Ghent

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.

A doorway in Ghent near the university.

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.

5. Walking through Citadelpark on the way to Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

6. Adriaen van de Venne (1589 – 1662); Dicing, Drabbing and Drinking Bring Man to Destruction. From the museum’s collection.

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.

7. It was heartening to see students working intently on copies of paintings. It’s a great way to learn about composition, color, and patience.
8. This student has taken a break. What an interesting choice of painting to become wholly intimate with.
9. The Lamentation; Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). The message behind Christian-influenced art like this may not resonate with me, but oh, those faces! There is a strange, disjointed and angular awkwardness that is compelling here. Being in the presence of this painting in Ghent, where it was probably made, affected me more deeply than seeing a similar painting hanging in an American museum would. Medieval work in particular was very moving seen in the context of medieval cities. The paintings no longer depicted some far-off people in a far-off era; their time-stopping detail, rich color and powerful expressiveness connected me directly to the medieval world.
10. Detail, The Glorification of Apollo; Urbanus Leyniers et al. There is a room full of tapestries at MSK, some are floor to ceiling in size. This tapestry measures 408 x 330cm (13′ x 11′) The foot is beautifully articulated and the dyes speak of the earth, water and the sky. The skin color is as nuanced as can be and the blue drapery is a color Yves Klein would appreciate. (Leyniers, 1674-1737, was a Flemish wool dyer and tapestry maker in Brussels.)

11. A cabinet of curiosities. Another cultural-historical truism that was brought home to me on this trip was the excitement that grabbed people during the age of exploration when so many new objects, like these exotic shells, were discovered and brought to Europe.

12. A homey, impressionist winter scene by Adriaan Jozef Heymans that interested me because of the riot of colors he used in the sky, all to describe snow, which we normally think of as white. (Heymans, 1839-1921, was a Belgian plein air painter).

13. Detail, The Family of St. Anne; ca 1500. This triptych from a former Beguinage (a lay religious community for women) in Ghent is ascribed to the Master of St. Anne. The somewhat flattened perspective and abundant detail alongside the intense emotion seen in the eyes allows me to relate to the scene intimately. It was the time of Low Country masters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who created vibrant, extraordinary works which can connect us directly back to a time when the world was very different, and so much smaller.
14. A powerful jolt back to the present, this sculpture (Fluitketel, 1999) by Patrick van Caeckenburgh sits incongruously – delightfully so – in a gallery of traditional paintings. Van Caeckenburgh, b. 1960, is a Belgian artist who obsessively researches literary and scientific sources for his work. He reportedly lives a secluded life in a small Belgian village and is well-represented in museum collections from London to Taiwan.

For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.

15b. One more: a portion of THE PICTURESQUE HISTORY OF EMPTINESS, Les Oubliettes — The Oblivions — De Vergeetputtten, 2007-2014.

16. Glimpsed through a doorway, another strange sculpture beckons…
17. It is Panamorenko’s Aeromodeller (1980) and it seems ready to levitate right out of the gallery.

18. A window above Panamorenko’s “zeppelin” inscribes the piece with sunlight and shadow, enhancing the effect of weightlessness.

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.

19.
20. View from the Vleehuisbrug, a bridge over the Leie River in the old section of Ghent.

21. Flemish architecture and a clocktower.

22. Sint-Micheilskerk. There has been a chapel here for almost a thousand years. This version was built in the 13th & 14th centuries.

23. Lost in the old city.
24. Another canal seen from a bridge in the old section of Ghent.

25. What can we see?
26. Perhaps the sun setting on drying laundry….

27. Or a detail on a cathedral.
28. At some point the eyes are weary, the feet have given out, and the belly cries for food. Sit. Enjoy.

Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.

