Art and Culture
Art and Culture
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Fine civic structures such as belfries, town halls and covered markets are symbols of the municipal autonomy and medieval pride of Belgian cities, above all in the great art centres of Flanders. But it is not just on monuments like these that the country’s urban charms depend; adding to their enchantment are tranquil canals, joyfully chiming carillons, peaceful convent precincts, and, not least, the cheerful atmosphere of the café and that characteristic Belgian institution, the estaminet.
The square (Grote Markt or Grand-Place) is lined by the town’s main buildings, including the town hall, the covered market, the belfry and the guildhalls with their richly sculpted façades. This was once the focal point of the town, the place where the stocks were set up, where executions took place, and where markets, parades, fairs, festivals and major celebrations were held. The country’s finest city squares are in Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Mechelen, though the biggest, 3.19ha/7.88 acres, is the Grote Markt in Sint-Niklaas.
The carillons regularly ring out their charming melodies. Carillons were not always installed in the church tower (as at Antwerp and Mechelen), but sometimes in the municipal belfry (as at Bruges and Ghent).
The word “carillon” comes from the French carignon, meaning a group of four bells. The bells with their different chimes were connected to a clock (the first town clock appeared in 1370), and were set to play just before the sounding of the hour. Originally tapped by hand with a hammer, the first mechanical chimes, activated by the clock mechanism, were created in the 15C. The discovery of the manual keyboard, used for the first time in Oudenaarde in 1510, made it possible to increase the number of bells. In 1583 the invention of the pedal board in Mechelen enabled bass stops to be used, thus enriching the possible variety of sounds. The art of founding the bells has been refined to a quite remarkable degree, so that most of the major carillons now consist of at least 47 bells. The most famous examples in Belgium are in Mechelen (49 bells), Bruges and Antwerp (47 bells), Nieuwpoort (67 bells), Ghent (52 bells) and Florenville (48 bells). The bell-ringers’ school in Mechelen has an international reputation.
From the 14C, many belfries were adorned with a clock incorporating a jack-o’-the-clock, a metal figure which strikes the hours by tapping a little bell with a hammer. Jack-o’-the-clocks are found in Kortrijk, Nivelles, Brussels (Mont des Arts), Virton, Lier and Sint-Truiden among other places.
The typical Beguine convent (begijnhof in Dutch, béguinage in French) is nowadays a place of great tranquillity, but this was not always so. Often sited a little off the beaten track and surrounded by walls, most Beguine convents were hives of activity in their heyday, flourishing urban communities of widows and unmarried women. Their residents followed certain rules, wore the approved costume, attended church services, and carried out manual work. But unlike the religious orders, they were not obliged to swear vows of eternal poverty and chastity and were free to leave the community at any time. This made the Beguine convents very popular, particularly for single women who took refuge in them in troubled times. During the day, the residents were free to attend to various duties, caring for the sick, lace-making, sewing and knitting. As the convent closed its gates at nightfall they returned to the shelter of its walls. The community was led by a Superior known as the “grande demoiselle”.
The origin of Beguine convents is unknown. The first establishment of this type may have been founded by Lambert le Bègue in Liège at the end of the 12C, although their creation has traditionally been attributed to Saint Begga, the Mother Superior of a convent in Andenne, where she died in 694. By the 13C the typical Beguine convent had become a little walled town within a town, with several gateways and with cottages laid out around a church. In 1566 many convents were destroyed by iconoclasts, then rebuilt at the end of the 16C and 17C.
Of the hundred or so 14C Beguine convents in the southern Low Countries, 25 have survived. Their Beguine sisterhoods are, however, no more, and they are now occupied by other religious communities (Benedictines in Bruges), retired people, cultural institutions or, as at Leuven, by university students and lecturers. In 1998, 13 Flemish Beguine convents were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, Ghent (Klein Begijnhof), Sint-Amandsberg, Diest, Leuven (Groot Begijnhof), Bruges and Kortrijk.
Financed by the guilds, these rows of low, whitewashed brick houses provided sanctuary for the old or the poverty-stricken. Surviving almshouses include those at Bruges and the Alijn Children’s Hospice in Ghent (now the Folklore Museum).
Estaminet is the Walloon word for a café. Friendly places to meet for a glass of beer, to play cards and gossip, they are also a favourite gathering point for coulonneux (pigeon-fanciers). Famous Brussels estaminets include In’t Spinnekopke, La Grande Porte and À la Bécasse.
Styles and Periods
Over the centuries, the different people who flocked to Belgium and Luxembourg brought major artistic movements with them: the Romans, the French, Germans, Burgundians, Austrians, Spanish and Dutch. Each of these civilisations was to leave its trace.
However, two very distinct and original styles, both of which produced real masterpieces, were born and developed here: the Mosan School in the principality of Liège, and Flemish art, which flourished especially during the reign of the Dukes of Burgundy.
From Prehistory to the Carolingian Empire
A few megaliths have survived from the prehistoric era. Archaeological digs carried out in the towns once occupied by the Romans have uncovered a host of artefacts showing the skill of the craftsmen and include pottery, glass, coins, jewellery, and bronze and terracotta statuettes. The area around Tongeren is especially rich in finds, while the Treviri region (Arlon and Luxembourg) has produced statues, votive steles (upright stone slabs or tablets), and funerary monuments featuring low reliefs.
Funerary artefacts from the 5C to the 10C in regions ruled by the Salian Franks (Tournai) and the Ripuarian Franks (Arlon and Luxembourg) included damascene (inlaid) iron weapons, jewellery and brooches in bronze or gold, set with glass beads. But little of the architecture of the period has survived. The only examples are the Merovingian church at Arlon (5C) and the Nivelles abbey complex with its three great 7C churches.
Charlemagne set up court at Aachen and introduced Christianity throughout his empire. The churches of Lobbes and Theux are characteristic of the Carolingian style in their frontages, wooden ceilings, square pillars and the gallery west of the nave. Charlemagne initiated a cultural revival which above all flowered with the glorious art of illumination.
Romanesque Art (11C-12C)
Towns and abbeys flourished during this period. Belgium was divided into two parts. West of the River Scheldt Flanders belonged to France, whereas regions to the east, through which the River Meuse flowed, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. Romanesque art spread in particular along the trade routes through these two valleys. Two distinct movements appeared: Scaldian art (from Scaldis, or the Scheldt), and Mosan art (named after the Meuse). Both movements were highly original, even though churches in both regions share many characteristics, like a basilical design, transept, chancels with a flat wooden ceiling and radiating chapels.
Scaldian Romanesque Art
In the Scaldian regions, devastated by the hordes of marauding Vikings, Romanesque architecture is now only seen in isolated buildings like the collegiate church of St Vincent in Soignies. The building of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Tournai led to the construction in the 12C of several churches based on the same architectural style. The main external features are the tower at the transept crossing and turrets on the west front; inside, the Norman influence in the tribunes and galleries is also typical.
