“Brussels has quietly emerged as one of the continent’s most exciting creative hubs,” the New York Times wrote earlier this year. Yet this city has always been a crossroads of creativity. It was here that the Art Nouveau was born in the 1890s. And here that Surrealism emerged in the 1960s. This is a city where art has always been appreciated.
You can see that when you look at the exhibitions put together by the city’s museums and cultural centres. During the summer, the city offers dozens of exhibitions featuring artists from all over the world. Here are six shows that we think are worth catching.
Facing the future
Bozar’s energetic curators have assembled an ambitious exhibition that charts the development of postwar painting in Europe from 1945 to 1968. Many of the works are by familiar artists who worked in Western Europe, but they are now hung next to more surprising works by artists who found themselves living under Communist regimes.
The exhibition brings together 160 paintings and other works by 150 different artists scattered across Europe. The works will travel later in the year to Karlsruhe and on to Moscow, but Brussels gets first look.
A massive achievement, Facing the Future brings together artists who shared certain basic principles although they worked on different sides of the Iron Country. In the aftermath of the war, artists across Europe developed a bright, optimistic style, reflected in works such as Fernand Léger’s Builders from one side of the divide and Soviet painter Alexander Deyneka’s Sketch for Peaceful Building from the other.
This early postwar mood led to the emergence of the Pop Art movement in which artists drew on the bright colours and optimistic themes of American consumer advertising to create their works. One of the highlights from this period is Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1948 collage Dr Pepper in which he incorporated pieces from American magazines.
But this joyful postwar style turned bleak in the 1960s as the Cold War intensified and the Vietnam War destroyed any illusion of lasting peace. The Dutch artist Armando reflects this dark vision with his haunting work Black Barbed Wire on Black 1-62. Inspired by the concentration camps, the painting takes the form of a black rectangular canvas with barbed wire wrapped around it. Some artists like Armando found the past was hard to escape.
Wiels touches on modern nomadic lives in its summer exhibition Foreign Places. The show brings together eight former artists-in-residence to explore the art of creation in foreign urban environments. The artists touch on themes such as tourism, migration and exile in this timely show. Alongside the exhibition, Stefano Faoro has invited the artists to contribute to an alternative travel guide which includes an essay by guest curator Grégory Castéra titled From Beirut to Brussels: Notes on Curating as an Exercise in Attachment.
One of Europe’s most adventurous small museums, the Musée d’Ixelles regularly organises intriguing exhibitions on unexpected themes. It has a new surprise this summer with an exhibition titled Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyper-realistic Painting.
The exhibition features 34 American and European artists who have drawn their inspiration from the glossy world of consumerism. Their works feature shiny cars, gleaming skyscrapers and shop windows, painted in a meticulous style that is almost indistinguishable from photography.
The artists include Richard Estes whose 1989 painting America’s Favourite shows a table in a diner with familiar bottles of tabasco sauce and Heinz ketchup.
The exhibition also features the Dutch artist Tjalf Sparnaay who creates oversized realistic paintings of crushed Coke cans, fried eggs and half eaten sandwiches. His works owe something to Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century, although no Dutch master ever thought of painting a giant fried egg.
The arts centre Bozar has put together a major exhibition on contemporary photography that sprawls across several urban venues. The summer event focuses on 65 photographers linked by a common interest in urban life. The core exhibition at Bozar titled Open Space/Secret Places brings together 27 artists whose work loosely revolves around the theme of humans living in cities.
The other big Summer of Photography exhibition – titled Dey Your Lane! Lagos Variations – captures the chaotic energy of Lagos in work by 24 contemporary photographers.
Andres Seranno, Klansmen (Knight Hawk Of Georgia of The Invisible Empire IV)
The Fine Arts Museum has courted controversy this summer by putting on a retrospective of uncensored photographs by the American Andres Serrano. His works touch on themes that often cause outrage such as religion, death, sex and violence. He adds to the outcry by using materials such as urine and blood. In previous exhibitions, his photographs have been criticised, censored and even physically attacked. Yet this new exhibition sets out to show that Serrano is not just a provocateur. He is also on the side of tolerance and humanism, as is revealed by a parallel exhibition in the streets of Brussels of his photographs of the city’s homeless.