Contemporary art in Flanders
Flanders has more than just a rich pictorial tradition. Its contemporary art scene is also alive and kicking. It’s surprising that so many artists from Flanders refer to that tradition and bend it to their own will. Flanders has always produced artists that portray the absurd and the surrealistic side of reality.
Panamarenko (pseudonym of Henri Van Herreweghe, born in 1940) is fascinated by science and the impossible. He makes objects that stimulate fantasy. Famous works include aeroplanes that cannot fly, mechanical chickens and sketches of his objects that are strewn with scientific formulas. Wim Delvoye (born in 1965) is also part of this tradition. He is a happily provoking free spirit that loves confronting his audience with art’s borders. For example, he tattoos living pigs and he created ‘Cloaca’, an installation that produces excrement.
Contemporary painters from Flanders mainly contemplate life’s and society's problems. At first sight, the paintings by Luc Tuymans (born in 1958) are rather banal objects, such as a lampshade. It turns out that the lampshade is from the Buchenwald concentration camp. His paintings become a symbol for undigested problems like the war years and colonialism. Jan De Cock (born in 1976) also prefers reflective art. He makes houses in chipboard that he later destroys. Photos of the destruction phase hang in museums. De Cock has stolen the hearts of curators across the world with that conceptual art. He is the first Flemish artist with a solo exhibition in the MoMA (New York).
Comics are a distinct and very typical art form in Flanders. The classics have held global audiences spellbound for generations. Some ‘Suske en Wiske’ (Spike and Suzy) albums were even translated into 27 languages. Newcomers arrive on the scene regularly and remain popular. They include Cowboy Henk and Cordelia, two of the most unique creatures that were created in the last 25 years: straightforward, with a very distinct and recognisable style.
Fashion puts Flanders on the world map
The Antwerp Six is a group of designers that made furore in the 1980s on the catwalks in Milan and Paris. They placed Antwerp on the fashion map. New, young stylists and brands have also seen the light in Brussels since the 1980s. They are now established names in international fashion design: Annemie Verbeke, Gérald Watelet, etc. Most have settled in and around the hip Flemish Dansaert district. They also attract new talent, such as Valerie Berckmans. Modo Bruxellae promotes Brussel designers.
Those who are interested in the history and evolution of fashion since the 18th century will enjoy a visit to the Fashion Museum in Hasselt. One highlight of the collection is the clothing from the private collection of a noble Flemish family from the 18th and 19th century. The museum focuses on the pre-war and post-war period of the 20th century.
Theatre - all conventions thrown overboard
There was a big change in the performing arts world in the mid 1980s. Slow-witted and dull theatre for the bourgeoisie was blown away by young talents that threw every theatre convention overboard. Since then, four big city troupes have modernised.
Guy Cassiers runs Het Toneelhuis in Antwerpen. He loves using technological means to make theatre. At the same time, he has great respect for literary texts, which leads to monumental performances.
NTGent is a cast of Flemish and Dutch top-class actors. In the complex public debate about societal and world view, they place the voice of art next to science, politics and ethics. The company brings to life metaphorical texts by classical writers such as Calderon de la Barca, or contemporary authors like Arnon Grunberg. The Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS) in Brussels is located in the north of the city. The social commitment is still tangible in the works that you can see in the KVS. HETPALEIS in Antwerp is a theatre that aims at children and young people. Playwrights and artists make inventive performances with a limited repertoire. The many small theatre troupes hold their own. They perform in theatres around the world in Dutch, French, German and English.
Dancing around the world
The Ballet of Flanders is a first-rate, international ballet troupe. The Ballet of Flanders is able to draw up a well-balanced programme that is a combination of contemporary work and celebrated classics, for which it knows how to attract famous choreographers and dancers. That is why the troupe receives requests to perform all over the world. Luke Jennings, one of the world’s most respected ballet critics, placed the Ballet of Flanders in his top-10 list after their performance of Impressing the Czar.
A few Flemish contemporary dance troupes also deserve the designation ‘do not miss’.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her troupe Rosas gained international attention in 1982 with Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich. Since then Reich has formed the leitmotiv in her oeuvre. The tense system of Reichs’ work and De Keersmaeker’s equally pure movements connect together wonderfully, translated into minimalist tautness or complex group choreographies.
Graphic artist Jan Fabre attracted the public’s attention in the 1970s with performances in which he used blood or burnt money. Since the beginning of the 1980s, his troupe Troubleyn has given controversial performances that combine dance and speech.
With his troupe Ultima Vez, Wim Vandekeybus creates poetic performances in which he tries to intoxicate his audience with emotion. In “Puur” he was inspired by mythological stories of people that kill because of a fear of losing their position of power.
Alain Platel is one of the figureheads of Les Ballets C. de la B., a rather provocative dance troupe based in Gent. A performance on the roof of the Queen Elisabeth Hall in London, only Les Ballets C. de la B. could pull that off.
In recent years the number of bands and singers from Flanders headlining and appearing on stages abroad has continued to increase, with stars such as dEUS, Ozark Henry, Admiral Freebee, Soulwax, Vive la Fête and Axelle Red to name but a few.
In the light classical genre, Helmut Lotti continues to outsell everyone worldwide. Classical music is popular in Flanders. Klara, one of the VRT’s (Flemish public broadcasting company) radio stations, is almost totally devoted to classical music. It’s no surprise that Flanders can count on some big guns where classical music is concerned: Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale, Jos Van Immerseel (Anima Eterna), Sigiswald Kuijken’s La Petite Bande, Huelgas Ensemble (Paul Van Nevel), the Brussels Philharmonic Flemish Radio Orchestra & Choir, Paul Dombrecht and the Il Fondamento baroque orchestra, opera conductor and counter-tenor René Jacobs, composers Dirk Brossé and Luc Brewaeys,… Under the umbrella of the ‘Festival of Flanders’, hundreds of classical concerts are organised every year throughout Flanders.
And let’s not forget the contribution made by numerous Flemish top-class musicians on the jazz scene. ‘Brusseleir’ Toots Thielemans’ virtuoso harmonica style has long made him a household name and a star in his own throughout the international concert scene. Neither can we forget the new generation of jazz musicians like Bert Joris, Jef Neve and Frank Vaganée. Flanders actually boasts one of the best big bands at a European level: the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.