The Nineteenth Century, Belgian pride and an Art Robbery

Ok, I confess: I’ve a weakness for cities that flourished in the 19th century and have since withered away. At some point they have disconnected from the economical upward march and so have been less exposed to the onslaught of the perpetually new. Bearing visibly the imprint of past times, they are a destination of choice for those who cherish traces of lost traditions. But, mind you, those cities themselves do not necessarily appreciate this melancholic attention, they’d rather be lauded for their present day successes.

Take Verviers for instance, a city located between Liège and the Ardennes, 1.5 hour away from Brussels by train. The city knew its heyday in the 19th Century, when the introduction of new industrial techniques propelled its Wool industry to international prominence. But from the 1950s onwards global industrial competition provoked the inexorable decline of Verviers’s industries. And it’s only in the nineties that economic activity has slowly regained ground in the services sector. But even now unemployment in the Verviers districts remains above 15%.

Visiting an Industrial Revolution city is of course best done by rail – if only to be impressed by the grandeur & beauty of its station. Oh yes, once upon a time engineers wanted to emulate cathedrals when building stations, once upon a time engineers still had an aesthetic sensibility…. The Verviers station, built in the twenties, is a case in point. Its monumental grandeur is imposing, the texture of its materials is heart-warming. Ah, how charming are those dully gleaming tiles, how tantalizingly tactile the porous-ness of those bricks. And the sheer strength & elegance of iron! The warmth of that glowing wood …. Hmmm, & then that soupcon of art deco grace in the station hall …

Upon leaving the station, one is at once conquered by Verviers’ particular charm: its mix of bourgeois sturdiness and Spa-frivolousness (the eponymous Ardennes-town, Spa, is only 30 minutes away!) . There’s a certain Spa architecture that recalls sophisticated pleasures of times past as well as simpler & fonder childhood memories ( well at least for all those who as a kid modestly went on vacation in the Belgian Ardennes, as I did).

Ah, and everywhere the remains of that Belle Epoque architecture. Buildings whose pompousness is redeemed by the playfulness of their decorations, the sensual roundness of their forms. Buildings full of reminiscences of a bourgeois culture with hints of bohemian artfulness. And the slight touch of neglect and decline of course atones for any associations with rapacious capitalism.

And then, oh really one does fall in love on the spot! : a little park next to the railway tunnel. Smelling very much like autumn, with its wet leaves and its damp earth. And with of course endearingly irrelevant statues celebrating the worthy burghers of the past.
And for those with a weak spot for Belgium and the symbols of its unity: in the park there’s a puny little tree, well fenced off, and with a sign that tells us it has been planted there in 1994 by “the Verviers section of the dynastic movement at the occasion of the 1st anniversary of the passing away of his majesty King Baudouin I” – especially poignant in these troubled times , with Belgium’s sheer existence threatened by separatism (Flemish versus Walloon)….

And yes, The Economist got it all wrong when writing that Belgians are completely indifferent to the demise of their State, witness the silent statement of more and more Belgian flags adorning the houses of a people not usually prone to flag-waving. But then, The Economist has been wrong before (predicting further oil price declines when it was at 10$ a barrel, supporting the Iraq war, ….).
And well, The Economist just shares this peculiar British blindness for all things Belgian. In blatant ignorance of the origins of Charlemagne, Charles Martel, the emperor Charles V, the Flemish Primitives (with for example Rogier de la Pasture/Rogier van der Weyden ), the Franco-Flemish Polyphonists (eg with Josquin des Prez, Orlando Lassus, …), Rubens, Van Dyck (Sir Anthony taught the British how to paint) they gleefully repeat these territories have hardly ever spawn anything noteworthy . (ok ok they did mention the saxophone, Tintin and surrealism - but not mentioning Justine Henin, the global nr 1 in women's tennis, is clearly proof of their bad faith!).

Anyway, perhaps it’s due to a certain imperial British-ness, this incapacity to grasp the attraction of the Belgian concept: a specimen of 19th century nation building, hosting within its borders a rich and varied history which continually spills over into other countries’ histories (is it the Netherlands ? Is it Burgundy? Is it the Holy Roman Empire? Is it the seat of the Spanish empire?). Utterly lacking chauvinism, without delusions of grandeur (except once, with Leopold II … ), but bustling with diversity and inner contradictions – the Belgian nationality is a truly ironical nationality. So yes, I sincerely hope the currently competing streaks of Flemish nationalism and Walloon stubbornness will not rob me of my cherished non-nationality!

But I digress - back to Verviers, with its terraces on a leafy square, its fountains, surrounded by hills, sparkling in soft autumnal light. Yes, enough to entertain that pleasing illusion of a civilized savoir-vivre, Belle Epoque style. But having lunch in a run-down tavern that oozes grandeur déchue, overhearing conversations, watching people’s style and gait in the suspiciously crowded streets during a weekday, one senses the struggle with unemployment and poverty. . . This is no longer a bourgeois town, nor an elegant Spa….

But it does have a delightful municipal museum (musée des beaux arts) in an old hospice. Nothing dusty or ramshackle about this provincial museum, its collection of European paintings and sculptures (and of internationally ceramics, but I am not a ceramics person at all) is carefully & lovingly presented. Oh what joy to stand face to face with a Pietro Lorenzetti , one of those Madonna’s with angels and fathers of the church against a gilded background. Or fall under the spell of the bluest of night blues on a Patinir landscape. Be touched by the fleeting flair of a child’s head painted by Joshua Reynolds. Find comfort in the maternal gaze of a sturdy, seated wooden Madonna …

The tale of the two guards of this endearing little museum was all the more pathetic. They had received me with all égards, quite impressed by a visitor all the way from Brussels …. When asking me to leave my bag at the desk, they explained how they had been robbed twice. One of the guards, following me in all my steps, told with trembling voice how the robbery had taken place, during just 2 minutes of his being on another floor …. Ah, the world is unjust, robbing this sweet little museum of one of its treasures and this dear man of his night rest…


ABxl said...

Well, thanks for evoking this as it all rings a bell – memories of Verviers station, flashes of Spa behind the dark green hills, but especially Malmédy, the city in the long valley where slowly German blends into French, or vice versa, depending on which way you go… (maybe towards Stavelot, crossing the invisible border to another region, and then the “Ardenne profonde” is right before you…)

I never thought of it by way of musing over the nineteenth-century, which is interesting enough, but still was struck by the (often decaying) urban and industrial touch in those small Ardennes towns, compared to the German “Eifel” across the border which somehow seems to have been abandoned by mystery. Obviously, the industrial revolution has rushed through those Belgian places, leaving the odd brick ruin (or are these from later times? …or from my imagination?) with sharp edges, reflecting the rough and prickly cover of the dark firs rising on the humid slopes.

ffflaneur said...

abxl , thanks for your "Ardenne Profonde" & "Eifel" impressions - how fitting a "détour" to complement this " Belgian post" --- (& I'm sure you could capture that atmosphere on photo too - how about a dedicated Flickr-set? hint hint)