It’s art

Antwerp has something very much like real fratboys in white shirts and these honorary chest-bands – this was discovered at a bar belonging to some university fraternity, that was paid a visit on friday. One wonders which section of Dantean hell a DJ goes to for playing “Macarena” and “Gangsta’s Paradise” on the same evening. But you make your bed, sleep in it, and skip the grumbling. Beer me up before you go-go.

It is still fun confirming to italians that “Katso merta” indeed means “watch the sea” in finnish and observe the ensuing stupefaction. Here you indeed find yourself very much defined as finnish.

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The following morning I was awakened by a phonecall from my father, Hille, who had arrived in Brussels. I met him at the train station, now graced with an floating indoor sun.

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We went looking for accomodation for the one night he was staying in Antwerp and happened on a hotel near the museum of fine arts, Hotel Continental, that seemed like an okay, slightly dated business traveller hotel. You probably should have guessed from the “short stay” option for the rooms, but it turned out that the business travellers visiting that place were looking for more than mere business as usual. The room itself was taken out of a David Lynch film with a pearl drape for the bathroom, ugly tartan armchairs, a persistant tobacco aroma and a blacklight over the bed. A sign on the nightstand suggested a bottle of champagne for that little extra.

As a subtle touch for, gracing a small niché above the stairways were the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys telling  of the respect to the client in this haven for shady amorous encounters. The hotel turned out to have been quite peaceful, but that was more due to luck than arrangement as the walls were apparently thin. My father was relieved to know that the Brussels hotel he had reserved for the following night was substantially more pleasant.

After appreciating Hotel Continental’s charms, we went for some different art. The Jockum Nordström exhibit I wrote about before included some sculpture-like things and a quite large selection of watercolor works and graphite pencil drawings. Nordström has a knack for creating awkward images, filled with incongruent story strands and shapes, that somehow hold together in odd arrangements, and you wonder if he plans the compositions as a whole, or if the result is more due to his process of drawing.

More fascinating awkwardness was found in the Royal museum of fine art, which is Antwerp’s museum of art up until the 80’s. The concept is more or less identical to that of Ateneum in Helsinki. We only visited the “old masters” collection, which naturally was much about Rubens. Personally I do not find Rubens all that exciting, compared to some of the early northern renaissance works.

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There was a profusion of weirdly painted infants, and several works with those delightful little demons typical for the northern renaissance, perhaps most well known from Hieronymus Bosch’s and Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s works.

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For some of the paintings that feature those mischievous characters, it seems like they are playing the lead part even though the theme is ostensibly the temptation of some saint or other.

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Jean Fouquet’s  Madonna omringd door serafijnen en cherubijnen is perhaps one of the bizarrest works of classic religious art in existence. Somehow I think that Enki Bilal has been thinking of this work from time to time. But are the red ones seraphims and the blue cherubs, or is it the other way around?

The much less intriguing 19th century part of the collection was a good reminder of the unity of artistic tendencies at that time. You could find several works that seemed direct parallels to finnish paintings from the same period; Edelfelt etc. Probably the reason is found in that they all went to Paris. After the museums we took a walk on town and happened to the Shelde just in time for an extravagant sunset over Linkerover.

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Later the same evening I experienced a true Belgian poker game, in which I played foolishly and lost some four euros – something which was very much offset by the generous beer donations of Tom, the chip-king of the game, in a true Belgian suburb bar. Note to self: Threes is not a good hand. But maybe you don’t get so many sympathy beers if you win.

On sunday morning I went with Hille to Brussels, we had the idea of going to see the Körperwelten exhibit. The popularity of that spectale was quite astounding – after finally finding our way there, we could agree that the exhibit would not be worthy of over two hours of queuing, and so headed back to the city center. We tried to visit the fine arts museum in the center, but it also turned out to be full, and closing in a short while for that matter. Museums here in Belgium close rather early, often at 17.00.

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After missing all the museums we found this lively cafeteria, that had a price-worhty menu of crepes and salads in a nice setting that powered some discussions on art. You can apparently eat out well in Brussels with a little luck.

Compared to Antwerp, though, Brussels is overaall a much less pleasant city (no matter that the city park has real parrots flying around!). It is perpetually noisy and busy, and dirty to a inordinate degree in places. Strewn all over town are the glass-and-metal edifices of the Eurocracy, which bring their own charm to the mix.

Even on a sunday, the streets were swarming with honking cars. It probably doesn’t improve traffic flow that a couple in a car start kissing passionately at the lights, either. Brussels is firmly on the trail of eurotourists, so the place is swarming with people gaping at the sights.

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The old main square forms the central tourist attractor, ringed with silly souvenir shops. Some girl scouts were doing a peculiar performance with scarves.  It is dull how that sort of place is repeated all over europe (or the world), with minute variations. The place itself is covered with a thick crust of junk commerce, so that the difference between, say, Brussels and Rome, is relegated to minutiae.

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A odd thing was the amount of graffiti tags on many of the pompous public buildings. It was actually on a level close to that in Napoli, which is not saying a little. It made you wonder if there’d been some recent graffiti attack on the town, perhaps relating to protests against the governance of europe? The contrast that forms to the small shops where an Eurocrat can buy his son, that he sees for two hours a week, an elaborately sewn toy elephant for eighty euros is refreshing in some ways. It is reassuring to find that control in the heart of Europe’s governance is lax enough to allow for a tag saying “Zero Grimer” on the National Library’s sandstone walls. Additionally, it also seems that Brussels is subject to some endless project of renovation and construction, something which plagues the nationalist-heroic trainstation in particular. The orientation system there is amended with nice little printed notes.

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On the other hand, the town does have some interesting museums, and cultural events worthy of a visit, so I will most probably return, but as a place to live and hang out it is easily trumped by Antwerp. I was happy to get back here.

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