Winter light in Brussels (or: Memories of Glamour & Grime)

A small town kid’s fascination for both the glamour and the grime of the city is hard to match. I must have been ten when I first fell in love with a city, Brussels as it happened – while waiting with my parents for the night train to France in the station of Schaerbeek, at that time the Brussels terminal for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits . Ah, the excitement of eating a sandwich in a Brussels grand café – with its intimidating waiters clad in black, its windows half covered by little lace curtains hung on gleaming copper railings - wholly immersed in the exhilarating noises of trains & clattering cutlery.
Before boarding our train the whole family would still go for a short walk outside, in the streets of Schaerbeek. It would be a cautious walk, with all the kids holding hands and with my mother clutching her handbag, because you never knew what could happen in the big city! Especially in these rather sombre streets of the station quarter, where I particularly remember a quite daunting avenue, alongside a little gloomy park, with old stately houses covered with sooth - all exuding an air of “grandeur déchue”.

At age 24 I finally made it to Brussels for real, moving to a small apartment on the fourth floor of an old house in Schaerbeek. From my window I could see turning a big neon lit Mercedes star, which was perched on top of a high rise near Brussels North, another Brussels station. This was the real thing, a “real big city” kind of view I thought, promptly projecting all my longings for exciting urban life in this tipsily turning neon sign at Brussels North . It was there that I would take the tram from and to the city centre. And also when going on foot, my journey would take me through the North Station quarter - so exotic & unfamiliar.
I would wander through lively streets full of Turkish and Moroccan shops and restaurants, I would fixedly stare at the pavement while crossing the infamous red district street near the railway, a street filled with slowly advancing cars and with loitering men avidly looking into the neon lit windows which ignominiously displayed bored women in sultry poses .

Only a few streets further from the North station were the shops I was regularly raiding, the huge (in my provincial eyes) Fnac records & bookshop (which was still about records & books back then, now it is a stressful multi-media centre). And of course the blessed little 2nd hand record shop where people were apparently dumping all their old collections of quality LPs when buying CD’s. There I not only got Kraftwerk’s shimmering neonlights LP, but there I also started to build up my classical LP collection.
It was a true treasure trove – and coming back home in my sparsely furnished flat, I would sit on the ground, with my back to the wall, looking out of the rooftops through the opposite window, and listen listen – to those so touchingly human and humble and yet dazzlingly brilliant Bach cantatas, to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations, to the divine and melancholy Monteverdi, to the gay and frivolous Mozart simmering underneath with umbral sadness.
Just as I myself was simmering with all the contradictory longings and anxieties of a 25 year old who has just arrived in the city ... .

And for a long time, even when living in other parts of Brussels , I would still go for long walks in Schaerbeek. Perhaps no other borough so encapsulates the essence of Brussels, exhibiting so many contradictory traces of past & present, offering a home to so diverse a population. Native ‘Brusselaars’, young & trendy people, well-off bourgeois (less & less though) and many many waves of immigrants .
In some neighbourhoods you can still sense the atmosphere of the village Schaarbeek once was, before being swallowed up by the big city. In other streets, with a nostalgic suburban feel, you can spot the fading traces of once buzzing small industries and artisan shops. Elsewhere you can get startled by unexpected railway beds surging out of old brick tunnels and then continuing amidst park-like bushes in the middle of a gsplendid residential lane. Schaarbeek’s rich bourgeois period did leave many grand art nouveau houses and a great park too. Some of the streets have remained neat and uppity, others have fallen victim to urban decay and grime, but always, always one is curious to see what is around the next corner.

No, one never gets bored when taking a walk in Schaerbeek, especially when dazzling winter light sets ablaze rusty tram rails and grimy windows alike.

Retreat (coda)

A special thanks for giving interiority its place in the public world (see previous anguished post) should definitely go to the late 19th century sculptor George Minne (1).
Though much of his work may seem too shriekingly tormented to our current taste, he also brought into the world some meditative sculptures which achieve a unique balance of stillness and expressiveness, in an almost classical contrapposto.

“The kneeling youths”, “The small relic bearer” : slight, humbly kneeling figures, all carrying some weight (be it a relic or their own upper torso).
Their head is bent, resigned to look forever inward, to endure without expecting anything from the world (2).

Clearly, not the most clamorous or glamorous statues. Their maker, too, seems to have led a rather withdrawn life . And yet, these static, introspective statues did strike a chord in the art circles of round about 1900: both fellow artists and patrons of the arts avidly collected (3) many different versions of these “kneeling youths”.

Therefore, in many an interior painting of that time (showing
an artists’ gathering
, fellow artists’ (self) portraits or portraits of patrons in their habitats) one can spot in the background the familiar shape of one of Minne’s introverted kneeling youths. Still, withdrawn, but unmistakably present.

Also in museum rooms, these Minne statues tend to stand a bit apart, quietly reserved, drawing the spectator’s gaze into their stillness.

Even worldly bankers once seem to have seen fit to add so unworldly a statue to their collection, or so I could see for myself. Over 10 years ago (at a time when I still felt obliged to participate in work receptions), while stressing in a big stuffy bank room full of self-important, extraverted men, I all of a sudden noticed this Minne statue, discreetly standing in a corner. Ah, the relief I felt – knowing there was at least this still, friendly presence I could gaze at, from time to time.

(1) An excellent on-line introduction to Minne’s art in (mostly) English in a Canadian journal
(2) Below you'll find a nice characterisation (in French) of these Minne statues, by Andre De Ridder, in a beloved old booklet about Minne (a little book i found in the unsurpassed Posada art bookshop whose closure earlier this year I still am mourning – where am I now to get hold of all those old art history books? This particular Minne booklet was jointly edited in 1947 by the Belgian “Ministère de l’Instruction publique” and the legendary Antwerp schoolbook-editor “De Sikkel”): “Chaque oeuvre se replie sur elle-même, se tasse en quelque sorte; elle semble subir le monde extérieur, en porter le poids, au sens moral et materiel, plutôt que conquerir l’espace et s’y élancer”
(3) i consider myself a loving collector, too, of these Minne statues, but being a humble post-modern melancholiac living in 'the age of mechanical reproduction' – i obviously do not collect tangible things, but content myself with stolen glances in bankers’ rooms, long meditations in museum rooms, amateur photos taken in those same museum rooms , official photo reproductions & their copies, ...


On a cold and wet December day a weary flâneur may be forgiven to seek solace in Arcadian Visions (1) – especially if these visions, however lush & luminous, do not shy away from “intimations of mortality” .
In my longing for “leisure & tranquility with dignity “ (“otium cum dignitate” ) it was to “Poussin and Nature” (2), a book about the landscape paintings by the 17th C painter Poussin , that I turned. I have always remained rather discreet about my love of Poussin, perhaps to avoid being tainted by the qualifications of “haughty and cold” that have become standard to describe this supposedly over-intellectual painter. (3)
But “ Poussin and Nature” not only soothed my wrought up nerves by reproductions of nostalgic landscapes, it also offered a comforting interpretation of Poussin as a contemplative, melancholy man, with “an inclination towards retreat and silence” (4) , wanting to flee from the worries and vanities of human affairs.

Landscape or Tragedy?
While Poussin’s famous “Et in Arcadia Ego” painting still oozes a reassuring, antique loftiness despite its “memento mori” (5) , in other landscape paintings he explores “a more austere, somber, and clear-eyed analysis of the forms of nature and of the place of humankind in the universe”. (6)
There’s the (seemingly) enchantingly bucolic painting of Orpheus insouciantly playing his lyre in a delightful natural scenery, charming his audience, while in the background, unnoticed by him, Eurydice is bitten by a snake. (7) (8) (9)
There are also the landscapes with antique historical tales - like the two “Phocion” paintings: grand landscapes, exuding nobility and order, showing untroubled humans going about their business , oblivious of the tragic fate of the proud and loyal Athenian general Phocion who for obscure reasons had been condemned to death by his compatriots. In the “Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion” the idyllic and indifferent harmony of the landscape contrasts with the individual tragedy of proud Phocion’s corpse being carried away on a makeshift stretcher.
In the “Landscape with the ashes of Phocion” sublime nobility rules, be it in the grandeur of the trees and the antique buildings, or in the calm and casual attitudes of the minuscule figures in the background. And yet, in the foreground, there’s the anxiously bent figure of a woman, collecting the ashes of the dead general, amidst the general indifference performing an act of compassion, an act of mere human piety.

