Category Archives: Art

48 hours in Brussels

Last night of the trip. Tomorrow we are returning to London, Greenwich, school and work. I will be very busy and there will be, I predict, another major blog break.

Our last two days were spent in Brussels. We arrived on Friday morning and got to our hotel, Les Bluets. We were a little afraid as a scan through the internet revealed that many people found the owner to be somewhat unpleasant and bordering on a dictator. Their claims were exaggerated, although she was on several occasions very specific about the behaviour she considered to be appropriate. For example, when we arrived, she warned Jeff several times (within three minutes of our arrival) to be careful with his huge backpack, as a previous hotel guest had knocked over ‘something very important’. Likewise, at breakfast, she directed the seating plan, putting us at the same table as six middle-aged German women, while leaving another table open for a family who was apparently coming down for breakfast. We were later joined by a German couple at the same table. We sat slightly isolated as the Germans laughed about what we could only assume to be the unusual breakfast arrangements. Below is an image of the ‘breakfast hall’:

The hotel itself is designed in a very old-fashioned style with many knick-knacks placed throughout the house. Some earlier guests had commented that the house is more like a museum than a hotel, although Jeff felt like it was similar to visiting someone’s grandmother. All of this having been said, I like this hotel the most of the places during this trip. It feels very comfortable and welcoming and the price and location are reasonable.

Shortly after checking in, we took the metro to the city centre. We started at the Grand Place (see a picture here), the main city square. We have seen several city squares on this trip but this was by far the most magnificent. It is bordered by the Hotel De Ville and a number of guildhalls for merchant guilds including Bakers’, the Wheelbarrow and The Bag. Around the Grand Place, we also checked out the Galleries St Hubert, a kind of early shopping mall built in the nineteenth century. Today, the arcade houses beautiful shops and cafés:

After looking around the Grand Place, we walked towards the Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts and the connected Musee Magritte Museum. On the way there, we walked through the upmarket neighbourhood of Sablon (with its hundreds of antique shops, art galleries and boutiques). We also stopped by the Place Du Petit Sablon, a lovely little park with bronze statues depicting medieval guilds. Below is a picture of one of them:

We finally made it to the museums but realised we did not have enough time to take in the exhibits that day, so we decided to keep walking. We walked by Palais Royal and Parc de Bruxelles. In the park, we took a brief break so Jeff could check the computer. We somehow managed to lose our Belgium & Luxembourg guide along the way and so we bought and downloaded an e-version of a Brussels guidebook. This was quite useful, although it meant that we had to refer to our laptop every once and a while.

We located a nearby district Rue St Boniface which has a number of cafes and restaurants. We then had an early dinner at L’Ultime Atome, a popular brasserie. I had mussels with cream and garlic (pictured below) and Jeff had confit de canard. Jeff’s duck was very delicious and my mussels were better than those I had in Middelburg. The only drawback of the restaurant was that they charged customers 30 cents to use its washroom.

On our walk home, we checked out a second-hand bookstore called Librairie Hankard. After exhausting Peter Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London, Jack Rackham’s The Rag & Bone Shop, Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man, Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, I was greatly in need of a new book, and I chose a monograph on surrealism by Patrick Walberg, in anticipation of our trip to the Magritte Museum.

We walked home as the day died. It was beautiful and the run-down streets of Brussels took on an amiable air. At one point, we sat at Place Stephanie, watching the traffic go by. It was little more than a traffic circle but sitting there was one of the loveliest moments of our trip. We returned to Les Bluets for a good night’s sleep.

