Scary Monsters and Museum Night Fever

An evening of scary monsters, strange objects, and a night out at several museums which have stepped “out of their usual context” for the evening

Once a year the Museums of Brussels (24 of them this year) get together on a winter Saturday to hold a party called Museum Night Fever. True, some are more committed than others to the party aspect of the event. Still, even those museums that simply open late without offering anything extra seem to attract crowds of visitors, and the visitors themselves bring the party feeling along with them.

Faience elephant - Brussels City museumThere is a flat rate (€14 a head) to get in, which is a financial saving only if you have the stamina to get around more than two or three museums – and to get around to more than two or three in the evening. But saving money is not really the point of participating in an evening like this; the experience is.

On Saturday, Mrs SC and I started out at the City Museum in Grand-Place. This was interesting especially for its models of the city, and the maps showing how Brussels has grown over the centuries. Particularly interesting, we thought, was the model of the early medieval city (c1200), showing how it looked at the time the first city walls were built. Somebody had a lot of fun building that.

Figures of Burgers - Brussels City museumI don’t know how trustworthy the model is (though, presumably, it’s at least truthful to the knowledge of the early city historians had at the time the model was made). Given that, it was surprising to see how much empty space the city walls enclosed. As my wife observed, it looked a lot like a Swedish ring fort – a fornberg – similar in particular to Eketorp on Öland. From illustrations in books and too many film and TV interpretations of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, I’m used to imagining medieval cities packed to the walls with houses, with narrow twisting streets and roofs climbing above roofs up to the sides of the castle keep. Seeing grazing land and, effectively, market gardens occupying most of the space within the walls of early Brussels was a refreshing challenge to my preconceptions.

Shifty lion - Brussels City museumAs the model is under glass which the museum’s lights glare off, none of my photos turned out to be worth sharing. In fact the only pictures fom the City Museum that came out were of some of the model animals and people on display elsewhere around the museum. A faience elephant, a lion with shifty eyes, two burgers. These were not the scary monsters, though.

After the City Museum, we thought we’d try to visit the Royal Library, a place we have walked passed often, but never yet been inside, but the queue was ridiculous. It was the same story at the Museum of Musical Instruments. So, OK, we’ll take a tram to the Botanical Gardens, we decided. But no tram came. So we walked – through the wild wind’s loud lament and the bitter weather.

That last sentence may be overdoing things, but it was a long walk in a cold wind.

Once we got to Le Botanique, though, there was a good pasta meal to be had in the restaurant and we heard the overspill base sounds from a rock concert in the Orangery. It turned out to be a Swedish singer, Seinabo Sey, and when we mixed with the crowds coming out after the concert, they seemed well pleased. (Which made at least 50% of our party quite happy.)

Glowinski at Botanique - The gallery with dinosaurThen we took ourselves into the Museum Night Fever special event – a modern art happening/marathon performance piece by a Brussels-based French artist, Vincent Glowinski whose nom de graffiti is Bonom. He was once seen as Brussels’ answer to England’s Banksy, until the police caught him red handed. Well, aerosols in hand perhaps. (That’s one story – Glowinski himself tells another – see in this interview.) Since when he has been more – but on the evidence of Saturday night not much more – of a conventional artist.

Glowinski at Botanique - Scary monster snake skullIn a gallery of the Botanical Gardens – once designed to hold plants – he had filled the space with scary monsters. A collection of oddities: created skeletons of pre-historic creatures (or creatures inspired by prehistory); ceramic objects of various sorts from shells, coins, tokens and bones to what appeared to be pages from his sketchbooks; larger pieces in plastic resin, silicon, bamboo, nylon, sand, clay.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monster marionetteThe skeletons were animated and he had a bunch of assistants – young art students I guess – who made them dance. The assistants also played single-mindedly with some of the smaller creations, walking them around the free-standing plant-sculptures, flying them around the gallery and “investigating” visitors. There were also a couple or three who had specially shaped mirrors or specially constructed eye-pieces. These people went around persuading visitors to hold the mirrors up to their eyes, distorting their vision, and then led them gently around the gallery to experience an even weirder version of the exhibition.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monsters' shadowsLight in the gallery came from a few spot lamps, so it was very bright in places, very dim and mysterious in others. Not so much in the way of glaring surfaces though, but lots of sharp shadows. Several of my photos came out rather well, I thought. And even those that didn’t come out sharp still give something of the flavour of the exhibition.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monster larvaIt was still cold and still windy when we said farewell to the scary monsters, and there was rain or even sleet in the air. We had talked of going on to the Cartoon Strip Museum after, but we chickened out. We caught a tram home. On the way, we passed the queue for the Musical Instruments Museum. It looked almost as long as when we saw it earlier. We congratulated one another on not having stood there all night.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A walk in Molenbeek