History or Goodness ?
Should these paintings be interpreted then as Glorifications of Grand History? As edifying antique tales about Great Deeds of Stoic Heroes ? Or are they rather laments about the futility of heroism, denouncing the inhumanity of History and the public World?
Do they perhaps rather intend to compare the vanity of worldly human affairs with the soothing (though indifferent) harmony of nature? Do they rather want to contrast public indifference with the private compassion of an unimportant, ordinary woman?
“Landscape or History?”, asks René Démoris in his startling (and deeply moving) essay about Poussin’s historical landscape paintings . He argues that “the two Phocion paintings mark the moment of Poussin’s retreat from the historical stage”.
Influenced also by the contemporary nasty political bickering in France, Poussin would have become disenchanted with grand history and with all those supposedly “providential designs & projects of great men”.
“Grand history masks the petty maneuvering of private interests”
And Démoris goes on by evoking the paintings in which Poussin concentrates on the direct, non-historical, relationships between ordinary men and nature, in which he “stages an ordinary humanity” utterly subject to frailty and mortality, facing the manifold horrors which both the human public realm and nature have in store for us.
In such a melancholy world view neither public heroism nor godly intervention can offer solace – the only redemption for “ the inhumanity of that order” might be simple human goodness, mere human sympathy and kindness – however powerless.
Like the humble woman compassionately collecting the ashes of the spurned general. Like the washerwoman (in yet another sombre Poussin painting ) looking intently at a man who flees in great fright from his horrific discovery of a man devoured by a monstrous serpent.
"Can the washerwoman’s gaze make this horror before the unnameable more bearable?

“our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.”

Retreat from the World & from History?
It is a classical topos of course, this longing for a “withdrawal from the mundane world, or escape to a more ordered and tranquil ideal universe”.
Weary Roman citizens as well as wealthy but tired renaissance men aspired to escape from their worldly duties to the peace and quiet of their country estate.
But there’s more to it than mere fatigue – it is also about a reassessment of values, about realizing how much of worldly success depends on vanity & pettiness & brute power. About having to observe that those who get ahead in the world draw upon selfish ambitions and smugness rather than on goodness or a concern for the general interest. (11)
Kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness ... no, they don’t seem to be the prime qualities that lead to worldly success.

When it comes to it, kindness and thoughtfulness even might dis-empower in worldly affairs because power always contains a latent, but unmistakable, single-minded willingness to use force . And it is power which people fear and respect, rather than goodness – however unfair & even inhuman this may seem.
Thus, the desire to retreat from the world also comes from a feeling of impotency - feeling unable to change the world as one finds it. Is world weariness then a matter of sour grapes, of resentment? If we had been greater or stronger, would we have been less weary of the world? Is it to be considered an abdication or a defeat when one withdraws from the public realm into one‘s interior life or into the shelter of a circle of kindred souls?
And are kindness or goodness indeed essentially “unworldly” qualities, invisible, outside history ... ?

And what does Hannah Arendt say?
In cases of intense bewilderment, I tend to reread Hannah Arendt. And especially in this case of worldly confusion, since her philosophical “amor mundi” (love of the world, of the common world humans build, which is our sole hope to attain some relative permanence) so seems to clash with the usually more unworldly philosophical intuitions about transcendental timelessness or eternity.
Here’s what she has to say (words inspired by a reality much grimmer than ours now):
“’inner emigration’ [...] the flight from the world to concealment , from public life to anonymity [...] can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. [...] At the same time we cannot fail to see the limited political relevance of such an existence, even if it is sustained in purity. Its limits are inherent in the fact that strength and power are not the same, that power arises only when people act together, but not where people grow stronger as individuals. No strength is ever great enough to replace power” (12)

Smuggling Interiority and Goodness back into the World
But we can’t leave it at that, can we? We can’t have goodness and interiority banished from the World, condemned to transience and invisibility? Wouldn’t that be too unjust?
Though obviously, both interiority and goodness as such “harbour[s] a tendency to hide from being seen or heard” (13), recommending themselves – perhaps – only to god’s remembrance ... And therefore they would remain unrecorded and forgotten by the World?
And yet, and yet .... poetic justice does exist in the World. It is in art that justice can be done to transient interior human experiences & qualities, which are otherwise ignored amidst all the sound and fury of History.

Art, so paradoxical a human activity – drawing both upon the most interior resources and the most public skills, hobnobbing with the rich & powerful but also able to pay attention to the most humble manifestations of humanity . Art is obviously part and parcel of the public world where it can find some measure of protection and where it can claim public remembrance.
And while many artists were consummate public actors endowed with a huge self-esteem, avid to please powerful patrons, their talent (conscientiously or not ) does often capture deeper human truths as well as touchingly humble sensations.
Moreover, art has also (almost miraculously, i’d say) given shelter to the more self-doubting, solitary personalities, to those who can rely only on their fragile sensitivity, on their own skills and their inner strength.
And thus, both quiet interiority and humble goodness have been smuggled back, as it were, via art into the “public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time” (13)

“A still cruelty reigns in many of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings, which we may perhaps call realism. [...] [but] every once in a while, one catches a glimpse of something else in Bruegel. The ‘Census at Bethlehem’ [...] touches with its busy comings and goings of a winter day. [...] Mary is cold and she smiles [..] Just as the young peasant woman does amidst all the light & heat of a July-day, in the painting the ‘Hay Harvest’ – a tiny smile full of trust, not at the centre of the representation, but subtly just beside it” (14)

