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 has the 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 rate Symbolists without the Belgians.

Bruges, an accidental port city by virtue of a  tidal wave that swept inland from the North Sea some eleven miles down the River Zwijn in 1134.  In pesponse, the  citizens of Bruges built a web of canals to take advantage of their good fortune but their continued dredging eventually caused the Zwijn to silt in, leaving the city marooned at  a 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 in subsequent centuries left a vacuum for nostalgia to fill.  A more complicated response  was  a kind of psychological mysticism in works of 19th century Symbolists.   The fate of Bruges they confirmed their sense of irrelevance to an  industrialized present in the city's glorious art and architecture. What better image could there be than Fernand Khnopff's almost surrealistic rendering of the Memling Plaatz, named for the great 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 unresolved duality; a Flemish  (Dutch) north and Wallon (French) south.   When it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, th area 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 city 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.'  Yet all three wrote in French.

 Bruges-la-Morte, the novel and the resutling metaphor, made Rodenbach's name.  Equally claustrophobic is a story of his that was published posthumously - Le Rouet des Brumes or The Spinning Wheel of the Mists (1901).  A refashioning of the  Narcissus myth, it is one of many late 19th century distortions that go 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  Against Nature.(A Rebours, 1884).

Although Huysman's narrator is the self- identified friend of man who died in a sanitarium, he recounts his 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 one of them 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..." -  Georges Rodenbach (Bruges-la-morte)

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 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. Two differences met and recognized something akin in each other.

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

Let's Drink To 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)