- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

BRUSSELS — It’s a huge exhibition of art celebrating Belgian verve, vision and surrealist imagination through 175 years of independence.

Some of the main works on display?

A gravestone to the nation. A slab of Belgian chocolate with the header “Don’t eat Belgian chocolate.” A lovingly crafted replica of an Art Nouveau masterpiece that was destroyed to make way for one of the ugliest buildings in the country.

The show, “Visionary Belgium,” is one of many that points to all the contradictions inherent in this land shoehorned between Europe’s great powers.

It’s a patch of Europe that gave birth to such artistic greats as Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Brueghel, Jan van Eyck and surrealist Rene Magritte. From world-renowned chocolates to mussels steamed in wine to the rarefied circles of haute cuisine, Belgium is a paradise for the bon vivant.

And since independence from the Netherlands in 1830, Belgium has become one of the wealthiest nations in the world, a quintessential European welfare state with cradle-to-grave social protection.

Yes, life is good here — but national pride is hard to find.

Few know the national anthem beyond the opening sentence. Support for the royal house is tepid. And the country of 10 million people appears constantly on the verge of being ripped apart by endless quarrels between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons.

The national flag at the exhibition in the Center for Fine Arts here has been turned from the red-yellow-black tricolor into a mix of drab gray. The title of Cedric Noel’s work is “Unity.”

Author Leen Huet reflected on Belgian feelings about their country in the show’s catalog.

“‘Are you patriotic,’ a Japanese friend asked innocently, as if it were the most self-evident question in the world,” Mr. Huet wrote. “Just as innocently I answered ‘no’ — any other answer would have been unthinkable.”

With all Belgium’s contradictions, perhaps it’s not a surprise that surrealism thrived here. The show is in the fine Belgian tradition of Magritte, best known for his painting of a pipe with the caption “This is not a pipe.”

Luc Deleu’s gray funeral slab called “The Last Stone of Belgium” stands at the entry of the exhibition. The artist meant it to mark the end of Belgium’s postwar construction craze that ruined some of its finest countryside and old city centers.

Belgium long has produced great artists but it has rarely taken care of them.

It let the finest piece of Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau architecture be destroyed during the postwar building surge. Where his whimsical, serpentine Maison du Peuple once stood is now a horrid 1960s office block. A model of the Horta architectural gem is on display in the exhibit.

There are less self-critical celebrations of Belgian culture in this anniversary year.

King Albert II inaugurated another blockbuster show — “Made in Belgium” — that showcases Belgian achievements in a more traditional way.

The exhibition has 4,000 Belgian objects on display, from paintings by Rubens and Brueghel to a statue and sketches of comic-book character Tintin and memorabilia of the legendary Eddy Merckx, a five-time Tour de France winner widely considered the greatest bicyclist of the 20th century.

The sword of Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the first crusade to Jerusalem, has a room to itself, with nary a word about the brutality or profit motives that accompanied the campaign.

Newspapers also have done their bit to make Belgians start feeling good about themselves.

Le Soir, for example, listed 175 gastronomic delights the country can be proud of, from “filet americain” (raw beef) to “anguille au vert” (eel stewed in herbs) to “Waterzooi,” a creamy vegetable and chicken stew.

The natural science museum has an exhibit devoted to the mighty mussel — perhaps Belgium’s best-known delicacy.

Festivities will reach their peak on independence day, July 21, with a “national ball” in the capital and celebrations on village squares across the country.

And yet in a year celebrating the national motto “unity gives us strength,” Fleming and Walloon political parties are embroiled in their biggest fight in years — one that might well leave the nation without a government on independence day.

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