As has already been said, one of the most interesting aspects of the Brussels Exhibition is its educational aspect. If you know how to look, you can learn a great deal, and in this respect nothing is more worthy of attention than the city pavilions. At first glance, they are only distinguished by their architecture. Inside, they are always the same school exhibits, the same models, the same district plans contrasting the present with the past, the same statistical tables. However, if you look at all this carefully, you will see the original physiognomy of each city, you will come to understand - let us excuse this pedantry - its social plan.
Here is the pavilion of the City of Ghent, for example. Externally, it is very picturesque and reminds us of this beautiful house of the boatmen, one of the architectural glories of Flanders. The viewer will take great pleasure in looking at this beautiful façade, which is ingeniously connected to a brick turret that recalls the warlike past of the Artevelde city. But if you linger in the rooms, which are very well laid out, that are grouped together behind the staff façades, you will see, from the beautiful stone warriors of the old belfry to the project of the next Ghent exhibition, the whole history of a rich city, with a magnificent past, but nevertheless very much alive and very confident in the future.
Among Belgian cities, and even among Flemish cities, Ghent's appearance is singularly original.
Bruges is sleeping Flanders; Ypres is dead Flanders; Ghent is living Flanders, and the intense life of this great industrial centre, where the Flemings of today are learning that they too can participate in modern life, seems to have communicated its activity to the entire province of which it is the capital. It is true that here, as in Bruges and Ypres, the past is the driving force behind the present, but it does not stifle it. History has left innumerable traces in the Ghent hive, and there are few cities in which the same moral factors can be found as in Ghent.
But the annals are not closed: the ardent city, which in the 14th century was the heroic bulwark of European democracy, and which, in spite of so many sieges and massacres, has always risen from its disasters, has managed to find its place in modern Belgium as brilliantly as in the feudal Netherlands. And this persistent vitality does not originate, like that of Antwerp, from the extraordinary advantages of a unique geographical situation in the world, it is not subject, like that of Bruges, to the displacement of the great economic routes, it is due to the character of the people. This may seem strange, but if you study the history of Ghent and observe the people as they are today, you will see that there is a Ghent race, or at least a Ghent people, with its own character, its own customs, its own way of feeling, its own energy, and that it is the most lively, the most violent and the most combative of all the Flemings. Some Belgian writers have noted the considerable role played by the Ghenters and the Ardennes in the politics and economic expansion of contemporary Belgium. But whereas the Ardennes, with their exclusively positive temperament and rural training, have only played this great role in the business world, the Gantois, benefiting from an old urban civilisation, carries this richness of temperament, this overflowing vital energy, even into art. Maurice Maeterlinck is from Ghent, from an old Ghent family, as are the poets Charles van Lerberghe and Grégoire Le Roy, not to mention the Flemish writers. And how many original painters and sculptors were born in or near Ghent!
Moreover, the very appearance of the city gives the impression of this fundamental originality and indomitable vitality from the outset. The past has left many traces here and care has been taken to preserve the most precious monuments. The recent restorations of the Town Hall, the Château des Comtes and the Maison des Bateliers were, all in all, very well done.
They have even been completed by clearing most of these old monuments, by making wide openings in the town, by "Haussmannism", and the character of the town has been altered in this way.
This central district, the 'Ghent Cure', with its maze of intertwined alleys leading to large and small markets, crowded on certain days with stalls and carts, had a very strong Flemish character. Ghent's cityscapes certainly did not have the composite charm of Bruges' landscapes, but they bore the stamp of that rugged and sombre, energetic and powerful character that Ton finds in the city's entire history; there was a Ghent colour that certain artists, such as Baertsoen and De Bruycker, expressed very vigorously. Today, one would be just as hard pressed to find it in the wide, airy streets, in the squares decorated with gardens, which surround Sint-Niklaas, Sint-Bavo and the Belfry, as in the new districts of the suburb of Kortrijk, built on the site of the old citadel. The artists regret this. But in a city as lively as Ghent Test today, it is impossible to keep the images of the past intact. So those who want to find the character of the city of the Middle Ages in the city of the twentieth century will have to look for it rather than for the monuments in the pictures of working-class life.
