The Queen’s art
Last summer, we ran a story on the show of James Ensor that was staged in New York’s iconic Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). “Urban avant-gardist or small-town loony?” asked the New York Times.
Why do the marginal and fringe artists keep coming to Ostend?
Good question, and not just about Ensor. The city of Ostend (apart from being the “Queen of Sea Resorts”) has always hosted many such avant-garde loonies, who come and go and sometimes stay. Ostend continues to attract contemporary artists, like Charlotte Mutsaers and Frans Malschaert, who both left the Netherlands to live here. And of course the largest city on the Belgian coast was famously home to Marvin Gaye when the troubled singer washed up on shore at the behest of his manager to dry out and pull himself together.
With somewhat of a bluesy atmosphere, set against the backdrop of the North Sea, Ostend has traditionally welcomed both tourists and artists, loners and socialites. In the winter, the true beauty of the empty shores and the coastal light effects that attracted artists like Léon Spilliaert are better visible.
A few steps away, the art galleries, art cafes and Ostend’s fine arts museum, the Mu.zée, are alive with activity year-round. A few cups of coffee with the art in-crowd later, it’s clear why Ostend has become such a haven for painters, writers and singers, each with their very own style. They are bound to Ostend by two things – their love of the North Sea and the city’s inhabitants, who tend to take care of your needs first and ask questions later.
“All you need to do for the city to love you is to have an open mind,” says Zakia, who runs the Beau- Site art salon and café. “And then the maze of friends will weave itself.”
It echoes Gaye, one of the town’s most unlikely foreign residents, who lived here for a couple of years in the early 1980s before his death: “I’m black, I’m famous, and I was in trouble when I got here. Still, the people here can see through all of that. They accept me the way I am.”
This open-mindedness might be one of the crucial factors that has always drawn artists to the city – not only “coastal” painters but others like contemporary artists Roger Raveel, Luc Tuymans, Panamarenko and Jan Fabre, plus writers like Hugo Claus. Ghent-based author Herman Brusselmans, too, has stayed for long periods in Ostend to work and set his famously gritty novel Ex-Drummer in the city.
The surreal air
“Although Ensor is Ostend, and Ostend is Ensor, we have a broad collection of Belgian artworks from 1830 to the present day because so many artists have been here,” says Phillip Vandenbossche, the curator of Mu.zée (formerly the PMMK), which this year became the official fine arts museum of both the province and the city. But the city’s artistic life still starts and ends with the artist who was obsessed with allegory and the grotesque. With a life and work that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries and provided an immeasurable influence on both surrealism and expressionism, Ensor was featured in New York earlier this year and now in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay until next February. Mu.zée, too, is working on what will be the largest Ensor show ever staged to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth in 2010.
Death, the sea and inner turmoil were Ensor’s biggest themes, taken up by Belgian contemporaries Willy Schlobach and Alfred William Finch and, later on, by Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke.
And, of course, by today’s artists, too. Political satire and a critique of the bourgeoisie were omnipresent in Ensor’s work, and his outcry against the “vile vivisectors” is an inspiration to Charlotte Mutsaers. She is also, like Ensor, a famous defender of Ostend’s cultural heritage. The city’s seaside Venetian Galleries is hosting Aangespoeld met pen en penseel (Washed Up with Pen and Brush), a Mutsaers retrospective. It is a celebration of her vivid imagery, her love for Ostend, her life as an artist and activist and her childlike enthusiasm.
Mutsaers arrived in Ostend from the Netherlands on a boat about 25 years ago. She is omnipresent in Ostend, easily recognisable by her bright red lipstick and energetic little fox terrier.
As a painter, she was part of the “New Figuration” movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which returned from abstractions to figures but kept the expressionist language form. Her paintings seem closely linked to the playful yet not-completely-abstract work of Karel Appel. Absurdity and decidedly weird objects, plants and people run through her work: rabbits, pine trees, mushrooms, cucumbers, Christmas trees and the sea find their place in both her paintings and her literature. She takes a stand in her work against the cooking of live animals like lobsters.
Mutsaers’ produced her final series of paintings in 1990 to focus on writing. She has published several books in the nearly 20 years since.
The exhibition includes her life’s work (that’s one of her paintings on our front cover), favourite objects, pets, a reproduction of her workspace and pinpoints the biographical themes and issues that have shaped her work, both good and bad.
Her love for Ostend is evident in her last novel Koetsier Herfst (2008), in which she meticulously describes what it’s like to arrive in Ostend by train, the market and the people of the fish stalls. This love has nothing to do with the local art scene, she says, but with city life in itself, that of the stubborn fishermen, the kitsch of the tourists, the elderly people in the tearooms and the continuous presence of the sea.
Searching for Eve
Another “washed-up” artist in Ostend is Frans Malschaert, a painter and sculptor who you can find at home at the Beau-Site art salon right on the esplanade. He singlehandedly renovated the Art Deco building that houses his gallery, workspace, house and art salon-cum-cafe. To Malschaert, who refers to himself as a “technical engineer” or “artisan” rather than an artist, technical skills are very important.
His portraits are dynamic and vivid but also rather anatomical, something on which he prides himself. He is not a part of the “art gallery” scene but adores the city. “Unlike Knokke, where art is sold by the pound, Ostend is a city where art is made,” he says, adding, “Any kind of art. The city’s atmosphere just oozes with art, even in the smallest shop window.” Originally from Knokke, in fact, he spent most of his life in Maastricht and Amsterdam.
His latest project, “Searching for Eve,” involves a 19-metre-high arch (it’s already been built with 380,000 kilos of steel in the port of Maastricht), on which three figures – a man, woman and child – meet on the arc. The piece, which will be shown in turn in the waters of Malschaert’s three cities, symbolise what the cities mean to him: Ostend for survival, Maastricht for childbirth and Amsterdam for play.
He shows me the models in his workspace. Because he builds the figures from the inside out, with lifelike anatomical tissue, the space is full of skeletons, cables and bolts: very Doctor Frankenstein (and more than a little Ensor). But there’s no gothic story behind it. Malschaert’s work is a playful take on art and life, fuelled by the energy of the sea: “Even when I don’t see her, I know the sea is always there, and she gives me the will to create. Birth and creation are very important in my work, and, to me, the sea symbolises both.” Although the city’s cultural PR is still very focused “on the casino and the mega spectacles”, notes Zakia, Ostend continues to add to its cultural context, with the tri-annual Beaufort art installation festival, Theater aan zee and the new Ostend Film Festival. It also has plans to renovate its old post building as a centre for cultural non-profits.
As a whole, Ostend might just be ready to reach its goal of being known as a “city of culture” by the year 2012.
Washed Up with Pen and Brush:
Charlotte Mutsaers retrospective
Until 31 January
Corner of Parijsstraat and Zeedijk
Where to find it all
Art residence Beau-Site
Vrijstaat O art centre
Mu.zée, Romestraat 11
The Perfume of Ostend
A great way to discover James Ensor’s Ostend is to do the audio walk, which is available at the tourist office for €7, together with an entry ticket to the artist’s old house and the Mu.zée. You wander around Ensor’s (and Permeke’s and Spilliaert’s) Ostend, through a maze of little streets and galleries. The walk is called “The Perfume of Ostend”, and the triangle of sound, smell and images make for a perfect intake of the city’s atmosphere. The Perfume of Ostend