Took the train to Brussels in the morning, a one way ticket costing 14 euro. Bruges station is neat and modern, but again I’m flummoxed by Belgian Rail time and platform postings. A certain amount of questioning and haggling is required before I get the intended train. I nick into the first class carriage and the ticket men don’t seem to mind. Still, arrive in Brussels hot and bothered.
A bag is always heavier on the journey home. And the sun hotter. Sweating out of Brussels Central, I put into the first bar for a healing Stella. Reassuringly expensive. The bar is a rudimentary affair, at the apex of a triangular city block and of a steep climb from the station. I hadn’t thought of there being hills in Belgium, but nonetheless they are there. The capital is riven by a pronounced escarpment. The old town lies on the low level, the new town, in all its quasi imperial grandeur, occupies the higher ground. Literally, at least. Figuratively, the infrastructure of the European capital must always imagine itself on higher ground than its chaotic and oft implacable citizenry. Twas ever thus throughout empire and federation.
With a day to kill, I’ve opted to explore the Musee des Beaux Arts, and that precinct of museums and galleries known as the Hill of Arts. There’s a whole forest of museums and galleries lodged in Neo-Classical palaces up there. To see them all would demand a longer trip.
A pleasant sloping esplanade leads uphill. At the top, a busker has nabbed a small amphitheatre provided by the topmost flight of steps. To a jazz backing track, he’s blowing out some wonderful saxophone. No better place. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax, who invented an instrument which allows musicians to leak their soul directly into the air. Sax was born in 1814 to parents who were themselves instrument designers. His innovations were greatly praised by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz composed Symphonie Fantastique under the influence of opium, later claimed to be the first essay in psychedelia, so there is something prescient here considering the future influence of Sax’s instruments. His crowning achievement, the saxophone, was developed in the 1840s. Never popular with orchestras, its use for long was confined to brass bands. The jazz era brought its heydey as a sublime instrument for the soloist. It’s hard to imagine music of the jazz/blues/rock genre without it. He died in 1894, in Paris and in poverty.
Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel.
Nearby, as Rue Ravenstein curves into Place Royale, an Art Nouveau masterpiece houses the Museum of Musical Instruments. Old England, was designed by Paul Saintenoy in 1899 to house the eponymous department store. It is a gorgeous confection of swirling metal and glass, but structurally and functionally pragmatic. The use of steel frame allowed curtain walls of glass, flooding the interior with light, indeed dissolving the divide between exterior and interior. Old England exemplifies an architecture that conjures the sinuous art and music, and sociological revolution of its era. Appropriate therefore that it provides a new home for the Museum and its extensive collection of instruments, wind, string and keyboard, from medieval times to the present. There are, of course, several prototypes of the work of Adolphe Sax.
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
(Deacon Blues, Steely Dan)
The Musee des Beaux Arts is divided into three parts, with inclusive entrance at 15 euro. Occupying the main Grand Palace are the Old Masters while below stairs you’ll find art from the Fin de Siecle. In a building all to itself, linked by an underground passage, is the life and work of Rene Magritte. I purchase an audio guide for a fiver, but it wasn’t really worth it. Artspeak linked with stating the bleeding obvious, as: here we see a man looking out a window. Well, yes.But the exhibitions are well worth it, and informatively captioned. It’s stocked to the eyeballs with Brueghels, Reubens to the rafters, and every Van the Man you might desire.
Particularly fascinating are the cover versions of Peter Brueghel the father by his son. Winter Landscape with Bird Trap is lovingly rendered by the son. The Census at Bethlehem is another example of the Younger’s faithful reproduction of the Elder. I play spot the difference to little avail. The palette is slightly different, but they may as well be photographic reproductions. Perhaps, with a few more hours to spare … Hieronymous Bosch is another favourite featured here, and oportunity too, to swim in the paint of titanic Peter Paul Rubens. In the Assumption of the Virgin from 1610, Our Lady in blue sails majestically heavenwards. It’s a fine example of the Baroque, Rubens grafting his Flemish precision with Mediterranean passion.
Below stairs, the Fin de Siecle collection is housed in pleasantly weird serenity. Ever descending spirals of cool and dark and increasing loneliness. There’s a Sisley amongst several shimmering landscapes and cityscapes as the years fal like leaves towards modernity. I rest for a bit in this ambience, before confronting the eye bombs of Magritte to come.
There’s a lot of Rene, with a concise chronology of his life and work. A strong focus on his graphic work, which is not surprising for an ex dadaist. A communist too, with many other Surrealists, though I recall he took exception to the public disparagement of his wife Georgette’s Catholicism, which distanced him from the movement.
I finish with the Empire of Light. This series of large paintings features a nighttime suburban street beneath a daytime sky. There are a dozen or so versions, each subtly different. The design of the house, the street furniture, the surrounding trees; but the composition is always a flat representation, with one streetlight, a window or two dimly let, all wonderfully serene and deserted. Standing amongst several versions here, gives the feeling of actually inhabiting Magritte’s street, his very imagination. You can relax with a Magritte, though perhaps as one might lie with a sleeping tiger, but soon both will awake. Reluctantly I leave behind a weird and terrible beauty. Interestingly, the Empire of Light was cribbed for a scene and the poster for the sensational 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.
Just walk away Rene
you won’t see me follow you back home
the empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
you’re not to blame.
(A first hit for baroque pop group, Left Banke, and a cover version by the Four Tops.)