No matter how accustomed I am to photography, I find there are days when I can’t see anything to take pictures of. In a way that’s understandable if I’m in a new place where new impressions are forcing themselves upon me from all sides and it’s difficult to filter out the things I want to focus on, but I don’t understand why it happens sometimes when I’m familiar with a place. Unless this is an example of familiarity breeding indifference.
I’m not sure which of these two perspectives was influencing me the other day, but I decided I didn’t have any intention of indulging my reluctance. I took the camera and I went on a walk and I forced myself to do one of those basic photography school exercises. You know the one: set yourself to take a photograph every 100 paces. Walk, count your steps, and when you get to 200 (because two steps make one pace) stop and take a picture. It doesn’t matter what – just take it and then walk on.
After a while – after three or five or seven photographs – you begin to see things that may be worth photographing and after 10 or 20 or 40, you find you’ve had a walk and you’ve got a collection of images, some of which may not be so bad. Of course, you don’t know until you get home and look at them but, even if when you do, you don’t choose to share even half, perhaps there are few with something interesting about them. Perhaps there’s one or two that are really not bad.
So it was, again, for me. I walked through the two parks that are nearest to where I now live in Brussels: Duden Park – which used to be an enclosed Royal Park but was given over to the people of Uccle sometime in the late 1800s – and then on through Vorst Park which I think is all that remains of a forest since that’s what “vorst” means. (And yes, the French name is Parc de Forest so my linguistic achievement here is even more underwhelming than it may seem at first.)
There were people out jogging in the morning air, walking their dogs, companionably talking with one another or consulting their mobile telephones. There was one homeless man just waking up from the bed he’d made for himself on one of the benches, and another bench without any planks to sit on.
There were park workers setting out for work.
There was the bust of bad King Leopold II gazing arrogantly at the dome of the Palace of Justice he ordered built, and the working class district of the city he had depopulated in order to make space for it.
There was the sun on the trees, on leaves green against the blue sky, on the facades of the houses over beyond the edge of the park.
And at the end of it all there was a certain peace and a feeling of accomplishment. And a few photos to illustrate this post.
There’s something very special, I think, about hearing piano music in the street. Perhaps because it’s not something I hear so often, each time it happens it adds an extra little bookmark in my memory.
A morning walk along a Brussels street. The sun slants, just clearing the rooftops, illuminating the facades but leaving the paving still in shadow. The promised heat of the afternoon is yet to come and yesterday’s has dissipated in the night. It’s a little chill. There are no front yards, the front doors, up steps, a couple or three, open off the street, and the tall front room windows, above the head height of passers-by, are open to let in the fresh air. From one of these comes the sound of a piano.
The pianist is not proficient. This is practice. Four, eight, sixteen bars tried again and again. There’s something a little hesitant about the last couple of bars. The speed drops, a key is missed, fumbled, there is a pause and the passage begins again. I walk on up the street and the piano sounds fade away behind me, but I am remembering another street, another piano.
Afternoon in the centre of Cracow. The yellow trams are rattling past one another up and down the road, taxis weaving between them and people, locals on their way from work to the shops mixed with ambling tourists in T-shirts and shorts. And once again from open windows above head height the sound of a piano. Here, a sign by the door tells me this is a music school. Someone is practising – Chopin (of course), the Minute Waltz. And I stop and join two or three others who stand below the window listening, smiling at one another, and as the piece finishes without a hitch there is a small round of applause before we all go our separate ways.
At the Eurostar stations in Paris and London the management have put out pianos. Older, upright pianos, painted in bright primary colours. Passengers waiting to board their trains or people waiting to meet friends arriving from far off sometimes sit down and plink away. When I was in London in March – my first visit – a young man was picking out Chopsticks. Diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-um-pum-um-pum-pum. In Paris, another young man sat and delivered a proficient jazz melody while his friends stood around.
A hundred years ago there was a piano in every home. Well, perhaps not every home, but in most British middle-class homes and in many an aspiring working class home. Before radio and long before TV and before cheap records and gramophones, people made music themselves and the piano was a symbol of modernity and a product of modern industrialisation (likewise the accordion, but the squeezebox never achieved the same cultural cachet). Sheet music was cheap and the ability to play the piano was a social accomplishment. Before the guitar, the piano ruled.
Now pianos may still be built and bought by the wealthy, but the pianos of the past are out on the street. My brother-in-law’s piano – an upright that he sometimes plays (tries to play, but don’t tell him I said that) – was just such a piano. Left out on the street by a family clearing the house of a deceased relative. They were going to take it to the tip – the second-hand charity shop they approached didn’t want to know. It cost my brother-in-law the price of two men and a van to get it home.
