the sea-borne soul of Dunkerque (1)

Closed for lunch

The attendants at the ticket counter looked positively shocked when we walked into the museum.  Their embarassment deepened when we asked for two entry-tickets: “we are very sorry, but the museum is closed!"
I felt dejected, our day's outing sabotaged by the implacable quirks of opening hours : "Oh, so you're closed for the day?"  They smiled at such ignorance: "Well no, just from noon till 2PM"
Of course, the sacred French 'pause du midi' – it's not because you're only 15 kilometers across the Belgian border, at Dunkerque, that French customs would no longer hold sway (2).

Thus evicted from the  Musée des Beaux Arts, we wandered about in the cold, drifting towards the harbour. Everything about Dunkerque feels naval and seabound. From the salty taste of the air, over the echoing screeches of seagulls to the rhythmic clicking of  masts & poles & wires rocking  in the wind.

Naval & industrial history

Cosy or fashionable Dunkerque is not – what with  its  abandoned naval shipyards and the ominous shapes of  the remaining, fuming industries on the horizon. Even with a strong sea-breeze your throat & nose smart from the potent mixture of sea-salt & chemical smells. There’s nothing frivolous either about its history – over the ages it has been besieged and occupied by various military forces (much like Belgium in fact) with the WWII bombings as a devastating finale.

Dunkerque could once boast one of the biggest naval construction works of France – but they all have been dismantled in the 80s of the past century. Even now, the city’s outskirts are marked by industrial buildings, utilitary infrastructure typical of a bygone industrial age, a channel and a railroad prominently crossing the landscape. Grey concrete walls  covered with graffiti add to the industrial suburbian atmosphere. Only along the coast  Dunkerque offers some old fashioned resort charms with Malo-les-bains still sporting many a frivolous seaside villa.  Contemporary art, too, has been deployed to redeem this battered region: a huge old shipyard building got a contemporary make over and has become a popular art hot-spot. 

Reconstruction & corrosion

Much of Dunkerque-city  has been rebuilt after WWII.  In the city-centre only the church tower and the city-hall have been restored to their former shapes – the other parts of the city have been rebuilt with lots of concrete & iron, bravely reflecting the modern city-conceptions of the time. With some effort you can still imagine the optimistic 50’s-60’s urbanistic models with colourfully decorated cubist buildings, modern cars and optimistically smiling young families.  By now, inevitably, the modernist  vigour has faded, the iron is getting rusty,  some of the concrete is rotting, and the fancy colours are  dulled. Everything looks  quite grey and used – concrete does not age well...

There’s nothing picturesque either about the open air market on the main square: the stalls look shabby, they mostly ply utilitarian wares: some with professional and household tools, others with various cheap clothes – somewhere a dieselmotor  adds its fumes to the cold air resulting in a heady mixture of sea salt and burnt fuel, creating a smog which no  7 beaufort wind can dispel. 

La Brasserie

But, also in Dunkerque, one French institution bravely battles on, watching over French civilisation : The Local Brasserie. During the  lunch hour it is packed with animated people,  all babbling, all savouring three course meals. No fast food in sight, no gaudy furniture or neon – but nicely covered tables, a well equipped kitchen, a true zinc and the distinctive clatter of dishes & cutlery.  And of course:  the disciplined ballet of attendants, chefs and headwaiter who, every day again, with unperturbed  authority and flair, accomplish a perfect lunch hour performance.

The Fine Arts and The Sea

At 2PM sharp we mount the stairs to the Musée des Beaux Arts again – no pompous 19th century affair this, but a 70s building, true to Dunkerque's reconstructed soul. The interior is spacious and  functional , so endearingly 70s in its furnishings, from the PVC faux plafonds with neon lighting to the metallically gleaming  balustrades of the  stairs. There's a moving authenticity to this building and a palpable sensitivity in the arrangement of its collections.

How well Dunkerque's sea-borne identity is captured –  the past naval exploits,  the multifarious riches it attracted as an international hub of ocean trade, its  present status as a small port in a small, lost corner of Europe, and beyond all that : the eternal screeching of seagulls,  the rolling& crashing  of waves, the whistling of the wind – this is the sound track  to this building. 

Post-colonial love of the world

The museum exhibits duly incorporate a contemporary post-colonial, critical awareness – but all the while giving loving due to the objects, to the enduring allure of all these  works of art that have been accumulated over the ages – and that make up 'the relative permanence of our world' .

In the museum lobby one can browse through cases with  nautical  books (both technical and romantic)  and gape at displays with old shipping journals. Dear C's sailing experience comes in handy to decipher some of the daily sea & weather chronicles, which yield unexpectedly poetic impressions alongside meticulous meteorological & sailing details.
“temps couvert, le vent est irrégulier. À 11h la brise fraîchit un peu. Croché les écoutes doubles. Rien à signaler.
Temps à grains, mais sans vent, la brise fraîchit et radonne dans les grains. La mer est phosphorescente et belle. Rien de particulier”

In the rooms with the aptly named 'Retours de mer' ('returns of the sea'),  European painted seascapes of all periods hang alongside  Oceanic decorative art and functional objects (functional but mysterious, god knows how this exotic paddle arrived here) - here &there teh noise of contemporary videos erupts, showing various modes of struggling with the sea.

