23 September 2014

walking in cities

Rachel recommended a recent article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik: "Heaven's gaits: what we do when we walk" (September 1st issue, p. 74-77). He describes the craze for walking as a spectator sport in the 19th century, based largely on Pedestrianism: when watching people walk was America's favorite spectator sport by Matthew Algeo. I didn't know. Gopnik also talks about A philosophy of walking by Frédéric Gros which begins "Walking is not a sport." Gros's theory of walking is that there are three essential kinds of walking: contemplative; cynical (from the Cynics of ancient Greece); composite contemplative cynic (the modern city walker, the flâneur). Gopnik expands on Gros's Parisian emphasis to talk about New Yorkers, looking to such authors as Walt Whitman and Alfred Kazin (A walker in the city, 1951).

Gopnik ends the article by talking about the stages of walking: peripatetic (walking where we will, as children); circumambulent (walking around our children); make an attempt at a pilgrimage, fail, and become immobile; walking outdoors to randomize our experience of the city. There's lots to think about in the Gopnik essay.

Toward the end of the article, Gopnik says "Walking for pleasure in cities is an occupation of the young. Only a very few older people of great vitality walk long in cities." Having just spent a couple weeks in Belgium and Amsterdam, I guess I am just one of those few older people. I don't always feel vital and sometimes I walk because it's too hard to figure out which bus or tram to take. But, boy oh boy, do I enjoy walking in cities, usually with a destination at least vaguely in mind, but enjoying the walk sometimes as much as the destination.

A couple pictures from Ghent. More on my Flickr photostream.

19 September 2014

the frosting on the cake

Horta House (now museum)
Rue Américaine, 25, Brussels
archt: Victor Horta
House and studio of Georges de Saint-Cyr
Square Ambiorix, 11, Brussels
archt: Gustave Strauven

Ghent to Brussels to Ghent to Brussels to Amsterdam to Brussels, and lovin' it

When I left the U.S., my hotel reservation for the whole time I'm in Belgium was for the Hotel Erasmus in Ghent but I decided it made sense to move my base to Brussels for the last few nights so I'd be closer to the airport for the 10 am departure on Saturday. And then last Sunday I heard from Geurt, my friend from Amsterdam, that he couldn't make it to Belgium but we could get together in Amsterdam. So it's been a bit of a week. Tuesday, I took the train from Ghent to Brussels for the day and spent most of it at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. More Flemish primitives: The Judgment of Emperor Otto by Dirk Bouts, Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, Saint Sebastian by Hans Memling, among those that particularly grabbed me. For the Italophiles in the crowd, I saw another trio of Italian-speakers: man with presumed parents, and then I saw the same fellow I'd seen in Antwerp answering his mother's incessant "questo? questo?" The museum is pretty comprehensive in the painting universe with some fine Bruegels and Rubens. I didn't realize that the Death of Marat by J-L David was in Brussels so it was delightful to find that around the corner as I entered a French gallery.

The Royal Museums has just opened a section they call the Fin-de-Siecle Museum which has works from the 1860s into the 20th century with quite a bit of Ensor. I was especially taken by Hugo van der Goes in the Red Cloister by Emile Wauters:
Hugo van der Goes has been a favorite artist for many years (since Nancy and I teased in grad school about the unknown Netherlandish painter Hermione van der Goes to whom we attributed many works). I hadn't studied his biography however and learned during this trip that he ended his life in a monastery after his melancholy turned to madness. I also discovered that the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch is planning a big Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in 2016 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death.

Wednesday I went to the city museum in Ghent (Stadsmuseum Gent or STA.M) and wished that I'd done it early on. The displays start with a model of the city today and the floor in that room is a satellite photograph. Lots of interesting historical things and manuscripts and archives. Toward the end of the circuit, there were some models of 1970s plans for urban development. I'm glad those megastructures weren't built just outside the historic center of town. The art center at Sint-Pietersabdij had an interesting show of Turkish calligraphy and there was a sign for the show on Vivian Maier (this year's photography sensation) that had just closed. And then it was off to get my stuff and take the train to Brussels to meet the fellow whose apartment I'm staying in via misterbnb. Great price, central location.

