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Debate over artist's death date laid to rest

The 'Promenade' fresco at Clemenceau metro station in Brussels (© Wikipedia Creative Commons / All Rights Reserved)
06:12 20/04/2021

Two commemorative plaques installed beside the 38-panel fresco that adorns the walls of the Clemenceau metro station in Brussels have been causing confusion and derision for some time. The plaques honour the artist of the monumental artwork, entitled ‘Promenade’, and state his birth and death: “Promenade - Joseph Willaert, Flemish painter, 1936-2025."

So, is the artist yet to die and has had a premonition or is the recording of his death in the year 2025 an embarrassing gaffe? Well, Willaert actually shook off this mortal coil back in 2014 so there had been no future-gazing on his part.

As for being a mistake, some believe it to be so and have even used it as an excuse to bash the policy of the regional government and the Brussels mobility minister Elke Van de Brandt on the change of names in the public space and to decry the incompetence of public services. One person on social media even wrote this week: "To kill people in the future is an achievement even for your management.”

The accusation of incompetence, however, at least in this instance, appears to be unfounded. According to a spokesperson for the Stib transport operator, the inclusion of the artist’s wrongful year of death was a joke instigated by Willaert himself.

"This is part of the work,” the spokesperson confirmed. “It's a little joke from the artist himself." The plaque dates from 1993, when the fresco was created in the station. Simple and brightly coloured, the work symbolises, according to the artist, the urbanised consumer society, "in which two generations no longer share the same values."

"His paintings give the metro user the impression that he or she is not under the ground, but in a pristine Arcadian landscape," the Stib notes in the presentation page of the Clemenceau station on its website. Joseph Willaert was a pop-art painter who handled not only surrealism but hyperrealism. "Poetry and humour form the nucleus of Willaert's work,” the spokesperson continued. "This explains the inclusion of the dates 1936-2025."

The plaque has been the subject of some debate since it was first installed, and its infamy has spread since the advent of social media. It first became a topic of debate on Twitter back in 2015 and as recently as only a month ago, an argument surfaced on Facebook about the reasons for the odd expiry date.

The debate should now be over: In 1993, Joseph Willaert set out to challenge the citizens of Brussels. And it's worked pretty well so far. Whether metro users will continue to scratch their heads or engage in heated discussions about the plaques after 2025, one will have to see.

Written by Nick Amies