You might have seen the neoclassical pavilion by Horta in Brussels’ Cinquantenaire Park by the central mosque. Few people have stepped in because it has been closed for over a century. It houses Jef Lambeaux’s huge relief “Human Passions”. Its story, the subject of a recent theatre play, “Passions humaines”, still on stage at the Théâtre National in Brussels, is most intriguing and revealing of the complex Belgian character or—perhaps you would prefer to put it that way— the Belgian character complex.
The theatre play is, without doubt, very ambitious. Its characters are all key personalities of the end of the nineteenth century in Belgium: the king of the Belgians Leopold II, the architect Victor Horta and several journalists, politicians and art critics of the time. Jef Lambeaux, the author of the work of art around which the action develops, only appears at the end, in an epilogue. The play is bilingual (with titles in FR or NL accordingly), quite long, with very little movement and, all in all, very deep and moving.
There are long dialogues, both literary and down-to-earth, about what exactly being Belgian is (cooking French fries twice or the perfect combination of the Latin and Germanic spirits, to sum up) but the centre of the play revolves around the human passions of the specific characters: the love affair of the king, the homosexual life in the literary circles, the quest for a family life,… From the outsider’s perspective, although it is not easy to follow the historic details, you realise that this country has been looking for its self for the last century with passion and savoir vivre. The final point of the play is more a question mark than an exclamation mark—or as they say in the play, a question mark with an erection.
How was it possible to criticize so overtly the king’s decision to purchase the huge mural sculpture? What was the intention of the king in exposing it to everyone in a public park? (Initially the pavilion was open so everyone could see the sculpture from outside). Was it an attack to traditional moral values or to the establishment? Is criticism to traditional values more possible or impossible today?
The fact that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia bought the pavilion and the mosque in the 70s and tried to destroy the sculpture might seem less surprising then than the fact that today, behind closed doors, the sculpture on human passions is open to the public for a few hours three days a week from March to October only few steps away from Brussels’ Great Mosque.
Image credits © Ruskin in Brussels