Museum Memory #65 by Mahima Jain at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
19 February 2018
Dear Figure Tombale,
I was in Brussels for just a day, a gloomy grey afternoon made magical with the burst of autumnal colours.
After a walking tour and a disappointing time at the Manneken Pis, I decided to buy the expensive entry ticket to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where I ended up meeting you — my only memorable connection to Brussels. This group of six museums confused me. I wasn’t sure which one’s I should be visiting, and had no time to explore all six. So I am glad I entered the Fin-de-Siècle Museum, where you reside.
I had no idea or agenda. I was completely oblivious to the history of Belgian art, a subject far too esoteric for my limited world view. However, when I stopped in front of you, I felt this sense of connection that was surreal.
You knelt there naked and overwhelmed with exhaustion, your white body glowing in the careful spotlight placed above you. The tiredness of your face framed with the strand of hair that had escaped your loose bun. Rose petals that slipped from your weary half-cupped palms. You mirrored the fatigue I felt after a long day, your inaudible sigh rang in my ears.
I felt Brussels’ low-hanging skies, my unaccomplished dreams and uncertain future all reflected in your face. Nearly two years later, as I write this, I am still only reminded of your face when I think of Brussels. You are a friendly ghost, a symbol of a city that I may never return to, and a country that I have had mixed experiences with. But I knew so little of you.
So, I wrote to the museum to learn about who you are and where you come from, your creator and your purpose. The communications officer of the museum kindly replied and said you were supposed to be used as a decoration for a tombstone of a young girl. Your creator, Julien Dillens, was a Beligian sculptor from Antwerp. Born in 1849, he died in Saint-Gilles, Brussels, in 1904.
“One of his most famous bronze statues is still at the centre of a square in that community: La Porteuse d’eau,” she wrote. “We acquired the girl sculpture for our collections directly from the artist himself in 1889, so it belongs to the Belgian state (and all Belgian citizens of course).”
That was not much. I dug deeper in the realms of the Internet (we’ve made some advances since you were created, it is a long story) for more on your story.
I found out that you are in fact inspired by a marble statue called “The Trust in God” which was made over half a century before you materialised, and is now in Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. Sometime in the mid 1830s, Lorenzo Bartolini, a sculptor famous for something called Italian Purism, was asked by a new widow to represent her grief and pain, and devotion to God. Bartolini, inspired by a model who was resting after a session, decided to represent the woman as a naked young woman, slumped and her hands clasped in her lap; sign of deep and pious prayer. ** There are other copies of this statue elsewhere. But what is remarkable how Dillens, your creator, adopted this idea and gave it a whole new twist in a way that you are original and yet derived. Basically, like all of us.
Dillens did like to create seated nudes, and you were second of his creations. He had worked as an assistant in Rodin’s studio, stayed in Italy where he created your predecessor Une Enigme, and you were fashioned shortly after he returned from Italy.
Some sources say, you, “figure kneeling”, were commissioned for an orphanage in Uccle, now a municipality in Brussels (also the area where Hergé, the creator of the most famous Belgian, died and is buried). Obviously, you neither became the symbol of the orphanage nor did you mark the tombstone of the girl.
I have no difficulty in understanding how it feel to be created for one thing, and then ending up doing something else. Do you accept it with a smile or a sigh? For me, cynicism helps. You may be a statue, but we are as powerless and transfixed as you are in the face of situations and eventualities that aren’t of our creation. Doesn’t make us too different, does it?
Because, even as you are here, your copies have had a rather fine time. First, a plaster version of you made a grand debut at the Exposition Universelle in Antwerp in 1885. Then that figure was exhibited numerous times during and after Dillens’ lifetime. A small marble version of you was even auctioned by Sotheby’s– the same auction house that was around when you were created; guess somethings do remain forever then–later in the 20th century for something between £60,000-£80,000. Yet another marble clone (may be the same as Sotheby’s) even made an appearance at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889.*
However, Dillens parted with you and gave you to the Belgian State. For creating you (and another statue) Dillens bagged the medal of honour at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889.
Dillens perhaps thought you’d do a great public service.* Your appeal is, after all, so universal– embodiment of empathy and at the same time sheer resignation with the world around you. It is shocking that you remain indoors, while a little boy pisses in the pond on street square as hundreds of people watch him. As I said earlier, Brussels is indeed a place of contradictions with hidden beauty and apparent mediocracy.
It doesn’t matter. If I ever visit Brussels again (the chances are slim), I am sure to pay you a visit.
So until then.
Mahima Jain is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She covers gender, environment, socio-economic and cultural issues. Her work has appeared in several global and Indian publications ranging from Atlas Obscura and Der Spiegel to The Caravan Magazine. You can follow her work at @theplainjain on twitter and @mahima.a.jain on instagram.
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