A walk – with photos – through Molenbeek, the Brussels district vilified in the international press as a hotbed of jihadist terrorist activity

Greater Brussels is made up of 19 communes. These are local authorities, in effect towns, and are responsible for among other things the parks and the streets, local schools and sports centres. They also co-operate with one another (sometimes) to administer or oversee other services such as water and power supplies and (I think) the collection of rubbish. The communes are fiercely protective of their autonomy (a bit like Britain in the EU now I think about it).

On the Porte de Flandre bridgeOne of these communes, Molenbeek, recently attracted international opprobrium as a nursery of terrorism. Terrorists associated with both the major attacks in Paris last year had family connections in Molenbeek. You can still find articles on-line in the international press with titles like: “Molenbeek: Inside Belgium’s seething city of jihad where ISIS are heroes” (the British Express) or “Molenbeek: A Troubled Neighborhood in a Failing State” (the US National Review).

Graffiti along the Charleroi canal near Porte de FlandreWhen all the world’s press started writing about how terrible and dangerous Molenbeek was (and by extension Brussels), friends and relatives started getting in touch to check that Mrs SC and I were “safe”. It was all a little confusing. While I wouldn’t claim to know Molenbeek, I’ve been there, I’ve shopped there and I’ve walked through parts of it with a camera. It never struck me as exceptional in the context of Brussels, or particularly alarming. We own a standard lamp bought in a furniture store in Molenbeek; we have a favourite art work there we sometimes like to show visitors.

But perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places? Last Saturday 27th February, I joined a party from the Swedish Club for a walking, talking tour of what US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has branded “Europe’s Hellhole”. (Bless!)

Barge on the Charleroi CanalThis photo, taken from the Porte de Flandre bridge, I actually took last February. Our walking tour started on the bridge and the Charleroi Canal, which separates Molenbeek from the Ville de Bruxelles, is a key to the history of the place. On Saturday’s walk I learned that the Charleroi Canal was one of the earliest navigation canals in Europe, though it’s gone through many enlargements and extensions over the years. It now links the port of Antwerp to the north with Walonia and, beyond, with the extensive canal system of France to the south. The canal is the reason Molenbeek developed as an industrial centre in the 19th century.

Artists' colony in old brewery on rue du Cheval NoirAlong the Molenbeek side of the canal is an area of once busy industrial buildings. This building on rue du Cheval Noir used to be a brewery. With the collapse of industrialism in Brussels – as in so many places in western Europe – the local authorities have put a deal of effort into “repurposing” the buildings. This one, as you can see, has been extended with a modern construction alongside the original structure to create purpose-built artists studios and music practice rooms.

Our motley group with Tomas G on rue du Cheval NoirOn rue du Cheval Noir, here’s our motley group of Swedish speakers led by Tomas Grönberg, our erudite guide. Note the colourful wall of graffiti behind. There were several examples of graffiti on the walk. I liked them but several of my companions seemed divided over their artistic worth.

In the square behind the breweryHere we are in the square behind the artists’ studios/brewery. The brewery is the old brick building in the far corner. See how the architects have echoed the round windows of the brewery in the architectural features of the newer buildings around the square.

In the square behind the brewery 2The same scene from the opposite side (with the bright sun behind me now). And the roundels in the building on rue des Marinier are mirrored in the round shapes of all the satelite dishes on the balconies of the block of flats on rue Fernand Brunfaut. According to information on the Molenbeek commune website about half the 90,000 residents of Molenbeek are Moslems, and the majority of those come from Morocco. Several of the residents in the block of flats took an interest in our visit, standing on their balconies to look down at us, but it was damn cold in the wind, despite the sun, so no one hung around long.

