27 January 2012

Bruges: Le Rouet des Brumes

"Phantom city, mummified city, vaguely preserved.  It smells of death, of the middle Ages, Venice, in black, the customary ghosts and the graves." - excerpted from A Walk In Bruges by Charles Baudelaire from Pauvre Belgique, 1864 - reprinted by Editions L. Conard, Paris. . 

"In Bruges a miracle of the climate has produced so mysterious chemistry of the atmosphere, an interpenetration which neutralises too-bright colours, reduces them to a uniform tone of reverie, to an amalgam of greyish drowsiness." - excerpted from Bruge-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, Paris: 1892

When the subject is Bruges, metaphor is everything.  In the paintings of  William Degouve de Nuncques and the novels of  Georges Rodenbach atmosphere becomes a force of nature. But what is a force of nature and where is the line that separates it from human endeavor?  These are not questions that metaphor can answer.  According to Arthur Rimbaud, the French would have been second rates Symbolists without the Belgians.

Bruges became a port city by accident in 1134 when a tidal wave swept inward some eleven miles from the North Sea down the River Zwijn .  The diligent citizens of Bruges built a web of canals to take advantage of their good fortune and their continued dredging eventually caused the Zwijn to silt in, leaving the city marooned at permanent low tide.  In  Psychologie d'une ville: Essai sur Bruges (1901),  a book dedicated to the memory of Georges Rodenbach, Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert referred to the dawn of the 15th century as "The Twilight of Bruges"

"The Middle Ages...knew that everything on earth is a sign, a figure, that the visible is only worth what it extracts from the invisible; in the Middle Ages...which were not gullible, as we are, to appearances, closely studied this science and made it the caretaker and the servant of mysticism." - excerpted from The Cathedral (1898) by J.-K. Huysmans, translated from the French by Clara King (1981).

The waning of religion left a vacuum for nostalgia to fill.  A more complicated response  was  a kind of psychological mysticism in the works of 19th century Symbolists.   In the fate of Bruges they found confirmation of   their sense of irrelevance to the industrialized present in  its glorious art and architecture. What better image could there be than Fernand Khnopff's surrealistic rendering of the Memling Plaatz, named for the great artist Hans Memling (c.1430-1494) .  Marooned by a rising tide, the plaza and the base of the statue are rendered recognizably but where is the Memling statue.  When queried, Khnopff's reply was that he had never seen the statue.

Belgium has been called 'a country that does not exist",  an allusion to its duality: Flemish  (Dutch) in the north and Wallon (French) in the south.   When it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was called the Austrian Netherlands and when it was de-accessioned, as they say in the museum business, the French considered annexing it but didn't.

Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898)  was born in the French speaking Flemish town of Tournai, poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) came from Saint-Amands in eastern Flanders, and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was from Ghent (Gand) in western Flanders.  Maeterlinck,who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911, edging out Verhaeren for the honor, was hailed in his lifetime as 'the northern Shakespeare.'  All three wrote in French.

 Bruges-la-Morte, the novel and the metaphor, made Rodenbach's name.  Equally claustrophobic is a story published posthumously - Le Rouet des Brumes or The Spinning Wheel of the Mists (1901).  A refashioning of the myth of Narcissus, it is one of many late 19th century distortions of the myth to extremes never hinted at in its ancient origins. The protagonist of Le Rouet des Brumes is a nightmarish variation on Joris-Karl Huysman's exasperated aesthete, des Esseintes, in the novel  Against Nature.(A Rebours, 1884).

 Although the narrator identifies himself as a friend of the man who has died in a sanitarium, he recounts the tale with the detachment of a psychiatrist offering a case study.  The nameless recluse gradually retreats from the world to a house full of mirrors.  Happy at first, he descends into paranoia, only to be found bloody and bruised after attempting to smash through a mirror to "the other side." 

 "I was not surprised, knowing my friend to be sensitive, knowing besides what impressions can be created....within closed rooms, amidst the dust, the musty odor, the confusion, the melancholy one feels for things that seem to have died a bit during one's absence.  Oh, the sadness of evenings of jubilation!  Evenings of return, after the forgetfulness one experiences while away.  It seems as if all one's sorrows that had remained at home come out to greet us..."