***


61 comments

  1. Your pictures show us that it is good to look at the smaller pearls 🙂 Bruges must be wonderful, but Ghent doesn’t have to hide and you avoided many many tourists 🙂 I find it appealing to see so much art and history connected in your post. I agree, the art doesn’t stop inside the museum. The whole place is full of art and history. And I agree, to see this art in the context of the history must lead to a deeper experience. Your details are well chosen 🙂 I don’t like these medieval paintings very much, it depends, but the painters were fantastic and so talented! The faces are magnificent. I often feel absorbed from the eyes in such paintings. One of my favorite painters in this relation is Frans Hals. His faces are pretty lively and often mischievous and charming, they make you smile!! -The tapestries are amazing as well. How can you work so exact with filaments? Astonishing, also the trouble to make it so real. – The mixture of old and modern art is irritating and refreshing at the same time. A very interesting museum. Thank you for this art guide through Ghent, Lynn! My favorite picture is Nr. 27. I like these faces and your picture is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The idea that mixing modern and traditional art can make you feel both irritated and refreshed is fascinating – and it sounds very human. It takes an open-minded person to acknowledge such different emotions at the same time. I hope that makes sense. And thank you Almuth, for being here, and for giving us such great memories of another European city… 🙂

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    • Yes, #6 is absolutely wonderful, isn’t it? 🙂 I wondered about how well the artist was getting the message across if it was truly intended to steer people away from such things. Maybe to a different mind from a different time, the debauchery looks scary and wrong. To us it just looks fabulous. 😉 Thank you Adrian, enjoy your holiday!

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    • This was the first that we had heard about him, and we’re sorry he’s gone. The main difference from Leiden that we noticed was a grittier feeling, and it’s just plain bigger. You enjoy too, and best wishes to your family as well. 🙂

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  2. A lovely view of a lovely city, Lynn. Thank you for reminding me that I REALLY need to see the current special exhibit at SLAM, “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt ”

    (BTW, Oubliette is one of my favorite words, though I learned it as the name for something rather awful–also known as a bottle dungeon. Knowing its literal interpretation makes perfect sense. Oblivion. And I’m a big fan of Memento Mori…..I guess I can be a rather morbid fellow….)

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    • There was a big Rembrandt show at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that we were able to see (after waiting in line a bit). In spite of infecting us with museumoverkilldisease, it was worth it. I loved peering closely at drawing after drawing after drawing (and the Night Watch). A fabulous buffet it was. I hope you can get to the SLAM show, Johnnny, and enjoy your holiday! 🙂

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    • I’m sure your job has been a great education. It was such a treat to see quantities of great art, mainly in smaller museums, and I’m glad there wasn’t any problem photographing most of it. Cheers, Ken, enjoy your holiday!

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You have matched the images and commentary quite beautifully and, in so doing, have underlined your point about the relationship between an artwork and its original context.

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    • oui, j’étais si proche! J’ai essayé de vous contacter avant notre départ (je pense que c’était en mars) mais peut-être que mon e-mail est allé dans votre dossier spam. si ou quand je reviens en Europe je serai en contact. Je suis content de vous entendre comme Gand – nous aussi! Dans ce post, j’ai écrit sur l’expérience de voir l’art médiéval là où il était fait, plutôt que dans un musée américain – c’était une expérience de premier ordre.

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    • It’s so good to hear from you….are you another one who somehow never made it there? Then I hope you get there too. I’m really happy that you liked the text. Christmas was partly challenging, partly good, as I think it must have been for you. Hugs to you!!

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  4. Fine to remember Ghent, dear Lynn! I was wandering there around a lifetime before, think it was in 1959, and me 17 years old. It was home to a friend of mine – friend of literature and arts as well. exciting days because I saw first in my life the marvels of painting and architecture – and sculptures of the greatest artists of my century as well: Giacometti and Marino Marini und Brancusi and so many others in a park. It was giving of my love to arts a big push.

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    • The town must be different than it was in 1959, but not entirely. To wander around a place like that at such an impressionable age must have been a great learning experience. 🙂 I know that the art I saw when I was just a few years older than that had a very deep impact on me. Nice memories, I’m glad!

