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.

The Promenade
Click on any picture to see it larger.
It was very impressive to see in one place so many of Chagall’s paintings – 200 says the exhibition brochure. So much intense colour. I just found a quote from Picasso who said in the 1950s that after his close friend and rival Matisse, Chagall was the only living artist who “understands what colour really is”.

A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.

I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.

The Lovers in BlueWell, 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).

 Flying violinistBut 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.

The ringAs 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.

Adam and EveThere 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.

David - Chagall's brotherThe 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.

The Monster of Notre DameOnce 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.”

 Green face blue face - detailFor 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”.

Cat - detailI 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.

 The Poet RecliningAnyway, 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.)

Tudeley east window
Tudeley east window – photo by Philip French
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.

Wandering JewIt’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.

BirthdayIs 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.

 Green monster - detailIn 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.

Falling AngelAt 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?
Chagall exhibition - Viewers

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.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Royal Greenhouses

“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.)

Royal tourists in lineNow, 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.

Royal tourists reflected in royal greenhouse glassIt 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.

Descending the stairsAlso 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.

TiredThere 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?

Royal photographerWell, 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.

What's in thereI 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.

Royal gardener with azaleas and geraniumsOkay, 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.

Royal Winter Garden greenhouseHowever 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.*

Royal Pagoda and blossomI’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.

Royal Seville Oranges outside Royal OrangeryOf 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).

A distant view of BrusselsAccording 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.

Royal Palace not open for visitors

*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.

Royal wateringcans on sale in the royal shop

A walk in Hisingspark

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.

Aliz with Lena and Agneta

Above: Aliz and her humans.
Below: A felled tree trunk wearing a fetching pair of sunglasses

Glasses on the felled tree

Do you suppose children who learn to climb on this climbing frame will grow up to have a more concrete grasp of abstraction?

Orange abstract climbing frame

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.

Busking before the Goddess

In the Nordstan shopping centre in Gothenburg (the stops are: Nordstan, Lilla Bomen and Brunsparken), a busker was playing his accordian outside the Åhléns department store, dwarfed by this image of a commercial goddess.

Busking before the Goddess
Busking before the Goddess

This post is an experiment to try out picture posting for the blog. The original size of the image is 1024×1387 pixels. At the top is the automatic crop that this WP theme uses for the feature image – not good! [At the top now is a tailor-made featured image.]

And below now is the thumbnail 150px wide.

Busking before the Goddess
Busking before the Goddess


Welcome to Stops and stories


Mrs SC and I flew home to Gothenburg for Easter. Afterwards, while she returned to work in Brussels I stayed on for three weeks to see friends, get seen by my dentist, order (and fetch) new insoles and – most important – complete my tax declaration with a Swedish tax office near at hand and help on the phone. And no phenomenal phone bills because of calling internationally and dangling in a phone queue:

You have place – ONE-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-NINE – in a line served by – FOUR – of our personnel. Thank you for waiting. We will answer your call as soon as possible. The expected waiting time is – FIFTY-FOUR – minutes.

Well, perhaps not quite like that.

Betwixt and between I put in some work on my extant websites, and built this one.

Stops and Stories is going to be my blog for travel writing. The idea is to present a weekly entry focusing on a stop. It might be a stop on the Brussels pre-metro, a stop on the London underground, a tram stop in Gothenburg, a hotel stop somewhere in Europe or a bus stop somewhere else in the world. Or a train stop, of course. The background image is based on the tangle of train tracks leading into or out of a mainline station somewhere.

There will be photographs, stories and background related to the stop. There may be other things too – drawings, audio recordings, even videos. Let’s see what comes.

A wet morning at Brussels International
A wet morning at Brussels International