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Bruges and the Neogothic Restoration

The modernization of Bruges did not take place in its adaptation and renewal, but in the renovation of its historic identity. Historicizing was simply an aspect of the modernization: the one implied the other. Bruges is today still a conscious construction of the 19th century. The city that thinks of itself as old is an historic fantasy. It is not a phenomenon of the past, but the result of political choices and conflicts, of urban and architectural theories, of art history and contemporary artistic sensibilities, as well as religion. Artists, art historians, architects, ideologists and the clergy played a major role in the debate. Based in Bruges, British neo-Catholics defended a Catholic restoration, and had branches all over Europe. T.H. King, and even more importantly, James Weale, lived in Bruges and strove to realize a project that was religious, social and aesthetic in nature. The fascinating tale of this hundred-year ideological colonization - broken off by World War I - deserves far more attention than it has thus far received. Key figures in this neogothic project were Jean-Baptiste Bethune, Louis Delacenserie and Canon Adolf Duclos. They made themselves heard in publications and at congresses that commanded broad international followings. In addition, they made use of illustrations produced in both traditional graphic printmaking and photographic techniques.

How was photography used by the neogothic revival? The municipal theatre, completed in 1869, which had been the subject of so much objection (the architect was Gustave Santenoy) was the last effort made to bring the city up to date. It was built under a liberal city government. In the 1870s, a Catholic City Council came into power. A severe neogothic restoration consequently became official policy for decades to come. Under Major A. Visart de Bocarmé (1876-1924), alderman for public works, A. Ronse (1876-1903), and the city architect, Louis Delacenserie (1870-1892), the city carried out a subsidized policy of restoration and renovation 'in the Bruges style'. Repeatedly, objections from the Royal Committee for Monuments and Landscapes to interventions they felt were too uniform and orthodox were ignored. This was municipal policy intended to combat the plastering over of facades and promote the use of brick. In pamphlets and policy measures, the city rejected everything that was not local (styles, such as French or Italian were considered alien), not Christian (a classicist style with no religious meaning) and not part of the city's own specific tradition (the modern, liberal style). Urbanist issues clearly had a broader commitment at stake: the building of a city of orthodoxy.

Was this neogothic architecture (new construction and rigid restoration) photographed? It was - unavoidably so, given that there were ever more such interventions being undertaken - but rarely as a contemporary architectural subject. Photography (as far as it is represented in the collections we refer to) shied away from all current developments inside and outside the city. There are no pictures of the Stübben neighbourhood, of the Zeehaven, nor of local industry (with the exception of Lebon's distillery series), nor of either of the two railway stations. Delacenserie's major projects were rarely recorded. Photography simply did not consider the neogothic one of its themes. Was this because it did not fit in with the Bruges image, or because the whole city was becoming neogothic, so that every photograph was a self-evident reinforcement of the restoration's success? By 1900, Bruges must have had a profoundly muted appearance. It had become a neogothic city, a fantasy city, so that the décor-like impression that is so conspicuous in the Neurdein photographs cannot be attributed to the photographic form, but to the subject matter itself.

Tourists were scrupulously not pointed in the direction of the neogothic, for the neogothic was a success only in as far as it did not attract attention as being something new. But for a limited audience of architects, government functionaries and clients, a specifically architectural photography did evolve, and it can be placed principally after the end of the 19th century. The Album Ronse by Alfons Watteyne, the Cornelius Gurlitt album with work by an unknown photographer, Aubry's photographs in l'Émulation, the Maes publications of unsigned photographs: this is a surprising body of objects of prestige, following a very different form and presenting a completely different image of Bruges. Most emphatically, these are not urban, but architectural photographs.

In these architectural photographs, the care with which these works developed their views of an environment was no longer of interest. The building itself was cut out of its context and made autonomous. The standpoint of the architectural photographer did not identify itself with that of the walking visitor. Instead, the perspective was now determined entirely by the building. The photographer did not promenade past the façade, but had to photograph it from the standpoint of the architect's drawing board. In the same way that no standpoint is assumed in the vertical design of a façade, the architectural photographer intended to neutralize all standpoints. The vantage point feels slightly forced, artificial and abstract. The analysis of the building takes precedence in its synthetic impression. Not having been thought up as a result of the walking tour, the visit or trajectory, these images are extremely stable in character. They register their subject, do not glide past it. The accent lies in the internal, decorative dynamic of the facade (in, for example, the Maes photographs), in the specific effect of the volume of a monument (very evident in the Gurlitt album). It was no coincidence that Duclos published their Art des façades, for the façade was the calligraphy of Bruges. The Album Ronse likewise presented itself as a book of models for the calligraphy of Bruges façade design.

This photography did the opposite of what urban photography did: it banned history. The city's historic identity had been engulfed by its restoration. The past had been made contemporary by the builder and the photographer, made part of the contemporary moment in which the city and the photograph were both created. This photography, in short, was a kind of turning around of the past, not of what had passed, but of what had a future. Suddenly, it was no longer a narrative, and it was certainly not a picturesque photography that people could perceive, but a photography that was businesslike, objectified and collated. These were not an articulated succession of images, but a serial parataxis; not a syntagma, but a parallel circuit. In them, there is no city with streets and vistas to be found. The spatial dynamic of the trajectory and the viewing hole through the grooves of façades have been replaced by the dynamic of the volumes themselves, which the Gurlitt album worked through in a fascinating way. The monuments here exchanged their potential for fantasy into a plastic potential for form, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional. The monuments were no longer being brought into relationships and in dialogue with elements beyond themselves, but were viewed exclusively as an internal structure.

The buildings in these pictures were sooner seen as examples of types than as unique constructions in a place-specific history. Equally, in the Album Ronse, a typological reading was introduced as the standardized method for recording facades: the unique building had by now been resolved into a model. In the Maes images, decoratively inserted words, such as 'Maison' and 'Fenêtre', made this taxonomic approach very explicit. Historical narrative had been replaced by the dictionary.

The basic form for these photographs is their frontality. The diagonal, the tangential, the cross-motion that in a stroke binds various motifs to one another had been replaced by a frontally-placed dissection table on which the building was bound fast and cut open, as an example. This produced wondrously rational photographs that bear witness to great insight into architecture, but no insight whatsoever into the city. The building no longer spoke in dialogue, but in monologue. The subject was no longer the complexity of society (between past and future, and amongst citizens in a democracy), but an art-historical definition of a style.

It is no coincidence that the intimist, symbolist (and dead) city was formulated at the moment when the hard neogothic project definitively dominated the entire city. The neogothic destroyed the old, symbolic capital of history by making it contemporary. As an answer to this, it generated a symbolist rescue of at least its ghost. Edmond Fierlandts and Alderic Goethals had recorded the inexhaustible symbolic capital that history had gathered together, but three decades later, it had been intrinsically mortgaged off. The restoration laid a death mask across the face of the city.

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