Yesterday (Thursday), I took the Thalys fast train from Brussels to Amsterdam to spend the day with Geurt. What a fine day. We walked from Central Station over to the Museum Het Schip, a museum devoted to the Amsterdam School of expressionist architecture in the early 20th century. The museum is centered in the Eigen Haard block of apartments built by a workers' housing association. We got to tour one of the apartments and look up into the tower which is inspirational rather than functional (no problem).
The brick work is magnificent. This neighborhood was being developed by various groups in the 'teens and into the 'twenties and this picture is taken from the front of apartments built at the same time by a Protestant housing organization in a traditional style. Behind me is a complex built by a Philosophical group (said the guide, did he mean Theosophical?) with a bit more expressionism in its details but overall quite traditional.

After a bit of lunch, Geurt and I went to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam where Geurt treated me to a tour of the office spaces in the new wing (mostly to drop off our bags) and then a tour of the galleries and the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Geurt has worked at the Stedelijk for 32 years so it was great to see the works and spaces with him. And then it was off for a beer at a canal-side cafe and then to the Central Station to return to Brussels. It was raining lightly when I got back, the first time the whole trip. The weather has been mostly glorious and bright with temperatures in the 70s and not even chilly overnight.

15 September 2014

museums are closed on Monday

Most museums are closed on Mondays so it probably makes sense to do something wild and crazy like go the seaside resort town Ostend and visit the Ensor House which happens to be closed on Tuesdays. Painter James Ensor lived in the house but there isn't much of his original art on display. One room had about twenty prints and there were plenty of reproductions round and about. As they say on their website: If you’re looking for original works by James Ensor, you will be disappointed: the museum is instead an invitation to journey to the early 20th century, into the world of the Ostend artist.

The attendant at the door and shop was a recent graduate in graphic design from one of the design schools in Ghent and we had a little chat about the house's funkiness and objects in the shop. One of those objects was a book with the words to Desolation Row by Bob Dylan and illustrations from Ensor. The guy said the song was written after Dylan had seen Ensor's most famous painting Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. Everyone should have a clamshell stool for their organ and a big version of Christ's Entry behind the instrument.

What doesn't make sense is getting on the wrong train to get home and taking a "little detour" as the conductor called it. It took about an hour more than it needed to but now I've seen more of Belgium than anticipated.

on and off the spectrum

The morning started with a visit to the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst or S.M.A.K., the municipal museum of contemporary art in Ghent. The first galleries I entered were devoted to François Morellet with his highly developed scheme of lines or grids and spaces. Upstairs was a wonderful mix of chaos and humor in two shows: David Bade and the Instituto Buena Bista and a retrospective of Wilfredo Prieto. I must admit to enjoying the Prieto show much more. Many of the works were much ado about nothing in the most profound way. The signature piece was probably the water pressure trucks out front and the large tubing leading to a small potted plant, a statement on consumption of resources. The most glorious was "Expensive line, cheap line" in which lines were penned on the floor in ballpoint and Montblanc ink. That's it but the space was spectacular.
Other Prieto works were similarly understated but made big points. "One million dollars" was a dollar bill between two mirrors so that the reflections went off into the distance.

Downstairs was an exhibition of European art since 1968, works from the collection, mostly by the artists that had been in a show in 1980. It was not a recreation of the 1980 show but a reflection of the scene in the 1970s. The museum wasn't known as S.M.A.K. back then but they were collecting as the works came out. A couple of the works had resonance later in the day: Hanne Darboven and one of her inventory pieces and Braco Dimitrijević's "About two artists." The latter includes two busts, one of Leonardo da Vinci and the other an unknown artist. A plaque behind the busts tells a story about two artists who lived in the country. One day, the king's dog wanders off while he's hunting. The dog wanders into one of the artist's yards. The king finds the dog and the artist and takes the artist back to his court. That artist is Leonardo da Vinci. The other artist is still unknown. Fame is fickle.

