Happy Birthday Antoon

March 22 2016

Image of Happy Birthday Antoon

Picture: British Museum

Sir Anthony Van Dyck was born on this day in 1599 in Antwerp in Belgium (then Flanders). Regular readers will know that AHN is more than a little obsessed with Van Dyck, or as we call him in these parts, Antoon. So, happy birthday Antoon; people are still enthusing about your work 417 years after you were born.

I was in Antwerp just last week, and paid my usual homage to his birthplace on the Grote Markt, and of course the wonderful Rubenshuis museum where he worked. Today, however, is one of great sadness in Belgium. AHN likes to take the long view of things, so, trite as it may be, I wonder what Van Dyck and his contemporaries would have made of the terrorist attack in Brussels. Van Dyck's age was hardly a time of harmonius peace, and Antwerp was a city on the front line of the battle for control of the Spanish Netherlands. Nor would he have been particularly surprised by the idea of a war based on religion. But the savage unpredictability of our own era's violent menace, the delight in murdering innocent bystanders, and the crazed convictions (Jihadism) from which it comes must surely have struck him as fantastical and incomprehensible.

We too find still find them incomprehensible (I would like to see someone blame Belgium's foreign policy for today's attacks) but we have grown used to them. Their randomness has become almost something to be expected. We greet news of their arrival with the pronoun 'another' - 'there's been another attack' - as if we're resigned to them. This is in itself a worrying victory for the terrorists. In the same way, I didn't pay much attention to the heavily armed soldiers when I went through Brussels airport last week - one expects that these days.

But the dark green army trucks dotted around Antwerp last week gave the city an air of unwated oppression; perhaps even an inadvertent glimpse into European times past. And as I drove with ease through the Belgian/Dutch border, and relished the extraordinary cultural changes one finds in that corner of Europe (French in one town, Flemish in the next, then German with a French accent, then Dutch - all so unusual for an island-bound Brit), I again struggled to understand why so many of my fellow countrymen think so ill of 'Europe'. Why do we wish to weaken a project which, while of course beset with flaws and weaknesses, has peacefully smoothed away the barriers and disparities of centuries' worth of enmity? And why, when our neighbours and friends are under attack, do we think it's even close to appropriate or sensible to say (as some have this morning*) that Europe is somehow dangerous to us, and that we are better off out of it? The best way to defeat terrorism is surely to confront it together, not to turn our backs and say, 'that's your problem, mate'. I despair of the Little Englander mentality dominating UK politics at the moment. 

Anyway, that's enough politics. Now I have to do my quarterly Vat return, and then normal art history blogging will return later today.

*It took Ukip just 22 minutes to issue a statement blaming hte attacks, in part, on the EU.

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