Thursday, April 20, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp: Old Town - Part 2

After spending the morning in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh and Peter Paul Rubens House, we headed towards Antwerp's historic city centre.  Our tour of the "Old Town" took us through the shopping street Eiermarkt, into the square where the Cathedral of Our Lady resides, and then to the Grote Markt Square where the City Hall is found.  It was confusing trying to figure out the names of the many squares in Antwerp.  For example, the "square" (actually more of an oval) where the Cathedral is located is bound by the streets Groenplaats, Jan Blomstraat, Blauwmoezelstraat, Ljinwaadmarkt, and Sint-Pieterstraat.  The Cathedral has an address of 21 Groenplaats, yet it is not in Groenplaats Square, which is actually the one south of the Cathedral and features the sculpture of Rubens.  Despite performing Internet searches, I could not figure out what the square containing the Cathedral is called?  Recently I asked my home swap host and it turns out that the square is called Handschoenmarkt (Glove Market).  This doesn’t make sense to me since it is not even one of the streets surrounding the Cathedral, but rather the street just west of the enclosure.   At any rate, the Cathedral was easy to find, since at 123 metres, its tallest spire towered above all the other buildings in the area and could be seen from blocks away.

The Cathedral of Our Lady is the largest Gothic Church in the “Low Countries” (Netherlands, Luxembourg,  and Belgium), but took so long to be built, between 1352 to 1521, that its architecture and artwork reflect elements of Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo styles as well.  Based on the art found in the Cathedral, it is clear that the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Antwerp.  The Carrara marble sculpture of a standing Madonna holding baby Jesus is obscurely attributed to the “Master of the Marble Madonnas”.  A 16th Century “Devotional” sculpture of Mary and Jesus has them dressed as royalty with a crown and bejewelled gold sceptor.  The 17th Century painting of the “Assumption of the Virgin” by Peter Paul Rubens adorns the high altar.  Rubens created three other works that hang in the Cathedral, including a triptych depicting the “Raising of the Cross”.  This painting has so much similarity to Rubens'  “Massacre of the Innocents” in terms of the muscle tone of the men and the depiction of the babies, that it is easy to recognize “Raising of the Cross” as one of his works.
 
This beautiful cathedral has several magnificent examples of intricate woodwork and carvings.  The 19th Century St. Joseph retable consists of finely carved sculptures depicting Saint Joseph during 7 episodes of his life.  The incredible oak pulpit created in 1713 by Michiel van der Voort features banisters in the form of tree branches, twigs and roots as well as carvings of a parrot, crane and owl as well as other animals and lush vegetation.  These elements reflect the importance of nature as a source of inspiration for the faithful.  At the base, four female figures represent the continents of Europe, Asian, America and Africa, implying that the word of God was to be spread across what was then known as the world.  Along with Guillielmus Kerricx, Michiel van der Voort also made three groups of oak confessionals that feature 24 life-sized figures depicting the 12 apostles, and 12 women who represent virtues such as Contrition, Enlightenment, Conscience, Divine Mercy, Strength and Sorrow.
I found some of the art work in the Cathedral to be surprising and a bit amusing.  There is the tomb of Bishop Marius Ambrosius Capello (1597-1676), which is topped by a marble sculpture of the beloved clergyman posed in a reclining position.   He is supposed to be “resting on his elbow with his hands folded in prayer” but to my non-religious eyes, it seems like he is preening like the subject of an odalisque painting.  Then there is the painting of the corpse dressed in long dark robes rising out of a coffin that caused Rich to exclaim “It's Dracula!” when he first saw it.  Finally, there is the bronze sculpture called “The Man that Bears the Cross” that looks like it is painted metallic-gold.  Created by Jan Fabre in 2015, it is meant to encourage viewers to keep a spiritual equilibrium.  When we first glimpsed it from afar, I thought it was a sculpture of the comics character TinTin.  Then upon closer inspection, the man in the shiny gold with slicked-back hair reminded me of Elvis Presley.  I don't suppose either of these impressions were what the artist was intending to convey.

In the cobblestone square surrounding the Cathedral of Our Lady, a seemingly whimsical white marble sculpture is found on the ground.  It depicts a boy sleeping with his dog, covered by a blanket that is very cleverly designed as an extension of the cobblestone.  Inspecting the sculpture more closely, we discovered that this is a rendering of Nello and Patrasche, the boy and dog described in a 1872 English novel called “A Dog of Flanders” which became popular in Belgium when it was translated to Dutch and adapted into a story in the Belgian comic book series “Suske en Wiske”.  The original story turns out to be quite sad.  Nello, a little Belgian orphan boy living with his grandfather, adopts a severely mistreated dog and names him Patrasche.  Nello and Patrasche become inseparable companions.  Nello dreams of becoming a great painter like his hero Peter Paul Rubens.  After his grandfather dies, Nello and Patrashe travel to Antwerp to see Ruben’s masterpieces hanging within the Cathedral.  With no money for the admission, they sneak into the church late at night on Christmas Eve and are found the next morning, huddled together, frozen to death in front of Ruben’s triptych.  The Dog of Flanders has been adapted multiple times into movies in the U.K., USA, Japan and Korea, although I’m sure some of the versions give it a happier ending.  The location of the sculpture in front of the Cathedral is quite appropriate and touching given the premise and setting of the story.  The sculpture, a symbol of everlasting friendship, was donated in 2016 to Antwerp by the people of China for appreciation of Antwerp’s diamond industry.  I guess the Chinese buy a lot of diamonds.

Our next stop was the “Grote Markt” (“Grand Place”), which is the central square where the Antwerp City Hall (“Stadhuis”) is located.  Built in the 1560s, the Renaissance building incorporates both French and Italian influences.  In front of the City Hall sits the “Brabo Fountain” created by sculptor Jeff Lambeaux in 1886.  It depicts the folklore of the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo who fought a giant who was terrorizing the townspeople.  Brabo cuts off the giant’s hand and throws it into the river.  This gave Antwerp its name in Dutch of “hand werpen”, meaning “hand throwing”.  Also residing in the Grote Markt is a series of 16th Century guild houses where associations of craftsmen met to discuss policies and trade secrets.  Of note is the Sint-Joris Guild of the Archers, which has a gold statue at its pinnacle depicting the legend of Saint George on his horse fighting the dragon

Nearing the end of a very long day, we were planning on buying some deli food to take back to our home swap for dinner.  This was until we passed the restaurant “Elfde Gebod” which advertised the “Best Mussels in Town”.  But this is not what lured us, since we had seen similar declarations all over Antwerp.  What intrigued us was the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top religious décor that graced the restaurant (pun intended).  Situated just across from the Our Lady Cathedral, the eatery is overflowing with statues of the Virgin Mary, saints, angels, as well as pulpits and other religious iconography.

