Tuesday 11 April 2017

Brussels Burgeons with New Art Museums and Exhibitions

Belgian artist Rik Wouters' painting Autumn, 1913, part of a major new retrospective of his work at Brussels' Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Photograph (above) and Cover picture of James Lee Byars' 1994 work at the Vanhaerents Art Collection by Elli Ioannou

Brussels is fast becoming an international centre for modern and contemporary art. The cultural landscape is changing the face of the city, expanding it beyond a political and institutional hub for the European Union and NATO. New museums and exhibitions are making the Belgian capital one of Europe's top destinations, including creating its first public contemporary art gallery along with shows by Belgian Modernist masters such as Rik Wouters to the iconoclastic work of Yves Klein and Pol Bury and the sculptures of Dutch street artist Boris Tellegen. Report by Jeanne-Marie Cilento & Paul James McDonnell

Artist Daniel Buren at Villa Empain
STANDING in the Art Deco Villa Empain, red and green light falling on herringbone wood floors, it's as if this survivor from the 1930s reflects Brussels own artistic rise in the 21st Century. Since the end of the Second World War, the Belgian capital has been an important place for international politics but today it is also developing a strong artistic heart. While the city hosts international organisations and is home to many politicians and civil servants, it has also developed some outstanding public and private museums and galleries. The rise of contemporary art in Brussels can be seen at galleries such as the new Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA), that opened last year, the Boghossian Foundation at Villa Empain and the Vanhaerents Art Collection as well as prominent annual art fairs such as the forthcoming Art Brussels from the 21st until the 23rd of April. These all sit alongside the city's more established and well-known modern art museums.

Brussel's first public museum of contemporary art is currently being developed with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in an Art Deco former Citroen building. The gallery is aiming for destination status such as Spain’s Bilbao or New York's Guggenheim Museum. Located northwest of the city, it is due to open in 2020, and will join the galleries housing both design and art that have taken up residence out of the historical centre. The Brussels Regional Government and Centre Pompidou have formed a partnership to transform the Citroën garage into a cultural centre of both modern and contemporary art and architecture that will add considerably to the Belgian capital's burgeoning artistic life.

Time in Motion: Pol Bury at Bozar

Time in Motion, Pol Bury at Bozar
Brussels' Centre For Fine Arts, known as Bozar, is one of the city's top museums. New exhibitions have just opened of two iconoclastic artists, Pol Bury (1922-2005) and Yves Klein (1928-1962). The exhibitions, Time in Motion and Theatre of the Void, are being held in another of the city's spectacular Art Deco buildings, designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta in 1928. Today, considered the heart of Brussels’ art precinct, Bozar hosts major art shows as well as music, theatre, dance, cinema and literature and architecture events. The latest exhibition Time in Motion looks at Belgian artist Pol Bury, one of the founders of kinetic art, best known for the fountains and sculptures he designed for public spaces in the second half of his career. This new retrospective at Bozar is an opportunity to discover Bury’s wide-ranging oeuvre.

Pol Bury's sculpture at Bozar
Paintings, sculptures, mobile works, fountains, jewellery, graphic and written creations are all on display in the biggest exhibition Belgium has dedicated to this major artist in twenty years. While Pol Bury started out as a painter, influenced by Magritte and the Jeune Peinture Belge, he decided to follow a new path. Alexander Calder's mobiles inspired him to sculpt and find ways to include motion in his work. An innovative atist, Pol Bury is considered one of surrealism's successors who made a name for himself beyond Belgium's art scene such as in Paris and New York, gaining international recognition.

Theatre of the Void: French artist Yves Klein

Bozar's other key art exhibition is Theatre of the Void  about French artist Yves Klein. Well-known for his ultramarine monochromes, Klein even licenced his own pigment called International Klein Blue. Describing his ‘IKB’works, French critic Gaston Bachelard said of Klein's blue period: "First there is nothing, then there is deep nothing, then there is a blue depth". Klein was the most influential and controversial French artist to emerge in the 1950s. He is remembered above all for this use of a single colour, the rich shade of ultramarine that he made his own. He continued to question established ideas that underpinned abstract painting that had been dominant in France since the end of the Second World War.