A number of civic buildings were built in the Scaldian style, including the Castle of the Counts of Flanders and the Spijker building in Ghent, the Burbant Tower at Ath, and several houses in Tournai. Look above the ground floor and the round-arched openings to the typical windows, which are divided into two by a slender column and aligned between two stone string courses.
Sculpture of local Tournai stone from the 12C onwards is quite remarkable. Outstanding examples can be seen on doorways and capitals (Tournai Cathedral) and fonts (Zedelgem, Dendermonde).
Mosan Romanesque Art
The art which developed in the diocese of Liège (the Meuse Valley and surrounding countryside), in particular during the 11C and 12C, is known as Mosan Romanesque art. The Principality of Liège, which included Aachen, was already a leading area for arts during the Gallo-Roman period and was heavily influenced by Carolingian culture. Later, owing to its close relations with the archbishopric of Cologne (on which the diocese of Liège depended) and the Rhine, the Rhenish Romanesque style became equally influential.
Later Mosan Romanesque architecture retained elements of earlier Carolingian art, and in many ways continued the style. Ottonian architecture, which spread in Germany in the 10C and at the beginning of the 11C under Otto I, left its mark on the collegiate church in Nivelles, consecrated in 1046. The fronts of the churches became more imposing in the 12C, flanked with staircase turrets (Église St-Denis and Église St-Jean in Liège) or, two square towers (Église St-Barthélemy, Liège). The outside was decorated with Lombard arches. The apse might include a second gallery on the outside (St-Pieterskerk, Sint-Truiden). There was often a crypt and some have beautiful cloisters (Nivelles, Tongeren). Several of these characteristics can be seen in many rural churches (Hastières-par-Delà, Celles, Xhignesse).
In the 13C, French style ended Mosan influence on architecture.
The art of melting and beating copper or brass was commonplace in the Meuse Valley, first in Huy, then in Dinant. It is probably the reason for the great liturgical goldsmithing tradition which spread throughout the Mosan region, resulting in immensely ornate shrines, reliquaries, crucifixes and book bindings. Renier de Huy is believed to have made the famous brass font for the Église St-Barthélemy in Liège between 1107 and 1118. Its classic perfection is quite exceptional for the period.
After this the work became more complex, more elaborate in subject matter and more varied in the materials used.
Godefroy de Huy used champlevé enamel for most of his work, in particular for the reliquary of the head of Pope Alexander I made for the Abbey of Stavelot and now in the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels.
Nicolas de Verdun, who marked the transition from Romanesque to Gothic, created the reliquary of Our Lady for Tournai Cathedral in 1205. At the start of the 13C, the monk Hugo d’Oignies produced his delicate, sophisticated works, on display in Namur, in Oignies Convent. There are also many anonymous works, such as the 12C Visé reliquary, or the 13C Stavelot reliquary. Both of these can be classed as Mosan art.
Mosan art also produced superb wood carvings such as the Tongeren Christ and the famous Virgins in Majesty known as the Sedes Sapientiae, or Seat of Wisdom. Further examples include the Walcourt carvings in the Museum of Religious and Mosan Art in Liège.
The stone sculptures are equally interesting, especially the capitals (Tongeren), and the low reliefs (Dom Rupert Madonna in the Musée Curtius, Liège). Many Mosan church fonts have basins carved with heads on each of the four corners (Waha), and the lip decorated with ornamental foliage and animals (St-Séverin).
Gothic Art (13C-15C)
Rhenish art gradually gave way in ecclesiastical buildings to the French Gothic style, brought by the monastic communities from France and spread throughout the area from Tournai.
Nevertheless, Gothic art appears later in Belgium than in France. The first example was the chancel of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Tournai (1243), inspired by the cathedral in Soissons (Aisne, France). There are a number of clear variations peculiar to Belgium or to specific regions. The Belgian Gothic church is wider than in France and is not as tall, although the bell-tower is impressively high.
This style retains some Romanesque features such as a triforium and a square tower over the crossing, but its main feature is its triple lancet windows (triplets). The finest example of the style is the St-Niklaaskirk in Ghent; another is the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk van Pamele in Oudenaarde.
It was not until the 14C that Gothic art appeared in Brabant. The architects drew inspiration from the great French cathedrals (Cathédrale des Saints-Michel-et-Gudule, Brussels). However, their modifications created a distinctive style which spread outside the province (Antwerp Cathedral).
The Brabant church is large with three aisles and an ambulatory with radiating chapels. Its main feature is the massive tower forming the west porch (the finest example being the St-Romboutskathedraal in Mechelen), and side aisle chapels surmounted by triangular gables lined up like a row of houses. There is often no transept (Halle Basilica), and the rose windows have commonly been replaced with larger windows.
The interior has a very distinctive style. The nave is supported by solid cylindrical pillars, whose capitals were originally decorated with a double row of kale leaves; large statues of the Apostles were later added to the other side of these pillars. The vaulting is of a fairly early Gothic style.
The side aisle chapels open into each other, creating new aisles. Finally, the triforium is sometimes replaced by a balustrade featuring intricate tracery, without a gallery. One of the loveliest examples is the basilica in Halle.
Belfries, Covered Markets and Town Halls
From the end of the 13C, architectural originality manifested itself mainly in civic buildings, especially in the belfries, covered markets and town halls of Flanders.
The flourishing cloth trade encouraged the growth of towns. In 15C Ghent, there were 4 000 weavers out of a total population of 50 000. The inhabitants defended their prosperity by obtaining privileges, guaranteed by town charters, and such precious documents had to be kept in a safe place, notably in a belfry. Other impressive edifices were built for meetings and commercial activities. Such buildings were found around the central market square (Grand-Place/Grote Markt).
The belfry that towers over the market square symbolises civil power just as the bell-tower proclaims ecclesiastical power. It either stands alone (Tournai, Ghent), or is integrated into a public building, such as a covered market (Bruges, Ypres) or the town hall (Brussels).
It was designed as a keep with watch turrets and battlements. The prison was below ground level; two rooms, one on top of the other, were built above it, with a cantilevered oriel window or balcony from which proclamations were read. The bell chamberis at the top, along with the lodge for the watchmen and heralds. Crowning everything is a weather vane symbolising the city, and shaped like a dragon (Ghent), the Flemish lion, a warrior, a saint (Brussels) or a local character (Oudenaarde).
The covered market consisted of a rectangular building divided into spaces for stalls inside. The upstairs area was used for meetings and storage. The finest covered markets are those of Bruges, from the end of the 13C, and Ypres, from the same period and rebuilt after World War I. In both Bruges and Ypres, the covered market contains the belfry which up to the end of the 14C generally served as the town hall.