If we are tempted to share the detachment of Rodenbach's narrator, keep in mind that Rodenbach  began  another work, L'Ami des Miroirs (The Lover Of Mirrors), with these words:  "Madness is frequently nothing other than the paroxysm of a sensation that originally appeared to be purely artistic and subtle.'   This puts Rodenbach at odds with the artist whose name is most often linked with his, creator of the frontispiece for the first edition of Bruges-la-Morte: the purely artistic and subtle Fernand Khnopff.  The circumstances of Khnopff's return to the place he considered his home town were obscured by the artist, whereas Rodenbach, who never returned to his birthplace in Ghent, spoke of it constantly, according to his children.

Note:  Artworks by Khnopff were made during the year of his one acknowledged return visit to Bruges in 1904.

1. Fernand Khnopff - In Bruges. The Minnewater, 1904, Belgian Royal Musuem of Fine Arts, Brussels.
2. Fernand Khnopff - Souvenir Of Bruges. Entrance To the Beguinage, 1904, Hearn Family Trust, New York.
3. Fernand Khnopff - Abandoned City (Memling Plaatz - Bruges), 1904, Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
4.  Fernand Khnopff - In Bruges. A Portal, 1904, Clemens-Sels Museum,  Neuss, Germany.
5. Fernand Khnopff - In Burges. St. Jan's Hospital, 1904, private collection, Belgium.
Fernand Khnoff - frontispiece - Bruges-la-Morte, Paris, Flammarion,  1892.
7. Henri Berssenbrugge (1873.1959) -  photograph of an artist painting in Bruges, early 20th century, Fotomuseum, Antwerp.

23 January 2012

The Year Of The Dragon

The year of the dragon begins today.  It is an auspicious year.  Dragons partake of the five elements: water, earth, metal, fire, and wood.   Like poet Walt Whitman, they are vast, they contain multitudes. After a Green Dragon or two, you too will be able to breathe fire.

The Green Dragon Cocktail is a simple, sweet drink whose most unusual ingredient is kummel liquor (a blend of caraway and other spices).  While its origins are unclear, the classic version appeared in The Savoy Cocktail Book  by  Harry Craddock in 1930.  The following recipe makes one Green Dragon cocktail.

1/2 oz. kummel, 1/2 oz. green creme de menthe, 1 & 1/2 oz. gin, juice of half a lemon, 4 dashes of orange bitters.
Fill a cocktail shaker half full with shaved ice.
Add the other ingredients and shake gently for 10-15 seconds, being careful not the bruise the gin (!)
Strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon. Drink!

1. Bertha Lum  - Green Dragon Cocktail, 1937, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.
2. Bertha Lum - The Woman In The Chinese hat, 1924, San Francisco Musuem of Fine Arts. 

Also: May I direct readers to the excellent  Bertha Lum website by Laurent.

15 January 2012

Albert Baertsoen: His Lyric Pessimism

In the heart of Ghent, Albert Baertsoen painted his favorite hour: twilight.  At left is  the Maison de Bateliers, the boatmen's hiring hall.  In the background are the Church of Saint-Michael and an old hotel left over from the First Empire. We look down the canal at a red boat, possibly similar to one where the artist had sat himself down to work.

It may be that the affinity of Albert Baertsoen  (1866-1922)  for winter scenes had something to do with being born on January 9.  What is certain is that neither his travels to Paris and London nor his artistic successes  altered his love for Ghent, the city where he was born and where he died.

Belgium was  the most industrialized nations in 19th century Europe, and Ghent was a city known for its textile mills.  Baertsoen's father was a successful  miller, so the family's prosperity made art and music lessons for a talented child possible. Albert became an accomplished musician before he turned to painting.

As a child Albert walked the streets of Ghent with the artist  Gustave Den Duyts. The River Lys, seen in Thaw In Ghent was his daily companion.  Den Duyts recommended him to  Jean Delvin, who became Baertsoen's artistic mentor.. Baertsoen had his first exhibition in Paris at twenty-two.

