It Was Surreal – Wandering Through the Verbeke Foundation


a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images


The Verbeke Foundation near Antwerp, Belgium is described as a “presentation that is unfinished, in motion, unpolished, contradictory, untidy, complex, disharmonious, lively and unmonumental. In this manner it resembles the world outside the museum walls.”

I kept this in mind as I walked through the museum. It was the only information I had. The brochure said this and little else. I would have to figure the rest out for myself. I examined the exhibits, but none made sense to me and there were no descriptions in English. Actually, there weren’t any placards beside the works at all, though most pieces did have a title and artist noted beside them in Flemish. So I had to go with feelings.

Except – I wasn’t sure how to feel. Confused. Disturbed. Curious. Contemplative. Off-balance. Sickened. Shocked. The art elicited so many emotions. For instance, these foxes:


I was awed and repelled by these fox furs that formed a beautiful, yet macabre, hanging sculpture. But what was the artist trying to say? That she was against using animals for fur? Yet – the furs were so beautiful that it made you want to covet them. It was easy to understand why she would rail against animals being used for fur (if, indeed she was), but it almost had the reverse effect. The pelts looked so soft. I wanted one. Was that her intention? But at the same time, I wanted to cry. No, no! Don’t kill them!

I moved on and was intrigued by canvases covered with dead black flies. It was later explained to me that the artist used a wall-sized canvas depicting the four winds and had the flies walk through paint, making patterns. It was believed that they would gravitate more toward one of the four winds, but it didn’t appear to have turned out that way. Next to the wall-sized canvas were smaller white canvases with more flies stuck to them. I didn’t know what to make of it.


But the most gruesome exhibit was a butchered cow. I didn’t want to believe it was real when I saw a cow’s head inside a glass case, sitting in a pool of blood. Then I saw all the other butchered cow parts that were in glass cases alongside that. Each puddled with blood. No explanation. I couldn’t fathom that this was art.

As it turns out, that is owner/collector Geert Verbeke’s favorite piece. The entire museum is his personal collection of art. As he explains it, the cow was killed and put into glass in 1990 and hooked up to electrodes. Those electrodes emit low voltages of energy waves on a computer, which in turn produce sounds that go along with the currents. “It’s living art. Philosophical. Things don’t just die. Their energy goes on,” Verbeke explained. And that’s what Geert likes about it. The dead cow is actually still alive; or at least, still contains energy that can be measured and illustrated. Once he explained it, I found it fascinating, too, though I didn’t care to look at the cow parts in glass cubes again. (And I didn’t take pictures.)

Instead, I wandered outside, where unusual sculptures more to my liking covered 12 hectares of land. Some still made me tilt my head in confusion. I didn’t know what the artists, or Geert, the mastermind behind this collection, were trying to say.

There were these metal sculptures standing in a semi-circle on the edge of a field. They looked like robots to me, and a little like crows. I don’t know what they were.


And this spaceship. What was it doing here? Though if there were ever an ideal spot for a spaceship, this was it.


This glass house made of a variety of windows and doors was one of my favorite pieces. It made me think of the gazbeo that Rolf and Liesl dance in during a scene in The Sound of Music. I wandered around inside the glass house tucked into a wooded area. It seemed like a secret clubhouse. I loved it. If I’d brought a book and a chair, it would have felt perfect.


But strangely, in front of it were tombstones. And before that, a tall wooden-slatted dome. To the side of all that, interwoven trees. And near that, a grove of eerie horses.


They seemed wild like the horses we saw in Puerto Rico. They were beautiful, but creepy. Like they didn’t belong, and I didn’t belong, in that grove of trees.


There was something startling about walking into a clearing and seeing a cluster of horses. It made me feel like I needed to be cautious; like they might charge toward me. Instead, I inched toward them. On closer inspection, I saw that the horses were beginning to disintegrate. The clay over chicken wire over foam was falling apart. I asked Geert about it later. I wondered whether the artist would consider fixing them up, but Geert said that the artist had no interest in reworking the piece. He’d moved on to other things — one of which was gardening. I met the artist later as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of plants through the museum and out to the back. Surreal.


This piece had to be explained to me, too. I didn’t realize what I was looking at. It’s a tract of highway, complete with light pole, but only one-meter long.


There was also a replicated mine shaft. And the beginnings of the newest exhibit to be coming to the Verbeke Foundation this year: a work by Vastell of a train on a track partially encased in concrete. There was an entire building filled with collage art. There was a greenhouse. And a structure called CasAnus, where I would spend the night.

I was a guest of the Verbekes and they generously invited me to dinner with them, where talk of art and their lives at the museum made my head swirl. Then they called it an evening and I was left to spend the night wandering the grounds of this unusual museum all alone. In fact, I became something of a museum exhibit myself.

More to come…

How does this art make you feel?


15 responses to “It Was Surreal – Wandering Through the Verbeke Foundation

  1. “Museum of the Macabre” seems like all the explanation needed for this one… wow, what a wierd place, like stepping into the Twilight Zone! Kinda cool, tho! I wouldnt fix up the horses, tho, they seem right at home in this wierd place, just like they are. Great catch, Juliann!

    btw I just read this post on another cool blog and couldnt help but think of you right away. Just had to share this with you – have you ever been here?:

    looks wonderful, reminded me of your trip to Mrs. V’s lovely palace ♥♥♥;^)

  2. After the foxes and flies I’d have been outta there. I’m sure it fascinates some but I’d sooner spend my time not looking at the products of a fevered imagination.

  3. Well the Belgians have been known to be excellent surrealists, for better or for worse (or at least that’s the impression I got in my art classes). My eyes definitely bugged out though at that first picture of the foxes and then when I read “flies” I quickly scrolled down. Thank goodness there were no pictures of the cows. Did the owners tell you their interpretations of the pieces or did they just do a descriptive explanation? I’d be interested to hear what they themselves think of these…..

  4. I talked to Geert (the owner/collector) and his wife Carla separately. I found it very interesting that the cow was Geert’s favorite and Carla’s least favorite. Carla didn’t like the flies, either. We had something of a language barrier, so didn’t talk about every piece. But what attracts Geert to the cow piece is that the artist made it a philosophical work as well as visual and auditory. Geert very much embraces the surrealism that Belgium is known for and has created a museum unlike any other, as far as I can tell.

  5. Pingback: I Crawled Up Inside CasAnus | Browsing The Atlas·

  6. Thank God you didn’t post any of those cow pix! The foxes and flies were horrifying enough for me. Besides the glass house, I’d have to pass this one up entirely. I’m too much of a save the animals kind of gal to witness self-expression in this genre. Eek!

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