Disorderly Retreat into the Notes
(1) Arcadia (Utopia)
(2) About “Poussin and Nature” (The exhibition) and (The book)
(3) This wariness of mine (about being associated with a supposedly ‘intellectual’ painter)has to do with the depressing fact that it is indeed possible to be highly erudite & aesthetically sensitive and yet to be heartless. A refined capability to appreciate art can, alas, be accompanied in the same person with revolting, unfeeling selfishness. But somehow I feel that the cliché of “the cold heartless intellectual” nowadays may have been unfairly extended to encompass all thoughtful and reserved natures . As if only the more spontaneous natures would be capable of affectionateness and warmth, as if those same spontaneous natures would never be capable of cruelty.
(4) Jacques Bousquet as quoted by Claire Pace in her essay for “Poussin and Nature”: “’Peace and Tranquillity of Mind’ : The Theme of Retreat and Poussin’s Landscapes”
(5) “Et in Arcadia Ego” (‘Also in Arcadia am I’) is a wonderfully meditative painting by Poussin: in a tranquil antique landscape, bathed in a golden light, three shepherds and a shepherdess of splendid bearing seem to have just discovered a tomb. One of them tries to decipher what’s written on it and, while doing so, casts an ominous shadow on the tomb. The four figures share an attitude of bemused concentration – they may be concerned, but are not (yet) horrified. The mood remains pensive and nobly resigned at this discovery of death, even in Arcadia.
(6) from Claire Pace’s essay in “Poussin and Nature”
(7) “The elegiac Virgilian vision underlies many of Poussin’s landscapes: inherent in the idyllic scene is hidden danger , such as the serpent that appears in so many of the paintings” (from Claire Pace’s essay in “Poussin and Nature” )
(8) “The contrast between the triumph of Orpheus charming beasts and men and offering himself, creating a spectacle, and the crucial event to which he remains blind: Eurydice bitten by a tiny snake, which she turns to look at – an event that is witnessed by a fisherman –and from it flows the dark sequel to the story, in which Orpheus will again fall victim to his own fatal lack of attention.” René Démoris’ essay for “Poussin and Nature”: From The Storm to The Flood
(9) It is this painting (Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice) that inspired Michel Déon to his wonderfully sympathetic interpretation of Poussin as a sensitive artist with a keen sense of human tragedy : “It is the birth of tragedy at which we must look on, powerless and with a heavy heart. As always, Destiny has chosen as its victim the most innocent and poetic of creatures. We mourn for Eurydice over the centuries. This is certainly very far from the image that all too often has been cultivated of a cold and haughty painter” (as quoted in “Poussin and nature”)
(10) W.H. Auden – Archeology: Finder’s credits go to Leen Huet in whose book “Mijn België” I found the quote
(11) As an inveterate pessimist and avid reader of popular neuro-science articles I couldn’t fail to read with a shudder how smugness & self-congratulation prove to be, brain-physiologically speaking, very effective to increase a person’s intellectual performance (cf also all the crap about positive thinking) . Whereas self-criticism and modest self-assessment just use up energy and diminish a person’ s performance . I also deeply regret to have to observe that selfish ambition and competitiveness seem the most effective drivers for people to be creative, to do great deeds, to invent & produce things and thus to contribute to a world that benefits all. But is self-interest really the sole possible driver? Might it not be a matter of appearance, because precisely the more arrogant & selfish natures are wont to widely display and advertise all they accomplish? And might not a bit more thoughtfulness & self-doubt, a bit more generosity have avoided many a crisis and much suffering?
(12) Hannah Arendt – Men in Dark Times
(13) Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition
(14) amateur translation of a passage in Leen Huet’s “Mijn België” : “Er heerst een stille wreedheid in veel schilderijen van Pieter Bruegel, die we misschien realisme mogen noemen. […] Heel af en toe vang je bij Bruegel een ander signaal op. 'De volkstelling in Bethlehem' […] ontroert door al de drukte van een winterdag […] Maria heeft het koud en ze glimlacht […] Net zoals de jonge boerin dat doet in al het licht en de warmte van een julidag, op het schilderij 'De hooioogst' – een kleine glimlach vol vertrouwen, niet in het centrum van de voorstelling maar subtiel even daarnaast. “
(15) Merry Xmas!

twirling & swirling

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me"

John Keats (1)

Times may be grave & grim but autumn leaves do keep twirling & swirling (2) . Not to mention their rustling grace when, ever so crisply, they brush the ground.

Times have often been grave & grim (and humans vicious & violent). But ‘nobler natures’ do keep creating and guarding beauty.

Thus, on a gray and troubled November day, one can find quiet relief, standing in the windy entry hall of a lovely museum (3), watching a leaf landing on the floor, whirling amidst swirling mosaic patterns.

just three dwindling notes
(1) the full poem
(2) for A: English for dwarrelen! Wirbeln in German?
(3) The Ghent Museum of Fine Arts - built in the early 20th century, and recently so carefully & lovingly restored, including the floor mosaics

Confessions of an Accidental Asset Manager

“La chose la plus importante à toute la vie est le choix du metier: le hazard en dispose. La coutume fait les maçons, soldats, couvreurs.” (1)

In my public life, stubborn pursuit of personal inclinations has alas never been my forte. Already at age 18 I cowardly succumbed to utilitarian propriety (2) : the then raging economic crisis and my parents’ insistence made me duly discard a penchant for Classical Languages & Philosophy to enrol instead at the Faculty of Business Economics.

My Brush with the Foundations of Modern Finance

At this utilitarian, and thus eminently boring (3) faculty my academic career had its ups and downs, as periods of diligent if reluctant studying alternated with brief, rebellious assertions of more innate urges. But 4 years later I nonetheless had been suitably imbued with the business and financial wisdom of that age:

- free competition and profit maximisation ensure that scarce resources are put to their best use ;
- financial markets are efficient and should be left well alone to do their blessed job of optimally allocating capital ;
- whether a company is financed with debt or with own equity does not matter (Nobelprize winning Miller& Modigliani ) ;
- deregulation in finance is the way to go (e.g. abolishment of the separation between investment banks and deposit banks; Big Deregulatory Bang in the City) ;
- risks can be adequately hedged and transferred via derivatives that can be correctly priced via mathematical models (Black & Nobel Prize winning Merton and Scholes ) ;
- the interest rate paid by (western) governments on their bonds is the risk-free rate that serves as reference point for all other risky investments ;

Not that I fully grasped the import of all of these maxims (some of them being pretty counter-intuitive), let alone that I could critically assess them, but then, well, I didn’t have a Nobel Prize winning intellect either and at exams I did manage to reproduce enough of it to earn my degree.

Managing Assets!

Having earned this business degree, I did not in fact have a particular career path in mind, except perhaps for a keen sense of having to earn my own living and to do “something useful”. So I sent out my CV to a random list of companies and promptly accepted the first serious job-offer I got.

Thus I started my working life at a small cooperative bank, which had just launched up a new department for “portfolio management” . A team of 3 people managed about 60 portfolios of wealthy clients, totalling 1 billion Belgian francs. I was mightily impressed by that whopping “1 billion francs” figure (though less than 25 million Euros ...) as well as by the Datastream-terminal on which stock-prices flashed by. It was only a few months after the October 1987 stock market crash (-20% on one day), so every day at 4 PM my colleagues would nervously watch the Wall Street opening.

(They needn’t have worried, not then, not yet at any rate ...., since the US monetary authorities in the following 2 decades would promptly come to the rescue at each sign of financial markets distress ... . By always promptly lowering short term interest rates, they thus put a floor under the markets, while on the other hand failing to raise rates to check any rise in asset prices, however exuberant ... Don’t mess with markets efficiently pricing assets, was the creed. But I digress, all of that of course was still to come..., and could obviously not be foreseen back then in 1988, or could it?)

My tasks at first were very humble – inputting transactions, updating prices, answering client queries - before being entrusted with the actual management of a dozen small client portfolios . As a budding portfolio manager I treaded very cautiously, diversifying broadly, preferring bonds to stocks, panicking at each possible risk. But my senior colleague soon initiated me in the secret of successful investing: Japanese warrants (equity derivatives)!
Buy ‘m today – sell’m next week with profit! As the Japanese markets soared from one peak to the next, these warrants indeed seemed a sure way to make the most of only a small initial money outlay. Japanese brokers called all the time with new and juicy warrant offerings. As these brokers themselves made so much money in the heady markets, they also could afford to invite all their clients over for a Tokyo-visit. Even as a lowly junior portfolio manager at a tiny cooperative Belgian bank I thus got invited for 2 weeks of company visits in Tokyo (4).

(The Japanese asset price bubble duly burst in 1991 and arguably the Japanese financial markets and banks have even now not yet fully recovered as the Japanese debt/GDP ratio remains huge . The 80s Japanese bubble was a matter of financial hubris & irrationality as well as excessive private debt. And also a matter of a declining active population. So Europe and the US could have drawn lessons from the Japanese debacle to avoid their own later excesses – but they didn’t of course. Drawing humbling parallels is not something the financial sector is good at. )

But back to my career: soon it had become clear that, being a born risk-averse person, I was not really made for a swaggering front office equity manager function.
So I went on to specialise in the (then) humbler bond and money market management . In due course I also tortured my brain with the maths involved in pricing hybrid fixed income instruments, including the now infamous Mortgage Backed Obligations and other interest rate based derivatives. These MBO’s& CDO’s etc were fixed income’s bid for financial glamour & sophistication.
And they played a disastrous role in the recent Great Financial Crisis – (but that, of course, nobody could have foreseen back in the 90s).

However, also in fixed income management my risk-aversion kept me from chasing the highest returns and, tellingly, my boss once copied and urged me to read a Financial Analyst study “Bond managers need to take more risk”.

Macro-economic analysis was also part of my job then and I did love to understand and describe how and why economic evolutions unfolded as they did . But obviously, “understanding and describing” is not what asset management is about, one should try to anticipate and outwit the markets with immediate profitable effect. Thus, after having read a macro-economic article of mine, my boss shook his head and sighed “well, this is all very nice and erudite – but it is not going to make us a lot of money, is it?”. And right he was, I did indeed seem to lack the “making money instinct” , so essential for an asset manager.

