Or Gent. Either way, if you’re American you may not get the pronunciation quite right. In this Belgian city, as in most of Flanders, the primary language is Dutch (Ghent). But French (Gent) has a presence here too, and in nearby Brussels, French is the dominant language. Many Flanders residents, especially younger people, speak Dutch, French and English, a lingual multiplicity that reflects a complex, interesting culture.
In April we traveled to northern Europe, landing in Amsterdam. We planned to spend time in the Netherlands and Germany, looking up long-lost relatives and meeting blogging friends. Why not circle round and add Belgium to the itinerary? It’s the home of Magritte, Tintin and Django Reinhardt. Its constitution guarantees freedom of language, there are weird political machinations, fine chocolate, a penchant for brilliantly self-deprecating humor…in short, it must be interesting. So I looked for a base for a few days in Belgium.
Bruges came up right away. Frankly, people talked it up so much that I was scared away – my sense was that we’d drown in a sea of tourists in Bruges, straining to see the sights. I settled on Ghent, which also has canals, Flemish architecture and fries, but is a grittier university town and sounded more to our liking. We didn’t even go to Bruges. And because of Ghent’s central location I got carried away thinking about all the places we could visit that are only a train ride away – Antwerp, Brussels, even Lille, France are all in striking range. On arrival in Ghent we studied the calendar and train schedule with more sober eyes, paring it down to a day in Antwerp, a day in Lille (I was focused on seeing France, if only a corner of it), and a day seeing Ghent. Not enough, for sure!
For our day in Ghent I zeroed in on the MSK Musuem, or the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (the Museum of Fine Arts). Along with art museums in Antwerp and Bruges, MSK is part of the Flemish Art Collection, a comprehensive collection of five centuries of Flemish art. As an American art lover who had never been to Europe (when I was young and could have scraped the money together for a trip to Europe I wasn’t interested; later, family and work conspired against it) I valued the opportunity to see an excellent museum that isn’t overwhelmingly large. Over the years I’ve spent many hours at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Met Cloisters and the Morgan Library. Each one boasts an excellent collection of European art, but it’s just not the same as viewing art inside the country where it originated. To wake up in a European medieval city, sip coffee in a corner cafe, take a tram to the museum, gaze at sumptuous artworks spanning centuries, and then wander through the old part of town and into a cathedral or cafe is to begin to tie it all together. An altarpiece is no longer an isolated piece of art and an impressionist painting gains deeper context, making a sensibility and culture that are decidedly not American a little more transparent.
So here we are at MSK. Certain things catch my eye. I have no interest in recording consensus-approved highlights; instead, I photograph museum scenes, works of art and small details that I want to remember.
For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.
Panamorenko, born in 1940, died earlier this month. Another eccentric Belgian artist who explored hidden corners of the psyche, he made imaginary flying machines and other constructions which he thought of as more akin to poetry than to sculpture. We were lucky to view this huge, elaborate work in the same room at MSK where it was shown back in 1980.
AND NOW, it’s time to take a walk.
Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.