Bart Lodewijks Gaasbeek Drawings April, 2019
A short story about a chalk drawing that runs from the intersection of Vijverselenweg and Rooststraat in Lennik through to the sphinxes on Oudenakenstraat 23 in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (Belgium).
PROTECTED HERITAGE Bruegel was a creator of images but I absorb his paintings as if they were books. I read them from left to right and up to down, not the way one usually looks at images. It is the stories that move me: the people that populate his paintings, the literary elements, as if the layers of time were all intermingled and nothing is in the right place but everything is still understandable. For three weeks I combed the Pajottenland, Bruegel country, in search of the scenes and people from his paintings. I travelled the landscape from west to east and north to south and encountered a farm, a clay quarry and two sphinxes. FARM Stillness. I no longer hear the creaking of the trees behind me for the wind. Only in my feet and my fingertips do I still feel the cold. The field is soggy and I sink down a couple inches as I walk, sucked into the clayey soil. I ultimately reach the farm and can study
the relief of a draught horse above the door from close up. The horse’s eye looks as if it has been poked in the stone with someone’s little finger and there are thin reins running from the head to the hind quarters for attaching a plough or some other implement. Its descendants graze contentedly in the pasture, exempt from work, unsuspecting living monuments. Every now and then the ground rumbles, as if a giant mythical beast were groaning in pain. A straight line appears in the sky: the contrail from an aeroplane. The line drawer of airspace flies far above my head, a keel ploughing its way through open skies seemingly without resistance. That is not the situation down here and I trudge on through the clay. Nobody lives in the farm anymore: its facade is cracked; the bricks are damp and cold and you can easily pry out the mortar with your fingers. Not far away are the Lennik clay pits, which is where the rumbling emanates from. I was just there. Machines are busy excavating a hillside, plundering it to nothing; the clay is then carried off in a funeral procession of lorries until there is nothing left of the hill than a flat-topped stump with holes. The farm will also disappear eventually and, assuming nothing new is built, leave behind an emptiness. There must at some point come a point when the farmstead collapses on its own. In the
instant before that happens, I imagine it being momentarily still—a moment like now, as I attempt to warm my fingers under my sweater. Am I imagining it, or have the horses in the field stopped moving? Are they as stony as the workhorse on the relief? The trees look like brush strokes, daubs of paint in a landscape that derives it fame from painting. Where are all the inhabitants? Have they all fled the scene? The door under the relief swings open with a loud bang, and as that same gust of wind hits me, the setting springs back to life. Someone pushing a wheelbarrow is heading my way up the road. It is the older woman I just saw walking toward the clay pits now coming back. ‘Can I help you?’ she asks, setting the empty barrow down in the grass by the gate. ‘I’d like to draw chalk lines on this farmhouse and speak to the owner,’ I say. ‘No one has lived here in a long time,’ she says and introduces herself as Godelieve. She has lived on Vijverselenweg, a dead-end street that leads to the quarry, her whole life. ‘But why chalk stripes?’ she asks curiously. ‘They’re like sight lines,’ I explain. She looks astounded. ‘It’s in connection with the Bruegel year,’ I say, as if that explained everything. ‘Horizon lines, sight lines, perspective and vanishing points are an indispensable
part of it all,’ I hear myself say. Silence falls once again. I point toward the quarry and ask: ‘Are there any old farms over there still? Maybe I can draw on one of those.’ ‘The quarry had lots of brick kilns; you could have drawn on them. They were all dismantled over the years—no one to stop it. Then the land was sold to a project developer and the last remnants of clay are being pulled out of the ground with diggers.’ ‘That’s rough, for the land to be left to waste like that,’ I exclaim. I look at the horses in the field and am reminded of slaughterhouse workers having to de-bone the carcasses and the brute force that entails. Poor animals; poor land. ‘Don’t worry, the holes are being covered with soil dug up from the basement storey of the university hospital at Anderlecht, not far from here. They made a deal with the project developer. The dirt that’s brought in will be used to not only fill up the pits, but also reintroduce ridges in the terrain. The goal is to create an authentic landscape. They’re using old paintings and drawings to work out what the Pajottenland originally looked like. As in Bruegel! That should appeal to you. We locals are helping out, too,’ she adds unprompted. ‘We’re dumping scrap in the pits, auto parts no one can use anymore. A little extra filling for the hills can’t do any harm.’
