Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, rue Ransfort. Inside the courtyard of La Fonderie, the Brussels Museum of Industry and Labour, the smell of coal and metal fills the air. Under the tents set up for the occasion, forge bellows blow air into a fire, on the rhythm of hammers tapping the anvil and beating on the metal.
During Design September, the non-profit association Feu et Fer invites visitors to try their hand at the delicate craftsmanship of blacksmithing. There is nothing coincidental about the choice of location. Once it was home to the Compagnie des Bronzes, which forged streetlights, statues and other metalwork used in the city. It’s right at the heart of the quartier called the Belgian Manchester of the 19th century, a name referring to the numerous businesses that settled here because of the available transport facilities (the canal is only a stone’s throw away). In the meantime, industries have disappeared from the city centre; the metal corpses dotted throughout the museum courtyard being the last vestiges of that past.
Michel Mouton, founder of the association, talks to his temporary apprentices between two hammer blows. “Never hesitate to wet your workpieces: water is just as important as fire,” he keeps repeating. It wouldn’t be accurate to say there is a crowd, but that doesn’t seem to stop the man; he’s used to taking people who are interested by the hand: “The fire does attract people, yet many come here all dressed up, so they are not always ready to work with us.” The discipline of blacksmithing also suffers from persistent stereotyping. “People see forging as something static, but in fact it is all about modelling iron. Not by hand, but with the hammer.” He talks clearly, his enthusiasm is infectious. More than an art form, Mouton sees blacksmithing as something therapeutic. His ardent passion is reflected in everything he says; the blacksmith who welcomes us knows where he is heading to. Though it hasn’t always been like that.
The road followed by a frustrated interpreter
Holding a degree in interpreting, the young Michel Mouton faces a dilemma: all considered, he doesn’t have the slightest desire to work, like others, in an office “spending his time repeating like a fool what others have already said.” Not knowing what to do, he uses the excuse of “perfecting his knowledge of English” to move to Wales, where he follows a preparatory course in Fine Arts at Carmathen’s Dyfed College of Art. One month later, “some kind of a troll (sic), a hairy little man who didn’t speak a word of English. Yes, no … nothing more” arrives at Carthmathen. The hairy little man is no other than Alfred Habermann.
Born in Czechoslovakia, the designer has been invited to Wales to create a contemporary wrought-iron fence for the city’s museum of popular techniques. The Czech is accompanied by an interpreter/spy who’s there to protect this internationally renowned artist from possible ‘defecting notions’. Having learned German in secondary school, Michel is brought in to exchange a few words with Habermann, who is happy to be able to talk in the language of Goethe. That is where it all starts for the young Belgian. Michel is bowled over by the expressive possibilities of metalwork.
Back in Belgium, Michel Mouton is obsessed by this emerging vocation. He decides to join the Czech in his home country for a few weeks to learn the art of blacksmithing. In a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain, this is a real odyssey, but no mountains are too high to stop Michel from learning from the man that he keeps calling, until today, ‘the greatest master of his time’. Shortly after, Mouton takes up a course in blacksmithing in Anderlecht. He soon concludes, however, that the training is “fairly old school, not contemporary enough: I had but one idea in mind: go back there”. After a second trip to Czechoslovakia, Habermann decides to flee to Western Germany, which makes things much easier for Michel from then on. Michel spends four years with Habermann, travelling back and forth between Germany and Belgium as he often falls out of money. Those four years are not exactly easy for the young man: “First of all, because Habermann was extremely professional. But also because I was at the age of foolishness, that age you struggle to learn because you think you know already… Later you know that you didn’t know! (…) It is now, as I am in turn delivering the training I received, that I see and feel my reluctance, my difficulties in doing things in an orderly fashion.” Order and discipline are certainly crucial in a profession where you earn your living by working hard.
He completes his practical training through traineeships (Israel, Czech Republic, Italy), which also help him continue his ‘training’ as a human. Over time, his doubts disappear and he learns on-the-job. After years of exile, Michel returns to Belgium, spending most of his time in the studio next to the house he rents in Bruges. When the latter is sold, he takes a sabbatical year in the Eastern Pyrenees. There, he meets Catalan ironworkers who dedicate themselves to passing on their know-how to the younger generation. This is the moment when he understands his purpose in life, the culmination of his personal journey. At long last, all the pieces of his life puzzle fit together, creating what he has now become: someone who conveys traditions..
“Ironwork is not dead; it’s not in the museum. It’s alive!”
Today, with very little resources – “but loads of passion”, he quickly adds – Michel Mouton tours the Belgian roads in his crowded van, to meet people he invites to roll up their sleeves and share his passion. The association that he founded offers numerous courses, for both beginners and more advanced learners, in crafts ranging from bronze work and assembly to Tuareg silversmith work! In another corner of the museum’s courtyard, on the floor, we find Tapha, a Nigerian jeweller who is deftly making pieces from silver. He owes his know-how to what he directly learnt from his ancestors … and he hopes to pass it on to anyone who will listen. For Michel, these are really constructive get-togethers, which perfectly fit his mission: “There is a huge lack of workshops where people can practice, make progress, help each other, learn from each other… ”
Michel’s nomadic journey sometimes looks like the work of a prophet. Ironic for a man who strives to eliminate dogmatism to bring his craftsmanship into the twenty-first century: “Although the training courses available today are good, there is an obvious lack of innovation and design. In Belgium, people only repeat what has always been done before. Nothing contemporary, nothing that has been adapted to today’s needs and creative sensibility. The blacksmith has lost ground… It’s very complex, in fact, since, in some way, we are starting from scratch. There is no more market, no more contact between our profession and architects… It’s hard to rebuild the market… yet it’s not impossible. People still feel an urge to harness fire and discover this craft… The techniques are not lost, they have been passed on from generation to generation. The know-how is still deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. “
In May this year, Feu & Fer received the Bruocsella Prize – an annual award that Promethea first granted in 2003 to acknowledge projects working for the city. In April 2016, the association plans to organise a three-year training programme, during which Europe’s top two blacksmiths will help trainees become professional blacksmiths in the medium term. Initially, 10 people will attend the course; after which they’ll pass on, for free, the techniques they’ve learned, thus ensuring that the craft stays alive and leaves the museums to reclaim its place in society. At a later stage, Feu & Fer hopes that this will enable a spontaneous community of blacksmiths who will happily look for opportunities to work together. In this way, young people will get the chance to gain confidence and experience, before trying out on their own and training other young people. That’s when Michel will be able to retire, satisfied that he was able to restore the glory of his discipline. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Now that the contours of his labour have been fundamentally defined, the blacksmith will not hang up his hammer before his work is done.