A Cog in a Booming and then Busting Business

So I wisely moved on to more pedestrian support functions in the company – where neither risk taking nor instant money making forecasting skills were required.
From those posts I went on to obediently serve the system and to observe the ebbs and flows in the financial markets. Thus I witnessed the dotcom bubble when everyone thought the technology and internet productivity miracle justified stellar valuations for each and any internet start up.
I also remember a very smart economic analysis made by an unassuming but brilliant macro-economist working at our company – he explained how consumer price deflation in fact was normal in case of a positive productivity shock and that it should not be countered by an overly lax monetary policy because that would only lead to asset price inflation. How right he later proved to be!
But he left our company, not being considered a good economist, since for months and months his pessimistic forecasts were ridiculed by euphorically rising markets – until also that bubble duly burst again.

In the meanwhile my work context had profoundly changed too. The modest cooperative bank I had joined had felt obliged to do a takeover of another bank in order to play in a bigger league (Bigger Banks was what we needed, small banks could not survive – or so the whole financial and political establishment declared at that time).
The asset management activity was spun off in a separate company with now about a hundred staff (barely 10 years after I had joined the tiny department with its 3 staff-members). But this was not yet the end of it.
Four years later we were taken over again, by a big Franco-Belgian bank, itself the result of an ambitious cross border merger .(5) And while over the next 5 years we became an European asset manager with over 500 staff, our mother company pursued its breathtaking growth – becoming a world leader in public finance and one of the world’s most solid banks with superior credit ratings! (AA-rating).

And this is the same banking group that in October 2008 was as good as bankrupt and had to be saved by the Belgian and French governments. And the same banking group that had to declare forfeit in October 2011, turning to the Belgian and French governments again for help, parts being nationalised, other parts (including asset management) being put up for sale to raise money for the ailing mother company.

What Went Wrong? Whose Fault Is It?

What on earth went wrong? With a bank that still had a AA –rating back in 2007? It is embarrassingly simple what went wrong. So simple .... (6)

This bank was not content to take client deposits and make loans in turn, no, in order to become a world leader they wanted to make even more loans (beyond their own client deposits funding capacity) and didn’t hesitate to go borrowing themselves in the short term interbanking market.
And then – to boost profits even more, they also saw fit to build up a huge financial portfolio (nothing to do with the core business) of long dated financial assets again partly financed by short term lending. (7)

The problem of this financial portfolio was not even mainly one of toxic insolvent investments (though there were some) but rather one of a maturity mismatch (short term funding of long maturity bonds) (8) leading to acute liquidity problems once the markets turned sour. (Try to borrow each day more than 100 bn Euros when people no longer trust you ....).

So there we are, this is what went wrong: irresponsible leverage and hubris. But so, how come nobody saw it coming?
A non-financially savvy person might naively wonder how a bank could have been allowed to blow up its balance sheet to 630 bn Euros while having only an own capital of 16 bn Euros? (9) Why did no-one shout out? No regulator? No asset manager? No financial analyst?

So whose fault is it? There’s of course an individual responsibility of individual CEO’s blinded by easy success in an almost virtual money-world (10) .
There may also be a collective responsibility of academics, regulators, banks, financial analysts , asset managers for all having contributed to the miscomprehension and therefore mis-pricing of risk and for all having failed to critically check against reality the prevailing financial dogma’s .

In the real world of enterprise risk-loving certainly can turn awry too but for every 10 failures or so it can at least produce one success with (hopefully) true added value for society – they are “the bubbles of speculation on a steady stream enterprise” as Keynes called it (and it gave us the railways and the amazon.coms of this world).
But while finance ideally is meant to ensure that all over the world savings flow to the investments and entrepreneurial ideas with the best potential (by efficiently pricing risk and allocating capital), there’s no denying that finance these past decades has more often than not merely amplified irrational hypes and has promoted glaring in-efficiency.

The Charges are: Greed, Stupidity , Hubris and Vanity

So is there something particularly rotten in finance? Could it be that money-lenders and money-managers are more prone to greed, stupidity , hubris and vanity than other professionals? (11) Well, yes, perhaps they are, perhaps in finance it is indeed easier to succumb to fundamental errors and illusions of human nature:

- the “skill or luck” question: financial markets traders and money managers can too easily mistake simple luck for skill (which a bricklayer or a virtuoso violinist cannot) and think themselves geniuses after a couple of lucky trades.
- the “agency” problem: traders and money managers make “bets” with other peoples’ money and get rewarded when things go well, but they do not necessarily suffer enough themselves when things go wrong. While an entrepreneur having put his own money & energy on the line cannot escape from the consequences of his failure. (12)
- the” illusion of quantifiable rationality” in economics and financial markets: not withstanding strands of economic thought such as behavioural finance, finance has more and more put faith in sophisticated quantitative techniques which seemed to allow a perfect mastery of risk. But the models could not adequately capture real life quirks or ‘fat tail events’ and the quants didn’t ever question the received dogma’s (see 1st part of this post..) . Thus common sense made way for a sophistication that kept at bay the non-initiated who might have asked critical questions.
- The “amorality of money” : thinking of money boosts selfishness: this indeed is shown by a number of psychological experiments ...

In any case, over the past decade , finance has failed, judged even on its own terms of efficient-free-markets-capitalism (13).
What to do then – perhaps finance should just go back to basics: let bankers and mainstream asset managers again become humble and slightly boring clerks in a tightly regulated industry, and let risk-loving and entrepreneurial financial types run their own small venture capital outfits and hedge funds, with their own capital at stake (and obviously without state guarantee).

And as to myself – instead of doing “something useful” (which was why I choose business economics in the first place) it now turns out that for over 20 years I have been a diligent cog in a dubious system. So what can I say? Cogs in support functions of course don’t personally initiate any actions of great impact – but they do facilitate what’s happening all around them .
And while I definitely plead “not guilty” to the charges of greed, hubris and vanity – I must admit I do feel rather stupid. (14)

An Inflation of Notes
(1) Pascal – Pensées “The most important thing in life is the choice of career: it is arranged for by chance. Mere custom makes bricklayers, soldiers, roofers”
(2) A dubious waiving of personal responsibility perhaps – after all, also this succumbing to ‘utility’ is obviously a character trait or personal inclination ... (though by no means a cherished one)
(3) the imminently subjective verdict of a 18-year old
(4) what I mainly remember from that Tokyo-trip, were the rare occasions we would meet with a female financial analyst or company official (who would have escaped from the ranks of the so-called office ladies), how condescendingly they still were treated by their male colleagues, how brave they were ( a braveness against despairing odds) and how they seemed relieved and a tad triumphant when they saw women amongst the foreign visitors.
(5) Belgian readers will now sigh and will be barely able to suppress their disgust - they know the story is not going to end well.
(6) Just turn to page 7 with the Financial Highlights in the 2007 annual report of this bank . You’ll see a nice operating result but what you need to look at is the balance sheet. Look and weep. Here’s a bank that between 1999 and 2007 pumped up its balance sheet from EUR 246bn to EUR 604bn (the entire Belgian GDP is around EUR 300bn) and this with an own capital of only EUR 16.1 bn. Then turn to pages 114 and 115 for a closer look at assets and liabilities. End of 2007 you’ll see loans to clients for 243 bn and a huge financial portfolio worth no less than 258 bn! And how was this financed? By client deposits for 127bn, by issued debt securities for 204bn, and by a staggering 179bn of short term lending (“due to banks”).
(7) For the (cynical) fun of it, read also the auto-congratulating messages of the chairmen in the 2007 annual report, on pages 10-13. While the bubble was already bursting the erstwhile CEO still proudly boasts the further growth in loans and assets...
(8) Since most of the time short term rates are below long term rates, funding a portfolio of long term bonds with short term lending (esp. if you’re a well rated bank who can borrow cheaply) looked like a magical profit formula: pay, say, 2.5 % in the market and get 4% or so on the bonds you have bought with the borrowed money , and this on hundreds of billions ...
(9) Oh but that’s a simplistic reasoning, financial experts and regulators could have said back in 2006 – you have to look at the risk adjusted ratios, you have to look at the “risk weighted capital adequacy ratio” which is excellent at 9.6%! The ratio could be so excellent because most western government bonds got a zero risk weighting so banks didn’t even had to put capital aside when they invested in them... Excellent, because it neither adequately captured the risks of a liquidity gap.
(10) Modern computer driven finance has made it deceptively simple to build up a bond portfolio of 100 billions of Euros in just a couple of years.
(11) No wonder so many religions fundamentally distrust money-lenders, condemning the sins of usury and avarice ...
(12) Which is a variant of moral hazard
(13) Lets’ not even think about the failure of “Finance” judged on “other terms” .... i.e. what about the venerated free markets and the needs of future generations (once the last barrel of oil will have been pumped up)? what about price-less goods such as silence, clean air, beauty, relative permanence, goodness, ...
(14) I did not ever really read the annual report of the shareholder-bank of the asset management company I work for, but if I had, I’m sure I would not have questioned the bloated balance sheet, I would have been fooled by its high capital adequacy ratio just like everybody else. But I do faithfully read The Economist every week, and so I could have seen graphs showing an excessive growth in debt, showing the unrealistically outsized proportions the financial sector was taking. And no, I did not ever particularly like or adore the “efficient free markets ruled by self-interest” but I too had come to think that, though unappealing, these free markets did do a good job in creating and spreading wealth all over the world (after all, hadn’t the critics of the free markets been proven wrong in ’89? )


