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The Independent Culture
This Is the Flemish working class taking its ease. The two pictures are centuries apart, but these are unmistakeably the same people: strong, industrious, confident about their bodies, from hard-working fingers to big limbs and well-fed torsos.

The main picture, Mol: Silver Beach 1994 by Freya Maes, comes from "Trains and Chocolates", a new exhibition of contemporary Flemish photography. The other, entitled A Flemish Proverb, was painted by Pieter Breughel the Younger about 400 years earlier. Yet Maes and Breughel look at the same people in the same way.

Across the flat land of Flanders, the pikemen and dragoons and tank divisions of a dozen nations have stormed back and forth. The Flemish economy has been as seismic as its history, booms punctuated by terrible times of unemployment and hunger, by bloody workers' risings and by the annihilating taxes of foreign empires. But Flanders lives on and so does Flemishness - that huge appetite for skilled work and sensual leisure which has been an engine for Europe's prosperity since the Middle Ages.

This is Europe's first industrial working class. It has existed for nearly 700 years, since it began to labour for the earliest capitalist employers. As these two pictures - and the rest of Maes's work in the exhibition - show, the people of Flanders have always refreshed themselves in off- time and holidays with heavy food, strong beer, indefatigable dancing, and hobbies from pigeon-fancying to cycling. It is a pious and Catholic land to this day, but never a servile one. The Flemings have long memories, and do not forgive or forget their oppressors.

Wool made Flanders. The trade already existed in Roman times. But in the Middle Ages, there arose the organised mass-production of high-quality woollen cloth, exported all over the known world. One consequence was the appearance of early banking, as the great wool producers invented methods of credit. Another was the search for wool supplies, to feed the endlessly growing European demand for Flemish cloth.

To get wool, the Flemish used their money and skills to manipulate the under-developed kingdoms around them. Every northern king, from Scotland to Poland, wanted Flemings to come and settle. Their colonies taught the locals not only to weave but how to grow vegetables intensively, how to drain land, how to dig canals and plan new towns, how to produce handsome glazed pottery hard-fired enough to survive in one household for generations. Through the Flemings, with their trade connections to Asia, came spices and cooking methods which cheered up the stodgy, watery diet of other Europeans. They were not very popular, and anti-Flemish riots were a regular event. But they helped to modernise Europe.

With the prosperity came high art: the tapestries, the sculpture, architecture and matchless painting of the Flemish schools. But there was always an earthy, plebeian side to this achievement. The Flemish painters did not confine themselves to great altarpieces and portraits. They also showed the common people itself at work and at play, dancing, boozing or in marvellous moments of domestic tranquillity.

After Belgium was founded in 1830, the Flemish felt themselves neglected economically and despised as boorish by the dominant French-speakers. Today, the situation is reversed. The Flanders of "Trains and Chocolates" is loud with ethnic self-assertion. And it is prospering with new high- technology business, while Francophone Belgium struggles in the rust- belt of the old coal and iron industries.

The Flemish are not a beautiful people, and cool good taste is not one of their attributes. But, as the exhibition proves, that doesn't bother them. Their self-confidence may be coarse-grained, but it is ancient and sturdy. They know who they are, and how to enjoy life. Flanders flourishes.

'Trains and Chocolates (Contemporary Flemish Photography)' will be at the Northbrook Photography Gallery, Worthing, 23 April to 23 May, and at Ramsgate Library, 2-30 Aug.