Revolver Lefaucheux © Coll. Private
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Victor Hugo first visited Belgium, accompanied by his mistress Juliette Drouet, in 1837. He described the seventeenth-century baroque belfry in Mons as resembling a large coffeepot flanked by four smaller teapots. “It would be ugly if it wasn’t grand”, he wrote to his wife Adèle back in France.
The belfry, which looks down on cobbled streets and squares, is one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Wallonian region; nearby is the Grand-Hornu, an old mining complex (the region was a coal-mining centre until the 1980s), built between 1810 and 1830. That was designated a World Heritage Site in 2012 and now houses a Museum of Contemporary Arts.
Mons itself, forty minutes south of Brussels by train, is one of two European Capitals of Culture this year (the other is Pilsen, in the Czech Republic). Its mayor, the dapper Socialist Elio di Rupo, has been in office since 2001, though he took time out to be Prime Minister of the country from December 2011 (ending the country’s 541 rudderless days) until October 2014. His city appears to be thriving: a new railway station, designed by the star architect Santiago Calatrava, is under construction. Next to it is Daniel Libeskind’s recently completed Centre de Congrès.
The city is also home to the quirky Mundaneum. Described as the “web time forgot” by the New York Times and the “paper Google” by Le Monde, it was set up in 1910 with the quixotic aim of “gathering together all the world’s knowledge in one place” by “one of the fathers of bibliography”, Paul Otlet, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Henri La Fontaine. To the casual visitor it seems to consist of rows and rows of little wooden drawers containing card files, but underground there are also apparently 4 miles of documents, books, posters, postcards . . . .
The Mons Memorial Museum, a handsome former pumping station – all brick, glass and steel – was opened earlier this year too and should be required visiting for anyone undertaking a First World War pilgrimage to the region: Mons was the scene of the British Expeditionary Force’s first serious engagement, in August 1914 (think of the Angel of Mons), while the last British soldier to be killed, forty-year-old Private George Edwin Ellison, died on the outskirts of the town 90 minutes before the Armistice was signed. And as if that weren’t poignant enough, the Museum houses a plaque to the Canadian George Lawrence Price, who died at 10:58 am on November 11, 1918.
During the past fortnight four exhibitions have opened in and around Mons. First, in Charleroi, some 40 km away, yet another new museum, the BPS22, is staging the impressive Les Mondes Inversés show until the end of January 2016, with works by Marina Abramović, Carsten Höller and Yinka Shonibare among many other contemporary artists – vaut le détour.
Meanwhile, the exhibition on St George and the Dragon at the Grand-Hornu (until January 17, 2016) brings together representations of the popular theme from the Renaissance onwards. There is an exquisite Reliquary (c.1467–71) commissioned from Gérard Loyet and on loan from Liège Cathedral. Made entirely of gold, silver and enamel, it represents Charles the Bold touchingly thanking George for his heroic deed. Elsewhere there are paintings by Altdorfer, Albrecht Dürer and Tintoretto – as well as some anonymous works. Bringing us up to date is David Claerbout’s mesmerizing twelve-minute film Travel (2013), which takes the viewer into and out of a forest charged with a sense of mystery and danger.
The BAM Mons in the centre of the town plays host to Parade sauvage, an exhibition of work by artists deemed to have been influenced by Rimbaud (“J’ai seul la clé de cette parade sauvage”), from Fernand Léger, Asger Jorn, Joseph Beuys, Guy Debord and Robert Rauschenberg to Erró, Nancy Spero and others. One of the Beuys exhibits, the glass-cased “Butter & Beeswax”, may present an olfactory challenge to the exhibition's curator, Denis Gielen, in weeks to come.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition openings is Verlaine Cellule 252: Turbulence poétiques, also in the BAM (it drew Patti Smith on its first weekend). Its curator, Bernard Bousmanne, has brought together more than 200 items relating to the poet Paul Verlaine’s turbulent times in Belgium. It was in a hotel room in Brussels in July 1873 that he fired the two shots at Rimbaud, lightly wounding him in the wrist with the first of them. The revolver used (which is in private ownership) is displayed here for the first time – and it’s a beautiful object. Rimbaud (who was nineteen at the time) decided not to press charges, but the fierce judge Théodore t’Serstevens nevertheless found plenty for which to convict Verlaine: involvement in the Commune, mistreatment of his wife, abandonment of his young child, alleged homosexual activity (although homosexuality was not illegal in Belgium), loose morals, inebriation. Verlaine was transferred after a few months from a prison in Brussels to one in Mons, where he spent a little over a year, and was reasonably treated (unlike Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol some twenty years later): exempted from manual labour and permitted to write (quite a productive period). The prison, a few blocks away, is still in operation, and houses some 400 inmates.
The Verlaine exhibition will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.