We decided to try the mussels in white wine sauce with frites, checking off another Belgian dining experience from our wish list.   The mussels were small and there was not much sauce until you dug to the very bottom.  These were by no means the best mussels that we have ever eaten, and not even the best ones that we had during our trip.  But it was our first mussels experience in Belgium, and the kitschy setting was just so much fun that it made up for it.  As an appetizer we ordered the “bitterballen”, a deep-fried battered meat croquette that we enjoyed often in Amsterdam.  Continuing our tradition of trying local Belgian beers, Rich ordered a glass of the St. Bernardus which is a dark ale brewed in Watou, Belgium and was our first attempt at drinking a “Trappist beer”, brewed by monks in Trappist monasteries.  It tickled our funny bone to be drinking beer under the watchful eyes of these statues.  Elfde Gebod translates to “Eleventh Commandment” and one can only imagine what that sacrilegious commandment would be in this establishment?

On our way home, we looked for a few more comics murals that were along our path.  At Wolstraat 12 (note the street number is after the street name), a mural by Jan Bosschaert depicts Belgian author Hendrik Conscience (considered pioneer of Dutch literature) sitting atop a fountain where words spew out instead of water.  The mural is situated on such a narrow street that it was very difficult to try to take a photo of it.  On Korte Nieuwstraat is Dick Matena’s comic strip “Cheese” with its main character Laarmans walking across the Grote Markt carrying a bag of cheese. Having not heard of any of these artists or comic strips, we realized that we only were aware of a very small subset of Belgian comic strips.  As we continued our way home, we spotted a couple of extra murals that were not officially on our walking tour.

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp: Old Town - Part 1

Rich and I have a system that we follow when we plan a vacation to a new city.  Together we research things that we would like to do (originally by reading guidebooks, but now usually on the internet) and make a big list of potential attractions, opening hours, cost, tour times and other details.  I then group them by location and create daily walking routes using Goggle Maps and Microsoft Paint.  This allows us to concentrate on one area of the city at a time in order to minimize our travel duration and walking distance per day.  It also gives us targets to look for on Goggle Maps using the data plan on our cell phone, so that we always know where we want to go to next and how to get there from where we are.

The focus of our second day in Antwerp involved visiting the sights en route to and within the Old Town.  Our path would take us to the Gothic and Renaissance Flemish art collection of Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, the home of painter Paul Ruebens, the Cathedral of Our Lady and the Grand Square or Grote Markt where the City Hall is located.  As we pass them along our path, we planned to look for Comics murals that are found throughout the area and usually encompass an entire wall of a building.  Our original plan was to go counter clockwise, getting to the Old Town and the Cathedral (which opened relatively early) first and picking up the two museums on the way back home.  But we started to worry about timing, not knowing for sure how long we would need in each museum and whether we would leave enough time to finish before they closed at 5pm.  Instead we decided to reverse our route, making our first stop the Museum Mayer van den Bergh which opened at 10am.  This turned out to be a great idea since we were still jetlagged and getting a bit of a later start helped refresh us significantly.

Belgian art historian and collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858-1901) came from a wealthy family on both sides.  Upon his father Emil Mayer’s death, Fritz spent his sizable inheritance on collecting 14th to 16th Century art from Belgium and the Netherlands, including artifacts, sculptures and in particular, paintings.  When Fritz himself died in an accident at age 43, his mother Henriëtte van den Bergh built a neo-gothic house next to their family home, in order to create the Museum Mayer van den Bergh to showcase his collection of over 1000 items. The façade of the museum features the “crow-stepped gable” design at the top, which consists of a triangular brick wall projecting above the roof-line, that is stacked in a step or wedding-cake pattern as a decoration.  This design pattern dates back to the 15th Century and received a revival in the 20th Century as part of the Dutch Colonial Revival style.  This stepped gable design can still be seen in older buildings in Antwerp.

The interior of the house is beautiful with hardwood floors, decorative wooden banisters and paneling throughout, ornate fireplaces and a set of stained glass windows from Switzerland dating back to the 16th Century.  Fulfilling the vision that Fritz had when planning his own museum, his mother integrated the 15th and 16th century furniture from his collection, using the pieces to decorate and furnish the house as much as to show them on display.  This gave the feeling of walking through someone’s home as opposed to a museum, which was a new concept for museums at the time.

Considering his days of acquiring works were cut short by his premature death, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh amassed an impressive and eclectic collection that consisted mostly of paintings but also sculptures, manuscripts, miniatures, iron-work, jewellery, lace, plaques, and other pieces of decorative art.  Figures carved into a pair of plaster columns date back to the 12th Century and likely came from the former cloisters of the Church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux at Châlons-en-Champagne.  One room was dedicated to religious paintings, sculptures and retables.  A couple of repeating themes that we continued to see in Flemish works in other museums included the Madonna depicted with her breast exposed to the suckling Christ child, and the severed head of John the Baptist.   I was particularly impressed with the details in the wood carvings of winged angels whose robes fold and ripple like fabric.  Another room concentrated on individual and family portraits.  I felt sorry for the little children dressed up in the fancy robes and ruff collar and wondered how they were able to play in these clothes.

The highlight of Fritz’s collection is his accumulation of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 - 1569), who was not well known or appreciated in the late 1800s.  This allowed Fritz to pick up paintings that are now considered masterpieces for mere hundreds of Francs.  Bruegel specialized in landscapes and scenes depicting the daily life of peasants, often incorporating proverbs or allegories in his works.  Included in Mayer van den Bergh’s set of Bruegel paintings is a winter scene of people skating and playing on a frozen river, that was one of Bruegel’s most copied work.  The painting of 12 Flemish Proverbs were originally twelve individually painted wooden plates that were assembled together into one work.  Some of the proverbs are known even in the English language, such as the bottom right one that depicts a man “pissing in the wind” or acting in a counterproductive manner.  The painting “Census at Bethlehem” was particularly interesting since we would see replicas of this painting again in the Brussels Royal Museum of Art, highlighting the common practice of Bruegel the Elder’s son (Bruegel the Younger) of copying his father’s work.

