In Brussels, as in many cities, the museums are closed on Monday. All of them. So on Sunday, we were making a point to see museums. It was raining pretty hard when we woke up, so we decided to take the metro. I gave the boys a quick tutorial on metro map reading that should serve them well in any number of major cities if they heard a word I said. Our destination was the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, particularly renowned for its Bruegels; at breakfast I got the Auden poem out.
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
My sons were, let’s say, not really excited about another morning spent with the Flemish primitives. We saw a lot of great paintings, including another gory justice diptych, this one by Dirck Bouts. Not all of them were primitive – there were beautiful works by 17th century artists like Rubens (studies of the head of a moor, several enormous altarpieces), van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders. Oh, and the Bruegels, of course . And not all were Flemish: Rembrandt’s portrait of Agatha Bas’s husband was there (I never remember the poor man’s name), and so was the Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, probably the most significant painting in the museum.
When we were sated with art, we went to MIM, the musical instrument museum in a fantastic old Art Nouveau department store, and took the elevator to the top floor to enjoy their magnificent brunch buffet. We had heard that the food was much better than in the Musee des Beaux Arts, and, well, this was the view:
Since the boys were not all that jazzed to see the comic strip museum, which Rick Steves said might be boring for kids, we decided instead to go to BelVue to learn about the history of Belgium, which would undoubtedly be boring for kids. Having read King Leopold’s Ghost, about the brutal exploitation of the Congo, I knew more than the average American’s zero about Belgian history, but it was still nearly all new. We learned that Belgium was formed in 1830 out of the same unrest that toppled King Charles X of France. We learned that the Belgians had to recruit a king, not having one of their own handy, and ended up with Queen Victoria’s uncle, and her husband’s uncle. Yes, the same person, Leopold I. We learned some of the crimes of Leopold II, but you’d have to read the Ghost book for a fuller account. And we learned about the glorious heyday of Belgian Socialism at the end of the 19th century.
Having finally tortured my children enough, we went back to the hotel, had a cold drink at the bar next door, and went for a light dinner at a local Belgian restaurant, where we had to try the Grimberger Abbey Phoenix beer, both light and dark (and their definition of a small beer is huge!) and drink lots of wine as well. The fries here were the best yet in Belgium, and that’s saying something.