Idle chimneys and a leopard print in Charleroi

When I left the Charleroi-station, and while still pondering the admirable renovation the building had gone through since I last was there some 3 years ago , a nagging feeling descended upon me. Something was off in the cityscape outside ... something was missing in the skyline!
And indeed, none of the chimneys of the further off plants was bellowing smoke – no thunderous greys, no poisonous browns, no infernal flames ... All was quiet out there, nothing but the still silhouettes of steel plants and slag heaps against an overcast sky.

Only then I vaguely recalled a small article in the paper a while ago about the last blast furnace in the region having to shut down. Yet another blow for industrial employment in struggling Charleroi.
Of course, rational economists will mutter about creative destruction, they will point out the inexorable logic of global specialisation and will readily dispense advise about how to convert to higher value added activities.
Of course, yes, that’s the only way for economic survival: Progress! Flexibility! Embrace Change! Convert! Innovate! Adapt or Die!

Being myself both a (supposedly) rational economist and a melancholy flâneur, I must confess that also the economist in me has of late become rather melancholy. Bewildered by the current economic mess in the West, obviously, and increasingly doubting about the sustainability of the prevailing economic dogmas.
But well, while thus pondering & wondering, I still had enough of my wits together to board a yellow regional bus to bring me to the Charleroi photography museum, an isle of humanist photographic reflection & memory in this troubled region (and the destination of my present visit.)

And that suburban bus brought me a most endearing example of human resistance to capitalism’s insistent exhortations of change and novelty. The woman calmly sitting in a seat in front of me must have been well over 60 and her attire was extraordinary in its out-datedness – her dyed black hair was done in a vertiginous conical beehive, held together in the back by a comb and several pins. And of course she had on butterfly glasses in the best sixties tradition. But what really did me in, was her raincoat: an old worn raincoat sporting a leopard print, and with that distinctively mat shine of old waxed materials. Her grocery bag too was of the kind of waxy plastic I last saw as a child. She did not at all appear as an overaged fashionista, and her overall dignified demeanour saved her from looking pathetic.
In fact she seemed just a woman who had taken care of the things she had loved to wear, someone who quietly had gone on to cherish transient consumerist novelties although these had not been destined to stay very long in the world.

And somehow I felt this woman’s stubbornness in her attire was also linked to what is so poignant about Charleroi – its many traces of the past are mostly not about carefully restored grand buildings or objects of great significance & aesthetic worth.(though they do have some 19th C bourgeois jewels too!).
Theirs is rather a hotchpotch heritage including obsolete industries and shop fronts and consumer objects and designs that were not meant to last, and which elsewhere have long been discarded and replaced by the unrelenting innovation of economic growth.
It’s a paradox in fact, the sheer decay & poverty of this industrial town (with capitalism's global shifts having condemned these local industries which so faithfully served a burgeoning voracious consumerism ), have also worked to preserve some of the humble things that elsewhere have long been swallowed by our insatiable consumerist urge for novelties.

PS – But of course (of course!) I wouldn’t want to lock up Charleroi in a backward reserve of a certain kind of industrial-consumer society and I can only applaud (of course of course) the signs of change and progress that do are popping up everywhere (an ambitious reconstruction program of la ville basse has been launched recently).

The Brussels Museum of Fine Arts Revisited

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to ‘sea’ as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ‘ship’” (1)

< now please replace ‘sea’ and ‘ship’ by ‘ art museums’(2)>

Yeah, “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth”, I take to an art museum. So on that particularly damned “damp, drizzly” Saturday morning in August, without much ado I quietly cycled to the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts, mounted its wide stairs flanked by pompous pillars, drew my wrinkled museum pass and discreetly mixed in with scattered groups of visitors.

The Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts is obviously not the Louvre and I still remember overhearing, oh over 10 years ago, the disparaging remarks made by some Dutch tourists, who chiefly found fault with the museum’s outdated set-up, reminiscent of “former eastern bloc poverty ”, its last refurbishing dating from the 70s or so. Since then, however, the Brussels museum people (despite meagre funding) did catch up on trendy museum marketing principles: renovating parts of the building, adding a stylish ‘brasserie’ and an up-to-date bookshop , reshuffling the collections and dedicating a whole museum-within-a-museum to the crowd-attracting Magritte.
But I myself, of course, go on cherishing the museum’s vestiges of obsoleteness wherever I can still spot them (those 70s false ceilings, those worn carpets, the fake wood panelling, ...). It’s especially the inadvertent overlap of ill-matched successive styles that does me in: 20th century shabbiness combined with the lingering bourgeois grandeur of a 19th century museum.

And on a sombre rainy day, when the lights in the museum are up, and when through the windows you can catch glimpses of shadowy people struggling with umbrellas, on such a day it is not hard to imagine the bustling bourgeois city Brussels still was in the 1930s.
Neither is it hard to imagine W.H. Auden wandering about in these museum rooms on a December day in 1938, brooding about the human position of suffering while standing in front of Breughel’s Icarus (3) , “how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster”. Today, handy signs direct you to the popular room with the Bruegel paintings. And though the Icarus painting is in fact no longer considered an authentic Bruegel, many visitors still pause in front of it, some of them perhaps reading an Auden sentence quoted in their guide, others searching for Icarus’ tiny “white legs disappearing into the green water” (they are so tiny & tucked away in a corner of the painting, these floundering legs, that you could easily miss them).

There were a lot of Italian visitors last Saturday, flocking together in the rooms with the Flemish Primitives (where they can see, amongst others, two heart rending, pathetic pietas by Van Der Weyden ; an Annunciation by the elusive Master of Flémalle, set in a claustrophobic but enchantingly domestic room ; Dierik Bout’s harsh rendering of a cruel scene of justice ; an oddly still pieta by Petrus Christus, with those figures in frozen postures of grief, standing somewhat forlornly in a vast landscape ; and of course the smooth devotion of Memling’s portraits.

Do Italian art lovers nowadays still admire these Flemish paintings as they reportedly did in the 15th century? According to my friend J. (writer & art historian, carrying a Belgian passport ill matched with his rather Southern ‘elective affinities’ honed during long stays in Italy) Italians are mostly bemused now by the Flemish primitives, struggling with what they see as stiffness and lack of fluidity & volume, failing to fully grasp the sensuality of the typical early Netherlandish sense of atmosphere and of titillating texture.
Be that as it may, my fellow Italian visitors that Saturday were looking intently and slowly, earnestly consulting their guidebooks, whispering appreciatively to each other.

