Now there is more than enough.  I mean, much more.  From the Middle Ages through the Golden Age, to Dutch Colonialism, to (almost) now.  Guess who I find looking a little uneasy beneath all the pomp and splendour?

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1886-87)

Everywhere there are talking points, pictures to amuse, artefacts, sculptures, allegories, portraits.  Sometimes, I almost feel the models are here to admire themselves....

But what leads me out, takes me from myself here are the pictures of life....  In the Mauritshuis there were wonderful pictures of life, by Jan Steen for example, and here, with David Teniers, in his Peasant Kermis (1665), you get an impression of the world as it is.  I particularly like the complex visions of village activity in winter, like this:

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters
, Hendrick Avercamp, 1608

But I also enjoy the pictures that you could almost walk out into, like this Amsterdam canal scene, though there are fewer cars (or bicycles!) and more leaves on the trees in this picture than now.....

Jan van der Heyden, Amsterdam View with Houses on the Herengracht.... (1670)

And outside, this elegant city is a museum in itself. The canals reflect the buildings and light fills the windows, and the shifting shapes of the narrow-fronted houses bring to mind the world with which de Hooch and Vermeer might have been familiar.

And the waters of the canals, the bridges and boats, cannot have changed that much.....

And the sky, the sense of space and the vanishing points, are still in the air.....

It is not difficult to dream a little in Amsterdam. Musing in the galleries and then wandering one way or another, time hangs lightly draped across your shoulders. The canals seep an atmosphere of quiet. At the Vishuisje Herengracht I have a snack of oysters and a delicious herring broodje (sandwich) and feel that the world is not such a bad place after all.

And in the Cafe Bouwman, close by, I make a new friend (though I understand that felines are no longer allowed in bars by law....)

In the Vondelpark, the willows do not so much weep as relax, their tendrils hair-like in the winter cool....

And on the canals themselves, as dusk gathers, the lights glow warm and welcoming.....

My trip to Amsterdam was not singleminded. I was not only there for the Museum.  Even when ice and snow gather and life slows to winter rhythms....

And over the water sails a boat, just like back then

Though it is cold outside, Peace comes dropping slow in this most picturesque of places.....  And the evening closes with supper with a family of old friends who live overlooking one of the quieter canals. On the third floor of what once was a convent school we eat and drink and discuss the politics of museums, the nature of the Netherlands, and the passing of time. 

Good night, Amsterdam......  Let's drink to another Golden Age!

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood....

W H Auden