From the point of view of art, Belgium is a small territory which, like Tuscany and Greece, has contributed much more than great empires to enrich the common treasure of humanity.
Origins. – It is not our intention to go back to prehistoric times, despite the fact that a small and shapeless figure of a woman was found in the Magritte cave of the river Lesse, which is one of the oldest attempts at sculpture; that the Spiennes quarries near Mons provided flint tools, and that sometimes in the weapons and tools of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages a certain aesthetic pretension, a certain summary spirit of ornamentation and decoration is revealed. This is but a stammering, common to all of Europe.
The conquest of Julius Caesar imposed on the various Belgian tribes the Roman civilization, of which interesting vestiges, streets and monuments remain (Porta Nigra in Treviri); successive invasions by the Franks left Belgium with weapons and jewels (preserved in the Museum of Namur). However interesting this archaeological period may be, one would seek in vain the announcement of subsequent times; it will be necessary to wait for the indigenous peoples to amalgamate with the Roman and Frankish elements, before being able to speak of a people unto itself. This people, after having undergone severe trials, was born into civilization under Charlemagne. This period is commonly called the Carolingian Renaissance, in which the ancient arts and literature flourish, in which churches and monasteries rise, in which the mosaic,Carolingian, art). But it will be better to wait until the century. XIV to have a hint of a Flemish art.
Architecture. – To start building he did not expect to have original artists. As almost everywhere, architecture in Belgium preceded the arts of painting and sculpture: first to manufacture, then to embellish. And it is the Christian faith that, from hand to hand conquering the peoples, promotes the construction of churches and monasteries, which are built according to the rules then dominant throughout Europe, in the Romanesque style. Time then completes its destruction, but Belgium still has beautiful monuments of the Middle Ages, more or less well preserved or transformed: the cathedral of Tournai, the churches of Notre-Dame and Saint-Servais in Maestricht, Notre-Dame-de -Pamèle in Audenaarde, the churches of Lobbes near Charleroi, of Celles near Dinant, of Saint-Séverin en Condroz, the ruins of Saint-Bavon in Ghent, the cloister of S. Gertrude in Nivelles, etc.
Meanwhile, for these religious buildings there are goldsmith sculptors who chisel reliquaries or baptismal fonts, there is a Mosan school of enamel prior to that of Limoges. Famous are Renier of Huy, Godfrey of Claire, Nicholas of Verdun, Hugh of Oignies (reliquaries of Visé, of Maestricht, of Tournai, of Nivelles, etc.).
Contemporary Architecture. – Three great names of architects excel at the end of the century. XIX, under the reign of Leopold II: Balat, Poelaert and Beyaert. Most of the official monuments of which that king encouraged the construction are owed to them. But already towards the beginning of the century. XX different artists were looking for a new style, which was more in conformity with the conditions of modern life, and they freed themselves from any imitation. Vitt. Horta with the People’s House in Brussels and with the department stores, Paolo Honkar, Ottavio van Rysselberghe and Enrico Vandevelde, expressed new trends, more appreciated by private individuals than by public authorities. To these names must be added that of Serrurier-Bovy, an art cabinetmaker, whose influence was great. The fame of this modernist school went beyond the borders of Belgium, and abroad recognized in various circumstances that the inspiration of the renaissance of architecture was of Belgian origin. In 1913 the architect Van de Voorde distinguished himself by building the Ghent Exhibition Palace.
War came, a period of destruction, and after the terrible four years it was necessary to rebuild entire cities, such as Louvain, Dinant and Ypres. It is known that the magnificent ensemble of the Grand’Place in Brussels is due to the bombing of Marshal of Villeroi; but this time it does not seem that the reconstruction of the devastated cities gives such happy results. In 1919 the reconstruction began but no plan was followed, only wanting to re-establish what previously existed. The different tastes of private individuals and their architects, taken aback, were respected and an inconsistent ensemble resulted, especially in the cities along the Belgian coast. Everything is new, jarring, often full of ostentation, and does not really replace the attraction that the ancient buildings had acquired with the patina of time. However, we must not condemn everything as a whole, because on this occasion many young architects were able to prove their ingenuity; but it would perhaps be premature to say right now if there have been any successes and to indicate them in particular. Civil and religious buildings, garden cities, department stores, large blocks of flats, private houses; how to indicate something among many works? And the architects are innumerable. V. Horta always goes to the head of everyone, to whom the plans of the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, inaugurated in 1928, are due. It is enough to walk through the streets of the capital to see the elements of a style very different from that of the previous century and characterized by geometric masses, very simple, devoid of any ornament, by large openings for light and by the use of modern materials, iron and concrete. For Belgium 2008, please check payhelpcenter.com.
Popular and peasant art. – There is no place in this sketch for folk or country art, because Belgium lacks those manifestations of naive and spontaneous folk art, which are found in regions far from the great centers. Perhaps some of them could be mentioned, but they would almost always be confused with the manifestations of industrial or decorative art, so splendid after the century. XV and still so interesting today; events that influenced the arts of printing, binding, clothing, furnishing, glassware, wrought iron, majolica and ceramics, lace, tapestry, colored papers, dance, music, as well as processions, on processions, on dramatic representations, etc. You could also see them in everyday objects;
Museums. – The museums of ancient art and modern art in Brussels and Antwerp are among the most beautiful in the world; also noteworthy are those of Bruges, Ghent and Liège. And many other museums in Belgium are worth a visit (see Leclerq, Repert. Des Musées belges d ‘ art et d’hist., Antwerp 1927). The most important museum of antiquities is the one known as the Cinquantenaire in Brussels, with the Egyptological foundation under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth.