Ghent in East Flanders is known for its mediaeval centre. Yet Jan Dalley discovers contemporary art among the history
"Now you can't argue with that – for a castle," said my companion, as we stood in front of Ghent's 12th century Castle of the Counts. It has turrets, a portcullis and part of a moat, and it's so central that trams rattle immediately beneath the battlements. Inside, the fairytale image takes a bit of a knock. Unless you particularly enjoy a graphic display of mediaeval torture instruments, savour the outside and move swiftly along – especially if night is falling.
Ghent is one of the few places where I'd recommend a first exploration by night. Along an easily followed looping route, the best buildings in the city's historic centre are illuminated, and as the lights gleam back from the canals (when we were there, from ice puddles and snow-covered rooftops), the effect is of a giant toy town. This was one of the richest cities of mediaeval Europe, and the scale of some of the buildings – such as the elongated 15th century Great Butchers' Hall and the expanses of glass in the multiple windows of the wealthy merchants' houses – is extraordinary. To us it may verge on the too-picturesque, but in its day it was Manhattan.
The illuminated trail is magical, winter or summer – and next day you feel as if the city is already yours. In the colder morning light, St Bavo's cathedral, St Jacob's church and others reveal themselves in tones of grey: strict and monochrome northern Gothic, impressive, awe-inspiring, a bit unyielding. The cathedral, though, is home to the rich colours of one of the most famous pictures of the northern Renaissance – the Van Eyck brothers' triptych The Adoration
of the Lamb. Here's the good news: the Adoration now lives in a brightly lit side room (admission charge + bullet-proof glass,
of course), so that you can see close up the detail of landscape, flowers, drapery, animals, faces, tools, jewels and much more. And here's the bad news: you can't see all of it. An ongoing five-year restoration programme means that parts of the great triptych are dismantled, and are being worked on in the Museum of Fine Arts in another part of town. Here you can observe the conservators at work through a glass window. Better than nothing, I suppose, but a little flat. But an excursion to the Museum of Fine Arts is worthwhile, especially if you have a taste for Ostend-based painter and printmaker James Ensor, and for early 20th century abstraction and surrealism. Just over the road is S.M.A.K., the museum of art since 1945 – an equally impressive stone edifice whose collections can best be described as eclectic. Belgian superstar Luc Tuymans is less in evidence than one might expect, but a room of early Beuys provides plenty to think about.
This summer, the Design Museum on Jan Breydelstraat is offering Art Nouveau treasures from its collection and also Architects and Silver, with works by Zaha Hadid, Carlo Scarpa and Ettore Sottsass. And from mid-July, you can investigate the German painter, architect and industrial designer Peter Behrens in From Jugendstil to Industrial Design.
That was our cue to explore Ghent's contemporary art scene. It seems a great place for artists: dreamy light, deep quiet, bicycles, trams, coffee and bars (in which one can still smoke). Our destination was a very new gallery run by philosopher-gallerist Kristof De Clercq, showing painters such as Belgian artists Thomas Müller and Agnes Maes, and the British artist Vicken Parsons. And then it was off out of town to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in the swanky suburb of Deurle.
It houses the collection, mostly of Flemish artists from the 1920s on, created by Jules and Irma Dhondt-Dhaenens. Erik Van Biervliet's 1967 building is a fine space with a revolving programme, but my discovery was the work of Antwerp sculptor Oscar Jespers, who flourished in the 1920s and early 1930s under the influence of Brancusi and others. It's a long way from the Castle of the Counts – although some of Jespers's figures do look rather tortured.
Jan Dalley is arts editor at the Financial Times.