Indoors at La FonderieIt was so cold that we were rather happy when that our tour broke for a visit to La Founderie – the foundery – a museum dedicated to Molenbeek’s industrial history. The foundery originally produced both practical objects (gas and electric light armatures for example) and art works. They were responsible, we were told, for most of the bronze statues of Belgium’s King Leopold II dotted around the city. (Objects that are – in my opinion – neither artistic nor practical.)

Indoors at La Fonderie 3 - chocolate bean roaster Still indoors, this machine was used to roast cocoa beans, the first stage in the process of extracting cocoa butter for chocolate making. Our guide – we had a special one for the museum – was keen to impress on us how all the industrial processes of the city supported one another, were integrated with one another and ultimately shaped the society that both worked in Molenbeek and bought the goods produced here.

On Molenbeek PlaceBut then it was out into the cold wind again to walk to Place Molenbeek – the Molenbeek market square next to the town hall. This photo was taken just as Tomas G informed us (in Swedish of course) that we were standing in front of one of the shops said to be a hotbed of jihadists. It looked very sleepy, though I did not tempt fate by trying to take a photo.

The minaret of the church of St John the Baptist Molenbeek A little way beyond Place Molenbeek is this remarkable tower. Though it looks like a minaret it is the bell tower of the Parvis Saint-Jean-Batiste – the Parish Church of St John the Baptist. (Officially, this commune is Molenbeek-Saint-Jean). The church was built here in the 1930s, long before the first Moroccans were recruited to work in Belgium in the 1950s. It’s just a happy accident it looks the way it does.

Playing cricket in front of St John the Baptist MolenbeekIn the square in front of the church, a group of young men were enthusaistically playing cricket. Not exactly a sport otherwise associated either with Belgium or the Arab world, I hazard a guess they or their families originated in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

L'Agent 51 - VaartkapoenOur tour of Molenbeek proper came to an end at Place Sainctelette where everyone crowded around trying to get a photo of this bronze. (Nothing to do with Leo II and not produced in the Molenbeek Foundary.) The figure (by the Belgian sculptor Tom Franzen) shows “De Vaartkapoen”. That’s him coming up out of the manhole. Apparently the vaartkapoen are people born in Molenbeek. “De vaart” means “the canal” and “kapoen” means something like “cheeky”. The cheeky young rebel is upsetting authority. The sculpture went up in 1985 and it portrays something that is much older still (the policeman’s uniform is reminiscent of something from the 19th or early 20th centuries). I’m not sure what it has to say about the current culture of Molenbeek, but I suspect if a modern vaartkapoen were to try this on nowadays the terrorist rapid response force would arrive in short order and arrest him. I’m trying to decide how I feel about that.

Graffiti rue Fin
Graffiti rue Fin

My thanks to Tomas Grönberg and the other members of the Brussels Swedish Club for a fine day out.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Florentine graffiti

Florentine graffiti: some people like it, some hate it.

Florence is known as one of the homes of the Italian Renaissance, and there is a wealth of art to see there. It’s also the home of Europe’s oldest, dedicated school of art, Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno, or the “Academy and Company of the Arts of Drawing”, which was founded in 1563 by Cosimo I de’Medici, at the recommendation of Giorgio Vasari. Not surprisingly, the city also shelters a flourishing tradition of unofficial art – graffiti to you and me.

If you do an Internet search for “graffiti Florence”, you’ll turn up a surprising volume of references (over 700,000 when I googled it just now). To be sure a number of these – for reasons that escape me – seem to refer to the film American Graffiti, but most are about real Florentine graffiti. As with most graffiti, some people like it, some hate it, and some might appreciate it more, perhaps, if it wasn’t “disfiguring” Florence.

I’m not wild about tagging, and not generally impressed by written graffiti, on the other hand I think the people who live in Florence have as much right to decorate or pass illustrative comments on Florence as anyone in their own home. Especially when it is done with skill, wit and panache. Here are some I photographed last November.

Florentine Graffiti 9

I suspect the one above and the one below are by the same hand.

Florentine Graffiti 12

Florentine Graffiti 11

Many pieces make use of architectural features as a frame.