Unfortunately the jewel of the Bruegel collection, titled Dulle Griet, (translated as Mad Meg), was not available for viewing, as it is off being restored in time for the 450th anniversary of Bruegel’s death in 2019.  It was very disappointing not to be able to review this masterpiece up close, especially since there is so much to see and interpret.  We had to settle for watching a lengthy and informative video on the piece, that talked about the restoration plans and then went into great detail, honing in and explaining each part of the painting.  Unlike his more realistic depictions of peasant life, Mad Meg is fantastical and allegorical; more in the style of 15th Century Flemish master Hieronymus Bosch.

Clad in a breast plate and helmet, the titular figure “Mad Meg” may be based on Flemish folklore of an evil shrew who “could plunder in front of hell and remain unscathed”.  She is the personification of greed and waste, as she is already holding a chest full of money, yet wants more.  In the upper left-hand corner, the “gates of hell” are depicted as a face whose left eye is about to be shuttered with fear at the approach of Mad Meg.  In the lower right corner, a gaggle of women are beating up on men (including the devil) and driving them into a dungeon.  This illustrates another Antwerpian proverb from 1568 loosely translated as “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon”.  Scattered throughout the painting are Bosch-like “monsters” that seemed more cute than scary to me.  While it was too bad that we did not get to see this masterpiece in person, watching the videos did give us an in-depth perspective at what we would have been looking at.  I love how the works of Pieter Bruegel convey so many stories and require close inspection of all the sections in order not to miss anything.

We had a tentative spot picked out for lunch that was closer to the Old Town, but by the time we finished touring the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, we were starving.  We looked at the menus of a few restaurants in the immediate area and decided on Brasserie de Markt, mostly because they posted an English menu.  Although most people we encountered in Belgium spoke English, as well as Dutch and often French, we found that English menus were not always available.  Rich continued his trend of drinking local Belgian beer and we had our first experience sharing an order of the Belgian croquette, which turned out to be a staple of most restaurants that we dined at over the course of our trip.  In most cases, the croquettes come in cheese or shrimp flavours and you get two of them on a bed of greens or some shaved parmesan and sauce for around 12 Euros.  They were very tasty but the price was a bit shocking to me since I had grown accustomed to the Amsterdam croquette, which was sold as street food that you could buy for 2 Euros.  The Belgian version was considered to be an appetizer at a sit-down restaurant and thus the heftier price.  For our main courses, Rich ordered the Croque Madame (not quite as cheesy as the French version) and I ordered a mushroom sandwich which came as a bun stuffed with fried mushrooms.  Both dishes came with a side salad and we quickly learned that this was quite standard and we never needed to separately order a salad.  Surprisingly, this was one of our few meals where fries did not come as a side, which in retrospect was actually a welcome respite after weeks of eating fries.

After lunch, our next stop was the former home turned into museum of 16th Century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, known for his depictions of plump, voluptuous women that coined the term "rubenesque".  It was obvious from the moment we approached his enormous house that Rubens did well for himself, much more so than Rembrandt, whose relatively modest house we visited in Amsterdam.  Rubens designed the house and grounds himself, based on studies of Italian Renaissance palaces.  His ornate furnishings and decor, semi-circular statue gallery and art collection all point to his wealth and importance.  Multiple paintings by Rubens himself hung on the walls, including a portrait of his young second wife and a self-portrait in the main part of the house, and some larger paintings in the gallery and studio.  As well, the museum showcased Rubens’ large collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and classical sculptures and antiquities.

The fact that Rubens had a separate bedroom was another sign of wealth, since in the 17th Century it was traditional for the bed to be in the main room near the hearth for warmth.  His elaborate canopy bed with bright red curtains was designed for sleeping in a half-sitting position, which it was believed was better for digestion and blood circulation. Being height-challenged myself, I appreciated the little stepping stool that was used to get into the bed.  The doors and drawers of a beautiful curio cabinet made of oak inlaid with ebony were painted with miniaturized mythological scenes based on larger works by Rubens.  A 16th Century “Spanish Chair” was made for Rubens when he was honorary dean of the Antwerp painters’ guild and has his name engraved in the leather in gold lettering.  I was quite impressed by the large, ornate linen press, especially when I think about how difficult it is to try to iron large sheets.

The highlight of Ruben’s house is the enormous brightly lit studio with the massive windows where many of his masterpieces were created and some still hang today.  Ruben’s depiction of Adam and Eve was painted between 1598-1600 when he first established himself as an independent artist.  His painting of King Henry IV of France at the Battle of Ivry is unfinished, with some areas merely outlined.  There were paintings by other masters also hanging in the studio.  Adriaen van Utrecht’s “A Lady at the Fish Market in Antwerp” contains an underlying moral message alluding to the unspoiled honour of the expensively dressed but well-covered woman who is inquiring about the freshness of the fish.  The dog by her feet is a symbol of fidelity while the eel wriggling towards open mussel shells could be an erotic reference.

My favourite part of the Rubens home was the portico created with a triumphal arch, and the interior courtyard that led to a Baroque Italian garden.  The garden was restored to reflect Rubens’ initial vision, using his painting “Strolling in the Garden” as reference.  Researchers reviewed horticultural data to select plants that would have grown in Rubens’ 17th Century garden.  It was a rare sunny day in Antwerp, which made it all the more pleasant for us to sit on a bench in the garden and look back upon the house.

Having completed the two museums, we were now ready to tour the area considered to be Antwerp’s Historic Centre.  Our next destinations were the Cathedral of Our Lady and the Grote Markt,  the “Grand Square” where the city hall can be found.  To get there, we walked along Eiermarkt, a shopping street which translates from Dutch to mean “Egg Market”.  Prior to the advent of supermarkets, it was common for a street or a square to be designed for a specific market.  Many of the streets today still bare the ending “markt” reflecting its original purpose, such as the streets Melkmarkt (milk) and Schoenmarkt (shoes).  We saw cookies and chocolates in the shape of hands, but we did not find out the significance until we reached the Grote Markt and looked upon the statue there.