As to me, I got fascinated that day by the quite distinct sensibilities of two Madonna paintings done by Quinten Metsys (1466-1529). Quinten Metsys... ! (4) At times perhaps the most Italian of early Netherlandish painters...
In any case a painter who, without renouncing the Flemish heritage, in some of his paintings fully seems to master the Italian renaissance lessons of well modelled volumes and pleasing compositions. He’s also a painter with a finely honed sensitivity, able to render compassuinately a wide range of emotions, without veering into the somewhat pedant and contorted mannerism of slightly later Netherlandish generations of painters.

Take these two Madonna’s for instance, each appealing to our sensibilities in such a different way. There is that majestic Madonna, seated on an elaborate gothic throne, with the regally draped folds of her robe filling almost the entire picture plane (though in the back, at both sides, you do get a peak at the world outside) . Her expression is serious & sad, (though there’ s a tad of sulkiness too, perhaps in keeping with the slightly aloof appearance of a rich, beautiful girl?). She ‘s absorbed in her reading, no doubt taking in ominous tidings – the little Jesus sitting on her lap is reading too, it seems (or is he just watching the pictures? ) – with a concentrated & knowing look far beyond his age. And yet, it’s such a touchingly small child too, with those little hands, so cute in his white shirt, ah and with a little foot peeping out of the folds of his mother’s stately dress.

And then there’s that other Madonna-painting, so soft and immediately pleasing in both colours and subject , with that warm & intimate rapport between mother & son, with so joyous and domestic a scene (including the humble bread & apple, the homely knife on a plain table cloth).
Two Madonna’s by the same painter, what could be potentially more boring ... and yet (for those who want to see) each painting presents us with a wholly distinct palette of human feeling & sensibility.

How many people have already stood in front of these Madonna’s, rapt with delighted attention ... ? How many meditating faithful Christians? How many agnostic art lovers? (um, & how many bored tourists or students?) How many generations of frivolous dilettantes, earnest connoisseurs and erudite art historians?
In any case, Max J. Friedländer (5) - one of the most insightful and intuitive art historians/connoisseurs I have come across in my, admittedly limited, readings – must have looked quite intently at many of Metsys’ Madonna’s. Leaving us with precise, evocative descriptions, precious crystals of human perceptiveness that manage to capture in a few laconic phrases the full, complex richness of the many sensitivities at play in these paintings.

And isn’t that why we look at paintings : because they are testimonials of human experience which spectators throughout the ages can share and relive, because they offer a “concentrated timelessness”(6) in an otherwise constantly changing and even threatening world.
And isn’t that what is so appealing about these ancient art museums – that the sheer richness of their art collections is proof of a "lasting collective human obsession” (paraphrasing again Leen Huet)(6) .
Thus art museums offer at least some sort of reassurance for the transient & isolated individuals we otherwise are - and some sort of escape too, from our own duller selves, whenever “we grow grim about the mouth” .

neatly numbered (though quite lopsided) notes & quotes
(1) Herman Melville Moby Dick
(2) (taking personal note of the fact that dear C. would of course much rather keep the quote as such, duly salvaging all ships and seas)
W.H. Auden “Musée des Beaux Arts”

(4) Quinten Metsys (a.ka. Quentin Matsys or Quentin Massys) In fact I don’t quite understand why Metsys (who showed such individuality and mastery in a wide range of genres, from realistic caricatures over moving Madonna’s to religious altarpieces and humanist portraits)is not more widely acclaimed. Why for instance was Mabuse (Jan Gossaert/Gennnin Gossart) recently entitled to a major London ‘solo’-exhibition, and not Metsys? + taking note (4) as an opportunity to apologize for the drab quality of the pics (of the 2 clandestinely taken pictures on the spot and of the rather disappointing reproductions found on the web)
(5) Max J. Friedländer Early Netherlandish Painting Volume VII Quentin Massys - some of my favourite Friedländer quotes about various Metsys madonnas:
“the emotional pitch lacks the depth and gravity that give weight to the Brussels panels. The Virgin’s head is rather doll-like – smug and aloof. The child is amiable and insignificant. The whole painting is innocuous and festive, but without the imprint of sorrow that none of Quentin’s other Madonna’s altogether lack”
“[...] the Virgin’s expression is grave, noble and sorrowful, but here it is a bit more sullen and homespun, not quite so proud and a trifle weary. The child, covered to the toes in a long white shift, perches in somewhat uncertain posture on the mother’s arm, an expression of almost animal-like gravity on his face.”
“The intimacy of the kiss is at odds with any air of solemnity, as are the still life details, the delicacies shown on the table in the foreground in orderly array and painstaking, almost over realistic technique.”
And yet another one: “Mother and child move in triumphant freedom, in the spirit of the renaissance.”
And, finally, a quote to confound those who might think Matsys or Friedländer are only about cloyingly sentimental Madonna’s (the following quote refers to Metsys’ Antwerp Altarpiece of the Lamentation) :
“The master eagerly seizes upon opportunities to bemuse the viewer with a show of splendour and a depiction of orgiastic cruelty. The lofty sorrow and many-voiced harmony of lamentation in the centre panel are framed on either side by evil instinct.”
a passage from Leen Huet’s novel “Eenoog”, describing a visit to the Uffizi - “op een plek als deze zou het verleidelijk zijn om schilderijen beter gezelschap te vinden dan mensen. […] Het gaat om hun tijdloosheid, hun concentratie. Achter een paar kleurvakken zit de ervaring van een heel leven. Ervaring die ik lees. En ik ben niet de enige die er zo over denkt, alleen een langdurige collectieve obsessie kan tot dit soort overvloedig gevulde ruimtes leiden” -
a hesitant, unauthorized translation : “in a place such as this it would be tempting to prefer the company of paintings to that of human beings […]. It’s about their timelessness, their concentration. Behind a few coloured planes there is the experience of a whole life. An experience I am reading. And I am not the only one who thinks about it like that, only a lasting collective obsession can produce lavishly filled rooms such as these”

The sumptuous villa of an industrial tycoon, politics of oppression, veiled women, International Gothic and the spiritual quiet of a Sacra Conversazione.

(or: from hybrid reality to universal intuitions )

A disabused post modern discourse?

Is not reality a dirty tale of dominance, full of selfish sound & fury? And is not so-called high or universal art merely an expression of the dominant (obviously) base desires of the dominant class of the dominant continent?

Take that beautiful art deco villa: just the spoiled son of a Belgian 19th C industrial tycoon throwing his inherited money at a lavish art deco villa, sumptuously decorated with the most expensive materials. And that oriental flavour? Well, Mr Tycoon Senior did not only exploit European natural and human resources but also tramped about in Cairo, and indulged in an exotic fascination for the Orient.

Well, at least that sumptuous villa is now being recycled as a “Center of art and dialogue between the cultures of the East and the West”. And all that splendor now houses a politically aware exhibit about “Rituals, wigs, scarves, make-up and so many other constraints determining the life of women for Centuries, between concealment, unveiling and revealing”.

The imposed (!) modesty of the Virgin? The imposed (!) modesty of the veiled Arabic woman? Or the imposed (?) immodesty of Eve, of sensually made up pin ups. Sigh - the inescapable politics of sexual dominance and male projections about how women should dress : never clothed enough (when modesty is required) – never naked enough (when sexual desires have to be aroused). Those naked women on Renaissance paintings: mere porn for rich patrons .
Yah, obviously, whether you’re Darwinian, or Freudian, or Marxist – you have learned that all art can be deconstructed to become a dirty tale of selfish genes, repressed (or expressed? umm...) sexuality, capitalist dominance. We’re all just selfish individuals confined to our contingent provincial conditions. Da. There.