If you look for the character of this social microcosm, not in its ephemeral and variable external pictures, but in its intimate truth, you will find it in the suburbs of the modern industrial city. There, all the permanent features of the Ghent organism are still strongly marked. It is true that the suburbs of Ledeberg and Gentbrugge no longer consist of miserable thatched cottages like the suburbs occupied by the weavers of the 13th century. But their small working-class houses, all the same, all covered with a uniform dark grey cement, evoke in the mind the hardships of contemporary working-class life almost as powerfully as the thatched cottages of the Middle Ages revealed to the tribunes of the time the social iniquities from which they suffered. All these suburbs of Gant consist essentially of a wide roadway, lined with low houses, small shops, tiny grocery shops, humble cabarets. On either side of it are lanes lined with small houses, all built on the same plan and in the same proportions, all covered with the same greyish plaster, and almost all built either by industrialists or by speculators who know only too well the price that workers' housing fetches. It is there that the numerous families of the weavers and spinners of Ghent are crammed together, and these tiny dwellings, extending their identical rows or their gigantic checkerboards ad infinitum, would be reminiscent of monks' or convicts' cells, were it not for the swarming brood of children and the games of hopscotch that are intermingled on the pavements. In the neighbourhood, the factories erect their blackened brick walls which, in the evening, light up through their innumerable windows as if a blaze were being lit.
It is under the misty sky of September, between dog and wolf, at the hour when the factories close, that one must go through these districts where Ton would vainly look for something that could remind one of the joy of living, but which, from the very insouciance of all beauty that one feels there, draw a suffering and very modern beauty which exalts to the most tense melancholy the man of imagination.
In autumn, the skies are very beautiful in Flanders. Great gallops of dark or pearly clouds pass through the blue and at every moment break into sudden showers. Towards evening, all this is coloured with a glowing magic; but in Ghent, the smoke from the factories comes to put strange colours, greens, yellows, browns, into these blurred and golden skies. Sometimes it seems as if the palette of a marvellous colourist had been laid on the city, and the splendour of this fantastic light gives something particularly harsh and poignant to the spectacle presented by the street.
In the afternoon it was silent and almost deserted: children playing, women talking on doorsteps, a few rare passers-by. But suddenly the factory bells ring out the end of the day and their different tinkling sounds echo in the darkened sky. And immediately, from distance to distance, a whole crowd of people coming from the side streets invades the road. Soon they hold the whole road and move towards the city with the trampling of a herd. Hooves clatter on the ground and give a dull rhythm to the steps. It seems as if ranks are being organised and these workers returning from work to soup and rest are reminiscent of an army on the march. In blue burgundy, or old, patched jackets on their backs, the "briefcase" and the coffee can under their arms, they press their feet heavily on the ground with that attitude of strength and weariness that Constantin Meunier gives to his miners. The women, clutching a knitted woollen shawl around their shoulders, swinging their torsos on their hips, form whole rows and jabber noisily in a hoarse, heavy and dragging patois. Some of them, with their firm, swollen breasts and provocative smiles on very red lips, are still beautiful in their strong vulgarity. But most of them, withered early by precocious maternity, wear on their earthy faces the mask of unforeseen misery and too long a labour. Children also walk among the horde. Sometimes, their attention drawn by some childish spectacle, they linger, then, fearing the scolding of the father they accompany, they start running as if to catch up with their rank. From time to time, groups break away from the column, either to take one of the streets that lead to the workers' housing estates, or to go to some familiar cabaret to seek the crude pleasure, the brutal dream that alcohol dispenses.
But the mass continues its march towards the city. It is indeed an army, the eternally painful and dangerous army of the poor, and, like their ancestors, the White Riding Hoods, it seems that they are going, with a heroic and cruel will, to storm the hotels, the "steenen" of the bourgeoisie.
The social struggles in Ghent remained very lively indeed. All things considered, if we take into account the general softening of morals, they still have something of the bitterness of those that bloodied the Friday Market in the 14th century. Only, the realistic temperament of the race has meant that, little by little, the rival forces have come to respect each other. In spite of certain electoral proclamations, the workers' organisation understood that it would not soon destroy the big bosses, and the big bosses resigned themselves to living with the workers' organisation. A sort of balance was achieved between these great social forces, and this balance is expressed in the municipal administration. Willy-nilly, in this workers' hive, it had to take an active part, not only in education, but also and especially in social assistance.
This is what makes the Ghent pavilion so original; this is what makes it so that, in addition to the good public who, in an exhibition, only want to see the show, one occasionally meets attentive visitors who, with astonishment, linger in front of the statistical tables and take notes.
© Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles 1910