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Lost in the Language Gap: Malibu Gets a Masterwork

November 01, 1987|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery is an American journalist based in Brussels

BRUSSELS — It's a long way from the tumultuous halls of the Belgian Congress here to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, but actions in one place may sometimes echo in the other. Because of Belgium's persistent and bitter language trouble between French-speakers and Flemish-speakers, the Getty has obtained an artistic masterpiece.

In the Belgian Congress, the government fell Oct. 19 over yet another refinement of the ancient question of which language should be used in which region. It was the 34th time since liberation from the Germans in September, 1944, that the Belgian government has fallen, and most of those times the language dispute has produced the crisis.

At the Getty, curators were enjoying their latest prize--the crowded canvas of the eccentric Belgian Expressionist James Ensor, "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels in 1889," one of the touchstones of modern art. It was at least in part because of the language divide that Belgians lost what many considered to be the most important work painted within their borders since Peter Paul Rubens was active in Antwerp in the 17th Century.

The dissolution of the center-right government of Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, immediately succeeded by a caretaker Martens government until elections in a few months, was hardly a surprise. Martens, from the Flemish-speaking part of the country, is a veteran of recriminations, dissolutions and reconstitutions. This is his seventh government and chances are that after the elections he will be asked to form his eighth.

The Getty's acquisition of the Ensor passed with a minimum of fuss in Belgium. In France, a comparable loss would have brought down the government, and in Great Britain there would have been shouts for a parliamentary inquiry. Italy does not permit the export of masterpieces. In West Germany, the government would have purchased the work from its huge art budget.

Belgian newspapers had a few articles about the sale; curators and officials made some rueful remarks about tiny budgets and high prices of quality art (estimates here put the Ensor price at $8 million-$12 million), and a joke circulated that the painting was being retitled "The Entry of Christ Into Malibu." But generally commentators laid the loss to Belgium's tradition of laissez faire in commerce, recommended a tightening of art-export laws and washed their hands of the matter. A few newspapers asserted with irony that the Getty had promised not to take national treasures from Europe.

What really happened in Belgium is that Ensor and his famous painting fell in the gap between languages. In a makeshift structure that is meant to preserve culture but often dissipates it, the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities have separate budgets for education, sports and cultural activities-- including museum purchases.

Ensor spent his life in Ostend on the Belgian coast, in the Flemish-speaking region. The artist, however, was a French-speaker, like so many among the Flanders intelligentsia of the time.

The Flemish-speaking ministry of culture claimed Ensor because of where he had lived, but many of the artist's associations and supporters were from the French-speaking part of the country. Thus, in 1977, when it became known that the painting was for sale, appeals for funds to keep the picture in Belgium were made in French but the government money would have to come from the Flemish-speaking ministry.

There was no problem of understanding--most educated Belgians know at least a little of the other language--but when linguistic problems come up disputants often pretend not to understand, or to insist that every communication be made in both languages. Because each side felt it must preserve its own identity, there was no coordinated appeal for funds. Such a situation would be unheard of in a monolingual nation but in Belgium it is normal. After all, this is a country that holds separate national championships in swimming, judo, tennis and dozens of other sports for French-speakers and Flemish-speakers. In junior tennis, points announced in the wrong language do not count and have to be played over again.

This language dispute reaches even beyond the borders. There was reportedly a heated dispute aboard one of the Belgian mine sweepers, now en route to the Persian Gulf: A French-speaking sailor tried to send a telegram home through the Flemish-speaking communications room.

The Martens government owes its downfall to a French-speaking mayor in a Flemish-speaking area who has refused for five years to take a Flemish language test as required by law--though the mayor is fluent in Flemish.

Switzerland is cited as a multilingual country that succeeds, but there are no others. Sri Lanka and countries from Canada to the Soviet Union have not succeeded. Belgium is famous for trying to live in two languages--an attempt that always seems to fall short. Bilingualism has become little more than a game--one both players lose.

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