The finest town halls (Bruges, Leuven, Brussels, Oudenaarde) were built from the late 14C onwards. Bruges Town Hall, constructed in 1376, set an impressive precedent, the architecture still like that of a chapel. The town hall in Brussels followed. The town halls in Leuven and Ghent were built during the Renaissance. The one in Oudenaarde is a synthesis of its predecessors.
Outside, the façade is decorated with recesses containing statues of Flemish counts and countesses and the town’s patron saints.
On the first floor the Great Hall, used for meetings and festivities, is notable for tapestries and paintings depicting the town’s history or the life of its patron saint. A monumental fireplace is the single most imposing feature.
Town Houses and Guildhalls
The Gothic style is also evident in Flemish private houses and guildhalls. This is especially true of Bruges where the 16C saw the development of a distinctive style with many of the characteristics of Flamboyant (late French Gothic) architecture. Windows were surmounted by a more or less ornate tympanum. Later, the windows and tympanum were set next to each other beneath an ogee arch, a feature known as the Bruges gable.
The guilds held their meetings in their halls, where their property, records and insignia were kept. Richly decorated façades, graced with a statue of a patron saint or heraldic beast, bear witness to the prominent role played by the guilds in city life. The finest extant Gothic guildhalls are those lining the Graslei in Ghent.
Altarpieces and Choir Stalls
A school of sculpture developed in Brabant (Brussels, Leuven), and in Antwerp and Mechelen from the late 15C to the beginning of the 16C. It produced innumerable wooden altarpieces with remarkably fine craftsmanship. A superb example of these Brabant altarpieces, apart from the one in Hakendover produced in 1430 (the oldest altarpiece in Belgium and also one of the most elegantly made), is the magnificent St George Altarpiece (1493) in the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels.
A similar picturesque quality marks the carving on choir stalls. The armrests and misericords (seat supports) in Brabant churches are decorated with satirical, highly imaginative figures, unforgiving illustrations of human vices. Those in Diest are among the most remarkable.
The Belgian Gothic style exhibits great originality, particularly in the interior decoration of ecclesiastical and civic buildings. The woodwork (altarpieces, statues, stalls, beams) is as remarkable as the stone carving, seen in the Flamboyant rood screens in Lier, Walcourt and Tessenderlo. While Mosan gold- and silver-smithing did not survive beyond the 13C, coppersmithing spread throughout the country, producing magnificent fonts, chandeliers and lecterns. Exceptional works were also produced in painting and tapestries.
The Renaissance (16C)
The Italian Renaissance had some impact on Belgium, but only after 1530.
While ecclesiastical buildings retained the Gothic style, it was in civic architecture that the style of the Italian Renaissance was gradually adopted.
Although the town hall in Oudenaarde (1526-30) and the courtyard of the Palais des Princes-Évêques in Liège largely upheld the Gothic tradition, they also heralded the beginnings of the Renaissance. In Antwerp, the town hall (1564), designed by Cornelis Floris II de Vriendt (1514-75), and the guildhalls (late 16C) lining the Grote Markt more fully reflect the change in taste.
The new style is particularly evident on the façades where there are engaged columns, pilasters and statues (town hall, Antwerp), friezes (Oude Griffie in Bruges), and gables trimmed with volutes and crowned with statues (town hall, Veurne). The windows often have moulded tympana above them, a regional characteristic inherited from the Gothic style.
The extent of this exuberant decoration has earned Flemish Renaissance style the name pre-Baroque.
During the second half of the 16C, under Spanish rule, a style known as Hispano-Flemish developed in castle architecture. It is typified by onion domes such as those at Ooidonk, turrets as at Rumbeke, or crow-stepped gables like those in Beersel. These decorative elements give the buildings a characteristically picturesque appearance.
Renaissance sculpture in Belgium appears for the first time in the rood-screen of the Collégiale Ste-Waudru at Mons (the work of the local artist Jacques Du Brœucq, c. 1500-84), from which a number of reliefs and alabaster statues have been preserved. Despite his use of traditional iconography, Du Brœucq developed a personal style.
Cornelis Floris II de Vriendt, the architect of the town hall in Antwerp, also created the magnificent tabernacle in Zoutleeuw.
The works of Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder (c. 1570-1641), famous for his Manneken Pis, are similar to those of Cornelis Floris, especially the Aalst tabernacle.
Jean Mone (d. 1548), sculptor to Emperor Charles V, was born in Metz. He specialised in funerary monuments (Enghien, Hoogstraten) and altarpieces (Halle) in the purest Italian tradition.
Baroque Art (17C)
The early 17C was a period of relative peace after the Wars of Religion and Independence. Spain was represented by the “Archdukes” Albert and Isabella, sumptuously enthroned in Brussels, who built many ecclesiastical buildings.
However, until the middle of the century, the great artistic centre was still Antwerp, where Rubens died in 1640.
One of the buildings commissioned by Albert and Isabella was the domed pilgrimage church at Scherpenheuvel, designed by the prominent architect Wenceslas Coebergher. This building above all others marks the birth of the Baroque style in Belgium.
Numerous ecclesiastical buildings were constructed for the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), such as St-Carolus Borromeuskerk in Antwerp, Église St-Loup in Namur and St-Michielskerk in Leuven. All were inspired by the Gesù Church built in Rome in the previous century.
By the end of the century, several abbey churches of the Premonstratensians (White Canons) had adopted the Baroque style, among them Grimbergen, Averbode and Ninove. These grandiose buildings are laid out in the form of a trefoil cross and have a particularly long chancel reserved for the monks. Sometimes the churches are crowned by a cupola, as in Grimbergen.
Noteable among buildings of this period is the Mons belfry. The most beautiful set of Baroque-style urban buildings is found on the Grand-Place, Brussels. Rebuilt after the 1695 siege, the Grand-Place has exuberantly decorative buildings which still retain something of the Renaissance spirit in the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders of the façades, and in the balustrades on some of the pediments.
In the Mosan region, 17C private houses lack any such flights of fancy, though the brick walls are enlivened by courses of stone, with tall mullion windows between. The Musée Curtius in Liège is an excellent example.
Many churches from this period boast sculptures by the Antwerp artist Artus Quellin the Elder (1609-68), who was strongly influenced by Rubens, or with works by his cousin Artus Quellin the Younger (1625-97).
Lucas Fayd’herbe (1617-97), the artist from Mechelen who was also a student of Rubens, produced huge statues resting against columns in the nave and on altarpieces.
François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), son of Jérôme, worked mainly in Rome and was famous for his cherubs or putti, graceful figurines made of marble, terracotta or ivory. He is also credited, with his brother Jérôme Duquesnoy the Younger (1602-54), with producing numerous ivory crucifixes notable for their delicacy and the elegance of their craftsmanship (Château de Spontin).
