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. Continue reading

On the fringes of Dada in Berlin

It seems to be almost a running joke that British people find it difficult to name a famous Belgian. This post highlights a major work of an important and influential 20th century Flemish poet who should definitely be more widely known and who was briefly on the periphery of the Dada movement in Berlin after World War I.

Paul van Ostaijen in Germany, 1920 via Wikimedia Commons

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) was from Antwerp where he gained a reputation as a dandy within bohemian circles. He was a political activist for the Flemish independence movement, and his flight to Berlin at the very end of World War I meant that he escaped a short delayed prison sentence, imposed earlier that year for demonstrating against the pro-French speaking Cardinal Mercier. He was already a published poet and critic, and during the two and a half years that he spent in Berlin he wrote perhaps his most important work, Bezette stad, published in 1921 and described in a recent translation into English as “one of the key works of the Dadaist movement”. Continue reading