Redeemed by ‘ordinary poetics’

But however true the above disabused discourse may be - yes, Tiziano’s Venus of Orbino is a pin-up , for those who want to see her like that – those who have an “'oculus impudicus' qui ravale l’émotion artistique à la concupiscence” (Jean Claude Bologne ). So, however distressingly true the above may be, ‘disinterested’ poetry and a universal lyrical sensitivity do exist (yes, non-sexually inspired enchantment with the poetic and aesthetic sensitivity of Tizian’s Venus is possible ) – or, at least, there are still enough of us believing in it.

And therefore, wandering about that art deco villa, I can be enchanted by the space and the rhythms of the rooms, by the pure sensuousness of the materials. And I’m moved, deeply moved by the
magic worked by Maimouna Guerresi
: the poignancy and stillness of those white, spectral , hieratic figures ... Levitating? Striding?

What do they remind me of? Definitely not of submissiveness. Of the oriental mystery of veiled women, then? Yes perhaps, but not as a matter of exotics, but rather like the mystery and stillness of a meditating Madonna - the “quiet spirituality of a "sacra conversatione”, done by Bellini for instance, whose Madonnas have that same aura of non-sentimental but deeply moving, contemplative concentration. “ quies - a spiritual reconciliation, idyllic or ascetic retreat into solitude”. Yes, I’m reminded of Bellini, whose pictures achieve that rare intuitive unity of poetry & metaphorical & religious meaning, not requiring analytical erudition to understand their significance.

And that levitating figure? The mystical ecstasy of a Saint? Bernini’s baroque imagination? Saint Theresa?

And those striding figures, with the elegantly dignified folds of those draperies, is there not a visual resonance with the
elongated sinuosity of the gothic international style ...

And so I wonder & ponder ... exulting in intuitive associations. Irrelevant projections? Merely revealing my own hybrid set of accidental cultural references, my own pathetic longing for some universal beauty and meaning? Well, not entirely irrelevant ..., not merely strictly personal intuitions it seems. Later on, when doing some web research on Maïmouna Guerresi, I’m delighted to find these echoes in her own artistic statement :

“As with many ancient icons, my figures in hieratic poses recall images of the Virgin, but also celebrate contemporary cultures and religions that have kept their traditions alive. This gives rise to a new and hybrid iconography [...] My work is part of a [...] transcultural expression’, where the elements of formal beauty combine with ancient African symbolic forms. I present a hybrid reality, consisting of eastern and western cultural references, in which ordinary poetics reach beyond what is represented to unite with a universal condition of beauty, mysticism and sensitivity. This kind of intuition is common to all peoples of the world” .

Post Scriptum, 6 months later
(But I am having doubts now about these "spectral, hieratical figures" - it's their "faceless-ness" which makes me feel uneasy. Because, what's an individual without the expressiveness of her/his face? What's an individual without eyes?)

Art Historical Notes Washed Ashore : Guest Contributions to a Brief Art History of Rain

It seems that representations of rain are definitely on the mind of artistically aware bloggers, as witnessed by the generous reactions to my appeal for contributions towards an art history of rain.

Pensum confirmed the status of Turner (1775-1851) as notorious painter of rain & fog, and furnished a precious link to Georges Michel, a pre-impressionist French landscape painter who ostensibly did not shy away from some dramatic open air drizzle .
And as to non-western art, Pensum also drew attention to Indian artists’ delectation in rendering rainy subjects . Note the explicitly pelting rain in the image (coming from a 17th Century manuscript) of Krishna and Radha dancing in the rain!
Further thinking about “Rain in Art”, Pensum also became all the more certain “that earlier tribes and peoples must have depicted rain in petroglyphs and ritual art “ – suspicions backed up by some interesting articles he found, i.a. by Renaud Ego . And indeed, in view of the importance of “rain” for human life, it only seems natural that it should have turned up in ritual images. Which leaves one speculating whether “Rain” was perhaps too much linked with pagan rain rituals to be admissible for depiction in Christian art?

However that may be, Pensum found further delightful examples of rain in eastern art (quoting his comment): “ it would seem that the Eastern traditions have been more enamoured with precipitation from early on. of course the rain has been used to good effect by oriental artists, as in this Korean painting from the late 12th or early 13th century. And though a later work, this ink painting by Maruyama Oshin from the late 18th century is a fine example of exploiting the obscuration provided by the falling rain. While in India it seems they relate rain with joy (perhaps the fall of blessings?) as they tend to like dancing in it as in this example from about 1670”

Furthermore, both Pensum and Roxana came to the rescue of my failing memory and supplied the name of the Japanese rain artist par excellence, Hiroshige ( 1797-1858), who did the famous Japanese print of a bridge in the rain.

As a superb connoisseur of floating bridges, Roxana also promptly came up with the tribute Van Gogh paid to this Hiroshige rainy bridge.
And with her exquisite Japanese art sensibility, she furthermore kindly shared yet another lovely Japanese print picturing a rainy evening.

Leen Huet from her side consulted the undisputed art expert from the Low Countries, Karel Van Mander (the 16th C Flemish-Dutch gossipy equivalent of Vasari) and came up with a charming anecdote: a painter from Mechelen/Malines, the illustrious completely forgotten Gregorius Beerings (1525-1573), seems to have specialised in Flood pictures showing nothing but a rainy sky and water with the Ark. Questioned about the absence of people in his pictures, the painter shrewdly explained that all people had either drowned (& their bodies would only resurface after the receding of the waters) or were hidden from view in Noah’s ark. According to Van Mander our good Gregorius had quite some success with his chain produced uniformly grey flood pictures. But, Alas!!!, dear curious blog reader: no pictures of this Flemish rain genius seem to have survived. ...
Leen Huet further shows a Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) Sistine fresco with desperate, drenched people seeking refuge from the flood. Michelangelo's Flood looks suitably grey & grim & miserable, but does lack, to my romantic rain taste at least, the splendid splatter of gleaming rain drops .

From an aesthetic point of view, Leen Huet also raises the question why in particular the Flemish Primitives, disposing of the technical means (oil paint!) to depict the sensual and optical qualities of rain, never did render it. Too dull and gray, in comparison with scintillating mirrors , tears, vases and gleaming copper? Iconographically speaking, Leen Huet further notes how Rain is, apart from the Flood, not very present in the bible and therefore not the kind of subject Christian patrons would ask for.

In the meanwhile, rain has briefly stopped over here, so time to rush out for some dry open air experiences.

Wanted: A Brief Art History of Rain

Granted, there are many pressing questions worth being answered first, but right now I’m just sitting here wondering about Rain in Art. When & where & why has it first been represented? Isn’t there some famous Japanese print with a bridge in the rain (but when was that made?). And how often has it been raining in Western art? Not that much before the 19th century it would seem. There are violently romantic ‘storm at sea’ pictures. And Turner did do foggy & rainy things, and obviously there are impressionist paintings of Paris in the rain and of London in the fog. Simmering expressionist views of drizzly Berlin must have been painted too.
And then of course, the full potential of the urban romance of rain has been unlocked by urban photography – going from classical B&W photos ( Leonard Misonne!) to glossy pictures of all the grubby grimy glamour of shimmering neon lights reflected in wet streets.

But so, the real art-historical question: how about rain in pre-romantic, pre-modern art? Is there for instance any explicit rain to be seen in 17th century Dutch landscape and seascape paintings? Well, skies & seas & rivers can definitely look pretty rough in the most anxious pictures done by Van Ruysdael , but where’s the visibly raging rain? The splashing drops? The rainy misty shrouds? I’m not sure ...
And the Venetians then, with their Laguna-dampness .... Does rain ever finally pour down in Giorgione’s ominous Tempest?
Oh, and in medieval books of hours, with their miniatures showing the labours of the months, surely there must be a picture of poor drenched peasants toiling away in a downpour? But no, even October, November and December seem to keep it quite dry in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Um, but come to think of it, surely there will be plenty of rain in religious art! Mystical floods! The Deluge! Noah’s Ark! Hmmm ... not really, wet precipitations clearly were not a favourite pictorial theme before the Romantic age.
Though there are of course a few Nativities taking place in snow covered stables including icicles hanging down from the shabby roof. And Bruegel’s hunters were courageously (& quite prettily) trotting through deep and very white snow. But still: no rain.
There are quite some missed iconographic opportunities there methinks. How infinitely pouring rain could have added to the pathos of poor Joseph and Maria trudging on that tired donkey during their Flight to Egypt! And imagine a chilling hostile drizzle in the Garden of Olives... (now don’t tell me it hardly ever rains in Egypt or Jerusalem - painters adapted the scenes to northern tastes anyway).