In Liège, Jean Delcour (1627-1707), who had worked with Bernini in Rome, sculpted elegant effigies of Madonnas and saints.
Antwerp artist Hendrik Frans Verbruggen (1655-1724) won renown for his woodcarvings. Examples include the Grimbergen confessionals, which are decorated with life-size figures. Outstanding for their remarkable vigour and sense of movement, they were often imitated.
For the Cathédrale des Saints Michel-et-Gudule in Brussels, Verbruggen produced the first of the pulpits known in Belgium as chaires de vérité (truth pulpits), featuring the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
The church stalls in Averbode, Floreffe and Vilvoorde, decorated with figures, are also remarkable examples of Belgian Baroque sculpture.
The Baroque style persisted in ecclesiastical buildings, but by the end of the century, under the rule of Charles of Lorraine (1744-80), the Neoclassical style had begun to spread. The Place Royale in Brussels was constructed in this style by the French architects Barnabé Guimard and Nicolas Barré.
Laurent Dewez (1731-1812), architect to the governor, built the minster in Orval in 1760 in the same style (it has since been destroyed). He followed this with the abbey church at Gembloux (1762-79) and finally the Église de Bonne-Espérance (1770-76).
Baroque sculpture was still very much in evidence in churches. Pulpits tended more towards the Rococo, for example the elegant structure in oak and marble in St-Baafskathedraal in Ghent. This was the work of Laurent Delvaux (1696-1778), who thereafter adopted the Neoclassical style. Theodoor Verhaegen (1700-59) made several pulpits, and a splendid confessional with majestic figures carved in wood in Ninove.
Michiel Vervoort the Elder (1667-1737) produced pulpits and confessionals decorated with statues, like those in St-Carolus Borromeuskerk in Antwerp.
The decorative arts came into their own in the 18C with tapestry and lace, ceramics in Tournai, and cabinet-making in Liège, where fine items of furniture, drawing inspiration from the French style, adorned sumptuous interiors hung with painted leather or tapestries (Musée d’Ansembourg, Liège). In Liège, the lavish interiors of castles like the Château d’Aigremont broke spectacularly with the austerity of local architecture.
The 19C and 20C
At the beginning of the 19C, Neoclassicism triumphed in Brussels (Théâtre royal de la Monnaie, Hospice Pacheco), in Ghent (Grote Schouwburg, Law Courts and University) and in Antwerp (Bourlaschouwburg). The end of the century saw a taste for architectural revivalism, the finest example being the Greco-Roman Law Courts in Brussels, designed by Poelaert (1817-79). Other examples include the Gothic Revival abbey at Maredsous (1872, JB Béthune), the neo-Renaissance Galeries St-Hubert in Brussels (1846, JP Cluysenaar) and the neo-Byzantine church of Ste-Marie at Schaarbeek (1845, L Van Overstraeten). Not satisfied with a single style, eclectic designers mixed historic elements taken from a wide architectural vocabulary. Antwerp’s main railway station (1895-1905, L De la Censerie), together with the Zurenborg district (especially along the road known as the Cogels-Osylei) at nearby Berchem, are the outstanding examples. However, from 1890 onwards, certain architects rejected these copies of the past and sought new forms and materials. This consciously progressive movement rapidly developed a style we instantly recognise today as Art Nouveau.
Among the great painters who have made decisive contributions to the development of art in Western Europe, Belgium can point with pride to such great names as Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, James Ensor and René Magritte, whose works fascinate us today.
The Flemish Primitives
The 15C was the true golden age of Flemish painting. A naturalist movement had already appeared by the end of the 14C with Hennequin (or Jan) de Bruges, who drew the tapestry cartoons for The Apocalypse in Angers, and Melchior Broederlam of Ypres, painter of the altarpieces for the Champmol charterhouse in Burgundy.
Their art remained nonetheless closely related to the art of illumination in which the Flemings excelled under the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. In the early 15C the Pol friars, Jan and Herman van Limburg, miniaturists of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Château de Chantilly, France), displayed an astonishingly detailed and vivid realism in their art of illumination.
The greatest innovator in painting was Jan van Eyck, who was probably born in Maaseik and who died in Bruges in 1441. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb Altarpiece remains one of the great wonders of painting of all time, due to Van Eyck’s use of perspective, realistic detail and bright colours subdued by light. At one point, Van Eyck was incorrectly credited with the invention of oil painting.
Robert Campin, thought by some scholars to be the Master of Flémalle, worked in Tournai during the same period. One of his pupils was Rogier de la Pasture, known under the name of Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-64), who was appointed official painter to the city of Brussels in 1436. His poignant compositions are steeped in mysticism, while his portraits are quite remarkable for their neat, precise brushwork and extraordinary eye for detail. Many painters were to imitate the manner in which he depicted the Virgin Mary: with an oval face with soft, smooth features and a wide forehead.
After studying in Van der Weyden’s studio, Dieric Bouts (1415-75), originally from Haarlem, settled in Leuven in 1468. Although his sober, spartan technique betrayed Weyden’s influence, other characteristics showed a more personal style generally associated with northern countries: impassive features, bold colours, delicate brushwork and minute attention to detail.
Van Eyck was succeeded by the Bruges School, which included the great portraitist Petrus Christus, (d c. 1473), and Hans Memling (c. 1435-94), who combines so many pictorial themes of his time, as much in his calm sophisticated religious works as in his exceptional, masterfully executed portraits. Gerard David continued in a similar vein. In Ghent, Hugo van der Goes struck a fresh note with religious pictures populated by realistically painted common folk.
The Renaissance and Mannerism (16C)
At the beginning of the 16C, the influence of the Italian Renaissance was hardly felt in Flemish art. The dominant style was Flamboyant Gothic, its supremacy hardly disturbed by the occasional, half-understood Renaissance feature. Now Antwerp takes over the leading cultural role hitherto played by Bruges. The first painter to reveal true Renaissance inspiration was Quentin Metsys (1466-1530), with a series of tasteful, sophisticated works. His followers Joachim Patinir (1485-1524) and Henri Bless (d. 1560) devoted themselves to landscapes.
Artists such as Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-1532) and Barend van Orley (c. 1492-1542) travelled to Italy and on their return promoted an Italian style of painting which was further developed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-50, active in Antwerp) and Lambert Lombard (1505-66, working in Liège).
Around 1550, Mannerism came to the fore, its principal representatives being the Antwerp painter Frans Floris (c. 1516-70), his pupil Maarten de Vos (1532-1603), and the Bruges artist Pieter Pourbus (c. 1523-84). Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-69) belongs to this generation, though his unique style lifted him far above the shoulders of his contemporaries. With their wealth of picturesque detail, his paintings reflect life in 16C Brabant. His son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (c. 1564-1638), sometimes known as Hell Brueghel, imitated him with great talent.