Eiermarkt was also the first stop of a self-guided Comics mural walking route that I found online, which would take us to different parts of downtown Antwerp to find large-scaled murals by noted cartoonists, covering entire walls of buildings.  Comics are an integral part of the Belgian culture with internationally known characters such as TinTin and the Smurfs.  We would do a similar comics walk in Brussels as well as visiting the Belgian Museum of Comics.  There are many murals on the comics walk and they are so spread out across the city that we decided to split up the walk and visit  the murals that happen to be in the vicinity of our itinerary each day.  The mural at Eiermarkt, titled “Passage”, is by Jan Van Der Veken and depicts comics characters holding plants.  The work spanned beyond the wall of the building and continued on a couple of posts as well.

At the east end of Eiermarkt is a gorgeous 1931 Art Deco-styled skyscraper with sleek lines, stepped architecture and four beautiful Art Deco sculptures decorating the windows above the portcullis.  This building was originally called the “Farmer’s Tower” because the Belgian Farmers Association was involved in its construction.  Today it is the headquarters of the Belgian bank KBC, who unfortunately compromised the architectural style of the building by placing a drab, concrete block containing their logo on the roof.  Even worse is the modern but austere décor in the front lobby.  I’m not sure that this can be blamed on KBC, but imagine the luxurious Art Deco interior that might have originally been designed to accompany this beautiful building.

Next to the KBC Building, we found the self-proclaimed "smallest waffle shop" and tasted our first (of many) Belgian waffles.  At this point, we were not yet sophisticated Belgian waffle connoisseurs and therefore we did not know the difference between the regular waffle and the "Liege" waffle.  We bought a liege waffle slathered with chocolate sauce and it was tasty, but our real education on these waffles would come later on in the trip.

After traversing Eiermarkt, we finally reached the square that contained the Cathedral of Our Lady.  Our tour of Antwerp's Old Town will be continued in the next blog entry.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp Home Swap and Neighbourhood

Getting from Toronto to Antwerp to start our Belgium home swap vacation was uneventful.  Our Love Home Swap membership gave us free access to the airport lounge at Toronto Pearson airport, which was a nice perk that allowed us to load up on curry chicken with rice and other treats prior to our flight.  This turned out to be a good thing since I did not find the food served on Air Brussels to be very appetizing.  Once we landed in Brussels, our plan was to search for a place to buy a Belgian SIM card with a data plan for our phone.  To our delight, there was an Orange Telcom carrier booth sitting right at baggage claim (which we had to walk through even though we only had carry-on luggage).  We were able to get 4GB of data for 15 Euros lasting 30 days.

To get to Antwerp, we took a Diabolo train, which ran directly from the Brussels airport to Antwerp Central Station in just over 30 minutes.  Not wanting to figure out how to use the ticket vending machines, we bought our tickets from a live ticket agent, explaining where we wanted to go.  We took our tickets, climbed aboard the first compartment that we saw, and sat down.  Not long afterwards, a ticket collector came by to check our tickets and declared that we had “second-class” tickets but were sitting in the “first-class” compartment.  We had not even realized that there was a difference and the original agent that sold us the tickets did not offer us the upgraded choice.  Maybe we didn’t appear well-heeled enough to want to buy a first-class ticket.  We picked up our bags and shuffled one car over to the “second class” compartment, now noticing the number “1” on the car that we were in, and the “2” for the one we were headed towards.  We found out later that first class costs an extra 7 Euros and offers more leg room and a quieter environment, but we really didn’t notice much of a difference, especially for such a short ride as we were taking.

Once we reached Antwerp Central station, we used Google Maps to try to find our home swap location but ran into unexpected trouble.  For some reason, Google Maps misread our current location and sent us in the wrong direction.  Being quite jet-lagged from our sleepless red-eye flight, we didn’t notice and blindly followed its suggestions to turn left and right for over 20 minutes before reaching a home that we thought was our destination.  I was feeling depressed about how much farther from the train station the home was relative to where I thought it was.  Just as we were about to knock on the door of this house, we checked one more time on Google Maps and realized that we were on the wrong street and way off track.  Back we trekked, rolling our carry-on luggage on the cobble-stoned pavement until we were almost at our starting point of the train station again.  Reapplying the Google Map search, this time we received the correct route and actually found our desired street.  We arrived at the house but were worried that there were flyers sticking out of the mail slot, seemingly indicating that no one had been home for quite some time.  We rang the doorbell several times but received no answer.  At this point, we were chilled to the bone and started to panic.  Not sure what to do, it occurred to me to double-check the address on our Love Home Swap website.  Sure enough, I had written down the wrong house number!  Relieved and sheepish, we trotted over to the correct house and were welcomed by the person waiting to give us the key.  As a result of this experience, I ended up taking pictures of three houses, two of which were not our intended destination.  It was a long trip from Toronto, with the last 30 minutes of it feeling like the longest, but we had finally made it “home”.

Home swapping has given us the opportunity to stay in some unique places around the world including a house in the South of France that was built into a Medieval wall, and a villa overlooking the Lagoona in Venice.  In Antwerp, we stayed in a gorgeous four-storey 19th Century house with high ceilings, hardwood floors, wooden banisters, ornate chandeliers and light fixtures, elegant crown moulding and finishes, and stained glass windows.  It also had the most incredible library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a wooden rolling ladder that seemed right out of an old bookstore.  This was the perfect location for me to work on my travel blogs.  It is always interesting to stay in a home in a different country, especially an older period home, and be able to compare the differences to our condo in Toronto.  While we did not have a bathroom on the same floor as our bedroom, we did have a sink in our room, which made it very convenient to brush our teeth at night and in the morning.  We also learned about the heating system where each room is heated individually as opposed to having central heating/air conditioning.  Each room has a radiator with an oval knob with settings from 0-5 that you turn in order to increase the heat, and the door should be kept closed to prevent the heat from escaping out of the room.


Once we actually found the correct house and the “short-cut” route to get there from the Antwerp Central train station, it turned out to be a short and pleasant walk that passed by the back of Antwerp Zoo, highlighted by several metal giraffe sculptures along the path.  Once, peeking through an opening, we even spotted some actual giraffes strolling around in their pens.  Established in 1843, the Antwerp Zoo is oldest animal park in Belgium and one of the oldest in the world.  The main entrance to the zoo is in the large square next to the historic part of the Central Station and features a sculpture of a Moor riding a camel, mosaics of a tiger and a lion, and sculptures of birds in flight that looked like an eagle and a heron.  You can walk into the beautiful central courtyard of the zoo and see the flamingos for free prior to the point where you need to purchase a ticket.