Today, we deliberately left the hotel early so as to get to the museums when they opened. We walked about twenty minutes to them, once again passing through Sablon. An antiques market was being set up as we passed by, so we stopped by for a look. I bought a set of cards featuring elegantly dressed and hatted women from the late Victorian period. They are apparently used as button cards but I am thinking of using them as my name cards (or neo-Victorian ‘calling cards‘, perhaps?). Here they are:

We intended to visit both the Musee Royaux Des Beaux-Arts and the Magritte Museum. Because we had an assigned time to go to the latter (this policy was introduced because there were too many visitors), we went to the Magritte Museum first. Magritte is one of my favourite painters so I was very excited to see the works. After spending nearly three hours in the museum, we stopped for coffee and cake and reflected on the experience. To be honest, having previously seen so many reproductions of Magritte’s works and also read so much analysis of them, seeing the real artworks was not really that striking. Perhaps because his images are so original that seeing them in any context is enough to capture his intention. He claimed that there is no meaning or symbolism in his work. Instead he said that he did not have grand ideas, but saw only the images themselves. Still, it was good to be able to get very close to the real paintings and admire his brushstrokes. The fact that we stayed in the museum for about three hours indicated that there was a lot to take in; apart from the posters, paintings and sculptures, the museum is incredibly detailed about his life and his relationships, in particular that with his wife and faithful model, Georgette, whom he photographed and painted again and again. I felt that this was very romantic. However, Jeff pointed out that repetition was a significant trope of his career (for example, there are numerous versions of ‘The Empire of Light’ (see below)) and as such, the repeated portrayal of his wife may only be another manifestation of this particular technique. (Of course, Jeff may just be saying this to avoid taking pictures of me.)

Perhaps the coffee shop in the Fine Arts Museum is worth further mention. It may be the most attractive museum restaurant I have seen. It has captivating views from the balcony over some bronze statues and local rooftop.

After coffee and cake, we decided to focus on the modern section of the Fine Arts Museum as we did not have much day left. This section was far less busy than the Magritte Museum and featured primarily works by Belgium painters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were many well-conceived and thought-provoking pieces but the ones that stood out were those by Marcel Broodthaers. His works tend to be somewhat cynical. For example, we saw several in which he had used old mussel shells to make ironic comments on Belgian consumerist society.

However, the most unexpected piece of artwork in the Fine Arts Museum was its elevator. It was maybe the loveliest elevator I had ever seen, featuring as it does two sets of seats on either side of its large interior. As the elevator stopped on one of the floors, we saw some people looking at us (and another older couple) as if the lift and its passengers were an exhibition. Here are some people on display:


We walked down towards the Vismet (Fish Market) after visitng the museums. On the way, we stopped by a special cafe called Le Greenwich. Its appeal to us not only had to do with the fact that it shares the name of our current London abode, but also because Magritte used to play chess and drink here. It has also been visited by chess legends such as Gary Kasparov. This large old cafe has a great deal of old world charm. I was especially taken by the aging bathrooms in which women have to walk by a set of large open urinals. I had to sneak by a man peeing to get to my cubicle. Very interesting indeed. Here is a picture of some people playing chess in Le Greenwich:

We decided to retire early tonight as we are heading back to London early tomorrow.

“Locate a locale apple tree. Visit it daily through the summer months. Note how the bud slowly puffs itself up into apple-shape. See how it slowly takes a breath. The weeks roll by until its own increasing weight finally forces the fruit to fall. You will find it on the ground, all ready to eat. This whole process is utterly dependable; has a beginning, a middle and an end. But I am not satisfied. Far from it. Plain baffled is what I am. All sorts of questions remain unanswered. Such as … who taught the tree its apple-conjuring? And … where does the fruit’s flavour come from? […] O, how wonderful to be an apple tree — to know one’s place in the world. To be both fixed and fruitful. To know what one is about.” —Mick Jackson‘s The Underground Man (pp. 1-2)



In (and out of) Bruges

On Tuesday 1 September, 2009, we finally watched the film In Bruges (2008), starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Finnes and Brendan Gleeson. The film brought back invaluable memories of the city. (We spotted the window dog!)

