war weather reports, “plein air” painting and the aesthetics of pollution




War reporter or flâneur?

I was not going to read any more first world war books. But there was this one book I had started reading a couple of years ago and that for some reason or other had migrated out of sight, to the bottom of a pile of books.  Scanning the room for readable matter, my eye now was attracted again by the red letters on the spine and the picture (of a painting) of a woman in a red dress, with white-grey hair in a knot, calmly gazing at the spectator : "Oorlogsdagboeken - Virginie Loveling"

Virginie Loveling was 78 years old when she started these war diaries in 1914.  A well-to-do, independent,  intellectual woman – opinionated, highly sensitive, full of energy. She could have rested on her laurels as a renowned Flemish writer, but no – there she was, determined to chronicle the life in occupied Ghent (Flanders).   
She watches, she listens, she observes and she records - tirelessly she records everything she sees and hears : triumphant columns of German soldiers  marching on, disintegrated columns of wounded soldiers piteously shuffling by, the avalanche of both critical and petty occupation regulations, the shameless (albeit disciplined) German looting, the rampant rumours, the war profiteering,  the bombings ….

Indefatigably she evokes life on the streets in war-time Ghent – citizens and soldiers, proletarians and bourgeois (not that she is above class prejudices), high and low life – life as it goes on in the parks, on the squares, in the streets, in the shops and on the trams.  Was she an undaunted reporter or a tireless flâneur? or both?  Anyhow, it almost seems as if she went out into the streets every day – walking, taking the tram, sometimes boarding carriage or train for an excursion.


Suggestive weather reports 

I’m completely mesmerized by her lively writing, impressed by the power of language to evoke, well, impressions.  I turn the pages, compulsively reading, ever curious about the next day in her diary , curious to see and hear this bygone world, as viewed by an observant and sensitive mind, brought to  life through her words.

And, always, almost as in a book of hours, these pages conjure up the seasons and the weather variations.  She writes about the weather not purely subjectively- lyrically as a romantic would do, but rather suggestive-descriptive, in the very best tradition of Belgian “plein air” painting (1). 

Why do I find this so moving, this sensuous evocation of banal atmospheric conditions – be it via paintings or via words?  It probably has to do with a deep stirring, a rousing of the senses and of the imagination, a miracle-like mimesis of some of the most basic human experiences:  looking at the sky, watching the sun break through the clouds,  battling with the wind, shivering in the foggy cold,  feeling the rain on one’s skin.  

“en nu valt een floersige morzelregen, die kil door de klederen dringt”

(It would obviously take a real translator to render these words in English – the only literal translation  I can come up with : “And now falls a shroud of finely sprayed rain, chillingly permeating one’s clothes”)

But then, of course, for all my pensiveness, I’ve always been a world & weather-loving flâneur.  Whenever I go out, leaving home for the day, or leaving the office in the evening, there’s always this immediate elation when stepping outside:  sniffing the air, testing the wind and the temperature,  gauging the luminosity of the sky, appraising the drift of the clouds and the strength of any sunrays.


From Belgium  to Beijng 

I’m of course also a consummate worrier, and that (i.e. an incessant stream of ruminating worrying) is the worst enemy of plein-air appreciation.  
 But empowered by Loveling’s example I am resolved to bolster my weather-observant habits.  And these days in March, hesitating between winter and spring, punctured by showers, really make for excellent observation case studies.   

Atmosphere and luminosity, too, are dazzling, especially when walking home in the evening, at that blue hour when the light of street lanterns merges with the last day light, when rays from multiple light sources are refracted in a luminous greyish haze.
These visually so attractive hazy atmospheric conditions are in fact an aesthetics of pollution (alas also inducing coughing, a running nose and watery eyes).  Last Friday, was truly of a shimmering bluish-grey visual perfection : that day the emission level of fine particles in Brussels was allegedly higher than in smoggy Beijing.  

More frivolous Belgian-Chinese associations pop up when wandering about an exhibition of Gao Xingjian's work  in the little museum of Ixelles .  His poetic works feature smears  and splotches of Chinese ink on rice paper, soberly but magically evoking atmospheric variations, hazy landscapes of astounding depth, patches of illuminated skies, drifting stormy clouds.  

In the other museum rooms hangs the permanent collection with paintings of 19th century Belgian landscape painters, they too evoking, via smears & splotches of oil paint,  atmospheric variations, hazy landscapes of astounding depth, patches of illuminated skies, drifting stormy clouds.

