A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 3 - Winter 2011/12

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ISSN 2045-1024


"Maeterlinck in Ghent: Celebrating the Centenary of the Nobel Prize" by Koenraad Claes

Though often neglected by the less discriminating tourist as a mere stop between Brussels and Bruges, Ghent too is a favourite destination for many lovers of art and architecture. Visitors will instantly recognize that the town has known two cultural peaks in its long history, namely in the Late Middle Ages and at the end of the nineteenth century. Ghent has its age-old marketplaces and several Gothic towers, but its map is also dotted by residential neighbourhoods full of listed Art Nouveau houses. The latter will occasionally bear inscriptions telling you that a famous artist or author of the fin de siècle once lived there.

The most famous of these is, arguably, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). Although he was a member of the French-speaking bourgeoisie, with quite a complex relationship to the language and culture of his native city, the playwright, poet and essayist never disowned his Flemish background, and has continued to be celebrated as Ghent’s most internationally successful author. Furthermore, he is to date the only Flemish and even Belgian author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded in 1911 “in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy”.

One hundred years later, the Ghent city council is organizing an array of cultural events in his honour, under the slightly confusing name “100 Years Maeterlinck”. Their aim is not only to commemorate his gaining the world’s most prestigious literary award, but also to reacquaint the local public with the author. The events will take place from October 2011 to May 2012, and cater to a wide audience. Academic colloquiums will be held, but there are also several “literary walks” around Maeterlinck’s favourite haunts in the city, and children will be introduced to his oeuvre through story telling sessions and creative workshops. A new operatic adaptation of Les Aveugles (1890) will be performed in the spring, as well as a new arrangement of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and a series of compositions based on the Douze Chansons (1896 – enlarged to Quinze Chansons in 1900). I have provided a selection from the programme below, but would also like to give an account of two initiatives that are already happening now, and which should be of interest to Maeterlinck scholars and casual enthusiasts alike.

The festivities officially started with the opening of the exhibition “The World of Maeterlinck and Minne” at the Museum of Fine Arts ( MSK). Maeterlinck was of course not a visual artist himself, but he nonetheless left his mark on fine and applied art at home and abroad. Artists used themes from Maeterlinck’s works and were directly influenced by the stage design and costumes of his highly successful plays, or by the illustrations in his best-selling books, always supervised meticulously by the author. The illustrator and sculptor George Minne, himself originally from Ghent, was greatly admired in Symbolist Paris and among the Vienna Secession. The careers of the two friends are closely connected, if only because Minne’s illustratrations for Serres Chaudes and La Princesse Maleine (both 1889)greatly aided his own breakthrough, and in turn laid the groundwork for the austerely elegant imagery that we have come to associate with Maeterlinck.

“The World of Maeterlinck and Minne” turns out to be a diverse little universe. Due to this diversity in style and period, this exhibition of some hundred pieces manages to deliver a quite comprehensive overview of avant-garde art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in which Maeterlinck and Minnest and out as central figures. The exhibited works can be divided into three categories: acknowledged artistic influences on Maeterlinck and Minne; peers who directly interacted with either of them; and younger artists who refer to them in their work.

In the first group we find among others the grand Le Pauvre Pêcheur (1881) by Puvis de Chavannes, on loan from the Orsay, and minor works by other impressive names as Burne-Jones, Klimt, Redon, and Gauguin. The medieval-inspired scenes of Burne-Jones and the Symbolist style of Redon may have an obvious connection to Maeterlinck’s vision, but it is surprising to see how an artist like Gauguin occasionally came close to the aesthetics of Minne, though they appear so radically different.

Among the peers we find artists working with Maeterlinck, such as illustrator Charles Doudelet and poster artist Nabis, as well as illustrations by Minne for other authors. There are also contemporary artists depicting scenes from Maeterlinck’s plays, such as Spilliaert and C.R. Mackintosh, demonstrating just how widespread the influence was. A few thematically unrelated works by renowned artists such as Khnopff, Xavier Mellery and Jean Denis serve primarily to provide examples of what critics then called “the Maeterlinckian mood” in visual art. Even if the link to the overarching topic is not always clear, these paintings belong to their best work and are certainly exquisite.