On Wednesday we left Luxembourg City for Bruges. It was a long train ride but we finally made it. Our trip so far has been characterized by alternating days with rain and sun. It is therefore unsurprising that Wednesday we had a rainy day but today was fiercely hot. I have previously thought people who wear sunglasses somewhat pretentious and think themselves ultra important; I have now seen the light (or rather, the shade) when it comes to sunglasses.

While at the Gothic conference, I noticed how the word ‘liminal’ was used in many of the papers I attended. It occurred to me that all of the places associated with travel (hotels, restaurants, train stations) can be considered liminal. Then, it occurred to me even our life is itself a liminal state between living and dying.

We arrived in Bruges on Wednesday afternoon. The city is nearly faultlessly beautiful.

However, as it is high season, the city is overrun with tourists. This takes away from its beauty to a certain extent. But it is always like this to travel: many people need to choose between the calm but bleak Winter and the jovial but busy Summer.

Our hotel, Hotel Lucca, is located about five minutes walk from the Markt. The hotel is in a beautiful old building which has seen better days. As such, it feels trapped in another time; old-style European accommodation caught in the modern era:

Likewise, certain parts of the hotel are contained in newer shells, as the eighteenth-century neo-classical exterior conceals a fourteenth-century cellar where guests have breakfast. The hotel, we later learnt, was a lodge for merchants. It was also associated with Giovanni Arnolfini, the banker whose wedding is featured in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’:

The rooms are old-fashioned but have their charms. Because the keys are skeleton keys, a handsomely-prepared scrapbook in the hotel lobby includes this less than helpful piece of advice: “Tourists spend hours fumbling with old skeleton keys in rickety hotel doors. The haphazard, nothing-square construction of old hotels means the keys need babying. Don’t push them in all the way. Pull the door in or up. Try a little in, quarter turn, and further in for full turn. Always turn the top of the key away from the door to open it. Some locks take two key revolutions to open.” In fact, all you need is patience and roughness; perhaps this is contradictory, but is nevertheless the key to these keys.

Last night, as Jeff went out for a walk, I could hear competing concerts from my hotel window. (Jeff later told me that there were two shows going on at the same time.) Here’s the view from our window:

The music went on until late and unlike in other cities we have visited so far, a lot of people still congregated in the Markt after dusk. There were also a large number of people on the streets relatively early this morning. This is in noticeable contrast to for example Maastricht where the streets were absolutely empty at this hour.

We wanted to see some more paintings by Jan van Eyck and planned to visit the Groeningemuseum. However, when we got there, we discovered that it is closed until October. We wondered why the museum would be closed in the middle of high season and speculated that perhaps something urgent needs to be tended to or there were some complications and the work took longer than expected.

We decided therefore to skip the crowds and go to the nearby city of Ghent. We walked to some interesting places on our way to the train station. For example, here is one of the sets of almhouses that can be seen throughout the city:

We also saw the Minnewater where there were a number of swans. The story behind the swans in the city is an interesting one: “In 1488 the people of Bruges had executed one of the town administrators belonging to the court of Maximilian of Austria, husband and successor of duchess Mary of Burgundy. The town administrator was called ‘Pieter Lanchals’, a name which means ‘ long neck’. The Lanchals family coat of arms featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximilian punished Bruges by obliging the population to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity. Most of these legends and romantic interpretations come from the 19th century. Believe them or not : the beautiful ‘Minnewater’ deserves them.”

We arrived in Ghent at around noon. The city was not as immediately appealing as Bruges. But as we walked deeper, we felt that it was in many ways more authentic than its touristier sister city. In fact, ‘authenticity’ is the catchword that the city is using to label itself for tourists (“Ghent, dazzlingly authentic”). The highlight in Ghent was a visit to Saint Bavo cathedral:

Although admission was free, the cathedral to our eyes was just as grand and interesting as other churches we had paid to gain entrance to. For example, it was as I recall, the first time I saw triptychs in actual use instead of hanging in a museum. It was nice to see these works in three dimensions with the side panels coming out instead of lying flat on a gallery wall. Walking through the church, we saw many paintings, silver items, sculptures, tapestries and other artworks and couldn’t help but marvelled at the grandeur of its original state.