It’s important to carefully hoard reasons to be cheerful, to adduce evidence that not all things delicate are bound to disappear in a vortex of global mass-consumption.  To find at least some reassurance that the (disastrously disappearing) contemplative attitudes I’ve grown to love in this world do have some claim to permanence, to universality.  So, what more could I ask: an exhibit of a  French- Chinese writer/artist  working today, concerning himself with « une sédimentation des sensations, la lumière et une sorte de profondeur dans les paysages, les lumières et les reflets »     






a single chauvinist note
(1) I admit I have a particular soft spot for those late  19th century/early 20th C  Belgian « plein air » painters. They’re not well known internationally, considered as a minor local variant of the more famous Barbizon school which itself has of course been eclipsed by the success of the impressionists. But for all the dazzling luminosity of the impressionists, something got lost: depth, observing dedication.  The pre-impressionists better render the grandeur and depth of landscapes and skies. And when it comes to capturing the many nuances of changing shades and atmosphere in these northern climes, I of course favour the Belgian landscape painters. So praise be here to  the likes of Hippolyte BoulengerJoseph-Théodore Coosemans , Franz Courtens and Louise Heger. Little remains from the latter’s words and works – but the surviving fragments do intrigue: a quote (“j’ai soif d’un grand ciel »), a handful of paintings ( ah, that solitary lakeside view "au bord du lac" / at the lakeside),  her family affiliation (daughter of Constantin Heger, teacher of the Brönte sisters in Brussels) 


A Day At ... (the Day Surgery unit)




Kids and Greek art at the day clinic

“Oh, let her run around!” – it’s 7.30 AM at the day clinic , and the 4-year old takes off again – patpatpatpat, racing through the waiting room, little feet tapping the tiles of the hospital’s corridors.  They take turns, mom and dad, to get up and lovingly chase her, keeping her from violently colliding into various obstacles.  Mom & dad must be in their twenties, looking tired, but fondly fussing about their lively kid. “She’s been up and about since 3 o’clock this morning!”, the father says, almost proudly, to the nurse of the day clinic.

There are three other kids in the waiting room, less bubbly, but equally doted upon by their anxious parents. In diverse languages (French obviously, but also Slavic, I guess, and Arabic) the respective parents lavish love and care on their kids. Well, it isqsuite something, too, for such small kids, to get ready for an operation. 

As to my own pre-ops preparations, biding my time in the waiting room, I try and concentrate on eternal images of Greek beauty so as to forget about my own  vulnerable flesh (and about the upcoming bloody removal of the titanium pin from my leg).  I’m holding on to a book about Antique Art, written by a practicing medical doctor who knew everything about human frailty (written in  1909, when amateurs could still write art history books.   Lightheaded, thirsty and with an empty stomach, I stare at black & white pictures of a graceful nymph removing her sandal, of elegant caryatids sturdily shoring up a temple, ….


Relay race to the operating room 

Ah, my turn!  A friendly nurse takes me in charge.  I obediently undress and stuff all my clothes &  belongings in a locker.  Dressed only in a hospital gown, I soon find myself in a bed on wheels. A bracelet with my name is meticulously attached to my wrist, and then I’m ready to be processed.  It’s almost fun, like a relay race: one nurse rolls me to the first elevator, then another one arrives right on cue to take over, rolling me through corridors and in & out yet another elevator before abandoning me at the gate of the operating room. 

“Here you are, something nice to look at ”, the male nurse says, pointing at the opposite wall on which a beneficent soul has painted a paradisiacal view : a deep blue sea & sky, an island with a bright yellow beach and effervescent green palm trees.   The surgeon pops in, his usual reassuring, no-nonsense self, with hand stretched out for a brief energetic shake.  And then I rather lose track, so many nurses & surgeons & anesthesists whirling about.


Hammering at the workshop

  I’m only partly drugged, so I can be a witness to my own operation (though my leg is charitably kept out of view by a screen ).  My senses are on alert : the coldness of the operating room, the glaring white lights above, the wheezing and tic-tacking of various machines, the  friendly banter amongst surgeon-colleagues while (presumably) my left leg is sliced open, the calling for instruments, and then the hammering. ClinkClankClonk 

 Yes, a hammering like in a forge or a workshop. I deduce screws have been unscrewed with a quickbolt and now the pin has to be hammered out. “it won’t budge for a millimetre” the surgeon complains, and then he resumes the hammering with tripled force.  I lay there cringing & shaking, feeling the blows through my entire body.  “Here it is” the surgeon triumphantly exclaims and then peeps over the  screen, “would you like to keep the pin?".
 
I’m wheeled back to a post-operating room, shivering with cold. Around me other patients lay shivering and moaning.  A nurse brings me water (which I gulp down gratefully) and shows me the pin, almost 30 cm long, 70 mm thick, with a nice copper-gleam and 6 double screw holes, slightly bent at the top.  Really, du beau matériel!  I clutch on to my pin with pride. 

There is some confusion in the post-op room, with too many patients accumulating because the recovery room is full with children. And apparently adults and children may not mix in the recovery room (why would that be? Adults complaining about noisy children, or vice versa? )


A bare room with a visitor 

So, after much administrative debate,  I’m finally rolled into a spare room, which  is perfectly bare, and perfectly white and has nothing whatsoever to look at (there is smoked glass in the windows – one can only speculate about the view outside, try and deduce the weather from the intensity of light ).
Right, so there I lay then.  Without glasses, without book, without mobile (the locker must be ringing with C’s worried calls).   Only every once in a while I catch a glimpse though the open door of someone passing by.  