The 17C and 18C
Like the 15C, the 17C was a golden age for painting, with Antwerp as its main focus. Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a universal artist, his exuberant Baroque style expressive of sensuality and joie de vivre, his great achievement the fusion of Flemish realism and Italian harmony. He painted numerous religious pictures, but devoted himself also to the art of the portrait and to landscape.
Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), who lived in England from 1632 onwards, was far and away the most gifted pupil and collaborator of Rubens. A master of technique, with a superbly refined style, he was responsible for dark and melancholy works as well as religious scenes and elegant portraits.
Another of Rubens’ assistants was Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), who favoured colourful works depicting earthy, realistic scenes. Other contemporaries included the animal painter Frans Snyders(1579-1657), who also specialised in still lifes and who taught Paul de Vos, whose brother Cornelis de Vos was an exceptionally talented portraitist. Jan Brueghel, known as Velvet Brueghel, was renowned for his paintings of flowers and landscapes. His son-in-law David Teniers the Younger (1610-90) created a fashion in Belgium for scenes of peasant life, or genre painting. Jan Siberechts (1627-1703) is an important landscape painter, while Daniel Seghers(1590-1661) painted studies of flowers. The short-lived Adriaen Brouwer (c. 1605-38) was responsible for a series of magnificent genre paintings.
Developments slowed down somewhat in the 17C with the religious paintings of Pieter-Jozef Verhaghen (1728-1811), who continued in Rubens’ style.
The 19C and 20C
The beginning of the 19C saw the triumph of Neoclassicism, its principal exponent being the portraitist Francois-Joseph Navez (1787-1869), a pupil of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, in exile in Brussels. Romanticism made its appearance in 1830 with Gustav Wappers (1803-74), Nicaise de Keyser (1813-87) and Antoine Wiertz (1806-65), considered by many to be the precursor of Belgian symbolism and surrealism.
In 1868 the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts in Brussels brought together the Realist painters Félicien Rops (1833-98), who subsequently devoted himself to erotic works, the talented portraitist Alfred-Emile Stevens (1823-1906), and artists inspired by working-class life like Charles de Groux (1867-1930) and Contantin Meunier(1831-1905).
With the exception of Émile Claus (1848-1924), who painted quiet scenes of rural life, and Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), who adopted Seurat’s Pointillist style, the painters of the late 19C paid no attention to new movements, in particular Impressionism. Henri Evenepoel(1872-99) studied daily life, and Henri de Braikeleer(1840-88) lent a luminous poetry to scenes of bourgeois life. Jacob Smits(1855-1928) painted the Kempen region.
The Symbolist movement attracted William Degouves de Nuncques (1867-1935), Xavier Mellery(1845-1921) and Fernand Khnopff(1858-1921), who painted strange, sphinx-like women.
Still influenced by Impressionism, the canvases of the young James Ensor (1860-1949) reveal his exceptional talent and great originality. His later works, with their masks and skeletons, proclaimed the arrival of Surrealism.
Around 1900, Belgian painting was given a fresh impetus thanks to the Sint Martens-Latem group, which took its name from a village near Ghent. The most important artists of the first Latem generation were Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1941), who painted landscapes in the style of Brueghel, the sculptor Georges Minne, and Gustave van de Woestijne (1881-1947), who, with his depictions of ordinary people, was influenced by Symbolism. Between 1905 and 1910 it was the turn of the second, Expressionist generation, among them Albert Servaes(1883-1966), who tended towards mysticism, Gust de Smet (1877-1943) and Frits Mayer van den Bergh (1883-1939), whose approach was more Surrealist in character. Constant Permeke (1886-1952) led this group. His landscapes and figures have a calm vigour about them and, like his sculptures, are endowed with a primitive lyricism.
Fauvism was as important a movement in Brabant as Expressionism was in Flanders. The leading exponent was Rik Wouters (1882-1916), whose paintings leaned towards Constructivism (influenced by Cézanne). Jean Brusselmans (1884-1953), who drew inspiration from working-class women, labourers, landscapes and backstreet interiors; Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946), with his tranquil landscapes and still-lifes; and Edgar Tytgat (1879-1957), were very much influenced by Expressionism.
Surrealism made its mark with René Magritte (1898-1967) and his fantastic worlds where his precise technique was put to the service of his imagination. Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) specialised in female nudes in theatrical settings.
Abstract painting had its Belgian theoreticians and practitioners, among them Joseph Peeters (1895-1960) and Victor Servranckx (1897-1965); the latter’s non-figurative geometric works are reminiscent of Fernard Léger.
In July 1945, immediately after the end of World War II, a new abstract art movement began with the foundation of the association known as La Jeune Peinture Belge, bringing together Gaston Bertrand (1910-94), Louis Van Lint (1909-86), Anne Bonnet (1908-60), Antoine Mortier (1908-99) and Marc Mendelson (b. 1915).
In 1948 the CoBrA group (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) was founded by the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont. Principal exponents were the Dane Asger Jorn, the Dutchman Karel Appel and the Belgian Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927). CoBrA aimed to be a way of life, an art open to all types of experience.
Since 1960 Belgian painters have followed the great international movements without losing their particular identity. The work of Roger Raveel (b. 1921) consists of abstract silhouettes in bright colours. Together with Raoul De Keyser (b. 1930), Raveel is a leading figure in the “Nouvelle Vision” movement, closely related to New Realism. Works by Marthe Wery (1930-2005) are monochrome in character, while Octave Landuyt (b. 1922) creates a world of magic and fantasy. Among the Belgian artists with an international reputation, Marcel Broodthaers (1924-76) devoted himself to creating conceptual works that cocked a snook at convention, using materials like eggs and mussels. The same irony is evident in the output of Jacques Charlier (b. 1939). The relationship between the individual and the universe is at the heart of the work of Thierry de Cordier(b. 1954). Jan Fabre (b. 1958) is best known for his drawings in blue biro, assemblages, and dramatic productions, while Lili Dujourie(b. 1941) and Marie-Jo Lafontaine (b. 1950) are exponents of the use of video. The poetic pastels of Jean-Michel Folon (b. 1934) are also worth mentioning.
Willem Geefs(1805-83) created the neo-Classic statue of Léopold I at the top of the Colonne du Congrès in Brussels.
From 1830, the influence of Romanticism and the taste for the Italian quattrocento are evident in the sculptures of Charles Fraikin (1817-93) and Julien Dillens(1849-1904), who, with the exiled Rodin, decorated the Bourse in Brussels.
Thomas Vicotte(1850-1925) designed the group of charging horses on the triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels.
