We went to Bruges for a short holiday over the weekend from 18th September to 22nd. There was a quick stop for a few hours in Bruxelles - I went to see half of the Royal Museum of Art and History as there was not much time. I do wish I had had more time, the ethnographic collections looked very good.
This museum was extremely quiet. It seemed to be a bit in the vein of the British Museum, but there very few visitors. For someone whose knowledge of medieval arts and crafts of the low countries is pretty scant, there were some good pieces of wood work - carved altarpieces, and religious paintings on panel. Some very good carvings of figures in wood looked very impressive, and of course there were great tapestries of all types - small precious things that looked as if they were for private contemplation, with gold and silver thread that would have sparkled in the candle light of dark rooms, as well as large wall coverings. There was also some historical glass and some ceramics from the 1920s, which I did not find particularly inspiring.
Having seen these rooms I was nearly out of time, but there was a bit of time to look at the shop for any contemporary jewellery and ceramic. After this I went to have a fleeting look at the native North American displays and wished I had had more time..... There were wonderful things using feathers, carved birds and animals, clothing and ritual objects. A film showed a traditional bird dance which was intriguing. If I go back to Bruxelles it would be good to revisit this museum.
Bruges was a different sort of place to Bruxelles, which had felt very noisy, busy and with many people buzzing about. Bruges is clearly a place of tourism, with many arrangements set up for the short visit - boat trips, horse trips and bus rides for example. We visited the Groeningemuseum, which houses medieval and renaissance art. This was a very good thing, there were fine pieces richly painted in detail. We enjoyed this very much and I also found the temporary exhibition of prints and drawings by Frank Branwyn in the Arenthuis very stimulating. These works concentrated on people at work and social studies. Brangwyn had worked in the studio of William Morris, and you did get than sense of a social conscience that Morris had spoken of in Brangwyn's pictures - there were good strong lines and solid marks showing people in physical labour and religious studies of the cruciphixion story.
We also went to see some works by Picasso and other Modernists, an exhibition mainly of prints, but there were some interesting sketches by Renoir and Monet and others that showed more of their working methods, which was interesting. The museums in Bruges are all very close to each other, and of course there are also churches to visit. One, the Church of Our Lady, houses a Madonna and Child sculpture by Michaelangelo. A tightly composed classical figure, precise and naturalistic. At some point they placed in a large voluptuous baroque wall piece, with niches holding large sculptures with drapery flowing with abandon around their bodies. Interesting to see this change in style between the renaissance observation and representation and this theatrical energy of a later generation.
Otherwise we did all the other touristic things - went on a boat trip which is of course a great way to see a city anyway, I have been on such boats in London, Copenhagen and Amsterdam and every time you see the city afresh somehow. We went to various squares, experienced a 'car free' Sunday with exercise classes on the large central square, and went to flea markets to see if we could find interesting Belgian things, but disappointingly there was very little of interest, mainly people shedding their stuff or selling pretend-interesting objects that really did not warrant the energy or money spent on them. I bought a piece of vintage silver, a brooch that has some use value and is a unique craft object.