A couple of years ago I came across another piano abandoned by the wayside. I’m not sure how long it had stood there, some of the boards had come away exposing the cast iron harp. It was still strung, but the felt of the hammers was swollen with damp and on the keys the white veneer – not ivory I hope – was coming away from the wood. Of course I tried it to hear if I could make it sing, but it was dead. I took some photographs.
There’s another piano memory – this reaches way back, more than 40 years – 45 perhaps. A cold, dim November evening in my childhood home in Brighton. The piano teacher is coming. My sister and I, reminded, rush to our upright piano. For a week, since the last time the teacher was here, we have not looked at it, but now with just an hour to go we are squabbling over who gets to practice. Will it be my funereal slow version of “Jig” or my sister’s stuttering rendition of “Frairer Shacker”. (That’s “Frère Jacques” to you.)
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, visiting, slips in ahead of us. She claims the keyboard and plays with bravura the chorus of “Toreador” from Carmen. Most impressively, she does so without reading notes. We squeal in shock, How is this possible? How?! She never learned, she says airily, just picked it up. Plays by ear.
Here we have been struggling to read the black insect squiggles and stretch our fingers to press the right keys in the right order at the right time. Now we learn you don’t have to do that. Just play by ear! We go on strike. No more piano lessons for us. We will play by ear. So, of course, we never do.
“Thank you, Mum,” my mother said to her mother. I think that was when I began to recognise irony.
On Saturday Mrs SC and I went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts here in Brussels to see their Chagall Retrospective. We had some idea that this weekend would be the final opportunity but it turns out the exhibition is running for another month yet.
A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.
I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.
Well, of course he would. The reverence for his art now, contrasts strongly with the indifference and contempt he faced for many years. Indifference first from a broad public in his early years (though not among fellow artists and not at home in Vitebsk).
But indifference was less of a problem than the contempt, as his art was rejected in Revolutionary Russia and as Nazism grew in the 20s and 30s. Chagall’s art was “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … [an] assault on Western civilization”.
On the other hand, the exhibition hall is buried in the cellar of the Museum (and what would Chagall have thought about all the artificial light), and to get there visitors have to pass a foul smelling vestibule that reminds you Brussels also boasts a Sewer Museum. Perhaps the smell was a advert for that?
But then you get to the art and the all rest is of no account.
As there were signs at the museum entrance showing crossed over cameras I assumed photography was forbidden until I saw somebody filming. I went and asked and was told I could take photos for my own use as long as I didn’t use a flash.
I may have gone a little overboard.
There were pictures from every phase of Chagall’s artistic career, from about 1909 until the 1980s. Personally I found most interesting the ones from about 1912 through to the 1940s – the later pictures from his time in the south of France seem over decorative to me. But the range of his art from a sort of post-impressionist style reminiscent of Gauguin and van Gogh, through Cubism, Expressionism and on into a naïve Surrealism is compelling, and its easier to appreciate it when you see so many works all together.
The only thing missing from the exhibition really was any example – or even any photograph – of Chagall’s stained-glass. But I forgive this because I know it was Chagall’s opinion that his glass should be seen with the moving light of day behind it, so that it changes over time and depending on the weather.
Once upon a time when I was in my 20s, I stayed at my father’s home in Kent, a village called Five Oak Green. I was to take care of the place while he and my stepmother Doris were on holiday. Before they left Doris said she thought I might be interested in the church in the next village.
“It’s got some windows,” she said. “They’re by some French fellow, some Jew.”
For reasons of domestic tranquillity, and because she simply wouldn’t understand what I was getting at, I let the Jew reference pass by.
Doris went on to say that the windows had been put in to commemorate the daughter of the Lady of the Manor who drowned in a sailing accident off Rye, and that her husband – “Harry Goldsmid, you know” (I didn’t) – was the one who had brought in “the Jew”.
I didn’t have an awful lot to do once I was on my own. Every morning I had to feed the cat antibiotics because it was recovering from a battle with a rat – it had a rat bite across the root of its tail. That meant about an hour and a half of stalking the cat, holding it down (with gloves on) and forcing a pill into its mouth repeatedly (it kept coughing it up).
That cat hated me. With reason, it must be said.
Anyway, once the morning’s struggle was over there wasn’t much to keep me in the house and so I walked a lot, exploring the byways around the village. One day I walked across to Tudeley to have a look at the church.
