Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Les quartiers bruxellois

I started my two-day conquest of Brussels from the outskirts and worked my way in. The house of Rene Magritte is set up as a museum in the northern neighborhood of Jette, which I had outdated directions for. The helpful Metro official actually looked up the address on the computer, printed me a map, figured out my itinerary, wrote it out for me, and sent me on my merry way. What service.

The house is completely unassuming, and so is the museum, which is marked only by a tiny board out front. Inside, there's a tremendous collection of ephemera, photographs, and Magritte's works, all well explained in the cards they give you to carry around. You have to wear booties over your shoes upstairs, uniting you and the other two people in the museum in idiocy. Downstairs, as you see, the rooms are set up more or less as Magritte had them. He lived in this house with his wife for many productive years, though eventually they moved at her behest.

Magritte, by the way, is the surrealist painter famous for working against the meanings of words. In my first year of graduate school, if I had never had to hear the name Magritte again, I would have been delighted. His "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," written beneath a drawing of a pipe, was cited over and over and over again by people who like theory. Drove me insane.

From surrealism to humanism: I next headed out to the western neighborhood of Anderlecht, home of a famous football/soccer team. It's a traditionally working-class suburb, and you quickly get this idea from the disaffected-looking kids kicking a ball around and the pubs with Kriek (cherry beer) umbrellas that all have signs telling you to come cheer on the team. It has a beautiful church, though, and the Erasmushuis/Maison d'Erasme. Oh, did I mention that Brussels legally requires that everything be posted in Flemish and French? I don't know what the percentages are within Brussels itself, but let me just say that I didn't find anyone in two days who didn't speak French.

The Erasmushuis. Right. Erasmus, Renaissance man (literally), lived here for only a few months, but they've built up a wonderful museum around that theme, with some great paintings (including a really fine Quentin Metsys painting of St... Jerome, I think). Of course, they don't have the Holbein portrait of Erasmus, but they have copies, prints, first editions... also several prints/engravings of Thomas More, Erasmus's contemporary. The house itself is worth a look, being wonderfully preserved. I love those enormous ancient beams that look more like they're weighing down the roof than holding up the whole structure.

The garden is beautiful and peaceful, with leaf-shaped pools holding little metal letters spelling out Latin sayings like Festina Lente, trellises and structures designed by famous artists, and a Renaissance herbiary. I would have been glad to rest here, but it was onwards and upwards to see more of Brussels. Incidentally, Anderlecht is a fabulous place to get frites, real Brussels frites that are harder to come by in the shopping districts or even around the Grande Place. I saw shop after shop.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous Ben Continues--

More travel-y goodness, merci boucoup.

Also, one of the many ways my friend Jeff and I survived our Intro to Literary Theory grad school class was to imagine the various people we'd like to beat to death with "Fury," the large wooden paddle that for some unknown reason was hanging on the classroom's wall. Most of those intended victims were, in fact, French (Derrida, Foucault, etc), and I'd be happy to add Magritte to the list if you'd like (although I suppose we shouldn't beat him savagely for the annoyingness of his latter-day disciples).


Heidi said...

Ben, my faithful commenter. I have a vague recollection of you talking about the paddle... and as for Magritte, I do like him, but I still can't look at that pipe painting without a shudder.