Europe 1993: City with a mission to save: Antwerp - commerce and culture

NEXT YEAR, Antwerp becomes the latest European city of culture, following Glasgow, Dublin and Madrid. But the celebrations come at a time when many think the city should be asking difficult questions of itself.

Antwerp's greatness dates from the 15th century when the rival port of Bruges began to silt up, leaving Antwerp the dominant commercial centre of the north. But the city intends to use the opportunity not just to glory in its past, nor to advertise its present, but to look beyond the city boundaries and question Europe's future through its art. Posters are beginning to go up across town demanding: 'Can art save the world?', or 'What is beautiful what is not?'

As the director of Antwerp 93, Eric Antonis, explains: 'We want to emphasise projects which make people stop and think about our society. Art is the automatic choice. Good artists have doubts and dare to ask questions.'

If this is the aim it is timely, for many people believe that Antwerp desperately needs to ask difficult questions of itself. In the last Belgian election, one in four in the city voted for Vlaams Block - the extreme right-wing nationalist party that openly advocates the repatriation of all immigrants. The city appeared to many to be the fascist face of benign Belgium.

H B Cools, the mayor, is a jolly white-haired man who attacks his job with infectious enthusiasm. In bidding on behalf of Antwerp he was, he says, inspired by Glasgow. 'It was Saturday afternoon. I had been trying to think up a project that would somehow help Antwerp rise above itself and I picked up a paper and read that Glasgow was to be cultural capital of Europe for 1990. I thought why not Antwerp?'

Mr Cools maintains there is a bond between the two cities. Antwerp is in the Flemish (Dutch) part of a Belgium divided into French- and Dutch-speaking enclaves. 'Glasgow is the main city of a culture that is not English, as we have a culture that is neither French nor Dutch,' he said. 'A Scotsman speaks English and lives in Great Britain. I am Flemish, speak Dutch and live in Belgium.'

The reality of that confusion this summer almost threatened the Antwerp 93 project. The new government of the Flemish region threatened to withdraw its 165m Belgian franc ( pounds 2.7m) subsidy if the promotional literature did not do more to promote Flanders.

This seems unnecessary for Antwerp which, from the top of its filigreed cathedral tower to the bottom of its cobbled streets, is clearly a Flemish city. Its central heart, the Grote Markt, is surrounded by the characteristic narrow houses with stepped roofs and tall windows, many brightened with window boxes containing late geraniums.

From the mayor's wood-panelled office in the town hall, you can gaze down at the statue of Brabo, the Roman warrior who delivered the River Schelde from the curse of the giant Droun by cutting off his hand. It is said that this gives the city its name, ant from hand and werp from throw, though others suggest it is really a corruption of a Germanic word meaning quayside.

Like most great cities it is on a river, one of the busiest entrepots in Europe. Napoleon dug the first modern berth, and although most of the shipping activity is now out of town the effect of that commerce is everywhere, especially in the city's rich artistic heritage.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Antwerp was the European distribution centre for spices and other exotica shipped from the Indies. The money funded many of the imposing town houses that still stand and provided the patronage and custom for an extraordinary group of artists of whom Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck are the best known. It was also the printing centre of Europe, from which developed a world-renowned engraving industry.

Antwerp sparkles with a wealth that owes much to the development of the diamond trade - a throwback to Dutch links with southern Africa. It is today the major centre of diamond cutting for both jewellery and industry. The provincial diamond museum has declared the 12 months from 2 March 'diamond year'. A series of exhibitions is planned.

The visual arts programme is sponsoring film, photography, video and high-definition TV. It has commissioned new sculpture and painting alongside an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jacob Jordaens. The performing arts programme has commissioned ballet and new operas under Flemish direction.

As part of the theatre programme, the city has built a floating 'Ark', a theatre-barge. Fifteen European cities have been invited to send a young theatre troupe to work, live and perform on the boat for a week.

Music too gets top-billing but Antwerp 93 will be a 'Pavarotti free-zone', says the programme organiser Andre Hebbelinck. Street events that culminate in mid-August with the Cutty Sark tall ships race will dominate the summer. The project has a budget of Bfr900m, half of which comes from national government and commercial sponsors.

The project seems to have the support of Antwerp's citizens - perhaps because the city has embarked on a series of ambitious renovations that will see the magnificent 18th-century Bourla theatre, for example, restored to its classical glory.

The mayor feels Antwerp has a mission. 'Look at all these people now, saying they don't want to be part of Europe, that it has nothing to offer them. I believe that as long as Europe is not seen by people as a technical thing, as long as you can involve them properly, they will become engaged Europeans. Culture is the cement.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen