Museum Dr. Guislain in Ghent and Pondering Belgium

I have a curious place in my heart for Belgium.

Fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester is from Belgium.

Her fashion up til 2010 when she was the head honcho, one could say is Flaneur Fashion.  But I will write about this another time.  For now we have Belgium and Ann D!  And she is the reason I can hug Belgium.

I had been initiated in the church of Ann Demeulemeester starting in 2004 with her sublime “Napoleonic” collection.  Considering that I see myself a “Gentleman of Great Expectation” in a Dickensonian pathway and aesthetic enterprise a la William Blake, Baudelaire, Jean Gabin and Jean Genet, she became my fashion hero lady.  She infuses her fashion with poetry and an 1800’s romanticism.  Androgyny abounds in her work.  For a 1970s old school queer person (in todays terms I would call myself “gender fluid” but I won’t get into that either until later!) I would wear “old man suits” most of the time, always too big and too baggy.  Baggy bum trousers, literally the crotch of the trousers would go down to my knees… I would hold it all together with a belt.  When lost, BELT IT!  So encountering Ann D in my mid 40s saved my life.  But we are talking big benjamins to avoid “old man crotch” syndrome!!   Yes, I did rob a bank to afford a few pieces, but then again we should all be lady raconteurs and rapscallions!  Around 2004 time, I also realized she was connected poetically with Patti Smith so for me, it all came full circle and made karmic sense. (Another altar dedicated to PATTTIII!!)   Of course I was smitten, taken away and began my yearly pilgrimage to:  THE SAMPLE SALE in Antwerp!  By bus.  With hardly any money.  The sale took only cash, and I had and still have so little.  The French girlies would come out with 5 shopping bags and I would come out with a folded envelope of a small t shirt!  (Think:  Charlie Brown, “I got a rock” style!)  To make things worse, the trip was an overnight bus from London  arriving Antwerp at 5 am and waiting in the cold til 10 am sale start!  Don’t ask.  Don’t tell.  Adventure time to worship at the altar of the Ann D phenomenon comes with frostbite and homelessness!!  Talk about committed!  All connected to our theme of “insanity” in Belgium?

I  loved Antwerp  immediately, with it’s merchant house architecture, the 16th century port trading efficacy was alive and well but it was the astounding old world National Museum, a rough and rickety affair of interiors that seemed like it was never touched since the turn of the century and this was its grab, plus one of the most extraordinary collections of Flemish art.  The innards of this cathedral-like building, displayed a disheveled, dusty, but ever so charming ruin, romantic and wanton I was enthralled by the innocence to keep it pure, dust and all.   So evocative of a space that the “guys in charge” (Surely young digital millennials?) have decided to renovate, tear it all apart and erase any semblance of antiquity and historical dust!  The only reason I would go to this space was it tasted, smelled and bathed us in ancient vitality of art, grime, a sacred crumbling dissolution.  And there is splendor in this wreckage.  So Why?  Why? Why?  Why CLEAN IT ALL?  I have no words for the stupidity of “renovations”.  But I am sure when done it will look like every other museum in the world.  A clone of a clone.  I think “unique” and “one of a kind” is a sin to the majority of people.  I don’t get it.  Conformity, everything “looking like everything else” in terms of clothing, buildings, Starbucks is what the masses want?  Everything to make you feel “certain”? “safe”?  Boring and insane!

I digress right?

Note:  Stunning ancient Antwerp seaside warehouse!  Old time Antwerp bakery Goosen! (Navette cookies with almond paste type innards!  Oh my God! ) Plus check the Antwerp Hands, a story to the hand, plus hand-in-hand we go to the GLOVE MAKER!!  You don’t need much, a cookie and a pair of gloves that will last a lifetime!! Even myself on a tragic low level budget can have a wonderful time buying very little but wandering and taking in the history and beauty sparking every corner!)

So, speaking of insane?  Here we go!  We went to Ghent in Belgium.  To a former insane asylum turned museum, but still working with mentally ill patients and still a working support facility which I found quite moving as I sat outside contemplating the show.  While watching some patients taking a break themselves, the grounds are truly green and idyllic giving one a sense of calm and I could only think how this place has stood through the centuries to still stand, serve the community and how this reflects the overall Ghent people and society.

