Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

An Ephemeral Open-Air Sculpture Museum: Ten Temporary Monuments for the Festive Return of the Belgian Royal Family to Brussels, November 1918

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

An Ephemeral Open-Air Sculpture Museum: Ten Temporary Monuments for the Festive Return of the Belgian Royal Family to Brussels, November 1918

Article excerpt

Immediately after the First World War and continuing well into the 1920s and 1930s, monuments commemorating the war were erected all over Europe. Although the concept of commemorating war through monuments long predates the First World War, no other war gave rise to such a large number of memorials.1 In formerly occupied territories such as Belgium and northern France, the need to express grief as well as gratitude, which had been suppressed by the occupying regime for over four years, appeared as soon as the Armistice was signed.2 Ideas for monuments surfaced instantaneously and enthusiastically on the national and municipal level. Plans were proposed by formal and informal local associations, such as parishes, labour unions and sports clubs, but not all of these intentions materialized. Many did so only after a long time.3

This article takes as its subject a phenomenon slightly predating the large-scale post-war statuomanie. It presents a case study of an exceptional series of ten4 temporary monuments commissioned by the city of Brussels on the occasion of the festive return of the royal family to the Belgian capital on 22 November 1918.5 These very first structures of First World War commemoration were placed in the city centre as part of the festive decorations and were made in stucco. They were thus fragile and only stayed in Brussels's public space for a short while. Nevertheless, the plaster monuments left a paper trail: the research presented here is based on newspaper articles, picture postcards, snapshots, newsreels and archival sources. The latter are scarce, because decisions were made hastily, and improvised procedures were used to speed up the process. Conceived as they were in the short transitional period between the war and its aftermath, one can ask whether these chaotic conditions and the preconceived temporality of the monuments prompted experimentation and innovation and heralded an altogether new artistic élan.

This article presents, for the first time, a full account of the monuments and their authors, and considers the genesis, reception and afterlife of the sculpture series. We then consider two contextual factors: the concept of the city as a democratic open-air sculpture museum, already much in vogue in Brussels in the Belle Époque, and the existing tradition of temporary sculpture within the cityscape, notably in the context of nineteenth-century patriotic festivities. We believe both aspects - along with sculptors' feelings of patriotism, generosity and possible opportunism - contributed to the unique and speedy initiative taken in Brussels in 1918 to realize a parcours of ephemeral statues. Both angles will be framed by the specificity of the immediate post-war era.

The series of temporary monuments was part of the decorative arrangements ordered by the city council to commemorate the return of King Albert and the royal family to the Belgian capital after four years of exile. Throughout the war, the king had stayed as close as possible to his troops at the front. He resided in La Panne, a small coastal town in the last corner of free Belgium near the French border. Queen Elisabeth stayed with him for most of the time while committing herself to the Red Cross hospital L'Océan. Their return to the capital took place eleven days after the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, and it was this day, 22 November, that was considered the real end of the occupation and marked the beginning of the post-war era in Belgium.6 The royal family and some 6,000 Belgian and Allied troops were welcomed by a huge crowd. The manifold contemporary sources documenting the day show that the atmosphere was festive. There was marching music, and dense throngs of people cheered. People climbed on to lamp posts and hung out of windows; there were garlands everywhere and 'thousands and thousands of flags'.7 The press was very enthusiastic about the city's appearance - one reporter even called it 'the most beautiful city in the world'. …

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