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Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles: A “Philosophical Brothel”
by Cathleen Chaffee, 2009

In the photographs, installation, and book project that comprise Les Demoiselles de

Bruxelles, the color images of African prostitutes seem at first to dominate the

exhibition. The women have selected their own poses, which range from the

statuesque to the come-hither. Marie reclines on a park bench, Miranda veils her face

with her hair, Solange leans provocatively against 250 Avenue Louise. Alongside these

brass-framed photographs of prostitutes are monuments, buildings and interiors

photographed, as the women were, by night along Avenue Louise in Brussels, and

developed by Augustijnen into a portrait of the city assembled from traces of Leopold

II’s colonial memory. For each live woman who poses for Augustijnen’s camera there is

a statue such as, Ixelles honors its colonial pioneers. The former offices of the Colonial

Lottery make an appearance, as do the King’s gardens, and a seemingly abolitionist

sculpture by Louis Samain, L’Esclave repris par les chiens (1898)1. Alfredo Morelli, an

employee at the Office de Sécurité sociale d’outre-mer (OSSOM) is pictured near an

image of Leopold II that hangs in his office. The bearded OSSOM worker and King

could be long lost brothers.

Two images are excluded from the category of prostitute or colonial relic: one a lone

photograph of a fox, the other a picture of the plaque on the rue d’Orléans just off

Avenue Louise commemorating where Karl Marx lived from 1846 until 1848, when he

and his family were expelled by Leopold I in an attempt to stave off revolution in the

capital. If the fox recalls the menace and fabled Flemish hero of Van den Vos

Reynaerde, the Marx plaque, framed beside a photograph of “Tina,” seems to more

neatly summarize the historical coincidences spiraling through Les Demoiselles de

Bruxelles. Avenue Louise was named in memory of Leopold II’s mother, Marie-Louise

d’Orléans, herself daughter of the King of France, Louis-Philippe d'Orléans. Having

never recovered from the trauma of seeing her family gravely threatened and exiled

from France in 1848, Queen Louise died at the age of 39 in 1850. That streetwalkers

from Africa should work the avenue commemorating Leopold’s mother is ironic. But is it

irony when Augustijnen reminds us that prostitutes, the perfect dialectical image, “both

seller and sold in one,” work next-door to where Marx wrote the Manifesto of the

Communist Party?2

Such historical coincidences and historical traumas are likewise Augustijnen’s subjects

in the book accompanying Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles. The publication is presented

for consultation in a ‘reading corner’ of the exhibition made up of banana trees (like the

photographs’ brass frames, the trees refer to exports from the Congo), a small table,

and two rattan and leather chairs. Scattered with stories from Leopold’s sexual

biography – perfect fodder for any Freudian – the book adds the names of other

women (the King’s lovers, wife, mother, and sister) to the Demoiselles photographed

on Avenue Louise. The first essay, by psychiatrist Émile Meurice, Esquisse d’un

Regard Psychologique sur Léopold II, asks whether the King’s internal fire, and the

history he created were not intimately entangled. Meurice’s psycho-biographical

interpretation of Leopold II and his sister Charlotte diagnoses the King with a fierce oral

fixation, problems of identification (he spoke of himself in the third person), a lack of

culpability, a pathological interest in satisfying his own needs and desires, and

suggests that, although he was less severely dissociated from reality than his

schizophrenic sister, Leopold II suffered from a “spirit that was visionary, but on the

brink of insanity.”

More is revealed about Leopold II’s personal life in the salacious excerpts Augustijnen

selected from the memories of Leopold II’s valet Henri Bataille, La Vie Cachée de

Léopold II. The valet describes the King’s love of food, his voracious sexual appetites,

and petulance when rebuffed. This last characteristic is notable in Bataille’s recounting

of “Le scandale de la rue des Fripiers.” Although one young woman did not return the

affections of Leopold II, he continued to inquire about her so publicly that it was

assumed the two were lovers. Bataille remarks fatalistically, “Mlle L… would have to

endure her entire life the mistake of having been pretty, and noticed by the Belgian

king.”3

Augustijnen’s own text, Coïncidences de l’histoire, similarly dwells on the misfortunes

and possible effects of just the historical circumstances that were Mlle L…’s

misfortune. As a point of departure, Augustijnen considers a lithograph depicting

Leopold I on February 26, 1848 offering to abdicate if it would save Belgium, and

proposes that the events of 1848 — when the fear of revolution forced royalty to

disguise themselves and go into hiding throughout Europe — may have scarred the

children of Leopold I.

