With the addition of the Magritte Museum in 2009, Brussels has cemented its reputation as the Surrealist city. Even today, the spirit of the influential band of Belgian artists that created revolutionary art from the 1920s onwards still pervades the capital. We take you to some of Brussels’ prime Surrealist spots, where reality and dreams continue to collide.
One of the most talented – and undoubtedly the most famous – artists to come out of the Belgian Surrealist movement, painter René Magritte long ago made his way into art history books and popular cultural conscience. Now his trademark umbrellas, pipes, bowler hats and other ordinary objects in extraordinary settings can be admired in the neoclassical Altenloh Hotel at Brussels’ Place Royal. More than 200 original works, including Empire of Light and The Man from the Sea, make up the world’s largest Magritte collection.
The Magritte Museum, Rue de la Régence 3, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 508 32 11
A marvelous follow-up to the grand Magritte Museum in the center of town would be the slightly more humble – yet that much more autobiographical – Magritte House-Museum. It is often forgotten that the artist of international allure spent over two decades dreaming up his thought-provoking images in the quiet commune of Jette. The red brick house has been entirely redecorated to look exactly the way it did when René and his wife Georgette lived there in the 1930s and 1940s, down to a board of checkers on the table.
The René Magritte House-Museum, Rue Esseghem 135, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 428 26 26
Brussels’ own Père Lachaise counts multiple notables among its residents. While René and Georgette draw more of a crowd upon first sight, their communal tombstone is hardly the most intriguing around. That honor got stolen by surrealist poet Marcel Mariën, a former friend of Magritte’s who severed ties between them when René started on a path to international fame (something many in the Belgian Surrealist movement denounced). Mariën chose the mysterious words: “There’s no merit in being anything,” to grace his final resting place.
This cozy but seemingly ordinary square only reveals its surrealist secrets to those who know where to look. In order to discover messages such as “The sky in the sky and the earth on the earth” and “Being alive is an excellent reason to live,” you need to look underneath your feet. They were carved into the paving stones by Geert van Bruaene, companion of the Surrealists and founder of their favorite local hangout, La Fleur en Papier Doré.
Still a favorite among authors and other artists, the little café that anarchist Geert van Bruaene bought in the mid-’40s soon turned into the preferred drinking den of figurehead surrealists like the previously mentioned Marcel Mariën, poet Camille Goemans, author E.L.T. Mesens and the writer couple Louis Scutenaire and his wife, Irène Hamoir. Today the place is a treasure trove of surrealist artifacts that adorn the walls. Have a comforting warm Brussels meal such as stoemp while the Surrealist troupe looks down upon you from their giant portrait in the middle of the tiny tavern.
La Fleur en Papier Doré, Rue des Alexiens 55-57, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 511 16 59
A Brussels institution, this former chess bar was where a young René Magritte tried to sell his first works. The painter and his surrealist friends would frequent the place once a week, exchanging thoughts and theories over a friendly game. Though the chess has gone, the Art Nouveau décor makes for a great place to sample typical Belgian brasserie food.
Greenwich, Rue des Chartreux 7, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 540 88 78
Luca Maria Patella’s fountain in the middle of Place de Ninove might strike you as somewhat odd at first sight. When you take a step back, however, you’ll be able to distinguish the profile of the Belgian father of Surrealism in its stem.
Smack dab in the center of town are a trio of frescoes that’s somewhat harder to sneak a peek at, but all the more impressive. In the SQUARE, a conference center for professionals, a grand mural by Magritte is displayed side by side that of the other surreal master painter, Paul Delvaux. Worth the extra effort of putting in that special request to enter the marvelous glass cube.
A hint at the themes of Delvaux who associated with the regular clique but wasn’t a part of it and who loved to use hides in the Bourse underground. A 1987 stretched-out canvas of old tram sets carrying only women passengers reveals his inclination towards painting old modes of transportation and naked ladies, often with a surreal touch. Don’t forget to tilt your head up when taking the first escalator down, as surrealist sculptor Pol Bury has installed a creation out of stainless steel up on the ceiling.