Florentine Graffiti 3

Florentine Graffiti 14

Others adapt what the city gives them. The one below was just outside a shop advertising alcohol for sale.

Florentine Graffiti 15

Florentine Graffiti 5

And there are no rules about materials either. The one above uses gaffer tape.

Florentine Graffiti 10

I don’t really count the below as graffiti, but I’m not at all sure it is official art. It was ocupying a niche high up on the corner of an alley in the Oltrarno (“the other side of the Arno”) and certainly seemed to be making a comment on something.

Sculpted woman holding her nose

If graffiti is defined as illegal art on walls, then I suppose a fresco, which is legal art on walls, is graffiti’s legitimate cousin. Frescoes are painted in wet plaster directly on to the wall – art fused with the material of the wall itself. Below is the Judas kiss from a fresco of Fra Angelico in the San Marco Friary Museum in Florence.

The Judas Kiss (detail)

And here below is evidence that art students are still hard at work learning from the masters. (That’s the Annunciation she’s copying, too concentrated to notice the fat Englishman with a camera behind her, even though I’m reflected in the glass).

Art student sketching Fra Angelico's Annunciation at San Marco

Finally, a couple more balloons – the first with an ancient artistic reference (on the back wall of the San Marco museum if I remember right).

Florentine Graffiti 13

Florentine Graffiti 7

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Tip of the hat to fellow Blogg52er Ulla Marie Johanson who blogs a new painting (and accompanying poem in Swedish) daily at Kreativ varje dag (Creative every day). Last Wedesday was a picture of balloons which reminded me I’ve been wanting to share these graffiti images since Mrs SC and I visited Florence last year.

The Sleeping Place

cemetery (n.)
late 14c., from Old French cimetiere “graveyard” (12c.), from Late Latin coemeterium, from Greek koimeterion “sleeping place, dormitory”…
On-line Etymological Dictionary

Cimetière d'Ixelles, Ixelles CemeteryThe Cemetery of Ixelles is on top of a hill to the south-east of Brussels. Conceivably, the rest of the world may be a little more familiar with the layout of Brussels now than six months ago, so it might help if I say it is on the opposite side of the city from Molenbeek in the north-west, where “all the terrorists” live. I suppose when the cemetery was planned, which I take to be in the mid-1800s, it lay in the countryside. Now it is sandwiched between the two campuses of the Université libre de Bruxelles and surrounded by a student-and-well-to-do-academic quarter.

Boulanger's suicide, illustration from Le Petit Journal - Wikimedia CommonsCemeteries are interesting and sometimes dramatic places (though nothing I’ve yet seen quite beats the Glasgow Necropolis). Apparently all sorts of the “famous in Belgium” rest here at Ixelles, including one Victor Horta. Another is Georges Boulanger, who very nearly became dictator of France at the end of the 1880s, but dithering at the sickbed of his mistress, missed his chance and ended up in exile in Brussels. Here in the Cemetery of Ixelles in September 1891 he shot himself on the grave of his mistress and is buried beside her.

But it wasn’t these names that attracted Mrs SC and I last Sunday. It just seemed like a good place to visit on a fine, cold afternoon. A place for a gentle walk and an opportunity to practice using the new camera.

Cimetière d'Ixelles AbrahamThe sun was bright and the white marble statuary especially, glowed almost with an inner light that often quite washed out contrasts and made for disappointing pictures. This grieving figure on the grave of the Abraham family was the one that came out best. The cemetery is clearly non-denominational, though apart from the obviously Christian graves I saw only a few Jewish graves such as this one. On the other hand, while there were many emphatically Catholic graves (tortured Jesuses, sorrowful Madonnas), there were also monuments and memorials to people from other Christian denominations and none, judging by the symbols and statuary.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Young man with shearsFor example, I’m not sure who this young man is, but I get the idea – he’s cutting the thread of life. This is the job of Atropos in Greek mythology, and Atropos is female, but perhaps the dead in the tomb here was a tailor and I’m misinterpreting everything.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Chinese gravesEither because Ixelles is a multicultural resting place, or because there is a different tradition here than back home, many of the graves and memorials have portraits of the deceased. This is something I’m more familiar with from Orthodox graves in the Balkans or Italy, but that may just reveal the limits of my experience. Here there are Slavic graves with portraits, but also Chinese ones. Recent graves and also older ones.

