Complete texts

1900 — The turn of the century

Dirk Lauwaert


The 1900 turn of the century is so fascinating while its decadence elaborates revealingly on cities. Around 1900, Bruges and Venice, two cities that are often linked, are both subjects of magnificent fin de siècle novels. In both Bruges-la-Morte and Le Carilloneur Georges Rodenbach had Bruges as a crucial character. The city is at the same time destructive and exalted. Venice is the subject of Der Tod in Venedig by Thomas Mann and Il Fuoco by Gabriele D' Annunzio. These four novels construct a decadent reading of the idea of the city. This decadence is also the subject of paintings by Khnopff and Le Sidaner about what a city could be when it refuses modernisation.
Pictorialist photographers like Bersenbrugge, Heinrich Kühn and Sury come up with a completely new interpretation, very distinct from the 19th century late pittoresque views for tourists. These images are still full of history, though of a very different kind. These new images are about intimacy and enclosure. Their city is no longer based in a collective history, but is an emotionally resonating field, a musical instrument for the eye and its eroticism. The city has a soul full of melancholy voluptuousness.

Berssenbrugge | Bruges | Antwerpen Fotomuseum | Brugge, met schilder “Regendag”


The first edition of Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte integrates in a paradoxical way the earlier commercial photography. The tension between both creates an irresolvable enigma.
There is even another kind of photography developing during these years: an analytical inventory for urbanists and communal authority. Bruges is no longer presented as a place of poetry but as a space to be built. As in the edition of Bruges-la-Morte a synthetic and an analytical reading of the city are available alternatives. The synthetic experience of the city unifies emotion, eroticism and remembrance. The analytical approach dissects the urban space into small units for communal interventions.

The three cities

Every city can be read according to three programs: mapping, living and dreaming.
Maps are very abstract presentations of a city. Projected on a flat surface it reduces a city into plots and streets. Possession and transport reign. It is linked to all kinds of authority. It is a reading of the city as material for power. Some photographic projects are linked to this idea of mapping: Alfons Watteyne in Bruges, Simays in Maastricht, Kampfe in Brussels, Bertinazzi in Bologna do pretty much the same: constructing an inventory. Atget in Paris is working along the same line. There might be a European tendency in the last quarter of the 19th century to proceed in such a scientific way. The mapped city is objectified, statistical, a sprawling process of units.

Watteyne | Bruges | Boeverbos, Bruges | Garenmarkt 3

Simays Alexander | Maastricht | Maastricht Stadsarchief

The second reading concerns the lived city, la ville vécue. That kind of city appears rarely in pictures since it exudes symptoms of frustration and social conflict. Only later on with reportage can the viewpoint of the inhabitants be revealed. In the 19th century photography is very rarely an instrument of social investigation (though there are some pictures by Watteyne). Photography is a practice of the bourgeoisie, not of the poor, not of social reform.

The third city is the imaginary one, the city that provokes images, that is read through imagination. Fantasy as the working of desire. For instance, tourists travel to cities moved by desire, longing, dreaming. They long for views as a specific kind of sensation and knowledge, about history and through urban structures.

Khnopff Fernand | Begijnhofbrug, Bruges | library of Dirk Lauwaert | Frontispice Bruges-la-Morte

Images project rather than document the city. In Bruges-la-Morte it is very clear that the city is part of the eroticism the novel is evoking. Documenting demands a strict methodology, a rigid structure as we see in Watteyne's work. But working for the tourist market, is dealing not with information but with imagination. The narrative imagination is essential for the dealing of 19th century with the world, which in the 20th century is no longer the case. The role the imaginary in 19th century photography is largely misunderstood. The 20th century separated - in its theoretical Puritanism - the written text from images. But one cannot understand 19th century photography and imagery in general without accepting imagination as an impure mix of stories and images, of stories as images. A Neurdein photograph made for the tourist market is a text within a picture.
This tendency is exasperated by the exploding market for these images and by their fusion into an integrated semiotic system where contrasting ambitions and forms are blended into one global structure. But this integration is hysterically unstable.

Visual continuity

The visual representations in the 17th and 18th centuries were later often literally reproduced first in lithographical, later in photographic illustrations. Photography did not develop original solutions for the representation of cities and its monuments, but reused previous forms. Lithographic and photographic were very often produced by the same firms. The traditions of these firms and their illustrators spilled over onto the new technique without any notion that photography would ultimately change the images to the core. The previous traditions were held up during the whole 19th century and changed radically only in the 20th. Only then did people understand in a radically new way the city and its images.

Telling and showing

The tourist images show and tell, narrates while it documents. They are in strong contrast with the inventories of Simays made in Maastricht and Watteyne in Bruges. Their ambition is clearly not to give an interpretation but a summation: they serialize, they no longer narrate. The drama of a cityscape is taken over by a logic of mapping and cataloguing. Still we can see now in these series a strong though austere poetry.

Watteyne Alfons | Jan Van Eyckplaats , Bruges | Brugge Stadsarchief | Stad’s Bibliotheek: Jan Van Eyckplaats | In Album Ronse

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