We had heard about how incredibly beautiful the old Antwerp Central Railway Station was, so we were surprised when we got off the train and saw a modern building made of glass.  We soon realized that we were in the new part of the station and needed to walk through it to get to the original station.  Built between 1895 and 1905 at the impetus of King Leopold II who wanted a prestigious train station for Antwerp, several different architects designed different sections, resulting in its eclectic styles.  The main building, where the ticket booths, service areas and waiting room halls were located, was built with a stone façade and a vast 75 metre-high dome flanked by two turret towers.  The viaduct that held the train tracks leading into the station featured large panes of glass and  decorative steel that was later painted burgundy as it was restored and repaired after being weakened by bombings in World War II.  While both exterior sections of the station are quite striking, they seem a bit odd placed side by side.

Designed by a third architect, the interior train hall is just breath-taking to behold and is really the highlight of the station.  Designated as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, it has elements of Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau and other styles, achieving the “railway cathedral” that King Leopold II desired.  It is shocking to think that in the mid 20th Century, the building had fallen into such disrepair that there was consideration of tearing it down!  Luckily wiser heads prevailed and it was restored and preserved instead, but also expanded with the new addition in order to meet growing commuter needs.  Today the Antwerp Central Station has four levels of tracks supporting high-speed trains and is no longer a terminus station but now a through station with trains traveling in all directions.

Antwerp has been the focus of the diamond trade for several centuries and used to be the hub for cutting and polishing the precious gems, using a machine called the scaif invented by 15th Century jeweler and diamond cutter Lodewyk van Berken.  In the late 1800s, the diamond trading industry rose, establishing the area now known as the “Diamond Quarter”.  According to Wikipedia, today about 84% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded through this district and over $16 billion in polished diamonds are handled by 3500 brokers, merchants and diamond cutters.  Walking by the streets adjacent to the Central train station, you can see store after store advertising diamonds.  It is interesting to wonder who is buying all these diamonds from so many stores, since you don’t see people walking around flaunting their jewels?

The main shopping street in Antwerp is Meir, a pedestrian-only boulevard that spans west of the Central Station towards the City Hall in the Grote Markt.  Along this path are some magnificent Rococco and Beaux Arts mansions that seem like former royal palaces.  In fact, the historic building at Meir #50 was once the residence for Kings of Belgium.  Today, the bottom floors of many of these buildings have been converted into commercial spaces for clothing stores and restaurants.  It is particularly jarring to approach this stretch and see giant billboards featuring models wearing skimpy Italian swimwear being displayed immediately next to a palatial mansion complete with turrets, gargoyles and stone sculptures.

One of these buildings on the Meir was originally completed in 1908 as a Neo-classical banquet and exhibition hall, where fairs, festivals, exhibitions, balls and parties were held for many years.  In 2000, it was decided to turn the building into a shopping mall but a disastrous fire almost gutted the place. The building was painstakingly restored to its former glory including its oak floors, glass dome, swooping staircase, gold leaf, mosaics, crown moulding, wall reliefs and other ornamentation.  It reopened as the Shopping Stadsfeestzaal Center in 2007.  Today the mall houses 40 shops and restaurants distributed over 4 levels.  It is quite the experience to walk through and inspect the restoration efforts achieved to return the main hall to its former glory.

The shop “The Chocolate Line” resides in another historic building that has been converted into commercial space on the street Mier.  The elegant structure was once a palace where Napoleon Bonaparte hosted important guests and dignitaries .  Napoleon apparently loved a cup of chocolate, so it is quite appropriate that the building now houses the Antwerp location of a premium chocolate store that started in Bruges.  It is owned and run by award-winning Belgium chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who is known for his innovative chocolate and praline recipes and designs.  The main reception halls of the palace still display their 18th Century features including paintings, gilded friezes and ceiling ornamentations.  These rooms now act as the sales areas for the shop.  The former kitchen was gutted and modernized but the original stove was retained, restored and is still in use today.  Large-scaled whimsical and elaborate chocolate creations designed by Persoone are on display in the kitchen including a “Frog King”, a robot, a Buddha, a racoon and an intricately decorated egg.

We were anticipating eating much chocolate in Belgium and especially in Brussels, the “Chocolate Capital of the World”.  We figured that we might as well get a jump-start in Antwerp, and the Chocolate Line was the first store we tried.  There were so many unique flavours to choose from, although we had to guess what some of them were since the labels were in Dutch.  There were some weird flavours including wasabi, Bombay Gin, rice vinegar/soy sauce/caramel/sesame seeds/sansho pepper, fried onions, basil/sun-dried tomato/black olives, Earl Grey Tea and more!  Rich and I are quite conservative about our chocolate so we stuck with relatively standard choices.  We tried a milk chocolate with hazelnut praline shaped like a horse’s head, one shaped like Napoleon’s Hat made with dark chocolate containing marzipan and banana ganache, a dark chocolate with hazelnut praline, puffed rice, cherry blossoms and Sakura rice vinegar, a milk chocolate with almond praline, crispy bacon and quinoa and a dark chocolate covered almond praline, poppy seeds and a crisp of candied sugar.  Rich also bought a dark chocolate covered marshmallow cookie, which turned out to be a recurring theme as we traveled through Belgium.  In addition to chocolates and truffles, The Chocolate Line also sold brittles and some fun items including chocolate “lipstick”, “massage cream”, and “pills”.

The chocolates were so good and the store location was so convenient since we had to pass it to get to most places, that we returned the next day and hinted that this might become a daily affair. Getting free samples each time helped earn our loyalty as well, but alas, not enough.  There were too many other chocolate shops beckoning and we soon spurned our first love and decided to play the field when it came to buying chocolate.  More will be discussed about the “Belgium Chocolate Experience” in a future blog.

We had multiple dining goals to accomplish while we were in Belgium and we knocked off a few items at Bier Central, which was on the square across from the train station and the zoo.  One goal for Rich was to try Belgian beers, so we were enticed by Bier Central’s boast of over 300+ different types of beers.  They were not kidding, since we were not handed a beer menu, but rather a large beer “encyclopedia”.  After some careful consideration, Rich chose the Bourgogne des Flanders, a brown ale with low alcohol content and a complex flavour that was very smooth, less bitter and easy to drink. I have tasted Rich’s beers back home and have not found any that I would consider drinkable.  To my surprise, I really liked this Belgian beer, so much so that I ordered a beer for myself for the first time ever!  This was indeed a momentous occasion.  As we continued on our trip and ate at more Belgian restaurants, I found more and more Belgian beers that I liked, or at least didn’t hate, but this one will always be remembered as my first.  Since “tap” water is not an option at Belgian restaurants and beer costs only a Euro more than bottled water, it became a staple for our meals.