I wasn’t expecting very much and the outside of the church, when I found it, was not encouraging. It looked like it might have been quite pretty once, but I was absolutely convinced the tower must have been hit by a bomb in the war and rebuilt by some local builder with minimal experience of architecture. While the body of the church is constructed from an attractive local stone, the tower is a square, squat block in red brick that looks more like an electricity distribution substation than anything else. (I am surprised to discover now, thanks to the church’s own website, that the tower actually dates from 1765.)
Inside, though, all other considerations just fall away as you stand in the wonder of the blue light streaming in from twelve fantastic stained-glass windows, all clearly the work of Marc Chagall.
A little nosing around shows that while Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid may have paid for the windows it was his Christian wife and daughter who chose Chagall. They had seen and fallen in love with the artist’s stained glass when his windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem were exhibited in Paris in 1961. When the daughter, Sarah, was drowned in 1963, the mother, Rosemary, tracked Chagall down and persuaded him to create a commemorative window for the church. Chagall was reluctant at first, but finally agreed and when he came to see the window installed in 1967 he is supposed to have said “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”) All the windows that is.
The last window was put into the church in 1985 – which may have been after I was there – soon before Chagall’s death.
It’s strange to think about the windows at Tudeley now and how I came to see them for the first time. Here I am in Brussels, viewing an exhibition that focuses on Chagall and his extraordinary life: Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Paris again, New York, the Côte d’Azur – in his art he portrayed himself, among other things, as the Wandering Jew of folklore. And my mind slips back 30 years or more to that summer, and then suddenly forward again ten, twelve years. Now I am looking down on Kent from the window of an aircraft flying into Heathrow. It’s a crystal clear October morning and my eye follows the route of a railway line and suddenly I realise I’m looking at Five Oak Green and Tudeley, and a little beyond, Tonbridge where my father is dead in a funeral home waiting for cremation.
Is it me or is it Chagall? Neither I suppose – it’s just human nature. But Chagall was able to capture in his art the way the mind can hop and skip across time and space and mix fact and fancy. Even fly through the air.
In the museum, the voice on the audio guide is reading an English text that has clearly been translated from French and originally written by an art historian with a definite idea of what Chagall’s art means – but I’m not so sure. I hear her saying “anger… terror… horror”, but I find it difficult to see these emotions in Chagall’s work. I see joy and happiness, humour, innocence and bemusement. At worst I see faces without expression. Chagall’s colour symbolism is beyond me – so green means illness? OK, if you say so, voice from the machine. The falling angel, burning in red with one black eye gazing back at the viewer, now that I find more comprehensible, but I don’t see fear.
At the end of the exhibition, passed the turnstiles at the exit but before you reach the exhibition shop… (Chagall prints on micro-clothes to dust your computer screens – artistic and practical!) Before the shop is an area set aside for visiting school kids, paper and crayons and an exhibition of children’s work inspired by Chagall. Acrobats and lovers and figures flying over rooftops, angels and musicians and people with Janus faces. The kids seem to have distilled Chagall’s essence – even if they can’t quite do the colours. But then, with both Matisse and Chagall gone, who now understands colour?
All illustrations are from my own photography except the picture of the east window at All Saints’ church Tudeley, which links to the original source.
“We went to the Royal Greenhouses,” I tell my mother on the phone.
“In Belgium? I thought Belgium was a democracy,” she says.
“It is a democracy, mother. In the same way the United Kingdom is a democracy.” I stress the word kingdom.
“Well,” she says in great doubt. “I never knew that.”
The Royal Greenhouses are a big thing here in Belgium and are only open to visitors for couple of weeks each spring. They occupy a large corner of the gardens of the Royal Palace at Laeken to the north of the old city and you get to them on the number 53 bus alighting at the stop called “Serres Royales”. (That translates as “Royal Greenhouses”. Makes sense.)
Now, the Belgians are generally pro-royal – I’ve been told that the Belgian royal family are the only truly Belgian national icon and without them Belgium would quickly dissolve into its constituent parts, Flanders and Wallonia. Consequently visiting the Royal Greenhouses seems to be a way for Belgians to affirm a commitment to their head of state and national unity. It’s also not overstating the case to say that there is a considerable social pressure on foreigners living in Brussels to pay a visit too.
Mrs SC and I bowed to that pressure and took the opportunity of a sunny May Day to make our pilgrimage.
