Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I’ve been waiting for a week to post on this. But only for one reason: James Ensor. And it’s really because of another reason. When I was in high school and college, I was a HUGE fan of the group They Might Be Giants. Between my sister and me, I think we owned a ton of their albums at one time. If you’re not aware of who they are, they write rock songs, some (ok, most) with unusual lyrics, that often include but aren't limited to topics on science, literature, history, random weird things, and the absurd. They expanded into children’s songs in recent years, I think. They actually wrote a song called “Meet James Ensor” (on the album 1994 album John Henry), and now it’s finally relevant.

Belgium has been a center for visual arts for many centuries, especially for painters. Some cities, like Antwerp and Brussels, are well-known meccas for painters and artists. One painter, James Ensor, was instrumental in the expressionism and surrealism movements. Ensor painted “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (1889) which received a lot of bad publicity and subsequently was banned in many areas because of its scandalous overtones. However, its current home is in Los Angeles, California at the Getty Center. Despite being quite famous, Ensor didn't really leave Belgium, even during WWII, except for a few short trips to Paris, London, and the Netherlands. He remained in his hometown of Ostend and his daily walks around town were famous as well.

There are several famous art museums that house large collections of other famous Belgian painters, for example The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp houses a large collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens, and there is a large René Magritte collection at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Belgian literature is divided into two categories: Flemish literature and French literature.  There are also a few writers who write in the Walloon language (which is related to French, though it has so few speakers now, it’s almost feared it will become a dead language in the future). Until this past century, most Belgian writers wrote in French, even if they actually spoke Dutch. French at one time was used as a language for royalty and the courts, and it still carries a quasi-lingua franca status. (That’s one reason why you’ll notice that everything is also translated into French at the Olympics.) Some of the major authors are Tom Lanoye, Dimitri Verhulst, Thomas Gunzig, Juan d’Oultremont, Jacques Mercier, Nicolas Defrecheux, Edouard Remouchamps.

One thing that Belgium also does well is comics. You are probably aware of some of their work without even knowing that you knew. One of the most well-known cartoonists is Peyo (pen name of Pierre Culliford), best known for The Smurfs. (If you watch the new Smurfs movie that came out in 2011, there’s a scene where one of the Smurfs opens a book, and it has Peyo’s name on it.)  The original was first published in October 23, 1958.

Another famous cartoonist is Hergé (pen name for Georges Prosper Remi), best known for The Adventures of Tintin. The amazing thing is that he wrote and illustrated the comic from its inception in 1929 all the way until he died in 1983. I love Tintin, and I got my kids into it as well. There are some episodes available on Netflix streaming. Ironically, they also remade a movie about Tintin in 2011 as well. It was apparently the year for Belgian comics. 

Up next: Music and Dance

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