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Magnificent Belgium: a country without a label

Jonathan Meades celebrates Belgium’s art, food, cities, and above all else, its magnificent suburbanism

The Empire of Light II

The Empire of Light II

René Magritte’s The Empire of Light, II, 1950, merges day and night-time in an unsettling scene. Image: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

I made a television film in 1992 titled Belgium. It was only very approximately about the country of that name. It was, rather, an exploration of an idea, of an aesthetic and, specifically, of my contention that René Magritte was a Social Realist rather than a Surrealist and that his work was a representation of quotidian Belgium. A contention which, for all its caprice, is easy enough to sustain for it is a lie that tells the truth, or a truth.

After numerous drafts, several recces, a long shoot, many fact-finding dinners, and six weeks in the cutting room (there were budgets in those days), we had a piece that we were pleased with. But we had no title save the working title of my script. After inventing and rejecting dozens of ginchy handles, it dawned on us that we should stick with Belgium – not merely faute de mieux (as they don’t say in Antwerp), but because all of us working on the project had suffered the experience of being gaped at with a mix of pity and incredulity: ‘Belgium!? You must be joking.’

Nothing has changed. So far as Johnny Bulldog is concerned, Belgium remains a specialised and apparently perverse taste in a way that no other Western European country does. The millions of morons who voted for the freedom of indigence and the sovereignty of chaos evidently associate it with their abhorred EU and, in their proudly borne ignorance, fuck all else. They know nothing of its multiple identities, its sublime painters, its eccentric writers, its formidable gastronomy, its thrilling urbanism, its magnificent suburbanism – a domestic suburbanism which has no peer.  

‘Belgium remains a specialised and apparently perverse taste in a way that no other Western European country does’

It’s a country without a label, without an identifying cliché. Such labels, such clichés are grossly caricatural and founded in what might be called social xenophobia, but they are useful mnemonics which hint vaguely at what might be expected of a place. Lacking those props, Belgium beyond Art Nouveau, beer and Berlaymont – the devil’s throne, source of all evil – is regarded as a sort of negative entity. How wrong, and in how many ways, the mob can be. And not just the mob. The Northern Renaissance was misnamed, it was no such thing for there was a seamless continuum of thought and expression running on from the ‘Middle Ages’, which invalidates the use of taxonomies deemed retrospectively appropriate to Italian city states. Nonetheless it was, and is still, used: the prefix ‘northern’ proclaims that it is second tier. It was not the Renaissance, tout court. So it never attracted the admiration of the grandest Grand Tourists and, subsequently, Ruskin, Roger Fry, Lawrence – the taste makers of their epochs whose example and biases have seeped down.

Who, for heaven’s sake, would visit Ghent when they might go to Florence?

Me. I would. The first time I drove to Italy, the place that most impressed me en route was Arras, a great Flemish city, more Flemish than French, far from Tuscany and worse, in contravention of the architectural idée reçue, a work of sterling pastiche.

Flemish or Nederlandophone Belgium, and Walloon or Francophone Belgium are self-evidently linguistically rent. But is there a cultural divide? A denominational divide? Whatever the gulf between the ‘communities’, it is not architecturally expressed. Brussels speaks both languages. Only a seer or a fraud would dare to scrutinise buildings in that city and proclaim that this is the work of a Fleming and that of a Walloon. Speak French in Antwerp/Anvers and you will be cold shouldered. Yet a house there of, say, 1925 might be the ringer of a contemporary one in Franco-monoglot Liège. Architecture or, at least, architectural fashion overcomes linguistic divides just as it overcomes schisms of communion, denomination and politics. Belgian architecture and domestic suburbanism are pan-Belgian. Further, they seldom seep beyond the country’s borders. They are exclusive. They exhibit a blithe indifference to what is happening in neighbouring countries.

A recurrent device of both visual and literary Surrealism is incongruity, apparent incongruity. A garlanded lion prowling through a parterre. A crucified baby grinning. Skeletons with squeegees at a traffic light. Tree surgeons amputating their own limbs. All of these are within possibility’s bounds.

So too, astonishingly, is a mile-long street in which every house adheres to the building line and no two houses are identical even if they share a broad gamut of gestures and devices and are more or less contemporary. This street, again astonishingly, was created and repeated time after time in Belgium between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

An Art Nouveau terrace is something to behold. But Art Nouveau was not peculiar to Belgium. It flourished in places where the Baroque had flourished, in new countries (Belgium was a creation of 1831) and in aspirantly secessionist regions. They rather unluckily proclaimed their difference by the same architectural means. The high decades of Belgium’s suburbanism came in the wake of Art Nouveau. Such architects as Fernand Bodson and Antoine Pompe fused two conflicting strains – Art Nouveau which affected to be machine-made and the Arts and Crafts which was hand-made, or pretended to be.

‘Who, for heaven’s sake, would visit Ghent when they might go to Florence? Me. I would’

One of the eternal unknowables of 20th-century art is what route Modernism might have followed had the Dutch genius Michel de Klerk not died so young. The answer is to be found in Brussels and Antwerp, where the Expressionist spirit survived – not that the world was watching, so taken was it with white immaculacy and the moral dogma of the orthogonal. And Belgium was, then as now, a mere backwater, hardly meriting a footnote in 20th-century architecture’s orthodox histories, blinkered histories.  

The stylistic amalgam which constellates suburban Belgium is satisfying because it is defiantly impure: garden cities which look to the future rather than to one of those delusions called a golden age – when radical preachers were hanged, stillbirths were the norm and streets were sewers. Impurity is achieved by the inventive mixing of opposites to create what has not previously existed, rather than by riffing on what is already there to come up with the old familiar tune.

Click here to find out more about Belgian architecture

This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today