The rise of a small cultural capital? Brussels at the end of the 19th century

Dans le cadre du congrès annuel de l’American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA 2014), plusieurs membres de MICM-arc se sont rendues à New York pour présenter une communication inscrite dans la thématique générale des « Capitales ». S’insérant dans un panel de 12 communications regroupées autour du thème d’ « Other capitals of the 19th century », la présentation a permis d’étendre nos réflexions sur les quartiers culturels aux facteurs qui définissent ce qu’est une capitale culturelle.

Partant d’une citation d’Alphonse Jules Wauters, homme de lettres, critique d’art et géographe défendant la primauté artistique de Bruxelles sur Anvers (1883), dans un premier temps, nous avons interrogé les différentes dimensions à prendre en compte sur le plan artistique, littéraire, symbolique, urbanistique, géographique et économique pour expliquer l’affirmation de la scène culturelle bruxelloise au tournant du 20e siècle (1860-1914). Ensuite, confrontant ces critères aux propositions de définition établies dans la littérature (Casanova, Charle, Grésillon), nous avons proposé une tentative de synthèse regroupant les dimensions abordées. Si elle s’appuie sur le cas bruxellois, exemplifié à travers différents faits historiques et données empiriques, cette proposition de synthèse sur laquelle nous allons continuer à travailler devrait offrir une grille d’analyse commune pour mieux comprendre ce qui fait « capitale culturelle ».

Résumé de la communication :

At the end of the 19th century Brussels became an economically and culturally dynamic capital, with a vivid cultural scene and a burgeoning literary field[1]. In this paper, we will question the conditions that enabled the emergence of Brussels as a small European cultural capital during the second part of the century. In particular, we will focus on three specific dimensions that are crucial in our case study.

First, as a wealthy and liberal capital, Brussels hosted a broad and diverse social scene. These human resources, composed of local and foreign individuals, were an essential element to the emergence, renewal and nurturing of the local scene, which became truly cosmopolitan in the last decades of the 19th century. Emigrants (e.g. the French “Proscrits” of the Second Empire[2] or foreign artistic colonies[3]) and gatherings of numerous artists[4] and communities of authors were part of them. Settled in Brussels, they were seeking asylum or better living conditions (the capital was seen as a “painters’ Paradise”) and were taking part in the artistic events (“salons”, exhibitions), and taking advantage of the local cultural amenities (schools, artistic networks, etc.).

The second dimension is financial. On the one hand, as the dynamic economic capital of an industrial state, the city housed numerous wealthy families, some having become important art patrons who would support the cultural demand. On the other hand, the wealth of this emerging bourgeoisie allowed some of its members to embark on an artistic career (and then, to take part in the growing artistic scene). Finally, financial resources were also provided by the wealth coming from the personal colony of King Leopold II, who dedicated part of his profits to transform and to establish Brussels into a modern city, breaking with traditional cultural politics valuing the past and heritage. The arts, journalism, and literature, have been important echo chambers for the recognition of the city among other capitals.

Thirdly, we also aim to question the symbolic assets of the city, which we classify into two regimes. The first is what we could call a “singularity regime” (régime de singularité), based on peculiar elements of the local art scene in the musical field (Brussels as the home of Wagner’s French-speaking productions),[5] architecture (Art nouveau), theater (consumption place for naturalist plays[6] and publication of symbolist texts), international and interdisciplinary artistic societies (Les XX and La Libre Esthétique). The second regime refers to dimensions that also exist in other cities but that have taken specific forms in Brussels. This “complementary regime” (régime de complémentarité) included in particular an alternative publishing network (Kistemaeckers as a censored French naturalists’ editor), a growing number of literary journals,[7] and initiatives such as the Maison d’Art of the Belgian art patron and critique Edmond Picard, who offered new ways of selling art.[8]

Finally, another asset of the Brussels milieu was certainly its polyglot nature, which enabled numerous exchanges with other cultural metropolises (notably Vienna[9] and London, where Belgians went, before welcoming fellow artists in Brussels).[10] Each of these dimensions will be illustrated by well-known or not so famous examples that confirm the position of Brussels as a small cultural capital. Furthermore, empirical research on specific aspects will be completed in an interdisciplinary approach (literature, history and geography), in an attempt to establish indicators of literary and artistic recognition of Brussels in the European artistic world at the end of the 19th century.


[1] For a general overview, see : Paul Aron, Françoise Dierkens, Michel Draguet, Serge Jaumain, Michel Stockem, préface de Philippe Roberts-Jones, Bruxelles Fin de siècle, Paris, Flammarion, 1994 (English translation : Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1999).

[2] Francis Sartorius, Tirs croisés. La petite presse bruxelloise des années 1860, Tusson, Du Lérot, 2004 ; works of Sylvie Aprile.

[3] For example: Katia Vandenborre, « La Belgique artistique et littéraire, tribune de l’indépendantisme polonais ? », Textyles, n° 45, 2013 (to be published) ; Saskia de Bodt, Bruxelles colonie d’artistes : peintres hollandais. 1850-1890, Bruxelles, Crédit Communal, 1995.

[4] Tatiana Debroux, « Inside and outside the city. An outline of the geography of visual artitsts in Brussels (19th-21st centuries) », Brussels Studies, Number 69, July 8th 2013, www.brusselsstudies.be

[5] Laurence Brogniez, « Germanisme, sceau d’un monde nouveau : Deutschland in der nordischen Mythologie der belgischen Symbolisten französicher Sprache », H. Roland, M. Beyen, G. Draye (éds.), Deutschlandbilder in Belgien 1830-1940, Münster/NY/Munich/Berlin, Waxman, « Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur Nordwesteuropas », 2011, pp. 153-181.

[6] Those of Antoine and Meiningen for example.

[7] Paul Aron, Les écrivains belges et le socialisme (1880 – 1913) L’expérience de l’art social, d’Edmond Picard à Emile Verhaeren, Bruxelles, Labor, 1997 (« Archives du futur »), p. 135-151.

[8] Therefore influencing foreigner art patrons as Meier Grafe and Bing. See : Paul Aron et Cécile Vanderpelen-Diagre, Edmond Picard (1836-1924) Un bourgeois socialiste belge à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle. Essai d’histoire culturelle, Bruxelles, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, collection Thèses et Essais, 2013, p. 186-198.

[9] Bruxelles – Vienne 1890 – 1938, Bruxelles, Promotion des lettres et CFC Editions, 1987

[10] See Laurence Brogniez, Préraphaélisme et symbolisme : peinture poétique et image littéraire, Paris, Champion, 2003 ; « On the art of crossing borders: the double artist in Belgium, between myth and reality », From Art Nouveau to Surrealism: Belgian Modernity in the Making, N. Aubert, P.-P. Fraiture, P. McGuinness (éd.), Oxford, Legenda, 2007, pp. 30-40.

 

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