Yves Klein's famous monochrome blue
Some critics describe Klein as a descendant of Marcel Duchamp while others consider him a descendant of earlier avant-garde, monochromatic artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenchko. He has also been though of as an obscurantist, yet much of his work continues to inspire and today his paintings command millions of dollars at art auctions. Klein can be compared to his contemporary Joseph Beuys, as he was also intrigued by Romanticism, mysticism and Eastern religion. Klein even went to Japan and became a master of Judo but when he began to use performance art later in his career, he went back to the tactics of earlier avant-gardes. The French artist's blurring of art and life foreshadowed movements such as pop, conceptual, installation and choreographed art while his eye-catching performances were the harbingers of the later “happening” and body art movements. The new Bozar exhibition explores this metier through unseen or rarely-exhibited visual works in the artist's short life, examining this brief yet prolific part of his career.

Important retrospective by Belgian master Rik Wouters 

Exhibition of Rik Wouters at the
Royal Museum of Fine Arts
Not far from Bozar are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts where there is a new comprehensive show of Belgian Modern master Rik Wouters, who also had a very short but productive life (1882-1916). The retrospective is organised in conjunction with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and the two museums bring together ~ for the first time in one exhibition ~ the most important collection of works by a Belgian artist of the early 20th century. Loans from private collectors and international museums make this a major exhibition. Known as a Fauvist painter, sculptor and print maker, Wouters was educated at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels yet he started life as an apprentice in the studio of his father, an ornamental sculptor. Then at fifteen he entered the Akademie van Schone Kunsten in Mechelen to study sculpture. Three years later he moved to the Belgian capital where he became a pupil of Charles Van der Stappen at the Academie des Beaux-Arts where he met Hélène Duerinckx who became his wife, model and muse. Being very poor, the young couple moved to the green outskirts of Brussels to Boitsfort where Wouters focused on painting and creating studies of light and colourful interiors and still lifes with a spatula. In 1911 he started using brushes and diluted his colours to create a more subtle palette. He finally escaped poverty a year later when he signed an exclusive contract with the Galerie Georges Giroux in Brussels. Wouters visited Paris and Cologne, studying Cézanne and Van Gogh and other impressionist painters and this influenced his own work that captured gleaming light and a luminous colour palette.

Boghossian Foundation Villa Empain: call for global dialogue

Jorge Pardo exhibition at Villa Empain
The Boghossian Foundation at Villa Empain in Avenue Franklin Roosevelt is gearing up for a new show Mondialité, that opens on April 19, with the focus on Edouard Glissant and his call for a global dialogue that does not erase local cultures. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Asad Raza, the multi-artist show will feature artworks, documentary film and songs, and archival material. Today, exhibitions at the heritage-listed Villa Empain take into consideration the space of the building and many designs are created in situ. The centre aims to build bridges between East and West by focusing on similarities rather than differences through art. Another one of Brussels’ Art deco buildings, it was designed and built in the early 1930s by Swiss architect Michel Polak for Baron Louis Empain. From then on, the building suffered a turbulent history. Louis Empain barely inhabited the villa and after its completion in 1934, he donated the property to the Belgian state in 1937, with the intention of turning it into a museum of decorative and modern art. The foundation, known as the Le Cambre School, hosted various exhibitions in the villa until 1943.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at Villa Empain
During the German occupation in World War II, the property was requisitioned and served later as the Embassy of the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, the villa was used by a television station before being left unoccupied falling into ruin in the 1990s. In 2000, the villa was purchased by Belgian businessman Stéphan Jourdain who tried to modernise the building without gaining appropriate permissions, removing many of its original features. By the following year, the Brussels-based conservation organisation, Monuments et Sites rescued Villa Empain from further destruction and it was added to the architectural heritage list of Brussels. But then it lay empty and suffered from vandalism and squatters. Until in 2008, the Foundation Boghossian acquired the building and initiated an extensive renovation program. Inaugurated in 2010,  the villa is today a cultural centre hosting art exhibitions, concerts and conferences. The restoration and conservation of Villa Empain was awarded the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage in 2011.