We have to wait until the final section to find most of the works influenced byMinne. Early in his career, Minne’s sculptures had been dismissed by critics as “barbaric” because of their stark aestheticization of suffering. In his drawings we find a medieval woodcut-like presentation of human shapes which embody a mood rather than show an actual personality, but these are not exceptionally confronting. In the three dimensions of the sculptures, however, the emaciated figures contorted in grief are indeed striking. This sculptural iconicity tied in well with the emotional intensity and simple forms sought by Expressionists, such as Lehmbruck, Kokoschka, Schiele,ora young Zadkine. The exhibition holds representative works by all of these and more, proving that Minne not only interacted with the Symbolist contemporaries of his youth, but in his later career managed to exert an influence on Modernist artists.

Note that this exhibition will already close on February 19th, to make room for the retrospective “Ford Madox Brown: Pioneer of the English Pre-Raphaelites”, opening on the 25th. Perhaps latecomers may find some comfort there.

A perfect example of how the Maeterlinck year attempts to involve the uninitiated is the splendid “L'Oiseau Bleu: Chasing Happiness”, hosted at Saint Peter’s Abbey. It has received a lot of media attention, and deservedly so. The play L’Oiseau Bleu (first performed in 1908) is an obvious choice because it is Maeterlinck’s most family-friendly work, and together with the “World of Maeterlinck and Minne” exhibition, this event is considered to be the flagship of the year’s festivities. “Chasing Happiness” comprises a small exhibition on the reception of the Blue Bird and a large multi-medial installation based on the play.

In the lobby, information is given on the context of the play, and how it came to inspire several film adaptations and novelizations that made the story a children’s favourite in Russia and Japan, though it is hardly known in Belgium. The main attraction is however a trajectory through different scenes of the famous play, aptly set up in the abbey’s evocative medieval refectory. For the design of the backdrops authentic decors and props from early stagings of the play were used, incorporating period material from theatres in Moscow, Paris and London. This means that the tour can be approached either as an interactive fairy tale, or as a walk through an important part of theatre history. For the layman, this makes for an enjoyable and immersive experience, but drama scholars will additionally appreciate the insight in historical scenography which it provides. Images relating to the play illustrate what happens in every scene, such as original costume sketches and posters, as well as new illustrations. Through their audio guides, visitors hear a skilfully voice-acted sequence of the scenes while they literally walk through them. This Dutch abridged translation was specially commissioned, and is more than adequate. The gist of the play remains intact, even though it is clear that some scenes were slightly bowdlerized to accommodate younger audience members, and philosophical dialogues are understandably cut short. Luckily, visitors who do not speak Dutch can at least enjoy the charming musical score, written for the occasion.

I would like to end with a note of good news for those who cannot make it to Ghent this year. There has been a small but permanent Maeterlinck exposition in the Museum Arnold Vander Haeghen since the 1970s, which has fittingly been updated this year. It holds a collection of personal artefacts and photographs, and also Maeterlinck’s private library along with its furniture as it stood in his final home, Villa Orlamonde. The museum is modest but unique, and definitely worth a visit.

Recommendations from the programme
The World of Maeterlinck and Minne
22 October 2011 - 19 February 2012
Museum of Fine Arts (MSK)
L'Oiseau Bleu: Chasing Happiness
9 December 2011 - 22 April 2012
Exhibition / installation
St. Peter's Abbey Arts Centre
Maeterlinck Concerts
21 January - 5 May 2012
A series of concerts
De Bijloke Music Centre
Douze Chansons
3 February 2012
Spectra Ensemble
Maeterlinck Colloquium
4 February 2012
Academic conference (Dutch and French):
“Nature in the work of Maurice Maeterlinck”
Royal Academy for Dutch Language & Literature
Pelléas et Mélissande
25 April 2012
Music theatre Transparant and Oxalys
Les Aveugles
27 and 28 April 2012
“Hybrid opera”
LOD Bijloke