First a bit of an intro about the place, the setting and the hospital:

Peter Joseph Triest (1760-1836) founded the congregations of the Sisters of Charity and the Brothers of Charity in the early 19th century, and later on the orders of the Brothers of Saint John of God and the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus. With the help of the Brothers and the Sisters of Charity, he succeeded in dramatically changing the degrading situation in the insane asylums of Ghent, Hospice n°8 and Gerard the Devil’s Castle. He appointed the young physician Joseph Guislain (1797-1860), who had made a name for himself with his revolutionary, award-winning studies, as the head physician of both insane asylums in Ghent.  This marked the start of a very fruitful cooperation between the two pioneers of psychiatric care in Belgium:  Triest, who started care out of religious motives and a powerful spirit of charity, and Guislain, who enriched it and completed it with his scientific and therapeutic approach. One of the first results of their collaboration was an internal set of rules for the institutions. These were the first of their kind and determined how to treat the ill in a dignified and therapeutically correct fashion. And so, moral treatment was introduced to the Low Countries. The mentally insane were considered to be ill people, and the rules advocated the use of as little violence as possible and prescribed occupational therapy. Those same principles form the basis of the Mental Treatment Act, which Guislain and Edouard Ducpétiaux drew up in 1850, and which would constitute the legal framework until 1991. Even in the design of the new mental hospital, Guislain’s therapeutic principles, in collaboration with the Ghent city architect Adolphe Pauli, were translated into an architectural concept.

A bit about the show taken from Dr. Guislain Museum:  WAR AND TRAUMA:

How were injured soldiers cared for at the front during World War I?  Who did this?  How were the victims evacuated?  What happened with the soldiers with shellshock?  On the eve of the major commemorations of World War I, the double exhibition War and trauma clarifies that the focus, also a hundred years on, should be on the fate of the people.  The “In Flanders Fields Museum” in Ypres deals with the organisation of general medical care at the front during World War I.  The Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent zooms in on several conflicts during the 20th century, but with an emphasis on a specific medical branch, psychiatry.

Soldiers and ambulances 1914-1918
At the beginning of the war not a single European army was ready to relieve the large numbers of victims in a humanitarian way.  The fire power of the armies was forced up, the defence reinforced, but the care for victims continued to seriously lag behind.  Philanthropy, private initiative and the heroic efforts of many individuals had to deal with failing medical care during the war.  The exhibition Soldiers and Ambulances 1914-1918 focuses on medical care at the front in the Westhoek.  With which types of injuries and illnesses were the physicians in field hospitals confronted?

Which treatments were applied? And where can traces of evacuation routes still be found? As the war progressed, medical care also developed and organisation and relief improved.  The greatest breakthrough was, however, the recognition – albeit reluctantly – of mental trauma caused by the war.

Soldiers and psychiatrists 1914-2014
During World War I many soldiers fell victim to bizarre, anxious and disturbed behaviour, which was referred to as ‘shellshock’.  The army commanders faced a dilemma: were they really traumatised or were they simply cowards who were trying to stay away from the extremely terrifying front?  Should they be evacuated or sent back?  And what was the best way to treat shellshock? The exhibition Soldiers and psychiatrists 1914-2014 explores the focus on and dealings with mental suffering during the Great War, but also focuses on more recent conflicts of the past century.  How do psychiatrists currently deal with soldiers with posttraumatic stress syndrome?  Is there more understanding? And how do reporters and war photographers view acts of war and mental suffering?  Soldiers and psychiatrists portrays the mental consequences of warfare:  from the first photos of shellshock and contemporary war photography to drawings of killed psychiatric patients during WWII. 

Ghent is a special little Doll House of a city.  I was enraptured and captivated by it.  The altruism of the Dr. Guislain concept along with the concept of the Beguine from 1200, to house vulnerable women (another post for the future) made me embrace it.   I found Ghent so surprisingly simple and stirring as a compact city in terms of the art school and the historical components and of course, the city is fulfilling in its simple beauty and aesthetic.  From 1200 architecture to 1920s Jugendstill-like style, there is a strong jazz and music scene and of course it is a city filled with tourists and chocolate.  But there is also a strong community here.   I really didn’t feel I was overtaken by a “tourist” city as I did with Bruge.  To flaneur this city felt much more natural and smooth.  I felt more connected to this place than Antwerp and Bruge.  Ghent is special, I don’t know if it is the criss cross of canals that makes it feel like a nordic Venice, maybe you feel there is space,  maybe it simply feels easy and accessible, surrounded by history and beauty which is still kind of shabby.  All European cities right now are being renovated, cleaned, and to me destroyed.  Upkeep and maintenance is fine, but glitz, blitz and spritzing everything to make it look homogeous scares the scheise out of me.

.When exploring a new city, do it with respect and simplicity.  Purchase only local small items and don’t eat too much.  Why is everyone GORGING on EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME!  Keep things light, keep things respectful and keep it real.  Give something back when you visit a space, don’t always take!  Leave the places you visit with something generous of your spirit.  Better than taking tons away with you!  Give.  Serve.  Think:  you are not entitled to have it all!!  Be humble and stay awake!

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