Bier Central was a fun place to eat since we were literally seated within a beer barrel, which was a cool thing to experience, but the benches not very comfortable.  We checked off another eating aspiration by ordering the Flemish beef stew with fries, which is a traditional Belgian specialty.  Belgian Fries were also on our list, but unfortunately the ones served with this meal were once again the “fat” fries like we found last year in our trip to Ireland, as opposed to thin crispy fries that I prefer.  We did not count this as our ultimate Belgian fries experience though, holding out for ones from a frites shop that come in a cone and choice of sauces.  While almost every meal comes with fries, at least they also come with side salad or greens so that I did not need to separately order a salad.  The stew was good with a nice sauce although the pieces of beef were a bit dry and tough.  We would have a much better beef stew later in our journeys.  In Belgium, and also in other European countries, the jaunt to the toilets were often a bit of an adventure.  Very seldom were the toilets located on the same floor as the dining area.  You either had to climb or descend steep and sometimes narrow, windy stairs to get to them.  At Bier Central, I had to walk by the “doors” of the men’s room in order to reach the ladies, but these doors were only chest-high (and that’s for my 5-foot tall height) with the urinals clearly in sight.  As I passed by, I caught the eye of the man using one of the urinals and then we both quickly looked away.

After walking around the first day, we realized what a convenient location our home swap was.  It was easy to get to the train station, which was useful since we would be taking a road trip by train to Ghent and Bruges, and then traveling to Brussels after our stay in Antwerp.  Just walking around the immediate neighbourhood, we were able to see so much and we were within a 30+ minute walk to any of the sights that we planned to visit.  Having familiarized ourselves with the area near us, we were ready to set out further afield.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

New York 2017 - Brooklyn

After three previous visits to "New York City", Rich and I really have only explored Manhattan, so on this trip our plan was to check out Queens and Brooklyn.  The Queens itinerary fell by the wayside on our last day when torrential rains induced us to hunker down instead and rest for the trip home.  We did manage to go on day trips to Brooklyn and got a good taste of this borough, although by no means did we see it all.  Along with our friends Yim and Murray, we booked a 3 hour walking tour covering the neighbourhoods of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, and in particular, the fascinating story behind the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Our tour started on the Manhattan side at the City Hall Park where we got a brief introduction on the history of Brooklyn and a glimpse of the bridge, before actually walking across it while we learned about how it was built.  Taking 14 years to build and completed in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the United States and the first one constructed using steel wires.

We learned about the impetus to build the bridge, driven by the need for people and goods to cross the East River and connect Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Back in the 1600s, crossings were made by rowboat.  Later, horse powered ferry boats and then steamship ferries made the trip but were disrupted whenever the river froze.  Bridge architect John Augustus Roebling championed the construction of the bridge and designed it himself.  Unfortunately John Roebling met an untimely accident right after the construction started, when his foot was crushed by a boat while he was standing on the Bolton Pier surveying the building progress.  As was often the case in those times, it was not the accident that killed him but the subsequent medical treatment which led to the amputation of his foot and eventual death from a tetanus infection.  His work was taken over by his son Washington Roebling who also met with tragedy the next year when he along with other workers developed “decompression sickness”  from descending too quickly and for too long into the water while working on the base of the bridge.  This led to paralysis, leaving him an invalid confined to his home for the bulk of the construction.  It fell upon Washington’s wife Emily Warren Roebling to take over as chief foreman, spending the next 12 years interacting with the workers on her husband’s behalf as he supervised from his bedroom window.  To succeed at this daunting challenge, Emily studied higher mathematics, strengths of materials, bridge specifications and the intricacies of cable construction.  This was quite an incredible feat to be accomplished by a woman in the late 1800s and as was typical of attitudes toward female roles in those days, the first plaque erected for the bridge honoured John and Washington but left her out.  This was eventually rectified with a second plaque with the words “Emily Warren Roebling .. whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband Washington Roebling complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father John Roebling”.  While this severely understated Emily’s contributions, at least it was something.  She also had the honour of being the first person to walk across the bridge, holding a rooster as a symbol of triumph.  When misinformed rumours of the bridge collapsing led to people avoiding its use, the Barnum circus boldly marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across to prove its strength.

As we were walking along the Brooklyn Bridge, our tour guide warned us to stay to the right as the cyclists are rather aggressive if you wander into their lane to the left.  It was chilly when we started the tour, but once we got on the bridge, the winds really picked out and it was freezing!  Luckily, it was not pouring rain like it had been the day before, so we did get some nice views of both the Manhattan and the Brooklyn skylines as well as the pretty blue Manhattan Bridge which was completed 26 years after the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Exiting the Brooklyn Bridge on the other side, we arrived into the neighbourhood called Dumbo and learned some interesting facts about the area.  DUMBO stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”, referring to the area’s location relative to Manhattan.  Originally they were just going to call it “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge” but someone realized that the acronym “DUMB” might not be the most flattering and added the word “Overpass”.  I’m not sure sharing the name of your neighbourhood with a Walt Disney cartoon elephant is that much better, but that is how is how it ended up.  We learned that Dumbo became an industrial hub for manufacturing because of the proximity to water transportation.  It is known for inventions such as the cardboard box, Brillo soap pad, water meter, and eskimo pie.  Eventually as water transportation became less important, the warehouses turned into artist communities.  The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was named after the reputation of Brooklyn residents for being skilled at dodging and evading being hit by streetcar trolleys.  Less than 10 years ago, Dumbo was used as the dumping ground for mafia hits but the area has since gentrified and is now a desirable neighbourhood to live and work in.   Walking through the streets of Dumbo and across the Brooklyn Bridge Park, we saw some great views of both the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, more of the Manhattan skyline, and even the Statue of Liberty.

