Why ‘radical’ Brussels isn’t as boring as you might think

With its aged-white façade and wrought-iron sign, it looks like many other old café-bars in Brussels – but the black-and-white photo of seven men and two women in the next-door shop window is a clue to this watering hole’s interesting past.

The soberly-dressed gang in the shot are Brussels Surrealists and the traditional estaminet (cafe-bar) is La Fleur en Papier Doré – their regular meeting place, where some of the 20th century’s most revolutionary art ideas were developed.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the first Surrealist Manifesto, penned by French writer André Breton. It is also the centenary of Belgian Surrealism, which asserted itself with the publication of a pamphlet called Correspondance.

Although René Magritte is now the Belgian group’s best-known member, the unofficial “leader” and co-founder of the movement was poet and biochemist Paul Nougé, who was also a founding member of the Belgian Communist Party.

It’s perhaps hard to think of Brussels – a city more associated these days with buttoned-up bureaucrats – as an avant-garde playground and hotbed of counterculture, but the city provided an essential contribution to the Surrealist legacy, whose foundations were laid in emotion and the unconscious, throwing reason and caution to the wind.

And beyond the humdrum of the city’s European and intergovernmental headquarters, that legacy can still be felt today.

In the Dansaert and Sainte-Catherine districts, you’ll find Beursschouwburg, a multi-disciplinary centre for the arts where regular “conversations” might tackle anti-fascist future or subversive publishing, as well as the Centrale centre for contemporary art.

To mark the anniversaries, Brussels is hosting two major exhibitions: Imagine! 100 Years of International Surrealism at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Bélgique and Histoire de ne pas rire – Surrealism in Belgium at nearby BOZAR.

Although the former exhibition, created in partnership with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has major works by the leading international surrealists, I found the latter – about the development of the Belgian movement which aimed to change the world, often using provocative humour – to be particularly engaging.

Over a coffee in La Fleur, with its nicotine-stained walls and antique furniture, curator Xavier Cannone tells me: “The Belgian surrealists were low key, with a reluctance for fame and lived modest lives with normal clothes, houses and jobs. They had a different outlook to the French surrealists.

“But, despite appearances, resistance and subversion are part of Belgian spirit. And we don’t take things seriously – we had no government for over a year recently and we just laughed about it.”

The tourist office Brussels has created a downloadable “Surrealism in Brussels” walking tour through the Tales & Tours app. with most of the 13 sights associated with Magritte.

While the Musée Magritte, next to the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, has a superb collection of the artist’s works, I’m keen to put them in context and so I take a 40-minute journey on Tram 93 to the northern suburb of Jette.

In an unremarkable residential street, a blackboard in the shape of a man wearing a bowler hat indicates the red-brick townhouse where Magritte and his wife Georgette rented the ground-floor apartment from 1930 to 1954.

Privately owned, what is now the Musée René Magritte – where the artist created more than half of his work and received his surrealist friends – has been open to the public for 25 years.

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One of the compact rooms at Musée René Magritte (Photo: Jean-Paul Remy/visit.brussels)

It’s hard to believe that this bijou one-bedroom apartment was the location of such avant-garde goings on. What would the neighbours have thought?

These days, the upstairs floors display a collection of original Magritte artworks and documents. I’m drawn to a photo of a teenage girl, arm in arm with the artist.

“That’s Elianne Peeters,” says guide, Chloé Thibault. “She was a neighbour and friend of the Magrittes and often modelled for the surrealists, sometimes nude. Her parents sent her away to boarding school as they felt the group was a bad influence.”

In the house next door is Belgium’s first Musée d’Art Abstrait (same ticket), a collection of mostly Belgian abstract art. Magritte dabbled in abstract painting before changing direction after seeing a copy of Giorgio de Chirico’s The Song of Love.

A more modern artistic expression is Jette’s street art trail, Yes We Can, inspired by the Declaration of Human Rights.

I’m interested to know if Surrealism continues to influence today’s artists so I head to the south of the city, off chic Avenue Louise, to visit Rodolphe Janssen, who owns one of Belgium’s leading contemporary art galleries.

He tells me that “there are female artists who are inspired by Surrealists and are intent on destroying their masculine ideas. American artist Emily Mae Smith for example, explores the movement, including Magritte, through a feminist lens.”

Before heading home, I decide to check out the plush Bar Magritte at five-star Hotel Amigo, which opened on 21 November 2023 to mark the artist’s 125th birthday. A glance at the menu informs me that the Magritte-inspired cocktails, served in specially designed glasses, cost €23/£19. Surreal, indeed.

How to get there
A return train fare from London St Pancras to Brussels starts at £78.

Where to stay
Rooms at The Hoxton, housed in the top half of a 22-storey 1970s office block, start at £100.

More information
Visit Brussels