While we were there, someone played the organ which gave the entire place a very Gothic feel. I am sure that in the past, this kind of music was intended to inspire awe or fear in the listeners and to suggest the power of God. The pipe organ was not as grand as the one in the church of St. Bavo’s Haarlem but you could actually see the musician playing in front of the organ. It looked like a very physical activity with many levels of keys and pedals to be manipulated.

The jewel of Saint Bavo cathedral of Ghent is the famous “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432) by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The piece is commonly considered to be one of the most impressive artistic masterpieces in Belgium as well as an influential painting of the Middle Ages. This is part of it from the lower central panels:

Tomorrow, we are off to Brussels for the last stop on our brief Benelux tour. But before we go, we hope to take an early morning walk around Bruges to catch the city before it fills up with other temporary (liminal?) residents.


Last night, we went to an Indonesian restaurant called “Tujuh Maret“. It was on a nearby street and located among several other Indonesian restaurants. The large number of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam speaks to former Dutch colonization of Indonesia. The food was excellent, although the service was quite slow. After dinner, we retired for the evening as we had had such a long day.

This morning, we had a large breakfast provided by the hotel and then we walked to Rijksmuseum, which is devoted to the golden age of Dutch art, culture and history:

We were offered a choice of two audio guides: either a historical and formal one or a fun and informal one. I chose the historical one, thinking that they would both cover the same items. However, we later realized that they in fact did not cover all of the same works. The wisest thing to do, if we had known, would have been to have both versions. That said, the historical guide covered many more works and was probably the better choice.

We saw a number of interesting pieces in the museum. One of the obvious stars was a seventeenth-century doll’s house featuring a scale model of a Dutch mansion. All of the furniture and household items (such as silver ware and china) were made of authentic materials by actual artisans. The house of course reminded us of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. We also saw another doll’s house which was commissioned by a woman shortly before she got married. The house seemed to portray different aspects of domestic life. We thought that perhaps the woman had commissioned the house so she could practice domestic management prior to getting married.

On an upper floor of the museum, we found the section devoted to Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vemeer. One of the pieces by Rembrandt is “Rembrandt’s Mother as Biblical Prophetess Hannah” (1631). I had previously seen this painting on the cover of Nicholas Royle’s book Uncanny: An Introduction and had wondered why the old woman’s face was not painted in detail. Today, I discovered that the focus of the painting was her lined ‘reading hand’:

I was also intrigued by a set of portraits. One featured the father dressed in solemn and conservative black. His son, who at the age of twenty was already quite fat, was dressed dandishly in bright clothes and was proudly showing off a pair of fashionable gloves. The description said that the mother had also been painted, but her portrait was now located in Dresden. We felt sorry that the family had been broken up. Lastly, I was struck throughout that all the children were painted as mini-adults. I guess at the time childhood was seen differently and people saw children as simply diminutive grown-ups. Still, in one painting, the true nature of childhood was revealed. It portrayed a winter festival in which children received gifts according to their conduct throughout the year. One child had received a kind of hockey stick and was gloating his gift unkindly to his crying elder brother, who had only received some twigs because he had been naughty. Certainly, sibling rivalry existed even then.

After the museum visit, we again strolled in the city, and this time, we paid particular attention to the canal houses. Unlike London where all the houses on the same street are often identical, the canal houses here show great individuality especially through their different gables. Apparently, people had their houses built in different styles because in the past there were no numbers and the distinct character of a house helped people identify it:

We returned to the hotel for a little while this afternoon to have a picnic (ham, cheese, croissants, chips and soft drinks) on our window latch and watch the boats pass by in the canal. What a busy day, one boat after another — people laughed and sang.