Next we walked to the affluent neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights which is known as America’s first suburb.  We passed by some beautiful brownstone rowhouses and learned of the many notable residents who have lived or still live in this area including Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Penelope Cruz, Lena Dunham, and Norman Mailer.  We walked by the house at 155 Willow Ave. where Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible while married to Marilyn Monroe, as well as a home that Truman Capote stayed at when he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  We learned that Brooklyn Heights was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad during the US Civil War.  We saw a home that was used as a hiding spot which still had a “window” built into the ground leading to secret tunnels.  Finally we came to the Plymouth Church which was a major stop for the Underground Railroad, where its first Calvinist preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin) pledged to help all slaves and even held an auction to bid on the freedom of slaves and asked his parishioners for donations.  A statue of Beecher stands in front of the church today.

As part of our walking tour, the guide had pointed out two pizza parlours sitting side by side under the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo.  It was like a David and Goliath situation with the giant white Grimaldi’s Pizza towering over the tiny green and red building containing Juliana’s Pizza.  Apparently Grimaldi’s was originally a small family owned pizza parlour that resided in Julianna’s current spot, but due to popularity, it was bought up in the 1990s and turned into a chain of international restaurants.  When the lease expired on the original small Grimaldi location, the chain owner moved the restaurant to the big white bank building next door.  Unfortunately the expansion and franchising of Grimaldi's led to a marked decline in quality, much to the dismay of the original owner and founder Patsy Grimaldi.  In 2012, Patsy decided to come out of retirement and was able to relocate back in his original spot, naming the new restaurant Juliana’s and restoring the original taste and quality.  Our tour guide strongly advised us to go to Juliana’s instead of Grimaldi’s if we were planning on having Brooklyn pizza for lunch and this is exactly what we did.  We rushed over to Julianna’s right after the tour and it was a good thing we did since we snagged what was almost the last available table.  Yim and I ran ahead and arrived first while the guys sauntered leisurely.  The restaurant would not seat us until everyone had arrived so we were impatiently waving for the men to hurry up.   The first thing that we noticed when we walked into the restaurant was the shrine to Frank Sinatra who was a frequent patron of the original Grimaldi's.

We decided to order two of the specialty pizzas.  We chose the #1 which was a white pizza, made with mozzarella, scarmorza affumicata (an Italian cow’s milk cheese), pancetta, scallions and white truffles in olive oil.  Our second choice was the #6, which also happened to be a white pizza but sounded so good that we could not resist.  It had grilled chicken, mozzarella, Monterrey Jack, white cheddar, house-made guacamole and cilantro.  Both pizzas were delicious and we ate them with gusto.  They were also really filling so although we were tempted by the dessert specialty called a “Brookie Bridge” (brownie ice cream sandwich), we could not find the room and showing unexpected restraint, we passed on the opportunity.  While waiting in line for the very few washrooms on the premises, we had fun watching the chefs prepare the pizzas.  I chatted with someone else in line and found out that she had also been on the tour and came to Julianna’s (instead of Grimaldi’s).  I wonder if the tour group gets a commission.

After lunch, we went on a self-guided tour in Bushwick, another neighbourhood in Brooklyn north-east of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights.  There was another guided walking tour available, but since all four of us had already taken graffiti tours in Toronto and knew all about the vocabulary, slangs and rules of engagement, we thought we would do it on our own.  To get to Bushwick from Dumbo, we had to take a metro that went back to the Manhattan side and then crossed again to Brooklyn.  As soon as we got off the metro and looked around, we realized that we were not in  affluent areas like Dumbo or Brooklyn Heights anymore but rather in a working class neighbourhood.  We wandered around for a while looking for areas of graffiti concentration and were a bit disappointed with what we found.  There were a few streets with some good street art, but nowhere near what we have seen in other cities including Toronto where we live.  Maybe we missed some streets that would have been shown to us if we had taken a tour.
 
It was interesting to see a grittier side of Brooklyn including one building covered with barbed wire.  One dramatic piece painted under the barbed wired building was a mirror image of a woman covering her face with her hand.  On the left side are the words “Some Things” and the right continues the message “Never Change”.  I liked the Andy-Warhol soup can reference in the mural by the artist Angela China who goes by the nickname “Gumshoeart” since all of her works include shoes (usually stilettos) and stepping on chewing gum! 

Rich and I spent the second day in Brooklyn by ourselves since our friends had returned to Toronto by then.  Our main goal for the second trip to Brooklyn was to visit the Brooklyn Museum, which we could get into for free due to our reciprocal privileges with our Art Gallery of Ontario membership.  Prior to going to the museum, we checked out a couple of sights in the vicinity.  We took a photo of the Soldiers and Sailors Arch in the Grand Army Plaza, which was the battleground for one of the first battles of the American Revolution.  It towers over the main entrance to the 585 acre Prospect Park, the largest public park in Brooklyn.  Finally we admired the magnificent door and entryway to the Brooklyn Public Library.  The massive 50-foot high entrance features bronze doors flanked by two limestone pillars with gilded relief carvings depicting science, arts, classical gods like Athena and Zeus and modern day figures including a miner and an electrician.  Fifteen bronze panels on the doors depict heroes of American literature, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven, and Brooklyn’s own Walt Whitman.  It really is a sight to behold and is quite unexpected for what is otherwise a modest-looking library.

Founded in 1895 and located in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building, the Brooklyn Art Museum is the 3rd largest museum in New York City.  Its collection includes American art starting from the Colonial period, as well as Egyptian, African and Asian art.  Featured prominently in the lobby is an impressive marble sculpture called “Fallen Angels (1893)” carved by Italian sculptor Salvator Albano.  Also in the lobby are a set of eclectic benches all of different shapes, curvatures, materials and designs.  They are produced by students in Pratt Institute’s Department of Industrial Design, possibly as school assignments.  There is a replica of the Statute of Liberty sitting in the back parking lot which can be seen from the windows of the upper stairwells.  Since we did not have that much time to spend in the museum, we decided to skip the Egyptian exhibits and the Asian/Middle East floor was temporarily closed.  We also decided not to pay an extra fee to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit since a similar exhibit would be coming to the Art Gallery of Ontario in May and we could see her works for free once we return home.  This left the temporary exhibits and the American art collection for us to explore.