A new museum of contemporary art opens

Artist Boris Tellegen's work at MIMA
Downtown in Brussels is the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA) that opened in April 2016. It sits along the edge of a canal with a backdrop of industrial redevelopment in the now notorious area of Molenbeek. Occupying a former brewery, MIMA's concept is the brainchild of Michel and Florence Launoit, Alice van den Abeele and Raphael Cruyt. Spread over three floors, the museum boasts a growing permanent collection including among others, Australian indigenous stencil artist Swoon, Ari Marcopoulos, Maya Hayuk and Boris Tellegen. MIMA aims to reflect on cultural and technological developments and is dedicated to show art that breaks down barriers and reaches out to the local community, attracting a broader range of people than traditional musuems. MIMA's exhibitions offer a mix of urban art that reflects subcultures in music, graphics, surfing and other sports along with fashion and design. The most recent show, A Friendly Takeover, is a retrospective of Dutch graffiti artist Boris Tellegen’s twenty year art journey from street to museum, spanning over all three floors of the museum. Boris Tellegen's career has evolved from a graffiti artist to creating three dimensional sculptural installations. Prior to his current sculptural phase his two dimensional art included musical interpretations in the form of paper collage, which then led to his album cover design period.

 Boris Tellegan's installation at MIMA
For his sculptural installations he uses recycled materials including wood that still have the style and ethos of graffiti art. At the exhibition's entrance the viewer is greeted by a large white “cube” which in fact is a word, referring to the shadow technique to create the 3D effect in early street art. Inside the gallery, is a reproduction /representation of the artist's studio with early works on display. The exhibition ends with a monumental installation at the very top of MIMA, visible from the glass rooftop. The installation physically interacts with MIMA ~ jutting out of two windows like a ginat U shaped magnet. There are different levels where children and adults can walk along and interact and view it from a different perspective. Boris Tellegen designs gigantic sculptural installations that are both aesthetic and functional. Everything happens in the centre of the room, while the walls remain untouched, the imposing sculpture playing with space.

Inside the world of the Vanhaerents Art Collection

Inside the Vanhaerents Art Collection 
The Vanhaerents Art Collection is housed in a quadrilinear, black monolith created from a former building in the Dansaert district, a manufacturing precinct in Brussels once known as Little Manchester. Bright neon lime and orange balustrades enliven the looming, rather forbidding facade. At the gated entrance is a small name plaque inscribed with the name. A gallery of contemporary art, it is privately owned by building tycoon and collector Walter Vanhaerent. Architecture and alternative cinema inspired and influenced the creation of the collection. Mr Vanhaerent says the design of the building itself was important as he wanted to create a symbiosis between art and architecture. He believes strongly in slow art with each exhibition spanning two to three years. Since the 1990s, he has only collected art produced from the 1970s onwards. As a private collector of contemporary art he consults with artists about how their work should be shown and whether it fits in with their original intention and vision. Current exhibitions include Many Suns and Worlds, Tomás Saraceno’s first solo exhibition in Belgium. Designed especially for the project space of the Vanhaerents Art Collection, the exhibition features a site-specific installation by the artist, as a part of his ambitious Cloud Cities works.

For information on the Brussels' museums and exhibitions visit:

Tap photographs for full-screen slideshow
 The Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium:  Rik Wouters: A Retrospective. Pictured is Lady in Blue Before a Mirror, 1913.
The Vanhaerents Art Collection: Death of James Lee Byars, 1994 by James Lee Byars

The Vanhaerents Art collection: Many Suns and Worlds by Tomas Saraceno

Art installations inside the first floor of the Vanhaerents Art Collection

Inside the renovated former industrial building of the Vanhaerents Art Collection

Belgian Art Prize Finalist Maarten Vanden Eynde, The Gadget 2017  

Millennium Iconoclast Museum of  Art (MIMA): A Friendly Takeover by Boris Tellegen 
The rooftop of the former brewery at the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA)
Boris Tellegan's installation on the top floor of MIMA that "breaks" through the windows
Boris Tellegan's collage works at MIMA, part of his A Friendly Takeover exhibition
Bozar's Theatre of the Void exhibition of Yves Klein's work, including this Tree, Large Blue Sponge,1962.
Yves Klein's body art, part of the exhibition Theatre of the Void at Bozar

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