Fantasy Brussels 1: Comics and Museums

Brussels: Grand Place with Maison du Roi or Broodhuis

As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.

The Belgian Revolution (1830) by Gustaf Wappers (1834)

Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.

The Museum of Musical Instruments, designed by Paul Saintenoy (1899)

Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.

The Berlaymont Building (1963-9), designed by Lucien De Vestel, in 1974, when I first knew it

I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.

François Schuiten’s version of the Palais de Justice as Poelart intended it, with a pyramid instead of a dome

On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.

Toone Puppet Theatre, bar area

Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.

Rouge Cloître, with one of its fishponds

When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.

Les Archers, the first Thorgal album I owned

All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.

Museum of Comics, Brussels, designed by Victor Horta,

The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.

[To be continued.]

The Museum of Comics as represented by François Schuiten in La route d’Armilia
La Maison Autrique