Everyone is talking about the impressive opening of a new exhibition space in Brussels. The conversion of the disused Patinoire Royale in the Saint-Gilles district has produced a truly extraordinary venue. Built in 1877, this roller skating rink with its wooden flooring and adjoining high galleries for the public, was turned into Bugatti showrooms in 1900. Five years later, it was used as a firearms depot for the National Factory of Herstal. After World War II, Siemens, whose offices were nearby, used the building as a garage. In 1975, it became an exhibition venue for classic cars. Purchased in 2007 by Valérie Bach and Philippe Austruy, a French couple living in Belgium for the past ten years, it almost became their private residence.
This landmark building has been a listed monument ever since 1995. It prolongs the Valérie Bach gallery which is accessed Rue Faider. A third entrance is planned, on the side of chaussée de Charleroi, via a building which will accommodate a restaurant. All in all, quite a major development, a great heritage rescue, and a sure bet for Brussels, which again and again has shown little regard for its outstanding architectural treasures.
The architectural firm of Jean-Paul Hermant was entrusted with the restoration of structures and carcass work, later assisted by the French interior designer Pierre Yovanovitch for the space layout and scenography of the circulation and exhibition areas.
As we enter, our gaze is immediately dazzled by the open metalwork of the ceilling, the huge rose window facade and, designed for free-flowing movement between floors, the stairwell, looming ahead like a castle keep on top of the 1,200 m2 central platform. The metal and timber roof frame, with its wooden ties imitating metal, was restored. Openings were created in the roof to allow natural light into the structure. The top floor holds offices: a dome, featuring on the original plans but never built, was added on the street side. A window which opens on Rue Blanche was also added on this third floor. The first street-front space is reserved for exhibitions of emerging artists.
Director of the Patinoire Constantin Chariot explains: “We will exhibit so-called second market art works, spanning the timeframe from 1940 to 1980, as well as design pieces from the same period. For each exhibition, we will have an element of research, a catalogue, and educational activities. However, we are an art gallery. This means that admission is free and everything is for sale.”
Chances are this type of hybrid venue – let’s call it “American style”, because of the private aspect of the project with a touch of sponsorship – will mushroom, filling up the void of not having a modern and contemporary art museum in Brussels, due to lack of resources, poor management and the politicians’ lack of commitment on this subject. A recurrent topic for us. How could we not be enthusiastic about such a venue with its beautiful design?
The guest curator for the first exhibitions is the French Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former Minister of Culture under President Jacques Chirac. La résistance des images, the inaugural exhibition, showcases Narrative Figuration artists from the 1960s to the 1980s. Pierre Yovanovitch used low mobile partitions to subdivide the huge space and create rooms. Great works of Narrative Figuration are displayed on those walls. In today’s world, we have forgotten the level of engagement and courage of the artists of this period whether artistically, socially or politically. Indeed, this was the heyday of abstract and conceptual art. Understandingly, those who dared to be figurative were not taking a comfortable stance. Their position was also political, since the works of these artists heralded and accompanied the student revolt of May 1968.
“The works presented were obtained from the artists themselves or their close relations. We truly had to hunt for works. Luckily, older works, some of which had rarely been displayed or not at all, had been kept at the back of studios,” comments assistant curator Guillaume Picon. “Lucky strikes were added to our selection. These include, Contamination verte (1970) by Hervé Télémaque, which was once owned by French President George Pompidou, and Mao sur la place de la Concorde (1980) by Erró, never shown before.”
Jean-Jacques Aillagon: “Of course, the intention would not be to repeat what was already done for the most recent retrospective exhibitions devoted to this era of visual arts in France. In particular, I am referring to the Figuration narrative Paris 1960-1972 exhibition which was held at the Grand Palais in 2008. No question of stacking together a series of studies on a specific artist either, especially since this type of exercise has been happening quite a lot in recent times. Only this spring, Monory in Landerneau, Télémaque at the Pompidou Centre, and a Fromager exhibition planned in the same institution next year. (…) Unjust and sometimes late recognition of increasingly essential artists which we will no doubt discover with a bang during The World Goes Pop, the next exhibition at the Tate Modern (…)”
Our modern-day gaze is first dazzled by the bright and often pure colours that these artists use. So much freshness, life, enthusiasm! Several works by the Belgian feminist and pop artist Evelyne Axell, who recently exhibited at the Cornette de Saint-Cyr auction house, but also many works by Gérard Fromager, who, at the exhibition opening, explained to us in detail why his work was so contentious at the time. Let’s mention especially the gorgeous Valerio Adami, a large format painting by Eduardo Arroyo (currently at the Salon d’Art), and many works by Emanuel Proweller, with their powerful solid colours. Or the almost monochromatic palette used by Jacques Monory in his paintings…
A new lease of life for many, starting with the genuinely successful revamping of the building. A must-visit venue in the Brussels cityscape. A gamble that paid off!
La Résistance des images
La Patinoire Royale
15 rue Veydt
Until 31 July
Tuesdays – Saturdays, from 11:00 to 13:00 and from 14:00 to 19:00h