Leaving S.M.A.K., I stopped for a snack and then took the tram out to the Museum Dr Guislain, a museum devoted to the normal and abnormal on the grounds of a psychiatric institution run by the Brothers of Charity. My sister Carol had read about it and I am so glad she told me about it. There are permanent exhibitions about the history of psychiatry but the main show was "I see what you cannot see: art and autism." Several artists stood out: Pascale Vinck and her portraits drawn from fashion magazines; Patrick Ott and his drawings of elaborate façades;
Jeroen Hollander and his maps of imaginary cities with numbered bus lines. It was quite a shift, and no shift at all, to move from the obsessive works of the minimalists and conceptual artists at S.M.A.K. in the morning to the autistic artists at Guislain.

What indeed is autism? Where does the spectrum begin and end? I doodled my street plans; is it the numbering of the bus lines that puts you on the spectrum? Hanne Darboven does enormous inventories of portraits or objects; some of the works in the autism exhibition also showed obsessive complexity. One of the artists insists that only reproductions are exhibited.

S.M.A.K. and Guislain made for a fine diptych yesterday. The Guislain buildings are fine brick gothicky medieval revival. One of the outdoor spaces was described as the Meander. Everybody should have one of those available.
This is the front entrance way, not the Meander which was a small meditation garden with multiple paths. Not really a labyrinth but serving some of the same function. On the way back from supper last night, I happened on a similar garden with paths not far from my hotel. Meander away; it's Monday now, the museums are closed.

13 September 2014

National Italophone Day in Belgium

Three times today, I heard folks speaking Italian and each time it was pretty exciting. I am staying at the Hotel Erasmus in Ghent, Belgium which is located in a 16th-century house. The breakfast room is one of the original public rooms: high ceiling, looking out into the garden, furnished with portraits. I was quietly eating my breakfast when a couple came into the room. He was just bursting with morning excitement and said "bonjour" as they entered the room. They talked animatedly for a bit in Italian and then he settled down into the serenity of the breakfast room. It was delightful to hear the Italian and a little sad when he deflated.

I took the train to Antwerp today, only six euros for a senior roundtrip! The Royal Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovation but many of their masterworks are on display in various venues around town including the Cathedral of Our Lady where about a dozen paintings joined the cathedral's two Rubens paintings and other works. Wow. The little pamphlet in English said you might like to start with a little sit down and appreciate the space but they did not say you had to weep from joy.
I love the Flemish version of the church's name: Onze-Lieve-Vrouw (Our Beloved Lady or Notre Dame). Anyway, after I left OLV, I went to the Rockox House where they had a special show which mixed the house collection with that of the Royal Museum. It was hung cabinet-style and the show was called The Golden Cabinet. More Van Eyck (the unfinished Saint Barbara!), Memling, Van der Weyden, and the incredible Madonna by Jean Fouquet from the Melun Diptych. That Fouquet woman is just amazing. Fouquet may have invented surrealism. And Metsys, Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens. In one of the upstairs galleries, I noticed a young man with his parents (identities not confirmed) and he was reading to them in Italian about the works on view. I'm guessing that he may have been translating as he "read" since I don't know that the brochure came in Italian. Anyway, he was devoted and looked oh so Italian. And mama kept saying "questo? questo?" Later, the trio passed me, mom on son's arm, as I was eating lunch in the next block at the Maison Tartine where I happened to select the tartine italiano (grilled sandwich, Italian ingredients). There was a couple over "there" at the side of the building, she smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, speaking animatedly, in Italian!

So I guess it must be Italophone Day in Belgium. I'm enjoying my time in Belgium and the people have been helpful but it's not like the Italian exuberance and animation. Last year's trip to Sicily was very different in the memories of individual persons as well as the collective.

Design Museum Gent

The Design Museum Gent is really fine. It is in an 18th-century house, the Hotel de Coninck. The curators have done a fine job of installing works in the historic rooms. It reminds me of the mix of old and new that I so enjoyed in the good ol' Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
The bulk of the works on display are in the back part of the complex which is new construction behind the back wall of the courtyard, that is, you cannot readily tell that the new construction is hiding behind the historic wall. The new part looks a little like the High Museum by Richard Meier without the central atrium. There are two floors for special exhibitions. At the moment, it's a show on Finn Juhl, "a Danish design icon" (with whom I wasn't especially familiar) and another on "No design to waste" about plastic garbage and recycling. The permanent collection is nicely displayed, including a couple rooms by Henry van de Velde.
I enjoyed the way they displayed the historic furniture in the new spaces. After I'd been in the galleries for a while, I noticed that there were little figurines interspersed, never identified. They were just there in the vitrine or otherwise inconspicuous and unidentified. I don't know if it is a curatorial or artist intervention but it was fun.
Here, a little bride and groom in front of the man-and-wife chairs by Pieter de Bruyne.