Baertsoen's work is difficult to categorize, yet it is similar in appearance to American Luminist paintings.   A meticulous artist who made many sketches before he began each painting, Baertsoen also excelled at etching.  This meditative characteristic of his work connects it to luminism.   

His contemporaries saw in his work presentiments of the hidden lives of buildings, akin to the art of Fernand Khnopff, who was born  at nearby Dendermonde.    Although Baertsoen created no obvious personal mythology in his art, he did share Khnopff's   inclination to crop his images in unexpected ways.  Whether this owes much to photography or is evidence of the walker's perspective is a curiosity.

What keeps Baertsoen's lyricism from being too pretty  is his pessimism.  Ghent was the place by which he measured the rest of Flanders.    Although he visited Bruges,  Baertsoen's interpretation of the medieval city sees beyond the picturesque -  abandoned beguinages, convents turned into shops - to its long tradition of devotion.  He understood - in the memorable phrase of Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert  - that "the targedy of Bruges is that it has failed to detach itself from the rosary of old Flemish towns" (translation mine).  Industrialization brought new hardships along with new wealth, something the privileged Baertsoen observed in his work.

Although his artistic output was small, several works take  their vantage point from the canals of Flanders, that is from a boat.  As one example, in 1898, Baertsoen embarked on a trip down the Ghent-Ternuezen Canal from his hometown to the Dutch port city of Ternuezen.  The houseboat was both home and floating studio where Baertsoen painted tranquil scenes of the small Flemish towns along the canal, that gradually were  replaced by gritty views of working barges in the industrial north. The Little Watercourse In Flanders At Twilight is a well-known souvenir of the Baertsoen's houseboat days.

The Germans invaded neutral Belgium in the early months of World War I.   Flanders became the ground on which some of the war's most horrific fighting took place.   Baertsoen moved to London to be with his grown son. The artist was also reunited with his friend Emile Claus as the two worked in the studio of American painter John Singer Sargent.  Widespread destruction notwithstanding, Baertsoen returned home to Ghent when the war ended

1. A Ghent Evening, 1903, Musee d'Art moderne, Brussels. 
2. Thaw In Ghent, 1902, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. The Little Quai,  1902, Emporium Magazine, Volume XVI, no. 96, page 418.
4. A Square In Flanders, Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
5. Voortman House And Park In The Snow, 1900, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Ghent.
6. A Quai In Bruges, etching, 1900, Musee d'Art moderne.
7. Petite cour en Flandre au crepuscule, 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
8. Lighters in The Snow - London , National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
9. unidentified photographer - Albert Baertsoen, c. 1910, National Library of Art & History, Brussels.
10. The Rope Layers At Nieuwpoort in The Snow, 1895,  Museum of Fine Art, Ghent.

For further reading: Albert Baertsoen by Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, Brussels, G. Van-Orst: 1910. (in French)

05 January 2012

Franz Melchers & Japonisme In Belgium

This is a story that ends in New York City and began in Belgium.   I've written before about the two decades it took from the time I bought a calendar of prints by Franz Melchers at the Metropolitan Museum until the day I held in my hands a copy of L'An, the book that the prints  were created for, from the collection of New York University Library.

The date is February 2, 1889.  Two exhibitions opened in Brussels on that day, one at the Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Art and the other at a private home on la rue Royale.  Both the public and the critics eagerly anticipated the sixth exhibition of the avant garde group Les Vingt (The Twenty), knowing it would provide delicious gossip.  With new works by Fernard Khnopff and his rival James Ensor, as well as Georges Lemmen and Theo Van Rysselberghe, and the French contingent of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Georges Seurat, lively conversations were guaranteed.

The other event was a gathering at the home of musician Edmond Michotte (1831-1914), a man of many friends, notably  artist Fernand Khnopff.    Michotte was a japanophile and the owner of a remarkable collection of art, some purchased  from his friend, the Parisian dealer Siegfried Bing.   Michotte, also a convinced Wagneriite, often hosted  salons to show off his latest acquisitions to his friends,  the cream of literary and artistic Brussels. 

