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 Boulenger, Joseph-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)