Jef Lambeaux(1852-1908) was popular for the surging passion in his works, reminiscent of Jordaens (Brabo Fountain in Antwerp). Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), who went from painting to sculpture in 1885, felt at one with the new industrial era, representing the working man, the miner at work.
Impressionism is mainly represented by Rik Wouters (1882-1916), whose spontaneity bursts out of bold works like the Crazy Virgin.
Georges Minne (1866-1941) pioneered Expressionism, whose principal representatives were to be Oscar Jespers (1887-1970) and Joseph Cantre (1890-1957). The works of Georges Grard (1901-84) celebrate the sensuality of the female form. By the 1920s, non-figurative art appeared in the works of Victor Servranckx (1897-1965).
Notable post-war pioneers include Maurice Carlier (1894-1976)and Felix Roulin (b. 1931), who hammered out a highly personal world in copper, adding elements of the human body (hands, mouths, arms, etc.) to various reliefs. The steel and concrete works of Jacques Moeschal(1913-2004), architect and sculptor, are seen alongside motorways and decorating the urban landscape. Vic Gentils(1919-97) assembled structures made of waste materials. Pol Bury (1922-2005) inherited the Surrealist tradition and was close to the CoBrA group. From the 1950s he devoted himself to designing kinetic sculptures. The Antwerp sculptor Panamarenko (b. 1940) explores the ties between art and modern science. His aéronefs and other curious flying machines are both poetic and amusing.
With its swirling, organic forms, its love of elaborate ornament, and its meticulous attention to detail, the international artistic movement known as Art Nouveau reached a peak of development in Belgium. Breaking with the backward-looking historic styles which had dominated the scene at the end of the 19C, Belgian Art Nouveau created works which still fascinate today with their harmony and controlled exuberance.
A Belgian Style
Belgian Art Nouveau had little in common with conventional artistic styles. Its adherents were young, free-thinking intellectuals of the avant-garde, often linked to the Socialist movement. In 1896 they commissioned the architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) to design the famous Maison du Peuple in Brussels, demolished in the 1960s despite a storm of protest. Born in Ghent, Horta had been responsible for the very first Art Nouveau building, the Hôtel Tassel, built in Brussels in 1893 for the university professor Émile Tassel. In the same year Paul Hankar, who favoured a more geometric version of the style, built a house for himself in the St-Gilles district. Two years later, Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) designed the Villa Bloemenwerf in English country-cottage style in the suburb of Uccle.
New Forms and New Materials
Until the advent of Art Nouveau, the new building materials of iron, steel and glass had been used only in structures like factories and railway stations. Now they began to feature in domestic buildings. No longer clad in brick or stucco, the materials were deliberately made visible, contributing significantly to the new architectural aesthetic. Designers developed new ideas of internal space, Horta in particular revolutionising the plan of the house by creating a central light well around which all the other spaces were organised.
Art Nouveau also subscribed to the German idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk”, the total or integral work of art. Since the form and structure of a building now diverged so completely from existing practice, architects were obliged to design every detail, from mosaic floors to stained glass, door furniture to lighting fixtures, banisters to carpets. Van der Velde went as far as attempting to match curtains, crockery, even the clothes worn by the ladies of the house to the design of his interiors. All these details, many of them beautifully curvilinear and of great complexity, had to be made by specialised craftsmen; in uncertain economic times, this contributed to the relatively short duration of the Art Nouveau period in architecture.
Art Nouveau in Brussels
Brussels is the undisputed capital of Belgian Art Nouveau, boasting over 500 outstanding edifices from 1893-1914, more than anywhere else in the world. Most are in suburban locations. Among the surviving structures designed by Victor Horta are his own residence of 1898-1901 at St-Gilles, now the Musée Horta, the Magasins Waucquez department store (1903-06), now the home of the Centre Belge de la Bande Desinée, and the Hôtel Van Eetvelde (1895-98). Other important buildings include Old England (1899) by Paul Saintenoy, which now houses the Musée des Instruments de Musique, the Maison du Peintre de St-Cyr (1900) by Gustave Strauven, notable for its extraordinarily narrow frontage and the exuberant decoration, and the Hôtel Hannon (1901) by Jules Brunfaut. Also outstanding is the interior by Paul Hamesse of the Maison Cohn-Donnay (1904), now the “De Ultieme Hallucinatie” café-restaurant.
The famous Palais Stoclet (1905-11), designed by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann and members of the Wiener Werkstätte, marks the end of Art Nouveau and the beginnings of Modernism.
Art Nouveau in Provincial Cities
The city of Antwerp is also famous for its magnificent Art Nouveau buildings, notably in Zurenborg, with its wonderful array of turn-of-the-century styles. In this remarkably well-preserved area are houses by Jos Bascourt, Jules Hoffman and Frans Smet-Verhas who also designed the Cinq Continents building (1901). Another splendid edifice is the Volkshuis Help U zelve, hall (1881) by Van Averbekeand Van Asperen.
In Ghent, architects working in the new style included Geo Henderick and Achiel Van Hoecke-Dessel, while in Liège the most important designers were Paul Jaspar and Gustae Serrurier-Bovy, the latter a specialist in furniture and the decorative arts.
From Art Deco to Contemporary
Horta and Van der Velde were outstanding figures in European architecture. In the decades that followed, few Belgian architects matched their stature; though the country’s location at the heart of Europe helped its architects and designers achieve a remarkable synthesis of some of the continent’s main stylistic currents.
Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet had a huge influence on the evolution of architecture in Belgium and elsewhere. White façades, flat roofs and geometric internal spaces heralded the arrival of a truly modern architecture. But World War I slowed the advance of contemporary architecture, as the main priority was rebuilding the devastated towns, mostly in their original style to reconnect with tradition and the certainties of the pre-war era. Nevertheless, development did occur, particularly in the styles which have come to be known as Art Deco and Modernism.
The term Art Deco was invented to describe the prevailing style of artefacts at the great International Exposition of Decorative Arts held in Paris in 1925. The style combines elements of modern and traditional design, with uncompromisingly geometric forms set off by more classic elements. Colourful tiles and mosaic brighten floors, and silver, steel and brass were much in vogue. As with Art Nouveau, buildings and interiors were conceived as a harmonious whole. Among the Art Deco buildings gracing Brussels are the Koekelberg Basilica (1920-70) by Albert Van Huffel, the Town Hall at Forest (1925-36) by J. B. Dewin, the Institut National de Radiodiffusion on Place Flagey (1933-39) by Joseph Diongre, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (1919-28), one of Horta’s last works. Antoine Pompe and Jef Huygh were other important designers.