I move on toward the excavation. The path is made up of broken bricks, presumably from the kilns. The ground is soggy, dreary and brown. Here and there lie piles of filling meant to help the hills rise again: auto scrap that evokes bird-like monsters, the devilish creatures of our age. TWO SPHINXES I continue walking over narrow concrete and brickpaved roads until late in the afternoon. Out in the farmyards and house gardens are scantily dressed young women. They pour pails of water over the turf, sprinkle their feet and peer provocatively toward the end of the street, waiting to see who is coming to visit them. On the banks of a garden pond, I see a plastic heron and an owl captured in bronze that watches the time go by. Two sphinxes with long necks guard a driveway. Windmill sails atop a dovecote, small and colourful like the wings of a butterfly, indicate the wind’s direction. A lean human figure mounted onto the mill turns indefatigably with the wind. A cloud glides in front of the sun and the landscape loses its shadow. My thoughts spin around: I found what I was looking for at the quarry but you cannot draw on mud and clay. I try to find my way back to the sphinxes
but cannot seem to find them anymore. Some horses behind barbed wire look at me warily. A garden pond is covered over with a net to prevent the herons from nabbing the fish. After wandering around for an hour, I finally encounter the sphinxes again and the sight of them saves me from a downward spiral. The two human-animal hybrids have ruffs around their necks, feather crowns on their heads and ornamental buttons on their chests. The house they guard is like a mini fortress but with a friendly face. I press the buzzer and hear a delightful jingle. The lady of the house opens the door, and when I ask about the sphinxes, she shows little surprise. ‘You will need to speak to my husband,’ she answers and leads me to the living room. ‘What can I do for you?’ asks a very old man, sitting straight-backed in a high-ceiling room filled with books. ‘I’m here to ask if I can draw on the sphinxes.’ It sounds as if I am reciting lines. The man is lean, well turned out and grey, with an extremely lively look in his eyes. ‘Call me Jan,’ he says. In his close-fitting leather vest and abundantly lined sheep’s wool slippers, he represents another era. He looks at me intently, taking his time before saying, ‘You will have to speak up. I’m practically deaf.’ He slides a chair forward and takes a seat behind a wood desk spanning the width of the
room. ‘How odd that you should happen by. A while ago we heard a noise in the chimney and then had an uninvited guest. An owl fluttered out of the fireplace right into the living room. Since then, it has routinely honoured my wife and me with a visit. ‘But you were asking about my sphinxes. Do you know what sphinxes were originally for?’ My eyes scan all that wisdom on the bookshelves; the answer is bound to lie within. ‘In Portugal these statues are protected heritage; the versions in my garden are copies. The statues were brought to the palace gardens of Sintra, near Lisbon, in the late eighteenth century. They protected the fantasy world when parties were held. Their long necks, plumes, extraverted stance, ruffs and headdresses are unique. I was sold the moment I saw them. I wanted to be protected by guards like that. Getting the casts here was a hellish job, but I will spare you the details. ‘I do not know whether the sphinxes were drawn on or coloured for parties but I like your idea. You know what? Do as the spirit moves you. You are my guest. But treat my young ladies gently!’ he says, wagging his finger. His gaze comes to rest on a sawhorse in the corner of the room with a saddle on it. ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did. All my life I was a horseback rider,
until my last horse threw me out of the saddle three years ago. I should never have risked getting on that young mare at my age. On one of our first rides, she got stung by a horsefly and spooked. She bucked and reared, and when I fell back down into the saddle, she jumped straight up into the air. The fierce impact shattered my lower vertebrae.’ A watery sun breaks through the clouds as I stand on the driveway with my drawing tools, but it is still cold. I carefully stroke the bodies of the stony human–lion beasts. By the time I reach their moss-green coat, I start to warm up. I follow the curve of an eyebrow, the nose, the mouth, the chin and the throat. From the back I draw on the buttocks. It is as if the sphinxes were being dressed up for a party. And me? I disappear into a world oblivious to sight lines, where boundaries are crossed, hills rise again and fantasy is protected heritage.
‘Your drawing is difficult to read. It looks like arrows that point to the left and to the right,’ says an older woman.
‘All the corners are missing,’ she says. ‘Do you know what that means?’
As I draw, pieces of the facade crumble off, but the missing corner in the bottom right is my doing.
With its orange roof, the farm stands out, and as of today the chalk drawings are part of the scene.
There must come a point at some point when the farmstead collapses on its own. In the instant before that happens, I imagine it being momentarily still.
The pasture, the facade, the roof, the fence, the fields and the surrounding countryside are divided into planes and lines. The drawing fits in as if it were always a part of it all.
The chalk surfaces are surprisingly diffuse and light. There’s no indication that drawing them was such a difficult task, in which over a hundred chalk sticks were demolished.
The lines of chalk absorb the dampness from the bricks. They transform into a gummy substance similar to the oily clods of clay on a ploughed field.
The broken stone testifies to the end of a working life. The silence on the property is deafening.
The concrete post is all that remains of the washing line. In the past smocks, aprons and sheets would hang in the breeze here and life revolved around this place.
‘The sphinxes not only guard my house, they protect the fantasy world,’ says the ancient owner of the house.
I carefully stroke their moss-green coat. It would be exaggerating to claim that we talked to one another. In any event, the sphinxes do not say anything back and leave me to do as I please.
Colophon Bart Lodewijks - Gaasbeek Drawings Drawings, text, photographs: Bart Lodewijks Editing: Danielle van Zuijlen Dutch-English translation: Nina Woodson Image processing: Huig Bartels Design: Roger Willems and Dongyoung Lee Publisher: Roma Publications This project is part of the exhibition Feast of Fools. Bruegel rediscovered Kasteel van Gaasbeek, Belgium Special thanks to Luk Lambrecht, Lieze Eneman and Marieke Debeuckelaere © Bart Lodewijks, 2019