It was crowded with local tourists and foreign. I heard Italian and Spanish, English and Swedish (not just from us), Polish, Japanese and Chinese. Also Dutch, French and German. It felt like there were thousands of people, though I think that was partly an impression caused by a restricted route and a large number of narrow doors which meant we moved in line and very slowly. There was also a great deal of standing around and not moving. Perhaps because the greenhouses are only open for this very short window every year, the people responsible – and I’m going to blame the Belgian royals for this – haven’t wanted to waste their money on benches. I’m sure there were a few more, but I can only remember seeing (and actually sitting on) two.
Also if there was any place of refreshment anywhere inside the gardens, it was well-concealed. There were a couple of vans parked in the road outside the Royal Palace doing a brisk trade in hot-dogs, waffles, ice cream and bottled water, but in the grounds nada. The Royal Shop sold watering-cans, but no water. There was however a Red Cross post, so I suppose people who collapsed would be attended to – perhaps helped off the palace lands to one of the vending vans.
There were also very large numbers of children, and despite all the standing around they were amazingly well behaved and cheerful. Or if not cheerful then resigned, but not whiny. I was impressed.
So what was so special about the Royal Greenhouses?
Well, it wasn’t the plants. The excuse for only opening for two weeks in the spring is that “this is when most of the flowers are in bloom”. That doesn’t wash. As anyone will know who’s visited open-year-round greenhouses in botanical gardens, there’s usually something blooming most months of the year and there’s always something of interest to see even if it hasn’t got flowers.
I guess these greenhouses were originally set up as botanical greenhouses. In fact the little leaflet in English that we bought suggested that at least one of them was built specifically to hold plants brought from the Belgian Congo. It was unsuccessful. The plants died. Nowadays the collection seems to consist very largely of azaleas and geraniums with a number of palm trees, ferns and a few pitcher plants.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, but really there were a hell of a lot of azaleas and geraniums. And they were pretty, and impressive by virtue of being so many, but you can see something similar in well-stocked garden centres. And do azaleas really need to be raised in greenhouses? There’s a whole little rocky azalea valley – absolutely not under glass – that is part of Slottskogen Park back home in Gothenburg. It’s a riot of colour when the azalea bushes bloom, and Gothenburg is several hundred kilometres closer to the Arctic Circle than Brussels.
However the greenhouses themselves are quite something. They cover an area of 2.5 ha or 270,000 ft² (thank you Wikipedia) and are constructed with a decorative cast-iron girder frame and glass panels. They were built between 1874 and 1895 on the orders of King Leopold II. Leopold was the notorious King of the Belgians who commissioned expeditions to and then exploited the wealth of the Congo Basin, treating the inhabitants as his slaves. The Royal Greenhouses are presumably where some of his Congo money went.*
I’m going to make a wild guess here. Leopold was about twenty years old in 1851 when the great cast-iron and plate-glass Crystal Palace was opened for the Great Exhibition. My guess is that Leopold saw it, was impressed by it, thought “I wanna get me one of those” (or the Francophone equivalent), and when he had the money and the opportunity decided he would do better, would surpass it. If so, I think he achieved his goal.
Of course it’s not all greenhouses. There are orangeries too, and ornamental ponds and cherry trees and a pagoda, and distant, attractive views of Brussels actoss the river (which is actually the great Brussels commercial canal).
According to Wikipedia – which appears to be citing an article in the Daily Telegraph – the former King of the Belgians, Albert II, who abdicated in 2013, lives with his wife in a building in the grounds, while current King Philippe and his Queen live in the main Laeken Palace. I wonder what they do during these two weeks when the hoi polloi get to traipse around their greenhouses. Probably they take a vacation in a far off place, but I’d like to imagine that they are really still in the palace, peeking out at the crowds and longing for a time when the great gates to the palace grounds shut and they can once again walk in peace through their greenhouse empire.
*Before we condemn Leopold for his exploitation of the Congo, we should bear in mind that we’re doing pretty much exactly the same thing today. See here and here.
On Easter Sunday while Mrs SC was still home we went for a walk in Hisingspark – on e of our old haunts. With us was Aliz, a border collie, with her human. A sunny day, though cold in the wind.
Originally I used these photos to test out a number of different photo gallery/slide-show plug-ins. Having settled on one that works on PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets (Responsive Lightbox by dFactory), I choose to update this entry and present the photos with the new gallery plug-in.
Above: Aliz and her humans. Below: A felled tree trunk wearing a fetching pair of sunglasses
Do you suppose children who learn to climb on this climbing frame will grow up to have a more concrete grasp of abstraction?
Although the above was actually taken in a children’s playground in Hisingspark, it turns out to be a sculpture: “Knutpunkten” (“knot point”/”junction”) by Lill Lindblom and Jens Erlandsson.