And the Caravaggists, with their contrasted chiaroscuros – why did they not exploit the many pictorial delights of gleaming , splattering, refracting Rain?
Perhaps because rain back then in the old days really was nothing but a nuisance, a harbinger of miserable wetness and of fatal colds & coughs?
Perhaps one does need a sufficient measure of rainproof materials and vehicles, as well as warm housing, to appreciate the romantic and visual potential of rain?
Not to mention the lavish availability of waterproof sources of artificial light – yeah, car lamps, traffic lights and neon lights ... they do get the very best out of rain.

Notes being washed away

Prisoner's Dilemma in Brussels? (July 21st , 2011)

Being an inveterate doubting humanist, I‘ve never shied away from Great Nagging Questions such as “the inescapable duel between biological necessity and the transcendence of the human spirit”. (1) Thus there is the puzzle of altruism (or just plain kindness): is it a uniquely human moral quality which transcends (2) the ‘inevitably’ selfish biological instincts (3)? But then how could it survive nature’s merciless selection of the fittest? Or is altruism merely yet another evolutionary strategy serving an ulterior selfish motive, a strategy that has evolved because in some cases apparent selfless behaviour does enhance evolutionary success? (be it on the level of selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish groups) (4)

In any case, digesting the findings of evolutionary biologists, keen economists reasoned without much delay that 1> self-seeking is inherent to our evolved human nature and that 2> humans are rational in the pursuit of their self-interest. Thus they posited this elemental truth: “Human beings are self-seeking, rational agents out to maximize their gains in a fierce, competitive world”(5).
And wanting to draw conclusions as to how societies should organize themselves, they added 3>, “nature [being] mankind’s moral compass” this ‘natural’ individual gain maximization will get the most out of each and every resource (human or otherwise), thus benefiting to the community as a whole.

Mathematically based ‘game-theory’ could even help those rational self-seeking ‘players’ to find the optimal strategy to maximize their individual gains. (5)
But alas, one of those maximising games irrefutably showed that individual rational and self-seeking reasoning did not always produce the best possible collective good. In the so-called “Prisoner's Dilemma” “each player pursuing his own self-interest leads both players to be worse off than had they not pursued purely their own self-interests”(6)

So shouldn’t we then all, as reasonable beings aware of the limits of pure selfishness, rather seek enlightened cooperation instead of going for the selfish option in our ‘games’?
Umm, well, It’s true that if we are both being reasonable that we will both be better off, but ... ay, here’s the rub, what if I am being reasonable & I give in, and the other does not, then I’m the dunce of the affair! Ah and just suppose that I won’t budge, while the other might give in, then I have a chance to win it all! And so neither of us gives in, neither of us cooperates and we‘re both worse off than if we had cooperated.

Dear readers, obviously only few of you are concerned with the fate of the Belgian people, but really, the recent Belgian political manoeuvres are a perfect (though sickening) example of game-theory. The Belgian politicians (sorry, the Dutch and the French speaking politicians of Belgium) have been trapped in this Prisoner’s Dilemma for over a year now, hostages of narrow “Them and Us” group thinking, too paralyzed to be able to form even a government.

Yesterday, at the eve of the Belgian National Holiday, the poor tired King of Belgium addressed its troubled nation, speaking about responsibility and tolerance, about how disastrous the current stalemate was for each Belgian citizen (sorry, for each Dutch speaking and each French speaking citizen of Belgium). An almost desperate, but above all genuine and dignified plea for cooperation ... (7)

Upon which, quite reluctantly, one of the stalling Flemish political parties (say party A) did announce to be willing to rejoin the negotiations with the French speaking parties. And, WHAMM – BHAMM , this mere sign of “willingness to cooperate” was immediately punished by another Flemish party (say party B), eager to steal voters from party A . Indeed, Party B could now claim to be the only Truly Unflinching Defender of The Flemish Interests. And so Party B did not measure its words – accusing Party A to betray the Flemish Interests, “to show its bare naked butt” (“volledig met de billen bloot” ), “to go flat on its belly” (“plat op de buik”).

Again, I am an eternally doubting person who knows she does not know and who, having not analyzed in full detail all proposals from all Dutch speaking and all French speaking parties, is not eager to take big political stands.
But I do have taste ....and I do have a sense of beauty and of dignity. And the sheer crudeness with which this Flemish party B crushed a tentative opening towards negotiation ... Nope, that’s not where I want to be. And yep, now I know for sure – this party B is indeed nothing but a bullying populist party opportunistically catering to the basest selfish instincts.

And in the meanwhile, also on this 21st of July, and also in Brussels, European leaders are convening, with nothing less than the fate of the Eurozone being at stake. One can only hope they will be able to “transcend”(9) the Prisoner’s dilemma, that they will be able to at least try and pursue the collective good ...

Nine National Belgian Notes
(1) Oren Harman – “The Price of Altruism” - “George Price and the search for the origins of kindness”. Click here for a review. It's a truly fascinating book “[covering] the entire 150-year history of scientists’ researching, debating and bickering about a theoretical problem that lies at the core of behavioral biology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology: Why is it that organisms sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others?”
(2) Ah, transcendence! Have never been quite able to grasp what it is, except that it denotes a realm of all that‘s beyond our greedy materialist grasp? As a (inveterate, doubting, etc) humanist I of course take “transcendence” in its humanist-philosophical sense, not in any God-given sense. And what would I personally put then in that transcendental realm - everything that is not merely utilitarian, everything that gets us beyond our role in the food chain, ie : meaning, beauty, goodness, justice, ...
(3) “inevitably selfish” – yeah, well, it’s simple really: in a struggle for life under conditions of scarce resources, selfishness does enhance individual fitness to survive, and thus evolution will mercilessly get rid of any selfless tendencies that reduce individual fitness.
(4) This kind of apparent altruism then depends on relatedness of genes (helping one’s kin), or on expected reciprocity of support and mercy amongst individuals, or on the success of cohesive groups against other groups. But so it is still always one entity surviving at the expense of another. There are even very elegant mathematical formulas that describe how and when “selfless” behaviour is an efficient strategy for genes and individuals to enhance their eventual selection success.
(5) “The price of Altruism” pp 135-137
(6) See Wikipedia for full exposition on Prisoner's Dilemma
(7) Look, I have neither outspoken royalist nor anti-royalist convictions. But I can see how a purely ceremonial, symbolic monarch can help to foster some common sense of belonging – without therefore veering into royal adoration or blind patriotism. And again, as to the Belgian nation – yes, I do cherish it, because it so utterly lacks the more nefarious tones of nationalism, and yes, I do value this cultural diversity inherent in the Belgian nation. And as to the threat for the Dutch language of having to share a nation with an “imperialist” language such as French – well, frankly, I think that Global English poses more of a threat – (witness this very blog written in second hand Global English by a Dutch speaker)
(8) as Hannah Arendt rhetorically asked: “ Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties?”
(9) Ah, there’s “transcend” again! Time for a confession – while I am fascinated by the biological origins of human morality – at heart I still am this old-fashioned Kantian humanist who would rather believe that humans do not merely entertain notions of altruism and goodness because of their use for individual or collective survival. I would much rather continue to believe human morality stems from some sort of empathy or non-utilitarian “affection for our fellow creatures in chance’s kingdom” (Richard Powers), from some non-utilitarian sense of beauty and human dignity.