When I travel alone in Europe, the meal part is the least successful. I thought I had it figured out last night when I came across the Marco Polo Slowfood Trattoria but they were fully booked even though the dining room hadn't filled yet. Same with Il Filletto, just up the street from my hotel. I guess I need to research rather than meander. Maybe I'll do it better in my next life.

11 September 2014

tourist trap but, my my, what art!

Why oh why do people like to stay in Bruges? I got there and was instantly stuck in tourist-trap glue and glum. It seemed unavoidable but ....

There are some really fine paintings in Bruges, especially if you are fond of the Flemish primitives (15th century). The Death of the Virgin by Hugo van der Goes is one of my favorite paintings ever and it is at the Groeningemuseum. What's that? It's your favorite painting and you were remembering her gown as red. It's blue. The red one is by Caravaggio (and not in Bruges). I don't think any of my Stendhal sighs today were audible but the St Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden brought tears to my eyes. It's in the same room as the Hugo van der Goes and the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck. Oh, and a Memling and a Bosch. There were quite a few people in the gallery but we were mostly respectful and gently moved around each other. When I looped around on my way out, I had the gallery to myself for a little while.

The Groeningemuseum has paintings all the way up to the 20th century. I found some more works by Gustave van de Woestyne, including a large Last Supper. The last gallery had a Magritte and a lot of Marcel Broodthaers.

Before I got to the Groeningemuseum, I stopped in at the Cathedral of Our Lady to see the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo. If you saw the film Monuments Men or have read about the protection and movement of art works during World War II, you will remember how close this work came to disappearing. Well, it's there, it's beautiful, it's smallish but incredible.

After the Groeningemuseum, I went to the Memling Museum at Sint Janshospital where there's the incredible St John Altarpiece and several other Memlings including the St Ursula Shrine and a round Madonna and Child (the latter, courtesy of Christie's). Just wow! Upstairs, they had a Christian Boltanski installation of Les registres du Grand-Hornu, a memory-piece about the people who worked the Grand-Hornu mines. Very effective setting for an emotional piece.

On to the treasury at the Church of Our Savior (St Salvator) where they have the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus by Dirk Bouts and Hugo van der Goes. It's a gruesome scene -- St Hippolytus was stretched by horses attached to his limbs -- but a beautiful painting. I love the flattened space with the narrative circling around the saint's body almost like a zodiac. And St Hippolytus seems to be in some kind of sublime and serene ecstasy. What do you expect? He's a martyr.

After the St Salvator treasury, I went outside to sit and contemplate and see if there was anything else that needed to be done in Bruges. It was nearing 5 pm so I decided not to rush off to the Belfort tower for a 376-step climb even if the view would have been incredible. Once I'd relaxed, I could ignore the thousands of others milling about, the boats going by with a couple dozen tourists each, etc etc and just enjoy the pretty scene across the way:
Then off to the train station to come "home" to Ghent. I stopped at Hasta Mañana, hoping for a margarita but settled on a caipirinha which doesn't, alas, go too well with chips and salsa. And then back to the hotel. I didn't take many pictures today and you may have noticed that most of the works I mentioned are linked. And several of them are well enough known to even have a Wikipedia entry on the painting alone, not just as part of the artist's article.

10 September 2014

Bouts? nope

When I saw this painting by Gustave van de Woestyne earlier today at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MFA) in Ghent, it looked a little like the portrait of an old man by Dirk Bouts at the Met. Or maybe some Memling somewhere. Truth to tell, I did say "Memling" in my head but as I looked at Google responses, I'd clearly mashed together several portraits. I was not familiar with van de Woestyne and another of his paintings was perhaps the most unusual Christ in the Wilderness that I have ever seen.
His left eye really does look crossed (perhaps appropriate for a Jesus?). Van de Woestyne was a favorite of the long-time director Robert Hoozee who died in 2012. The special show was a tribute exhibition and also included a room of drawings by the exquisite minimalist Raoul de Keyser.

