Stuart Forster goes to Flanders to see the commemorative events taking place to mark the 450th anniversary of artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death
Gaasbeek Castle stands a few kilometres southwest of Brussels, in countryside that Pieter Bruegel the Elder visited and worked in frequently. To commemorate the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death, the castle is hosting the exhibition Feast of Fools. Bruegel Rediscovered until 28 July 2019.
The exhibition at the castle features works by modern and contemporary artists whose works parallel the themes depicted by Bruegel. The 16th century Flemish master is celebrated for paintings such as The Wedding Dance and The Peasant Wedding — works showing everyday folk people enjoying themselves. Jean Brusselman’s Carnival, Frits Van den Berghe’s The Carrousel and Constant Permeke’s Village Fair are among the 20th century paintings depicting people having fun.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder lived during harsh times. A so-called ‘mini ice age’ brought uncommonly cold weather to northwest Europe during his lifetime and resulted in Bruegel featuring snowy scenes in several of his paintings. These include Census at Bethlehem, which is exhibited at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. He is credited by art scholars as being the first artist to depict true winter landscapes. Winter scenes by Valerius de Saedeleer, James Ensor and Otto Dix are shown in Gaasbeek Castle as part of Feast of Fools. Bruegel Rediscovered.
The exhibition is not confined to paintings. It’s possible to pull on a Virtual Reality headset to experience thought-provoking immersive videos, created by Rimii Protokoll, on the subject of contemporary food production and preparation. Leo Copers’ installation Treasure raises questions about the allure of gold.
Viewing Feast of Fools. Bruegel Rediscovered means walking room to room through Gaasbeek Castle. It brings opportunities to see wooden sculptures and original artworks that form part of the castle’s ornate interior decor. The property was renovated during the late 19th century on the orders of its then owner, the Marchioness Arconati Visconti, and converted to hold her art collection in the process. The castle and gardens have been accessible to the public since 1924.
It’s a historic site. The origins of the castle can be traced to the 13th century, when the fortress was part of a network of fortifications designed to protect Brussels. In 1565 it became the property of Lamoraal, the Count of Egmont, a man whose statue can be seen in the Petit Sablon Square in Brussels. He stands next to the Count of Horne looking out over a fountain. The pair were accused and convicted of high treason and beheaded in Brussels in 1568. Outrage at their treatment helped spark the rebellion against Habsburg rule that, after an 80-year struggle, led to the independence of the Netherlands.
The Pajottenland region, of which the castle is part, is famed among beer aficionados for producing spontaneously fermented lambic beers. As you wander through the expansive gardens that surround Gaasbeek Castle you may well inhale wild yeast particles and other elements of the microflora that impart character to Belgium’s lambic and geuze beers. Perhaps the prospect of tasting a beer or two is a reason to linger in Gaasbeek after visiting the castle?
Feast of Fools. Bruegel Rediscovered continues until 28 July. Adult entry to Gaasbeek Castle and its gardens costs €15 during the exhibition. From 29 July adult entry will be priced at €10 for adults.
Getting to Brussels
Eurostar operates a direct rail service between the London St Pancras and Brussels Midi stations.
Travelling to Gaasbeek Castle
Gaasbeek Castle is approximately 14 kilometres southwest of central Brussels. Driving to the castle from the centre of the Belgian capital takes around 40 minutes.
If you’re using public transport, bus line 142 connects Brussels Midi station and Gaasbeek.
Other Bruegel exhibitions in and around Brussels in 2019
Bruegel’s Eye at Dilbeek
Two landmarks in the village of Dilbeek, also in the Pajottenland, feature in paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Church of St Anna appears in the top right of The Blind Leading the Blind. The village watermill can be seen on the bottom right of The Magpie on the Gallows. Until 31 October the Bruegel’s Eye exhibition will feature 15 artworks and installations on a seven-kilometre trail between the two landmarks.
Beyond Bruegel at Plein Publiek
Beyond Bruegel is an immersive experience that makes use of technology to animate Bruegel’s paintings. Normally static peasants in colourful costumes dance and glance about. Birds soar above the coastal plain by the tower of Babylon. The projection makes it possible to see details that are tricky to spot when stood in front of the original artworks in galleries.
The World of Bruegel in Black and White
Pieter Bruegel the Elder made his reputation creating detailed prints. His contemporaries knew him primarily for that work. The World of Bruegel in Black and White will be held in the Palace of Charles of Lorraine, which is undergoing renovation ahead of hosting the exhibition. Running from 15 October until 16 February 2020, the palace houses the Royal Library of Belgium’s reading rooms. That institution has now rebranded as the KBR.
Back to Bruegel
The Halle Gate was formerly a part of Brussels’ city walls. Dating from the 14th century and restored to look ‘more Gothic’ in the late-19th century, the fortification now resembles a castle keep. From 18 October the Halle Gate will host the year-long Back to Bruegel exhibition. Artefacts such as musical instruments and weaponry from Bruegel’s lifetime will be displayed while Virtual Reality (VR) will help give an unusual insight into the artist’s works. Additionally, you can use VR binoculars to look down and see how the city might have looked when Bruegel lived in Brussels.
Original works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Old Masters Museum of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium hosts the world’s second largest collection of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. You can see Adoration of the Kings, Census at Bethlehem, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap and Skaters and The Fall of the Rebel Angels along with a Tuchlein painting.
The Bruegel Box, a room showing detailed video projections of three of Bruegel’s paintings, opened in the spring of 2019 and is a way of gaining an understanding of the artist’s techniques and methods.
Find out more about attractions and exhibitions in and around Brussels on the Visit Flanders website. https://www.visitflanders.com/en/?country=en_GB
View more of Stuart Forster’s work on his blog, Go Eat Do