In this monk-like cell, in this perfect stillness, am I visited by superior thoughts? Am I contemplating eternal truths? Or am I at least productively planning for, say, a next trip?
 Nothing of all that.  I grab a piece of Kleenex and start drowsily folding and unfolding and refolding it. I try out various fold-variations, but that limp piece of stupid tissue just won’t become a paper hat, or a paper plane. 

Someone walks by at a brisk pace, then turns and peers curiously in. “Hi”, she says tentatively, taking in the bare room, the single bed, and my bored self. She walks in diffidently, then more boldly, asks “what happened to you”?    She looks young, with sparkling eyes and a playful grin on her face. Twenties, late twenties, or perhaps even early thirties? Difficult to say with the headscarf firmly tucked in under the long-sleeved blouse.  

We exchange our hospital credentials. Her son lies in a cubicle a bit further on the same corridor, also a case of pin-removal, but from a broken hand. So we move on to graphical descriptions of the accidents that brought us here (son had been chased by a dog, tripped over a stair, and bwaaf) . “ I have to go and look at him now, he shouldn’t be alone when he wakes, but I’ll be back” .


The visitor walks in again

And sure enough, just when I am about to fold the last remaining Kleenex tissue, she walks in again. “my son is awake  & well, listening to music on his phone, so no need for me to stick around “.  Enthusiastically we start delving deeper into our respective histories, out-doing each other with tales of gruesome injuries and close call accidents.  Then we start assessing humanity, and the different types of human specimens that walk the earth.  The charitable ones and the devious ones, the ones that stick with you when things go wrong, and the ones that would rob you when you lay hurt on the street. 
  
She  then tells of how she once found a rucksack and brought it back to the traced down owner, and how scared she was that they might suspect her of having taken away something. “lots of people over here don’t trust us”  she says, while self-consciously touching her headscarf and gauging my reaction.
I must have looked appeasing enough, because she continues “my parents have been here for over 45 years, they don’t want to go back to Morocco anymore.”  

 “I was born here. I only go there for summer holidays, people are always very nice, in fact much warmer than over here,  but …. “ She rolls with her eyes, waves her hands “ahlàlà, very exotic, you know, Berbers in the mountains” .  “No,  I really  feel a Bruxelloise, I love my neighbourhood, Saint-Gilles. My parents have always been very open & tolerant. Live and let live, that’s what they taught me”. She glimpses at her watch – “oh, I should be going now! “


Discharge

I dose off for a while. When I wake, my impromptu visitor is there again with her son.  He’s  a lot taller than her, but still with a very young boy’s face and looking quite vulnerable with his bandaged hand. Seeing the pin on my bed table, he’s impressed “oh, that’s quite big!” We then say our goodbyes, wishing each other a heartfelt “bonne chance & bon rétablissement!”
         
Then the usual hospital discharge routine takes over: the nurse changes one last time a bandage soaked with blood; the surgeon comes in and says everything looks fine and that I am allowed to walk.  The nurse helps me to shuffle towards my locker to retrieve my things.  (i.a. a mobile with 10 missed calls and an anxious voicemail).  I dress with some difficulty and then C. walks in, bringing  crutches and all,  and I can go home, to drowsily attack a fresh box of Kleenex (but at least with Mozart playing on the background).   


viewed as a painting




 
Poor Mariana!  Marrying at age fifteen (15) the 45 years old father of your initially intended fiancé (who died 2 years before). Giving duly birth at age seventeen.  Subsequently being ill for many  months.  And when you have finally recovered you have to pose for the court painter while you’re incarcerated in a huge stiff unwieldy dress.

You look as if you’re about to burst into tears. 

But don’t think art history will take pity on you! Oh no, more than 300 years later a meticulous art historian will dismiss you as surly, obstinate, bad-tempered. He will deplore your extremely ungainly appearance but will nevertheless praise the beauty of the picture, viewed as a painting.   





From Joseph-Emile Muller : Velázquez  (Thames & Hudson 1976)

"[Princess Mariana of Austria] had once been the intended wife of Baltasar Carlos and was now to be married instead to Philip IV, her uncle and the father of the man to whom she had been betrothed. At the end of 1648 the Princess was just fourteen years old and the King forty-four. [They married in October 1649]
[…]
Velázquez did not paint her at once because she was about to give birth, and even after Princess Margarita was born, in 1651, she was unwell for several months. But in 1652 she sat for a huge portrait. Here her face is not the most important feature – which is no particular loss as it is not especially attractive. At scarcely eighteen years of age this young woman looks proud, surly, obstinate, bad-tempered and utterly lacking in spontaneity. […] The dress [flattens] the bosom into a tight bodice and billows out around the body, hiding it completely. […] It is hard to imagine a more extreme negation of femininity or a more ungainly appearance. Nevertheless, if one studies the picture for a while, one is struck less by the ugliness of the attire than by the beauty of the picture, viewed as a painting."