Light in September

Fleeing from the 21st Century to the 19th Century

You're a coward, a nostalgic conservative, a petty wage slave with a mind dulled by too much work. Or so I admonished myself, because this eminently relevant contemporary art exhibit with many an eminent artist was eminently exhausting me. Not that I disagreed with the messages - yes of course present & future look bleak:  "polycentrism & conflicts , threatened planet, overconsumption, poverty-wealth and inequality, selling our time and  our souls" -  but really, must art  to evoke these realities be so tiring, so conceptual-didactic?

Fleeing from the 21st century to the 19th Century (aren't museums great places for allowing that? ) - I  did not immediately find consolation though, being not in the mood to substitute 21st C catastrophism for 19th C triumphalism.    

They haven't changed much, the Rue de la Régence or the Place Royale - so I was musing, looking at the 19th century sepia photos in the "Musée fin de siècle".  This was a young royal-bourgeois nation at its most confident:  triumphant classicising urbanism mixed with national heroic romance embodied in the statue of a boldly galloping Godfrey of Bouillon. 

By the turn of the century the mood had apparently changed, morphing into an anxious melancholy rather more congenial to my own state of mind. The stillness of a staircase by night, the vertiginous lines of a deserted sea boulevard, the inwardness of a kneeled boy with bowed head, carrying a weight.  Mellery, Spilliaert, Minne ... especially Minne "that great depicter of grief".

A bustling 21st Century market

The next day, cycling about town (without being harassed by cars on this one car-less day of the year) the 21st and the 19th century met again, this time in the shape of a bustling 21st century Brussels market, hosted by a huge 19th century cast iron and glass building. In  the Anderlecht abattoirs, every week  public markets are organised drawing stallholders and visitors from a startling range of nationalities.

 "Chez Jef" (hotdogs) rubs along "the Polski market", next to "Turkish Foods". Many tables with Moroccan foodstuffs sold by women with and without headscarves, a stall with Arab teapots manned by a "bearded-man-with-pants-above-the-ankles", Dutch & French cheese stalls, ..There's food of all textures and smells, alongside a mind-boggling variety of trinkets, clothes, small  household appliances, etc . People yell & coax & wheel & deal.

As an economist I could meditate on the age-old rituals of markets, as a citizen I could ponder the challenges of multi-culturalism and anxiously count the number of niqabs, as an aesthete (and as an ecologist) I could deplore the mass of low-quality plastic trinkets.

But mostly, I'm dazzled by the September counter-light, suffusing and harmonising everything in a brilliant haze.      

"before leaving Brussels"

The poet W.H. Auden lived for a while in Brussels, during the ill-omened late thirties of the past century.  So small wonder that his Brussels poems are mostly sombre urban winter tales, evoking “a city whose terrible future may have just arrived”.  They are suffused with the apprehension of an uncertain future and the anticipation of momentous events by "the sleepless guests of Europe" . (Somehow, at each refugee-crisis in Brussels, I'm reminded of Auden's poems evoking late thirties Brussels).   

And there’s of course his famous Musée des Beaux Arts poem in which, looking at Brueghel’s Icarus, he concludes “About suffering they were never wrong, the The Old Masters”.  

While reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Souvenirs Pieux” I’m struck by pages that strangely echo these Auden poems.  It’s not just a confluence of subject matter (fateful current affairs linked to a visit to the Brueghel paintings in the Musée des Beaux Arts) – it’s also the ominous tone of voice.  ("l’inévitable a déjà commencé").  Maybe Yourcenar knew the Auden poems and had them in mind while writing? 

Anyway, when relating a visit to her native city, Brussels, in 1956, she first evokes the tense political climate of the time (Indochina, the Suez crisis, Russian tanks besieging Budapest). Then she describes her visit to the Musée des Beaux arts, on a “gloomy november afternoon”  “in order to pay her respects” to the Brueghel paintings.  
Her ensuing meditations on human folly and suffering are of all times, as are the Brueghels. 
(But alas, she doesn’t mention the the beautiful archangel Michael…)

« Avant de quitter Bruxelles, j’étais allée rendre mes respects aux Breughels du Musée d’Art Ancien. La pénombre d’une grise après-midi de novembre noyait déjà Le Dénombrement à Bethléem et ses manants dociles éparpillés sur la neige, La lutte des bons et des mauvais Anges, ces derniers avec leurs gueules subhumaines, La chute d’Icare tombant du ciel pendant qu’un rustique que ce premier accident d’avion n’intéresse pas continue ses semailles.
D’autres peintures dans d’autres musées semblaient surgir derrière celles-là : Greete l’Idiote hurlant sa juste et vaine fureur au milieu d’un village en cendres ; Le Massacre des Innocents, lugubre pendant du Dénombrement ; La Tour de Babel et son chef d’Etat reçu respectueusement par les ouvriers qui édifient pour lui cet amas d’erreurs ; Le Triomphe de la Mort avec ses régiments de squelettes ; et la plus pertinente peut- être de toutes ces allégories, Les Aveugles conduits par des Aveugles. La brutalité, l’avidité, l’indifférence aux maux d’autrui, la folie et la bêtise régnaient plus que jamais sur le monde, multipliées par la prolifération de l’espèce humaine, et munies pour la première fois des outils de la destruction finale.
La présente crise se résoudrait peut-être après n’avoir sévi que pour un nombre limité d’êtres humains ; d’autres viendraient, chacune aggravée par les séquelles des crises précédentes : l’inévitable a déjà commencé. Les gardes arpentant d’un pas militaire les salles du musée pour annoncer qu’on ferme semblaient annoncer la fermeture de tout. »

Marguerite Yourcenar, Souvenirs Pieux, pp55-56      

[ Note for English speakers : The New Yorker on Yourcenar]