Cimetière d'Ixelles EmilIt also seems to be quite acceptable to add art to a grave. Not just in the form of sculpted angels or other figures, but also portrait busts like this one. Impressive moustaches – some Belgian men still cultivate dramatic moustaches.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Maggy detailThis was an interesting and sad grave. The cleft, translucent disc appears to preserve flowers. Beneath (out of shot) an inscription reads “A ma Fille”. The gravestone is inscribed to Maggy Forest 1949-1983. She was 34 when she died.

Cimetière d'Ixelles President of the veterans of Stalag VI-DFurther on, this headstone caught my eye. What is that image engraved into the stone? It looks like the watchtower of a prison camp, but who would want such an image? A former prison guard? Not likely. A former prisoner? That turns out to be what it is. This is the grave of H. Georges Chantrain, President of the prisoner veterans of Stalag VI-D, a Second World War POW/labour camp at Dortmund for the captured soldiers of the countries of Europe defeated by the Germans.

Cimetière d'Ixelles Julie and PatriciaBut at least H. Georges Chantrain survived and was proud of his experiences. There are other inscriptions and sadder tales. On the monument by the garden of remembrance for scattered ashes there are several panels with commemorative plaques. If you look at this one you’ll see Mademoiselle Julie van Weereld who died on 14th September 2010 aged no more than 26. Look two plaques below and you’ll see Madame Patricia Nailis, wife of Adriean van Weereld. She must have been Julie’s mother, and she died on the same date. I find myself wondering what the tragedy was that took mother and daughter on the same day. A car accident perhaps?

Cimetière d'Ixelles de SpotTo close, here is another grave that tells a longer story, but I think just as sad. It starts by recording the birth and death of Roger de Spot, born at Folkestone on 12th November 1917, who died not much more than 3 months old on 16th February 1917, still at Folkestone. What is a Belgian family doing in Folkestone in 1917? Probably living as refugees from the German occupation. Roger’s sister Genevieve was born in Ixelles in happier times on 6th December 1913, but she too met an early death, in Ghent in 1934, a month shy of her 21st birthday.

The children’s father and mother lie here too, Joseph, who died at 73 in 1952 and Marie (I guess) who died at 83 in 1968. But look at the bottom of the grave and you’ll see tacked on an aluminium marker for the last member of the family buried here, Etienne. Born in 1910 when his mother was 25, he outlived both his siblings and both his parents. But when he died in 2002 there was no one left (or no money) to add his name to the gravestone in the same style.

So many stories in such a small space.
Cimetière d'Ixelles 1

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.


Cat with bomb beltBrussels has been undergoing what the press are calling a “lockdown”. One of the terrorists from the Friday 13th Paris attack – the one who failed to blow himself up – comes from Brussels and had reportedly returned here. Possibly with a suicide belt of explosives still attached to his body. The city filled up with military, the metro and all tram routes that go underground were closed, public buildings where people congregate (schools, libraries, sports facilities) were shut.

Cat scouts on paradeSome workplaces allowed staff to work from home and the authorities encouraged Brussels residents to stay and not congregate in groups. In one announcement I saw and think I translated correctly Scouts were encouraged not to get together in groups of more than 100 individuals. (Why is 100 a critical mass of Scouts? Well, I suppose you have to set a limit somewhere, but, still, I’m puzzled.)

Magritte cat in bowler hatThe Belgian authorities also asked people not to share on social media information about the whereabouts of police and military as this might help terrorists. The response was phenomenal with Belgians and others sharing instead a deluge of cat and kitten pictures hashtagged #BrusselsLockdown. The idea (I think) is that any “serious” information with this hashtag would be drowned. Fair enough (and some of the photos and GIFs are very funny), but other hashtags (for example #Brussels) were carrying quite a lot of information undisturbed by cats. Still, if you’ve not seen them, do take a look. Search on Twitter, Facebook or Google for #BrusselsLockdown or “Brussels Lockdown cats meme”.