He wonders how not only Marxism, but the presence of Marx himself might have

traumatized the young royal, asking, what if Marx and Leopold II had met in London

when both Leopold II and the revolutionary visited the Crystal Palace in 1851?

Regarding Leopold II, Augustijnen speculates that the King’s youthful ordeals may

have given him both the desire and the ability to amass more in the Congo than

Belgium alone ever could have given him, asking if “[Leopold II] developed a

resistance to catastrophes and traumas through the events of 1848”4

In Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles, Sven Augustijnen at first seems less interested in

criticizing Leopold II, than in analyzing him. But after nearly a century in which

historians have processed the effects of Leopold II’s actions in the Congo, how does a

Belgian artist propose to “interpret” the King as Augustijnen so audaciously does in Les

Demoiselles de Bruxelles? Augustijnen’s essay poses a kind of “nurture” pendent to

the theory of hereditary madness and delusion advanced by Meurice. Seen another

way, it confronts destiny with circumstance.

This mix of biographical interpretation with speculation recalls the mad narrator of

Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, who is also supposedly the persecuted

and exiled king of fictional Zembla. Kinbote tells his own improbable story through his

commentary on the final work of the famous poet John Shade, a work Kinbote is

nonetheless convinced that he, by means of suggestion, “gave” the poet. Indeed,

Kinbote viewed not only Shade’s poem, but every person he encountered as actors,

bending their lives to fit his own delusional narrative. The commentator’s irrational

conclusions seldom reveal any actual connection to the text he is interpreting, and

Nabakov’s elaborate fiction – a foreword, poem, commentary, and index – burlesques

hermeneutics. Kinbote once quoted himself as King, saying, “I’m quite satisfied with my

own melodrama.”5 Like Nabakov, Augustijnen begins to seem – at least in part – to

comment parodically on interpretation itself in Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles. Among

the ghosts in the Demoiselles are two of the dominant specters of twentieth-century art

historical methodology: Freud and Marx6. By the time Augustijnen’s book is

completed, their tools of analysis – especially Freud’s – appear to have been tried, and

proven ill equipped to the task of explaining the builder king.

Although every element of Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles contextualizes Leopold II, the

work nonetheless eventually bypasses the King. From Manet to Picasso, prostitutes

were made into ciphers for Modernity, simultaneously upending conventions of

academic art and spectatorship. Despite contemporary clothes, and sometimes

sexually explicit poses, the women in Augustijnen’s photographs are less than

confrontational. Rather, like the colonial memorials framed alongside them, they mark

the persistence of history on Brussels’s streets, a history of acquisition, malaise,

seduction, and the fantasy of possession. Les Demoiselles suggests that an approach

to the history of Brussels may only be possible through a poetic interpolation of visible

historical traces such as buildings, markers, narrative, and even Modern interpretative

tools now treated as part of the past. As surely as the fox – the animal that in fables

revealed the mendacity and lust hidden behind the authority of kings – was caught in

Augustijnen’s flash, so too is the animal a portrait of Augustijnen himself: a gadfly on

the Avenue Louise.

 

 

1 The exhibition’s invitation featured an early twentieth-century postcard of this statue, accompanied

by the handwritten observation in French of a contemporary, “The little group amuses themselves

well.”

2 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, transls. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLauchlin, (Cambridge,

MA: Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 10.

3 Ibid, 47.

4 Ibid, 63.

5 Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire (New York: Vintage International, 1962), 129.

6 Since Freud tried his hand at art history, in his 1910 psycho-biography of Leonardo da Vinci,

psychological approaches to artists and their works have been as controversial as influential. Meyer

Schapiro’s 1956 criticism of Freud suggested social contexts and literary sources for elements of

Leonardo’s art that Freud had attributed to psychological trauma. Schapiro was the first to suggest

that Marxist social analysis had a critical role to play in art history. Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci

and a Memory of His Childhood, ed. James Strachey, trans. Alan Tyson (1910; reprint. New York:

Norton, 1989). Meyer Schapiro, “Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study,” Journal of the History

of Ideas 17 (1956): 303 – 36.

 

 

Source: Gallery Newspaper 65, January 2009