The main exhibit on the first floor is called “Infinite Blue”, exploring the use of different shades of the colour blue over different time periods, by different ethnicities or cultures, featuring various mediums and subject matters.  The colour blue has often been associated with spirituality, the skies and heavens.  Some of the objects on display included an 18th Century ceremonial wine vessel on a wheeled phoenix and a early 19th Century Chinese Lion-Dog made of white porcelain mixed with a blue/green celadon glaze which is surprisingly from Japan.  There was also a beautiful blue Art Deco/Art Moderne table radio made by Walter Dorwin Teague (circa 1936) featuring striking blue mirrored glass.  In addition to objects and decorative arts, the exhibit also included lines of poetry displayed in blue neon lights, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, prints and fabrics.


A fascinating and slightly disturbing exhibition features the work of Marilyn Minter, an American artist, feminist and provocateur who incorporates imagery of sex and eroticism in her works.  Minter’s art both provides critique and commentary on the standard male portrayal of female sexuality, and acts as a way of empowering the gender by reclaiming such images and reinterpreting them from a female artist’s perspective.  Her first works, created as undergraduate art assignment in 1969, are frank and unsettling black and white photos of her narcissistic, drug-addled mother who primps and vamps for the camera.  In the 1980s, Minter produced sexualized interpretations of pop-culture images.  Later on, she began a series of closeup photographs of isolated body parts that highlighted physical flaws including blemishes and freckles traditionally hidden by typical images of female “beauty”.

Minter also created a series of paintings that she termed “Food Porn” in which she depicts the manipulation of food as erotic acts, exploring “visual pleasure and appetites”.  The paintings combine pop-art inspired images with dripping paint that brings to mind bodily fluids.  In 1990, she created her first video titled “Food Porn 100” which she displayed as a 30 seconds commercial shown during late night TV shows, as a means of promoting her exhibition in a New York gallery.  This ad can be seen on Youtube and was aired during shows like Nightline, Arsenio Hall and David Letterman.

In a more recent 2009 video titled “Green Pink Caviar”, Minter films close-up images of a model’s mouth, lips and tongue, which lap up a variety of slimy and bubbly substances including vodka-infused and liquefied candy and cake decorations.  She used vodka as a binding agent for the metallic powdered food colouring to give it the desired thick, sticky, and semi-fluid consistency.  The filming viewpoint capturing sucking and licking motions are clearly influenced by techniques used in porn films.  Madonna cleverly used excerpts from this video as the backdrop for her opening song in her Sweet and Sticky tour.  Minter also created some of these images as large-scaled paintings, applying enamel paint and silver liquid on metal sheets, producing photographic-like effects.

Marilyn Minter's 2014 video called “Smash” was created as part of a fashion exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum featuring high-heeled shoes.  Minter’s video depicts a woman with painted toenails strutting around in a pair of bejeweled open-toed stilettos which she uses to kick through plates of glass.  The video is set to erotic music and lighting and is once again shot as a close-up featuring only the woman’s feet.  While all of Minter’s work at least flirts with or hints at the concepts of pornography, in 1989 she created a series of works that she called “Porn Grid”, based on hard-core images of pornographic acts which she embellished with suggestive paint splashes and drips.  These pieces caused great controversy and debate over whether or not they were exploitive and misogynistic when appropriated by a female artist.  In 2014, Playboy Magazine commissioned Minter to create a collage of photographs depicting close-ups of women shaving or touching their pubic areas.  While she created some fairly explicit shots, only the tamer ones were published.  Minter published the unedited versions in a book called “Plush” and some of those photos (again probably the tamer ones) were on display in this exhibition.  I had to break the news to our friend Murray who had returned to Toronto that he missed seeing the “Porn Art” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

After seeing all this eroticism and blatant pornography, it did not shock us at all when we came across nude sketches of the rock musician Iggy Pop, who posed for 22 artists of varying backgrounds in the New York area, resulting in the works shown in the exhibition “In Iggy Pop Life Class”.  The session was held as a performance art event led by British artist Jeremy Deller, who chose Pop because of his fame in popular culture, his importance to the rock world, and all that he has “witnessed and endured a lot”.  It was rather interesting to be viewing actual art (the sketches) that resulted from performance art (the event that led to the sketches).

In addition to these temporary exhibitions, we also toured part of the museum's permanent collection including a survey of the Decorative Arts collection.  We saw examples of furniture and decorative art pieces from a variety of time periods and styles including Rococo, Gothic Revival and Italian Post WWII designs.  As always, we were drawn to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces including a gorgeous French wrought iron gate circa 1900 rendered by hand in curvilinear Art Nouveau style with a butterfly motif. 

The most striking work in the American Art section is a large mural painted with acrylic, enamel and rhinestones onto a wooden panel.  Titled “A Little Taste Outside of Love” (2007) by Mickalene Thomas, an African American woman is depicted in the archetypical pose of the sexualized reclining nude that historically is rendered as a white woman, as in Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863.   Where Manet’s painting depicts the black maidservant, Thomas’ work as usurps the position of the “leading lady” in her painting, casting the black character in that role.

The most impressive part of the permanent collection is an installation called “The Dinner Party” which is housed in its own wing in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art on the 4th Floor.  Taking 5 years to complete in 1979, the Dinner Table is considered a milestone in feminist art which celebrates the achievements of 1038 real and mythical female figures, as a representation of all women whose stories have been lost to history.  Created by Judy Chicago in collaboration with hundreds of other artists, the massive work consists of three long tables forming an equilateral triangle (the symbol of equality) where 13 place settings are displayed on each side.  Each setting commemorates a "guest of honour" and is designed through the embroidered table runners, napkins, utensils and painted china porcelain plates in the style reflecting the honoree.   The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the floor below the table.

Each side of the triangular table represents a separate grouping of women in a period of history.  The first “wing” encompasses ancient goddesses to the Greeks and Romans, including characters like “Amazon” representing powerful women warriors in Greek mythology.  The second wing spans from start of Christianity through to the Reformation and is represented by figures like Marcella who founded the first Christian convent providing safe haven for women and Queen Elizabeth I who retained her independence by refusing to marry.  The last wing contains representation of women from the American Revolution through to the Suffrage Movement and the “women’s revolution”, including Virginia Wolfe, Emily Dickinson, and Georgia OKeefe.  A flip-card booklet gave descriptions for each of the 39 place settings, explaining the relevance and accomplishments of the honorees.  Judy Chicago’s masterpiece caused a bit of an uproar due to the vagina and vulva motifs found in most of the plates and dishes.  This was an incredible exhibit to see and a great way to end our visit to the Brooklyn Museum.