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  5. A delightful tour indeed! Favorite from the museum was 12 with that rainbow swirl of a cloud. The architecture is so earlier European. Love the details on the buildings that are so totally missing from modern reflective glass structures of steel and glass. Not to knock the cockeyed reflections of our more modern stuff. Such fun to join you in this visit.

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    • Yes, it’s a great Medieval city, like Leiden. So much to see! I do love modern architecture but oh, those details! They enrich one’s life, just gazing at them and knowing what kind of time and patience was required. Glad you enjoyed the post, Gunta….Happy New Year!

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  6. It’s always nice to see places we haven’t visited yet, whether they are more or less cosmopolitan. Gent is one of them. So, thanks for sharing your look and these curious details of the city and history.
    About Bruges, in 1992 I loved that city…but at that time there was not so much tourism …

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  7. Wow, what a trip and great collection of travel images, Lynn. You certainly made the most of your stops during your European Vacation which obviously was more of a success than the Lampoon version.
    As a cabinet repair/refinishing guy I was very taken with #11, the curiosity cabinet. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. OTOH, that Fluitketel is something totally unexpected. I can understand why Patrick van Caeckenburgh spends a lot of time alone dreaming up something like that. I Googled the item and that is a very odd looking whistling kettle. Seems it would make a sound more like a tuba than a whistle. 🙂

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    • Van Caekenburgh was a good discovery – and I bet you would find quite a few inspiring things in that museum, in terms of craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail. It was good for that – everywhere we went was! Thanks for stopping by, Steve. 🙂

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  8. Wonderful post! Thanks for the vicarious tour. I was especially drawn in by the tapestry detail of the foot. I never realized how intricate the color variation is. Remarkable work. And I loved the modern sculptural pieces. It made me want to run away to Europe. 🙂 Looks like a fabulous time was had.

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    • Me neither – it’s crazy, isn’t it, all the subtle colors they used in just that one small area? And of course, they’re natural dyes. I’m glad you picked up on that, Sheri. 🙂 The fact that you also appreciate the modern pieces is admirable – not so many people are that open-minded. We did have a fabulous time – only one down day, when I was foolish enough to walk around Lille, France on a Friday afternoon with an unsecured backpack, and had all my money and documents stolen. That was horrible, and we had to scramble to make our way to the nearest US consulate the following Monday to get a new passport, which took all day. But other than that it was smooth sailing through the Netherlands, Belgium & Germany, on trains, and a rented car. The best part was meeting fellow bloggers – four of them! 🙂

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      • Oh, how fun to meet fellow bloggers! I have a few in Britain I would absolutely love to meet. And a few elsewhere in the world as well. 🙂 Sorry to hear of the theft. I’ve heard that’s become extremely common abroad. Such things are happening more in Seattle as well. Getting very risky to take out and hold your cell phone on the street, for instance. I’m glad all else went well and that you were able to visit several countries.
        As far as open mind on art, I was born with an unusual eye, but it was also cultivated with education. Much of art history schooling bothered me in the demand of one interpretation, as though they fully understood the artists intent – often much more than the artist did, perhaps? But it also gave me tools to look deeply and to appreciate and express what I saw there. I have appreciation for nearly all kinds of visual art, music, dance etc. since I learned what it takes to create it and the history of where it comes from. I’ve been told I have an artist’s soul or a poet’s soul, many times. There may be something to that, but I also think my parents taught me, nearly from birth, to look with more than my eyes. I’m so grateful for how that has enriched my life, and I do my best to share that gift with others, as I see you do too.

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        • I hate when critics or others think they know what’s going in an artists’ mind – interpretation is only that, not more, Certainly not truth. Native gifts or tendencies can bring a lot to the table, but art education is a wonderful thing, as you very nicely point out. It really saddens me when I hear how schools have to cut back on the arts……. I bet your river is wild these days, with all this train.

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    • Far-ranging art history, right? 😉 I loved seeing European art in European cities, then wandering along streets with medieval architecture, etc. I don’t think I would have appreciated it in the same way if I’d gone decades ago – it’s a cliche but it’s true. The adventure will get more serious in March – we’re going to Vietnam. 🙂

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