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Picture exhibition of the First World War in Bruges, Belgium given a contemporary twist

The whole remembrance industry troubles The War in Pictures curators Carl De Keyzer and David Van Reybrouck. 

“Brochures, cycle paths, regional tourism. Would we be doing that with Auschwitz? Come and visit!” said photographer De Keyzer.

Author Van Reybrouck is also concerned. He has discovered that since 2000, more than 3,500 people have committed suicide in West Flanders and there has been one suicide attempt for every 30 inhabitants. He said: “This is the highest rate in Europe. What is the explanation? Is there a connection?

Bruges at War 1914-18
Bruges at War 1914-18

 “It leaves a bitter taste; we are commemorating the young dead of the past on a grand scale at a time when the province is seeing many young people taking their lives. They are an elephant in the room.

“I interviewed many of the families during my research but how can we illuminate this distant past without resigning our difficult present to the shadows?

The result is a startling exhibition in the Stadhallen, where De Keyzer has placed prints on the walls of a giant walk-through picturebox, inside the medieval timbered hall. 

First is a series of new photographs, The First World War Now, taken by 10 of the world’s most prominent photojournalists. Each one, from a nation that was directly involved in the conflict, was given the task to record how the war continues to reverberate in their country.

Alec Soth, from the US, chose Oklahoma, home to the Choctaw Native Indians who served as ‘code talkers’, transmitting messages in their language so the enemy could not understand. Code Talkers Highway now runs through an impoverished town and Soth’s images tell a sorry tale of neglect.

British photographer Mark Power focused on Peacehaven, near Brighton, founded in 1916 as part of the government’s ‘Fit for Heroes’ campaign – it was hoped that the seaside arcadia would be a welcome place for traumatised veterans. Power creates an atmosphere of unease through haunting night-time colour images of the countryside.

Antoine D’Agata retraced the French front from the Belgian border to Switzerland and after travelling 800 kilometres said: “There is nothing left to document. Everything has already been catalogued or put in a museum.” The result is a group of photographs that resemble 35mm negative strips, with tree after tree becoming his memorial.

Bruges is known as the Venice of the North
Bruges is known as the Venice of the North

Belgian De Keyzer focused on Ypres, using black and white for the first time in 15 years. He spent many snowy nights photographing the reconstructed town and it was there he found ‘the impossibility of remembrance’.

The second part of the exhibition features previously unseen glass plate photographs of the Western Front which De Keyzer sourced from collections across the globe. These are the jewel of the exhibition and De Keyzer has reproduced them as unusually large prints while Van Reybrouk has added a literary text.

Through these is a demonstration of how photography took on a new range of functions during the war, from propaganda and espionage to cataloguing destruction and providing decorative postcards.

Included in the historic pictures are Leon Gimpel’s impressive scenes of children dressed in soldiers’ uniforms ‘playing war’ in a Paris street. They are all the more memorable for being in colour and so too are shots of Senegalese soldiers who look uncomfortable in khaki uniforms.

Today, Bruges attracts visitors from across the globe
Today, Bruges attracts visitors from across the globe

The most striking of the 100 prints were taken within the first weeks of the war, when a group of Belgian soldiers were killed during at attack by the German army. 

A priest acted quickly to record the deaths, arranging for photographs to be taken so names could later be put to the faces. The dead men were, one-by-one, unceremoniously held up by their hair so each bloodied face was clear for the camera. De Keyzer has not cropped the background matter and this makes for difficult, macabre viewing - placed opposite a panel of prisitine images of elaborate buildings taken by the enemy who cleared streets to secure a perfect picture.

The photographic display runs alongside a historic Bruges at War exhibition. Curator Sophie De Scheapdrijver, who was born in Ypres, has spent several years working on the project. She said: “Like most people I was less familiar with the specific role Bruges played in the First World War.”

She meticulously records the German Navy’s occupation of the city from the difficulties of daily life, resistance and collaboration through to liberation, while also examining the national and global conflict.

'Freedom of expression was banned and the city’s newspapers were no longer published'

De Scheapdrijver, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, said: “Bruges became a huge military-maritime zone. There was great tension and many restrictions were imposed; freedom of expression was banned and the city’s newspapers were no longer published.

“But nobody in Bruges wanted their beautiful city to remain a U-boat base for ever and the people were not passive.

"They suffered violence and 13 spies and resistance fighters were executed.”

FACTFILE

14-18. The War in Pictures: Bruges at War exhibition at Stadshallen, Markt 7, runs until February 22, 2015. 

Opening times: 9.30am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday.

Tickets: 12 euros, 10 euros for senior citizens and 12-25 year olds. Under 12s go free

Note: At the time of visiting the exhibition texts were not in English but there are guidebooks at the ticket office. 

Details at bruges1418.be

Lesley Bellew was a guest of Tourisme Brugge and stayed at the Pand Hotel, Pandreitje 16, in a quiet backwater of the city and a short walk to the Stadhallen. The 18th century carriage house has been converted to a 26-bedroom boutique hotel and parking is available. Visit pandhotel.com

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