I was at the museum for almost four hours, not including lunch. They have two good paintings by Hieronymus Bosch: Christ Carrying the Cross and St Jerome in Prayer. I especially liked the St Jerome, aka Hieronymus. And there were two amazing paintings by Maarten van Heemskerck: a Man of Sorrows and a Calvary. The hand of Jesus in the Man of Sorrows was partly covered by the robe and it is marvelous:
His abs are pretty good too. There was also a fine Man of Sorrows by a follower of the Master of Flémalle. The website gives the creator as Entourage of the Master of Flémalle but be warned that the illustration there doesn't get the sparkle of the painting (duh, I'm surprised?).

So after being in the museum for four hours, I decided I'd just eat lunch at Mub'Art, the museum brasserie which looked kind of expensive. Why do I do this to myself when I'm traveling in Europe by myself? Rather than just going into a restaurant that looks good, I walk around and around and pass on things because there's no one there, or the prices look high, or I cannot decipher the menu. As I was eating lunch and reading Carsick by John Waters, he quoted Nora Ephron as noting that you should always overtip because it's just a few dollars. I need to remind myself that the main difference between a nice meal and a sandwich or slice is usually pleasure.

09 September 2014

found the art nouveau building on my first day in Ghent

Some years ago when I was in Ghent, I saw this building and fell in love. I told my NYU friend and colleague Andrew Lee about seeing this building and he knew about the building because it was built as the festivities hall of a workers' cooperative. The Vooruit building has been a cultural arts center since 1982 and Open Monuments Day is on the 14th. I am back in Ghent and will actually be here on the 14th.

I am still in the haze of an overnight flight, jetlag, arriving too early to get into the room, too little sleep, inappropriate eating but .... I am in Ghent again and noticed the Vooruit building as I walked from the train station to the hotel. I left my bag at the Hotel Erasmus and went to find Den Hoek Af (at the corner) which the hotelier recommended. Basically a coffee house but the organic yogurt and muesli with orange juice and coffee fit the bill.

I looked at the guide book as I ate and noted that the Ghent University Library is by Henry van de Velde and is under renovation and was just a few blocks from the coffee shop. On the way there, I found the Dagblat Vooruit editorial office building:
It was designed by Fernand Brunfaut (1886-1972) in 1930. On to the university library where most of the building is closed because of the renovation. There are pictures and a model on the first floor, in exhibit cases. The pictures of the room at the top of the tower looks really marvelous but it is not currently open. They've painted "Outside of a dog man's best friend is a book, inside of a dog it's too dark to read" on the street in front of the library.

Meandering is a pretty good thing to do when you are in the jetlag haze but I've discovered my memory of the hazy sights is, well, hazy, so I'll go back around on this circuit.

As you know if you've been to this blog before, I don't post too often. Johanna even told me she enjoyed my posts but was rather glad that I didn't post too often. The next couple weeks may drive you crazy then as I think I'll use this blog to post on my Belgium trip rather than doing a separate one as we did for Sicily in March 2013.

07 September 2014

jihad or crusade

If you were a young person and the path to dropping out of school and drugs seemed more attractive or popular than studying and going to college, if you were a young person of color or a punk and the cops harassed you if you stood around on the street corner, if you were a young person who did not find much support in Christianity, might you be tempted to convert to Islam? If you lived in a society that glorified guns and soldiers and vilified terrorists and immigrants, if you lived in a country that gave early boarding privilege to uniformed servicemen and women, might you be tempted to join a military adventure? Today's New York Times has a profile of two young men from Minnesota, one white and one black, who became jihadists. One, the white guy, went to Somalia and died there in 2009. The other joined ISIS and died this year in Iraq.

If you cannot imagine that, think back a thousand years. The local priest or nobleman is calling on people to join a crusade and rid the Promised Land of the infidel.

Work for peace and justice. Another article on the front page of today's paper was about Al Fawwar, a Palestinian camp in the West Bank, where architect Sandi Hilal and local residents have created a public square. The camps were opened as temporary settlements but have persisted for generations. Social public spaces are important, especially for women in the Middle East, even if they challenge ideas about permanence. Interacting with others in ordinary ways is the foundation of a diverse and peaceful society.