Just as cast iron and steel had made new forms of construction possible in the 19C, so reinforced concrete and plate glass gave architects new challenges and opportunities in the 20C. Abstract lines, lack of ornamentation, pure and simple spaces were all characteristic of what came to be known as the Modern Movement. As well as new forms, new construction tasks presented challenges. The post-war housing shortage led to the need to build social dwellings as quickly and cheaply as possible, sometimes in the form of garden cities and villages. Examples in the 1920s were “Floréal” and “Le Logis” at Watermael-Boisfort by the architects Jean J Eggerickx and Louis Van der Swaelmen, “Klein Rusland” at Zelzate and “Kapelleveld” and Woluwe-St-Lambert by Huib Hoste and the planned settlement at Berchem-St-Agathe by Victor Bourgeois. Other important representatives of Modernism included Henry Vann de Velde (Ghent University Library, 1932-35), Eduard Van Steenbergen (Athenée Royale at Deurne, 1936), Louis Herman De Konincks, Baston Eysselinck and Marcel Leborgne,who built dwellings in the style of Le Corbusier, and Léon Stynen(Ostend casino, 1948).
1945 to the Present
After World War II, Brussels set about rebuilding herself with great zest. The long-planned North-South axis was finally completed and a number of monumental building complexes erected, among them a new building for the National Bank, the Cité Administrative (1958-84) and the World Trade Center (1969). The Mont des Arts was given a new look and work began on the Bibliothèque royale (1949-64).
The high-rises of the 1950s, so symbolic of the era, were mostly residential, providing subsidised public housing (Kiel Estate, Antwerp). Architects working in the 1960s and 70s included the social militant Renaat Braem, Roger Bastin(Musée d’Art moderne, Brussels, 1973),Jacques Dupuir, Claude Strebelle and Charles Vandenhove (Sart Tilman University campus near Liège, 1960), André Jacqmain (Catholic University of Louvain at Louvain-la-Neuve, 1972) and Lucien Kroll (La Maison Médicale, part of the Catholic University of Louvain at Woluwe-St-Lambert, 1975). More recent architects include Bob Van Reeth (“Zuiderterras” Café at Antwerp, 1987), Bruno Albert (École des Hautes Études Commerciales at Liège, 1994), Jo Crepain and Willem-Jan Neutelings (barracks in Ghent, 1993-98).
The huge extent and variety of Belgian literature is virtually unknown outside the country itself. Literary works, in particular those by Flemish speakers, have a pronounced local flavour and an unquestionable originality.
Early famous chroniclers included Froissart in the 14C, who was born in Valenciennes and died at Chimay, the 15C Philippe de Commines, and in the 16C, Jean Lemaire de Belges, born in Bavay. In the 18C the soldier, aristocrat and writer Maréchal de Ligne was known for his classic military works.
The 19C and 20C saw a highly original and active literary movement develop. Following the great forerunner Charles de Coster (1827-79), author of the celebrated work The Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel (1867), came the group “La Jeune Belgique” (1881), and an upsurge in literary activity from novelists such as Georges Eekhoud (1854-1927) and Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) (Un Mâle, 1881); from poets, such as the Ghent author Van Lerberghe (1861-1907), who wrote the exquisite Chanson d’Ève in 1904, Georges Rodenbach (1855-98), famous for his short stories entitled Vies encloses and his novel Bruges la Morte (1892), and Max Elskamp (1862-1931) from Antwerp. Some writers earned worldwide renown, among them the great poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) and the Ghent writer Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), whose mysterious, melancholy play Pelléas and Melisande, inspired Debussy and Schoenberg. Also an essayist (La Vie des Abeilles), he won the Nobel Prize in 1911.
From subsequent generations, outstanding writers include Maurice Careme (1899-1978), Robert Goffin (1898-1984), Jean de Boschere (1878-1953), Marcel Thiry (1897-1977), author of Toi qui pâlis au nom de Vancouver, Marie Gevers (1883-1975), who has been compared to the French author Colette, the Brussels writer Franz Hellens (1881-1972), who wrote mainly fantasy novels, and Pierre Nothomb (1887-1966), who wrote La Vie d’Adam.
The Mons author Charles Plisnier (1896-1952) was a famous novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt (Faux Passeports). Fernand Crommelunck (1886-1970) was best known for an earthy play, The Magnificent Cuckold, and Michel De Ghelderode(1898-1962) was a prolific, audacious playwright.
Maurice Grevisse(1895-1980) wrote Le Bon Usage (1936), and M Joseph Hanse (1902-92) wrote Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Both are significant reference works in the field of grammar and linguistics.
Writers who have achieved international fame include the Namur author Henri Michaux (1899-1984), who took French nationality, the Liège writer of detective stories Georges Simenon (1903-89), creator of the famous Inspector Maigret in 1930 and author of many analytical novels, the essayist Suzanne Lilar (1901-92), who wrote works such as Le Journal de l’Analogiste and Le Couple, the historian Carlo Bronne (1901-87), and the novelist Françoise Mallet-Joris (b. 1930), who lives in Paris.
The songwriter-composer Jacques Brel (Le Plat Pays) (1929-78) can be ranked among Belgium’s poets. Also deserving of mention is an author from Brussels, Pierre Mertens (b. 1939), who in 1987 won the Prix Médicis for his novel Les Éblouissements. In 1966, this prestigious prize was awarded to the novelist, screenwriter and psychoanalyst Jaquelin Harpman (b. 1929) for her Orlando. Of Flemish origin, Liliane Wouters (b. 1930) publishes plays and essays. The author of La Place du Mort, Jean-Luc Outers (b. 1930) oversees the Service Général des Lettres et du Livre in the Ministry of Culture of the Francophone Community. Novels by Amélie Nothomb (born in Japan in 1967) are characterised by a simple, direct style.
Institutions which uphold French literature include the Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de belgique (1921) and the Association des ecrivains belges.
Flemish literature was born in the 12C, and gained momentum first in the 13C with the poetess Hadewijch and the poet and moralist Jacob van Maerlant (c. 1225-late 13C). In the 14C, the mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381), is considered the father of Dutch prose.
19C writers who distinguished themselves include the Antwerp citizen Hendrik Conscience (1812-83), Romantic author of novels and short stories, and the great Catholic poet Guido Gezelle (1830-99).
The 20C had a number of outstanding poets such as the sensual, mystic Karel van de Woestijne (1878-1929), and the Expressionist Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928). Cyriel Buysse (1859-1932) figures among the novelists, along with Stijn Streuvels (1871-1969), inspired by the flat landscapes in southwest Belgium (De Vlaschaard – The Flax Field), Herman Teirlinck (1879-1967), prolific novelist and dramatist, Willem Elsschot (1882-1960), Ernest Claes with his mischievous tales, as well as Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) and Gerard Walschap (1896-1989).
After 1930 poetry was dominated by Jan van Nijlen (1884-1965), Richard Minne (1891-1965), Karel Jonckheere (1906-33), Anton van Wilderode (1918-98) and Christine D’Haen (b. 1923).
