Museum tours offer another view of Brussels

BRUSSELS, Belgium — When not chronicling the sights, sounds and sales at the Brussels Antiques & Fines Arts Fair, held from Jan. 23 to Feb. 1, a group of American writers also had the chance to visit three museums in this city that has been the cultural and economic crossroads of Europe for centuries.

Tours included the David and Alice Van Buuren Museum, the Horta Museum and the still-under-construction Magritte Museum.

David Van Buuren was born in Gouda, Holland, in 1886. He settled in Brussels in 1909 and embarked on a career in banking. He married Alice Piette (1890-1973) and their home in the stylish suburbs of Brussels became the center of social and artistic circles in the 1920s and ‘30s.

From 1928 to 1970, the house became a salon, with visitors including Raoul Dufy, Rene Lalique, Eric Satie, Rene Magritte, Coco Chanel and David Ben Gourion. And as the tour guide reminded us at several stops, it was not a home designed for children. From the custom-made furniture, floor coverings and window treatments to the stunning collection of art, the Van Buuren residence was created for a mature contemplation of the world.

A visitor is first struck by the large and deeply symbolic paintings of Gustave Van de Woestijne (1881-1947), the Belgian expressionist painter. There are 32 of his works in the house, including The Children’s Table, which covers an entire wall overlooking the main staircase.

But in a corner of the living room there hangs a small charcoal sketch of a woman peeling potatoes. It seems out of place in a setting that exudes a 20th-century gloss and elegance. It is signed, “Vincent.” Yes, as in Van Gogh. Though the guide says it’s probably a study for his famous Potato Eaters, this seems doubtful. The woman in the sketch is lovely, whereas Van Gogh chose the models for his masterwork for their ugliness, thinking that they would be natural and unspoiled in his finished work.

To be that close to a Van Gogh was a genuine thrill.

The Van Buuren collection also includes a version of The Fall of Icarus, which was once believed to be an original by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, dating from the mid-16th century. Tests showed that it, and the copy in the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, were probably painted after his death by members of his circle. The original work is lost.

David and Alice Van Buuren fled to the U.S. during World War II, where they were active in fundraising activities for Jews in Europe. When they returned in 1945, they found their house unchanged, although the Germans had occupied it. Their chauffer had gathered up all the artworks, moved them to a secure location nearby, and returned them to the residence after the war. The grounds around the home include a labyrinth or hedge maze, an orchard, and the “Garden of the Heart.”

After touring the stately and angular Van Buuren home, the visit to the Horta Museum could not have presented a greater contrast. The decoration inside the Horta is a writhing and undulating tribute to the soul of Art Nouveau.

Victor Horta (1861-1947) studied architecture in Ghent, Belgium, but left to become an interior designer, living in the Montmartre district of Paris. There, he was inspired by the emerging impressionist and pointillist artists, and also by the possibilities of working in iron and glass.

By 1885, Horta was working on his own and designed three houses, which were built that year. He then decided to devote himself to competitions for public work, including statuary and even tombs.

Horta was commissioned to design a home for a Professor Tassel (now the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels), completed in 1893. Incorporating an interior iron structure with curvilinear botanical forms—known as “biomorphic whiplash”—he created the first Art Nouveau architecture. Ornate and elaborate designs and natural lighting were concealed behind a stone façade to harmonize the building with the more rigid houses next door.

After Art Nouveau lost favor, many of Horta’s buildings were destroyed, most notably the Maison du Peuple (1895-1899) built for the Belgian Labor Party. However, several of Horta’s buildings are still standing in Brussels to today and available to tour. Most notably are the Magasins Waucquez, formerly a department store, now the Brussels Comic Book Museum, and four of his private houses, which were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Like many of his most iconic works, which playfully pose questions and omit key elements from the final creation, the René Magritte Museum is taking shape with almost no Magrittes to display.

Descending several floors below the massive Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, our tour came to a hall devoted to Surrealism. There was Dali and Chagall, and six works by Magritte. The museum’s curator told us that the most famous of Magritte’s works were touring the world, but many would be back in time for the museum’s opening in June.

The most striking work in the hall was L’Empire des Lumières, or the Empire of Light, and yes, it’s immediately apparent that this was the inspiration for Jackson Browne’s 1974 album cover, Late for the Sky.

René Magritte was born in the Belgian province of Hainaut in 1898. He began lessons in drawing in 1910.

Magritte worked as an assistant designer in a wallpaper factory, and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926, when a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels made it possible for him to paint full time. In 1926, Magritte produced his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu), and held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927.

Magritte’s work frequently displays ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe, “This is not a pipe.”

He was once quoted as saying of his work: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

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