From occupied city to infected city

Two years ago I wrote about the important modernist work, Bezette stad, by Paul van Ostaijen, an experimental piece of literature describing the World War I German occupation of Antwerp, with illustrations by Oskar Jespers. Now, 100 years after this was published and 125 years after van Ostaijen was born, we have taken delivery of a copy of the complementary Besmette stad in which 65 contemporary artists take inspiration from and reference the original work while also responding to the coronavirus crisis. The parallels between the 21st century pandemic lockdown and the earlier wartime siege and occupation are clearly recognised: empty streets, death lurking around the corner and a realisation of how fragile human existence is.

The book represents a selection of texts and illustrations from a much larger multimedia project involving more than 100 artists who created poetry, prose, drawings, paintings, video art or music. Many of those involved are young emerging artists but older, more established figures are also represented – the book opens with a piece by the renowned Dutch poet Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer. As with van Ostaijen’s original, some of the contributions are multilingual and much of the layout echoes his interesting use of typography.

The project was set up by the Brussels-based Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren, an organisation founded in 2004 by the Dutch and Flemish governments to promote culture of the Low Countries, in conjunction with the Paul van Ostaijen Genootschaap. The well-thought-out accompanying website features a map with many links to texts, videos, pictures and more, including to the original van Ostaijen texts with useful audio clips.

A key example of “rhythmic” typography in Bezette stad is the page with “Boem Paukeslag” (in English, Boom timpani beat) at the top. This phrase was taken as the title of an exhibition held earlier this year at the Letterenhuis in Antwerp which allowed visitors to see van Ostaijen’s manuscript for the first time. This exhibition can now be visited virtually. A companion publication has been produced and we have a copy on order. There is also a travelling installation of the same name, visiting various places in Belgium and the Netherlands (currently in Antwerp) until November 2022. This features the work of five young artists (all but one of whom also contributed to Besmette stad) and explores themes from Bezette stad that are still relevant today.

Katharine Dicks

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