On view were  prints by the likes of Houksai, Hiroshige, Harbunobu, and Tokoyuni. The press, sensing the moment, took enthusiastic notice.  "Le tout Bruxelles est japonisant. Le japonisme a conquis droit de cité chez nous ; il est à la mode et c'est tout dire."   The death of the 'Anglomania' fad was declared; whether Michotte' friend and Anglophile Fernard Khnopff saw it that way is doubtful.  A critic for La Jeune Belgique rhapsodized with all the cool detachment of a bee reeling from flower to flower of  "radiant art that blossoms spontaneously, as naturally as a flower" (translations mine).  Japan, according to M. Destree who had never been there, was "a wonderful and charming country." 

If japonisme in Belgium was born that day, it had gestated in Michotte's salon for some time. At his urging, the Belgian government purchased  several works for the Royal Museum of History and Art.  (The collection is considered to be of the finest quality,  its preservation from fading that has altered many ukiyo-e prints a rarity.)  Other exhibitions followed at the Association for Art in Antwerp in 1892 and 1893.  Along with works from Michotte and Bing, more recent collectors Georges Lemmen and Theo Van Rysselberghe loaned works.

 The diagonal, a staple of linear perspective since the Renaissance, appeared as a new invention in the hands of Japanese artists.  Rather than lines that converge at a single point, their images balanced and divided by vertical lines and created a sense of depth with multiple but not directly connected planes. 
Soon there was even a new magazine La Libre Esthetique (The Free Aesthetic). The Japanese influence is obvious in these images, especially that of Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa (c. 1832).   Typically, the influence appears stronger in the graphic arts., where two dimensions are the  given. Where the wave cuts across Lemmen's poster for Les Vingts like a caesura through a line of verse, it organizes Auguste Donnay's Jardin sous la neige by a series of meandering diagonals.  Decades Later Tin Tin and his fox terrier Milou ride the great wave  to adventure. 

Back to  L'An (The Year) is a book of sixteen poems by Thomas Braun, one for each season and each month of the year, a common organizing principle for books. Les glaces de Janvier, Les jardins de Fevrier, Les barques du printemp, Les tempetes de Mars, Les chansons d'Avril, les vergers de Mai, Les Fontains de Juin, Les fenetres de l' Ete, Les Papillons de Juillet, Les roses d'Aout, Les meules de Septempbre, Les feuilles de l'Automne, Les labours d'Octobre, Les brumes de Novembre, and Les sapins du Decembre. 
The illustrations are color lithographs, a printing process that had been invented in 1796 by a Bavarian printer Aloys Senefelder, but only became used  widely in the 1890s thanks to the popularity of Toulouse-Lautrec's works in the medium.  The book takes its shape from Melchers's illustrations; it is large and square.  Melchers achieved the effects of color separations seen in Japanese woodblock prints through a laborious process of hand-tinting.

Franz Melchers (1868-1944) was born in Munster in northwestern Germany. He studied art in Brussels and  later at The Hague with Jan Tooroop. He exhibited at the the International Exposition at Paris in 1889. Melchers died at Anvers (Antwerp) in occupied Belgium in 1944.
Continuing for the rest of this year, The Blue Lantern will begin each month with a Franz Melchers lithograph  from L'An

1. Herge - Nous sommes perdis, Milou, 1934, from Les Cigares du Pharoun, castmern, Brussels.
2. Georges Lemmen - Les Vingts, 1891, Bibliotheque Royale Albert 1er, Brussels. 
3. Auguste Donnay - Le jardin sous la neige, Musee de l'Art Wallon, Liege.
4. Georges Lemmen - The Beach At Heist, 1891,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
5.Theo Van Rysselberghe - La Libre Esthetique, 1894, Bibiliotheque Royale Albert 1er, Brussels.
6.Gisbert Combaz - Interpretation de paysage, 1902, City Hall Museum, Brussels.
7.,8.,9.,10. Franz Melchers - Frontispiece, Spring, Summer, Autumn, from L'An, 1897, Brussels.