A second wave of Modernist writers appeared around 1948, like the talented Bruges dramatist Hugo Claus (1929-2008), (Een bruid en de morgen – A Bride in the Morning 1955; Vrijdag – Friday, 1970), also novelist (Het Verdriet van België – The Sorrow of Belgium, 1983) and poet. Other highly acclaimed writers are Paul Snoek (1933-83) and Hughes Pernath (1931-76).
Contemporary Flemish novelists include Marnix Gifsen(1899-1984), who rose to fame with his philosophical tale Joachim van Babylon; Louis Paul Boon (1912-79), a writer of realistic, passionate prose (De Kapellensbaan – Chapel Road, 1953; Menuet – Minuet, 1955) and also a painter; Johan Daisne (1912-78), some of whose works (De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen – The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, 1947; De Trein der Traagheid, 1950) inspired film-maker André Delvaux (1965 and 1968 respectively, the latter as Un Soir, un train). Also André Demedts (1906-92); Hubert Lampo (1920-2006); Ward Ruyslinck (b. 1929); Jef Geeraerts (b. 1930), interested in the Belgian Congo issue (Ik ben maar een neger – Black Ulysses, 1961; Gangrene I-IV, 1968-77); and Ivo Michiels(b. 1923), whose formal research was part of the European avant-garde movement (Book Alpha, 1963).
Authors of the younger generation include Leo Pleysier (b. 1945), Walter van den Broeck (b. 1941), Eriek Verpaele (b. 1952), Erik de Kuyper (b. 1942), Monica van Paemel (b. 1945), Kristien Hemmerechts (b. 1955), Herman Brusselmans (b. 1957) and Tom Lanoye (b. 1958). In poetry, two important names are Leonard Nolens (b. 1947) and Herman de Coninck(1944-97), who is sadly missed.
Jean Ray (1887-1964), a native of Ghent, took the pen-name John Flanders. He wrote detective stories in Dutch and tales of the fantastic in French, including Malpertuis (1943) adapted for the cinema in 1972.
Luxembourg has a few writers in the French language, such as Marcel Noppenay (1877-1966).
A poet expressing himself in the local language of Lëtzebuergesch, Michel Rodange (1827-76) wrote a version of the animal epic Reynard the Fox.
The Comic Strip
Some of the most famous figures from Belgium are the heroes of the comic strips for which the country is renowned. The adventures of Tintin and the antics of the diminutive blue Smurfs have delighted generations of readers of all ages, justifying the Belgians’ proud description of comic illustration as “the Ninth Art”.
A World-beating Industry
An extraordinary total of 40 million comic books are published in Belgium every year. More than four-fifths are in French, the rest in Dutch, a difference which has its origins in the way comic strips were published in the 1930s, when they appeared in daily newspapers. In Wallonia, they came as a weekly supplement, while in Flanders they appeared every day in the main part of the paper. The outcome was that the comic book evolved rapidly in Wallonia and became part of mainstream publishing, whereas in Flanders the creators of cartoon characters remained dependent on newspapers.
To discover more about the history of the comic strip in Belgium you should visit the Centre Belge de la Bande dessinée in Brussels, where you can see both the original drawings of the great pioneers, and the designs of their successors working today.
The production of a comic strip involves both writer and designer, though sometimes the roles are combined. This was the case with Hergé, whose success forced him to take on assistants and to create the Studios Hergé on American lines, with a team of researchers, artists, draughtsmen, and designers specialising in clothes, vehicles etc. This should have made it possible to continue the master’s work even after his death (as happened with the figures created by Willy Vandersteen). But Hergé decided otherwise, and his creations accompanied him to the grave.
Belgium has two schools in the field of comic books, one in Brussels, the other in Marcinelle. Both began by publishing in newspapers, usually with a storyline involving a hero around whom secondary characters gravitated.
The Brussels School
Brussels is indelibly associated with the world-famous boy detective Tintin, who made his first appearance on 10 January 1929 in the weekly children’s supplement of the Brussels newspaper Le XX Siècle. Tintin, the most famous figure in the Belgian cartoon pantheon, was the brainchild of Georges Rémi (Hergé), who also gave us the faithful Snowy, the irascible Captain Haddock and the dotty scientist Professor Calculus, all of whom are involved in the young reporter’s many adventures around the globe.
Published by Hergé, the Journal de Tintin first appeared on 26 September 1946. It printed work by every member of the legendary “School of Brussels”, including EP Jacobs, made famous by the exploits of the detectives Blake & Mortimer (1946); Jacques Martin with his historic series Alix l’Intrépide (1948) and Lefranc (1952); Willy Vandersteen, whose greatest successes were Bob & Bobette (1945); and Bob De Moor, Hergé’s main collaborator for more than 30 years.
The Brussels School is characterised by its realism, in terms of the storyline and the protagonists just as much as the settings. The relatively long texts are contained within rectangular speech bubbles, while the graphic design is meticulous and the figures precisely delineated without the use of shading (the so-called “clear line”).
With his quiff and plus-fours, Tintin made his first appearance to an English-speaking public in 1952, when Hergé’s publisher, Casterman, issued translations of Le Secret de la Licorne and Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge. But the boy detective’s popularity with an anglophone audience really took off later in the decade, when the British publisher Methuen commissioned Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner to translate and adapt the books. The work turned into a labour of love lasting 35 years, during which time the two Britons, Hergé and his team went to great lengths to make the work more convincing and appealing to the new readers. In one instance, a Belgian designer was sent to Scotland to redraw the Scottish settings in The Black Island; in another, the British bobbies who had been shown toting guns as a matter of course were effectively disarmed. Tintin’s acceptance by the British establishment came when he received the accolade of a front-page article in The Times Literary Supplement.
The Marcinelle School
The great hero of the School of Marcinelle (a suburb of Charleroi) was Spirou. Drawn by Rob-Vel and first appearing on 21 April 1938 in the Journal de Spirou, this mischievous little chap was revived in 1941 by Jijé and in 1946 by Franquin. The guiding light of the Marcinelle School was Joseph Gillain (1914-80), alias Jijé, who as well as Spirou created other series like Jerry Spring and Tanguy et Laverdure. Among his pupils and associates the best known are Franquin, spiritual father of Marsupilami (1952) and the anti-hero Gaston Lagaffe (1957); Morris, whose cowboy Lucky Luke (1947) achieved worldwide fame; Peyo, who in 1958 introduced the Schtroumpfs, or “Smurfs”, to the English-speaking world; Roba,the creator of Boule et Bil (1959); and the writer Charlier.
Unlike the Brussels designers, the Marcinelle School members draw in a fluid way, with much use of shading. The texts are mostly humorous and appear in rounded speech balloons; the settings are rudimentary or absent altogether.