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Belgium’s first abstract art museum opens in Jette

21:39 08/11/2019

If still alive today, famous Belgian Surrealist René Magritte would have lived next door to Belgium's first museum dedicated to abstract art - and only the fourth of its kind in the world.

From 1930-1954, Magritte lived and worked in a modest terraced house at Rue Esseghem 135 in Jette. Thanks to the efforts and passion of art collector André Garitte, it became a museum in 1999. Now, some 20 years later, Magritte’s former home has been connected to the house next door (number 137) which, after four years of renovations, now showcases nearly 250 masterpieces of abstract art – around a third of Garitte’s collection of primarily Belgian works.

For Garitte, who curates the two museums, this is the realisation of a dream dating back to 1983 when, at just 29, he started his collection. “I have been collecting art for 37 years and I hope the whole world, Belgian and international, will come to see it,” he tells The Bulletin.

He says it is quality, not quantity, that counts. This applies not only to his abstract art collection, but also to the public he expects will visit the museum. He hopes it will attract between 7,000 and 10,000 people per year - and appeal to creative people who really appreciate art.

The museum’s entrance hall features a quote of Victor Servranckx, one of 180 abstract masters on show, 18 of whom are still alive today: “Abstract art, from the point of view of form and colour, is probably the biggest revolution humanity has ever seen up until now.”

But Garitte stresses that the movement “does not require study”. “Everyone can appreciate this art,” he says.

According to the museum's communications manager, Chloé Thibault, abstract art is a bit like Thai food. “Sometimes you need time to appreciate it,” she says, pointing to the almost vulgar but arresting green and yellow plastic artwork of Bram Bogart: “I didn’t like it at all at first.”

Brussels’ newest museum is the fourth abstract art museum in the world (after those in Saint-Paul-de Vence in France, Lodz in Poland and Cuenca, Spain). Peggy Guggenheim’s art foundation in Venice is not strictly abstract art, Garitte explains.

The museum showcases every aspect of the movement – from Cobra to kinetic; or, ‘spatial’ to Surrealist art. It also contains several female artists – notably Mig Quinet and British sculptor Antonia Angele.

The second floor features avant-gardists from the 1920s – including Servranckx, Jozef Peeters and Pierre-Louis Flouquet. Magritte, who was friends of these artists, once painted in this style. The back room, as well as art, displays a delightful set of Modernist furniture in an arresting yellow colour.

The ground and third levels highlight the second generation of abstract artists, from the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond. You can enjoy lyrical and colourfully geometric-patterned Jo Delahauts, a space-age Jean Rets work, an almost graffiti-like ‘scratch painting’ of René Guiette or monochrome Pierre Alechinskys or Christian Dotremonts from the Cobra movement. Be sure to check out Pol Bury’s almost creepy wooden and motorised ‘24 [ever so slowly moving…] circles around a square on a rectangle’.

The museum also boasts beautiful sculptures like Hilde van Sumere’s Cristal I, ceramics including a gorgeous Jan Cockx vase, and even a delightful mechanical-looking robot (Paul van Hoeydonck). It will further organise children’s activities, particularly in the museum’s temporary exhibition space. This room now features a gorgeous collection of Francine Holley’s almost musical paintings (one is called ‘Jazz’). The Liège-born artist, who celebrates her 100th birthday this month, is still painting.

While the Magritte house has kept its Surrealist feel, the Abstract Art museum’s renovation has allowed modern additions, Garitte explains. Most notable are the geometric block-coloured tiled floors and the stunning multi-coloured Georges Vantongerloo stairwell.

The museum’s crowning glory is a top-floor ladder leading to a little window that gives a bird’s eye view of the Atomium. This gleaming stainless steel icon, created for Belgium’s Expo 58, is itself firmly in keeping with the abstract art tradition.

Abstract Art Museum, opens 10 November
Open Wednesday to Sunday 10.00-18.00, Rue Esseghem 137, Jette
Photos: Luc Schrobiltgen, Musée René Magritte - Musée d'Art Abstrait

Written by Liz Newmark