Works of art as shifting frontiers of the human domain

Wonder &  enchantment await the visitor of the permanent collections,  a whole floor packed with objects and paintings from the museum reserves. The collections have been built from donations by local connoisseur-collectors, spanning  art of all genres,  ages and continents. Who were these men,  whose portraits hang side by side: they were rich, for sure, esteemed solid citizens, but also men with a  personal taste and particular inclinations guiding their acquisitions. 

It's to the huge credit of the curator to have created a wonderful atmosphere  of correspondences between disparate works – one feels privileged to wander amongst the many works, to explore, to discover. Here one can become besotted with a little gem by an  unknown painter, there one stumbles on a work by a famous master.

This is more than a cabinet de curiosités, it is a  dépot full of enchanted  objects that “help the soul to exist”, that help the spectator to be attentive, to reflect, to ponder, to savour, to recognize, to  look and look again - to compare,  to contrast, to choose, to love.

Dans ou à travers les oeuvres, ce sont bien les frontières mouvantes du domaine humain que [l'on] va reconnaître”. [...] Aussitôt mis en circulation, l'objet utile est comme dévoré par la jungle des choses. L'oeuvre d'art résiste : elle continue […] d'irradier [..] la présence humaine. Dans l'universelle indifférence, les oeuvres d'art posent la différence de l'homme. Elles l'aident à exister.” *

(* Introduction par Jean-Clarence Lambert aux “Ecrits sur l'art” de Paul Valéry)


Disclaimer and a nod to all things French

(1) Disclaimer - the above post was written before terror broke loose on January 7th/8th/9th. More has happened since last Sunday to make sense of, but I have little coherent thoughts to add.   4 million people marching  without incidents – that’s good I suppose. Thursday’s foiling (in Belgium) of another terrorist plot is good (the foiling) – it is also bad since the plot confirms the deadly mix we all have been dreading since May:  readily available Kalashnikovs on the black market (the Paris jihadis, too,  got their weapons in Brussels)  + returned Syria-combatants (in proportion to its population Belgium is thought to have the most Syria-Jihadists in europe)  +  radicalisation (radicalize and de-radicalize: new omni-present verbs) in disadvantaged neigbourhoods (Belgium scores worst in Europe as to the education- and employment-gap between immigrants and natives).

What else did we get: the resurrected CH cover (funny, both forgiving and self-derisory for one part of the world ; insulting & provocative for another part of the world  --- confirming how deep the gulf between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ values is?)
As to myself - I'm sinking into irrelevant melancholy musings about the original human sin.  Our selfish genes – which we try to overcome by creating group bonds based on ideologies or religions. The empowerment and the solidarity of groups, the rousing calls of ideologies and religions to transcend mere selfish and  material interests. And then the sad fact that all of these absolute beliefs  have all, at some point in time, in some place in the word, led to destruction and disaster.   

(2)   Ah the battle of ideas & customs between the Anglosaxons and the French!  Quite amusing to watch for Belgians (suffering occasional disrespect from both).   Dutch-speaking Belgians may of course seek refuge in English from arrogant ruling class French - there may even be some schadenfreude at the loss of french grandeur. But then, there’s also a simmering resentment of the all pervasive global anglosaxon culture to which the French at least offer some, however fallible, alternative. People seem to grow increasingly weary of a certain type of Anglosaxon victorious capitalism. As to me, for instance, it’s not the uncompetitive  French egalitarian  spirit I would mock, like all those London bankers do when hearing about French financial sector topguns fleeing France’s high taxes and emigrating ‘en masse’ to London. It’s rather the apparent sense of personal entitlement (the greed?) of those footlose top-earners which offends me. 


Anonymous said...

Je beschrijving doet me naar de Noordzee verlangen, Flâneur. De Noordzee en nog verder weg. Ik denk dat ik mijn boek van Georges Lecointe over de expeditie van de Belgica nog maar eens ga lezen.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

tot mijn schande: Lecointe en de Belgica moest ik gaan opzoeken ... dus Belgen waren ook zeevaarders!

(uitstapje naar Parijs in de winter en naar Antarctica in de zomer?:-))

Anonymous said...

Ik denk niet dat Antarctica ooit echt aangenaam is, qua klimaat - en pinguins zijn naar het schijnt griezels. Dus nee, voorlopig houd ik het bij lezen. Wij Belgen hebben er, dankzij het pionierswerk van De Gerlache en zijn kompanen, nu wel de Prinses Elisabethbasis natuurlijk.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

ah ja, met de onvervaarde Alain Hubert en Dixie Dansercoer! (een "zero-emission" wetenschappelijke basis - ik geloof dat corporate sponsors van dat project, als beloning voor hun vrijgevigheid, mee op begeleide expeditie mochten)