The boat trip is a recommended introduction to the city. Available at most quays in the centre, it costs ten euro for the half hour trip and is well worth it. The boats are small, slung low in the water and fit a dozen or so. Close your mind to the cameras and apparel, drag a finger through the water and see the brick rise up from the canal, glowing with the centuries. Merchant palaces and church spires soar like impossible crystals above the reddish brick. A couple converse with a woman beside me, they in English, she in French. There is understanding and mystery, smiles and photographs. If you are a participant in the permanently picturesque, you harmonise with the painting that is emerging. The French woman is young or old, depending on the quaysides that we pass. The English couple are occasionally dappled with the shadows of Flemish dress, awaiting the caress of the artists brush. On disembarking, my companions are puzzling over arrangements for a place to dine, caught in a pantomime of gestures and smiles.
I drift off to a cafe promising a hearty breakfast. The next half hour or so is rich in elements of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There were no sausages, and the rashers dematerialised too. Egg and bread remained, however, and a cup of tepid coffee.
From the 14th century Brugge attained a prominent position as the capital of Flanders. The world’s first stock exchange was set up here by the Van Der Bourse family, attaching their name to the trade ever since. The 15th century became the city’s golden age, commerce and art flourished and Bruges produced such artists as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck; the Flemish Primitives. The name Primitives is a bit misleading. These were pioneers in the art of oil painting and were stunning, meticulous representationalists. There is an excellent collection of their work, and other later Flemish and Belgian masters at the Groeninge Museum off Rozenhoed Quay.
Brugge went into decline in the 16th century as neighbouring Ghent prospered.The city became a sleepy backwater, ironically a fact which contributed to the preservation of its medieval charm. The isolation and stagnation inspired the Symbolist novel Bruges La Mort by George Rodenbach in 1892. This lit the flame of its revival as a tourist destination, though Bruges is gloomily characterised as the city of death. The story tells of a man, Hugues, who mourns the death of his young wife. He keeps a Temple of Memories including paintings, photos and a long lock of her hair. Within his grief he also becomes obsessed with a dancer he sees at the opera, Robert Le Diablo, Robert the Devil. The dancer, Jane, bears a close resemblance to his wife and after some awkward courting he invites her home.
More recently, the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, sets Bruges as a noirish backdrop against a tragi-comedy of love and death. This more than anything was a factor in my resolution to visit.
Certainly, these days Bruges in summer is thronged by visitors, but it isn’t overrun. There’s so much to see, and room to see it, that it is a flaneuers dream. Up, down and sideways, you can bathe your eyes pleasantly in Bruges. And, as in any city worth its salt, that includes a visit to the premier art gallery for a journey into the past. The 18th century was the city’s Austrian period and this era saw the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts which formed the basis for the collection in the Groening Museum. This museum, within a maze of gardens and courtyards, seems small from without, but within holds a wealth of material. Headphones are free, and give an excellent account, free of the artspeak that often bedevils these devices.
On entering the Groeninge, first up is a painting by Antoon Claessens: Mars, Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences. Here, the painter exhorts the liberal arts above ignorance, with Mars centre stage, trampling on a donkey-eared ignoramus as the muses of the various arts gather around. The painting pitches for the inclusion of painting and drawing on this exalted platform.
Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon from 1436, shows all the mastery of detail and rendering, while unifying the work in serene and bold composition. Stepping into these paintings is a journey back in time to the heyday of Brugge, its dreaming spires and palaces, its surging commercial life, and most importantly its people. Religion is to the fore, with strong connections to the spirit world. Sitters are accompanied by their patron saint.
In Jan Provoost’s triptych only the outer wings remain, telling an intriguing, if partial story of the donor and his wife. As was the custom, the sitters are portrayed with their patron saints in tow. Here, the Donor is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, his wife by Saint Godalieve. Godalieve is a patron saint of Bruges itself and here she appears in the foreground with a scarf wound around her neck. In the background, she is pictured being strangled with this scarf by henchmen of her husband. This story is echoed in Rodenbach’s novel. As Jane tires of her lover’s obsession with his dead wife, she teases him and mocks his Temple of Memories, finally taking a step too far as she dances with the lock of Hugue’s wife’s hair. Hugue, enraged, descends into delirium, and strangles Jane with the lock of hair. On the reverse, a different narrative unfolds. This stark, graphic tableau portrays the man exchanging money with a live skeleton. A faustian deal, perhaps, buying time from death. In the backgeound, the artist is portrayed in stern disapproval.
Much of the work of the Flemish masters depicts the ethical conflicts in life. Cautionary tales of terrible retribution on corrupt persons in trade and law. One judge gets flayed alive in graphic detail for taking bribes. In Bosch’s Last Judgement, the retribution comes from God, the consolations of the good life being the reward of paradise, the punishment for venality the horrors of hell. The Breughel’s, Pieter the Elder and Younger, root their work in the daily struggles, and celebrations of life. In such startling detail and vivacity that we’d swear they smelt of brewing and woodsmoke, of crackling snow and glowing ovens, our bellies full or empty but all the time throbbing with the stuff of being alive.
The ages slip away as I float through the gothic and romantic, and glimpse the seductive reefs of surrealism. Paul Delveux and Rene Magritte paint mindscapes in appropriate reflex of our modern condition.
Outside the brackets of the museum, that wondrous timewarp, the world throbs and whirls in its relentless mayhem. But there is solace too. I might search for love or happiness, and all the contradictions that quest embodies. I might search for myself but will need first to become lost. There might be a perfect moment, or even a chance to find the Golden Fountainhead. Anything seems possible here. Without a route to take me, I flow with the human river, and come to the Boniface Bridge. This is a magnet for lovers, and they pose at its apex anxious to draw down its benign influence, and that somehow a photograph might capture their soul in all the timeless ambience it generates.