Timeless heroes

Cities are always associated with icons that represent citizens and attract visitors. Traditionally, these icons are called upon to reveal the soul of the city in such a magnificent way that turn into ever-present objects embodied by aesthetical and historical attributes that make citizens proud and visitors amazed. Curiously, the biggest international icon of Brussels is the statue … of a boy pissing.

The anecdotes and episodes related to the origin of some of the statues erected in Brussels since its proclamation as capital of Belgium reflect the city’s own nature. Those were times in which historical literature was not accessible for all; therefore the statues located in the most emblematic places of the historical city centre illustrated the driven forces that shaped the city:

The statue of Godefroid de Bouillon (Eugène Simonis, 1848), located in the Place Royale, tells the story about a recent proclaimed nation in urgent need of a national hero. Either considered as a religious defender of Christians or a cruel conqueror, the equestrian statue was erected to honor someone who was born within the geographical boundaries of a recently delimitated nation (but was actually Godefroid de Bouillon born as a Belgian?). For the Belgium Catholics of the 19th century his performance in the Crusades provided enough arguments to give him a notorious place in the national history.

Further south along the Rue de la Régence, facing the church of Our-Lady of Sablon, the statues of the Counts Egmont & Horn (Charles Auguste Fraikin, 1864) commemorate the resistance of the Low Countries to the Spanish tyranny during the 16th century. After its relocation from Grand Place to the Egmont Square in 1879, the statues were accompanied with 10 more figures of intellectuals of the 16th century whose contributions to politics, art and sciences enhanced the discourse of Belgium Liberals of the mid-19th century.

Later on, the phenomenon of industrialization and its subsequent labour movement originated new issues related to everyday life. “Le Monument au Travail” by Constantin Meunier (1890-1902), along with other examples of the artist, introduced a type of statue far distant from the elevated figures of historical personalities. The sculptural representation of the social struggles and political concerns of that time raised the common working-class to an heroic position.

Almost 100 years later, Brussels’ statues no longer appealed to the heroic representation of either anonymous characters or historical protagonists. By the end of the 20th century, the city could witness how statues stepped off the pedestal and set foot on the street like any average citizen. By tackling cultural symbols, lost urban fauna and theatrical characters, the street sculptures by Tom Frantzen -the “Vaartkapoen” (1985), “Het Zinneke” (1999) and “Madame Chapeau” (2000) – revealed a typical way of living in Brussels and a local sense of humor – best known as zwanze – which according to the artist, is becoming extinct.

These examples confront the spectators with the particularities of Brussels popular culture, which are hardly identifiable in the epic monumental statues; and this is precisely the point: an old lady checking her wallet, a local that fools the authority, a charming dog of some unknown breed pissing in the street and… a boy pissing in the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne, suggest the recognition of icons not as merely decorative or heroic objects, but as elements capable to tell us about the implicit cultural values that also constitute the legacy of a place. Beyond the idealization of the joys and tragedies of the everyday, examples like these reveal the timeless values contained in the streets of a city.

(Text: Sedaile Mejias // photos: Diego Luna Quintanilla )

Photo gallery:


Godefroid de Bouillon Godefroid de Bouillon Egmont & Horn Vaartkapoen Madame Chapeau Madame Chapeau Het Zinneke