The contradictions in Belgian culture

The contradictions in Belgian culture

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Last update on December 20, 2018

How does Manneken-Pis reflect Belgian culture? Under Belgium’s seemingly placid culture hides a penchant for controversial art and incongruous imagery.

It’s always a mistake to underestimate Belgium. Every now and then, from the manicured ranks of city terraced houses, from the sleepy comforts of suburbia or solid rural villages, a conventional cocoon will burst open and out will flutter a magnificent butterfly, throwing the conformity of Belgian life into stark and dramatic relief in a flourish of inspiration, experimentation and inventiveness.

The cutting edge of modern art

The Belgians were at the forefront of the avant-garde in the late 19th century, hosting exhibitions by Cézanne while his own nation reviled him as a crackpot. The Symbolists emerged during this period, producing a highly varied array of mystical, emotionally charged paintings. Some two decades before the advent of Expressionism, the Anglo-Belgian James Ensor was painting bizarre, frenetic oils with titles such as ‘Skeletons Arguing over a Pickled Herring’.

This tradition of being at the cutting edge of controversial modern art has been revived in recent times, notably through the public galleries of Ghent and Antwerp with artists such as WimDelvoye, whose notorious Cloaca installation eats, digests and excretes food twice daily.

Belgian surrealists

Scratch a Belgian and you will find a Surrealist – although he or she may deny it vehemently. Public monuments underpin a penchant for incongruous imagery. The Belgians have virtually adopted as emblems the Atomium (an outlandish, giant model of an iron atom), and the Manneken-Pis (the little bronze fountain of a naked boy urinating).

No prima donnas

The Belgians do not really trumpet about culture. They like the idea of it, but are not at all keen on prima donnas. Even Magritte, one of the few artists to have become a legend in his lifetime, insisted upon his ordinariness to the point of eccentricity: like an office clerk, he would breakfast, put on his hat and coat, hang his umbrella over his arm, kiss his wife goodbye, then walk round the block, re-enter the house, hang up his brolly, hat and coat, put on an overall and begin his day’s work at the easel.