Brussels lockdown cats setThe object of the military and police hunt, Salah Abdeslam, still hasn’t been caught at the time of writing. I’m guessing he is being hunted not only by the military but also by his terrorist masters. Suicide bombers are supposed to commit suicide, not run away with a live bomb vest. A bunch of people said to be terrorists or terrorist sympathisers have been arrested in different Brussels districts. We are being told there was an attack planned that has been thwarted. Hopefully thwarted. Also that there is a further terrorist from Paris on the loose here. Maybe.

After a three days cooped up at home, yesterday morning I decided to take a walk through town just to see what I could see. Foolishly, I didn’t take my real camera, but relied on the “camera” built into my tablet. The light was poor and the wind was strong and that’s my excuse for the quality of the illustrations this week.

Cats at the windowBreakfast at a café at Ma Campagne on the Waterloo Road seemed a good place to start. Not busy, but not by any means empty. Hot chocolate was a good choice this morning as it was a nast chilly day. It wasn’t till I was leaving that I realised I was the only person sitting by the window. Everyone else (about 10 other customers) remembered and followed advice to stay away from the windows. I see no point in photographing meals, so no pictures of my steaming hot mug of chocolate. You’ll just have to imaging it.

Halle Port/Port de HalI walked down to Halle Port/Port de Hal – the only remaining Brussels city gate from when the old town was surrounded by its medieval wall. From here, I took photos more or less every 150 paces. (Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to all of them.)

Rubbish in the street waiting to be collectedBrussels was quiet this morning, not deserted, not by any means, but not its usual bustling self. In particular there were a lot of city workers out and about. I don’t mean “city types”, but men and women in heavy clothes and bright vests doing essential work like street sweeping and rubbish collection. The people of Brussels clearly expect their rubbish to be taken care of lockdown or no. There was every sign their faith was justified.

Wrapped Christmas treesThe city workers were also busy erecting Christmas trees.

I walked along the Rue de la Chapelle which is usually a pretty busy thoroughfare, but not so much yesterday morning. At Bozar (the Palaise des Beaux-art) – the art centre of Brussels – I crossed downhill and walked to the Central Station and then through the Agora market to the Grand-Place.

German news reporterThe Agora was the only place I saw any sign of the military – a couple of trucks and handful of soldiers and police. A German news reporter and his cameraman had also found them and were setting up a shot and recording a report.

Christmas tree in the Grand-PlaceThere were very few tourists, so the Grand-Place was spookily empty. At the same time it was busy with people putting up huts for the forthcoming Christmas market. The tree was already up and decorated.

Tourists and Christmas tree in Grand-PlaceOne group of Japanese or Korean tourists appeared while I was there and seemed very happy to have found the market and the tree. They gathered in an excited, laughing, v-signing group for photos and selfies. Generally, though it seemed as though tourists were staying away and many of the tourist shops and restaurants were closed. Those places that were open were rather empty.

Christmas lights in the galleryIn the galleries the Christmas lights were already up and the shop windows decorated, but customers were noticeably absent. The “lockdown” is hurting the tourist trade – if not already, then soon, the longer it drags on. In the meantime, it’s certainly easier to take yourself around the centre of Brussels now. Who knows – it might even mean you will experience quicker than usual service if you visit before the crowds come back. (A touch of sarcasm there. Anyone who has ever tried to order something in a Brussels pub or restaurant – or pay – will understand.)

DesoléAlthough public transport on the city was in operation above ground, not all the bus lines were running. On Saturday, the first day of the “lockdown”, signs at all the bus stops promised that all the bus lines were operating normally. They weren’t. But it’s a consolation that buses out of service are all Desolé about it. Desolé sounds so much more unhappy than Sorry, don’t you think?

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Most of the cat pictures circulating on Twitter and FB seem to have been ripped off from other sites. The cat in the bomb belt, and the mosaic of cats in “Moslem” garb, seem to come from all over the place, so I can’t credit their creators. The Cat Scouts though is a postcard by Swiss artist Eugene Hertung for the publisher Alfred Mainzer. The cat in a hat is by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. [Edit Nov 28th – Sadly I now suspect the cat in the hat is inspired by but not actually by Magritte.] The cats at the window seems to be a genuine photo shared on Twitter by Matteo Albania @M_Albania, to whom all kudos.