Contemporary paintings freeze time amidst Bruges’ medieval splendour


Aleksandar Avramović is the first painter to display his work in the recently renovated Adornes Domain in the heart of the city

Moments in time

Aleksandar Avramović is deciding which of his paintings to include in a new exhibition. The canvases are laid out on the floor around the exhibition space, at the medieval Adornes Domain in Bruges. He shuffles them around, occasionally disappearing into a back room to bring out more.

It’s not just a selection of images but a selection of moments. Avramović specialises in capturing fleeting instances of heightened reality, when a body comes to rest into a particular attitude, when the light falls on someone in a particular way. It might be a person reading, taking a nap, or leaning out of a window to watch something in the street.

He works quickly, usually from photographs, so the selection is also about the moment in which each painting was created in response to the original image.

“Trying to find the moments when I was the most present, that’s the main interest for me,” he says. “Almost everything is done with a single, unique impulse. There is no returning to the work, because when you go back it becomes a different idea, so you might as well make a second or a third painting.”

Born in Belgrade, Avramović left Yugoslavia in his teens to settle with his parents in Brussels. He went on to study at La Cambre art school in the city, and now combines work as an artist with a career in graphic design.

A sense of history

Initially interested in photorealism, his recent painting is more impressionistic. “It’s clear that Luc Tuymans is an inspiration, and equally Michaël Borremans,” Avramović explains, citing the biggest names in contemporary Belgian figurative art. “But I also have enormous admiration for Raoul De Keyser, whose rapidity of work and spontaneity appeal to me very much.”

One of the reasons Avramović was chosen to exhibit in this complex of medieval buildings is the emphasis his work places on the passing of time. “Here, possibly more than anywhere else, one can feel a palpable sense of history and a long timeline on which all the small moments of our lives and many successive lives are strung together,” the exhibition note explains.

Trying to find the moments when I was the most present, that’s the main interest for me

- Aleksandar Avramović

More broadly, exhibiting contemporary art is part of a plan to develop the Adornes Domain, and to make it a living attraction as well as an historic monument. This began last year with two exhibitions by photographers, but Avramović is the first painter invited to bring his work to the site.

The Domain was created in the 15th Century as a country residence for the Adornes family, wealthy Genovese merchants who moved to Bruges around 1300. Alongside the house, a magnificent private chapel was constructed, modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which family members had visited in a series of pilgrimages. A row of almshouses was also added.

Patron of arts

The most famous member of the family, Anselm Adornes, was a merchant and a diplomat, but also a patron of the arts. He owned paintings by Jan Van Eyck (possibly commissioned by his father or uncle) and arranged for a lute player to be trained in Bruges for King James III of Scotland.

“He was involved in the arts in many ways, and these are the values we try to perpetuate,” says Véronique de Limburg Stirum, the moving force behind the development of the Domain. Her husband Maximilien is a direct descendent of the original Adornes family, and when he inherited the Domain they decided to make something of the place.

The house was completely closed. When my husband was a child, he never came here

- Véronique de Limburg Stirum

“The previous generation was not so active,” she confides. “The house was completely closed. When my husband was a child, for example, he never came here.” During much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the site was occupied by nuns, who set up a lace school and later a rest home in the grounds.

Over the past few years, de Limburg Stirum and her husband have begun renovating the older buildings and making other changes to bring out the Domain’s historic character.

Hidden jewel

The Jerusalem Chapel remains the jewel of the Domain, an idiosyncratic square chapel with a high wooden ceiling, a macabre altar decorated with skulls and ladders, and a replica of Christ’s tomb. In the centre of the chapel is a family tomb dedicated to Anselm Adornes and his wife Margareta. Aselm’s heart was brought here after his murder in Scotland in 1483, but his body remains in Linlithgow.

The almshouses adjacent to the chapel used to house the Bruges Lace Museum, now relocated to the old school buildings in nearby Balstraat. In its place is a new museum, which goes deeper into the story of the Adornes family in Bruges, the symbolism of the chapel, and the history of the estate. Particular attention goes to Anselm, his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his role in diplomatic relations between Flanders and Scotland.

The exhibition space has been established in newer buildings, formerly used as living quarters by the nuns. Further renovations are planned to allow more of the family heritage to be displayed, and visitor facilities to be improved.

The Adornes house is also being restored. One room has been turned into a lounge, where visitors can have tea or coffee, and two large reception rooms have been restored for the use of the family. These are not usually open to the public, but can be seen on group visits.

Aleksandar Avramović: Here is Now, until 26 August, Adornes Domain, Peperstraat 3, Bruges