The City of Waterloo in Belgium has been a motive for artists and writers ever since it was the scene of the final defeat of the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on June 18, 1815. Already in 1817, William Turner visited the battlefield as a tourist attraction: His sketches resulted in the painting The Field of Waterloo (1818), depicting women with torches searching the bodies of their deceased lovers. In Marcel Broodthaers’s 1969 film Un Voyage à Waterloo (Napoleon 1769–1969) we follow a moving van transporting a crate from his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles in Brussels to Waterloo. La Bataille de Waterloo, another Broodthaers-film made in London in 1975, shows external shots of a military parade and a lady trying to resolve a Battle of Waterloo puzzle.
In the course of my research for the triptych of monographic exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (M HKA), which presents three important figures of the post-war avant-garde who were active in Belgium and whose names all happen to start with a B – Joseph Beuys (Fall 2017), James Lee Byars (Fall 2018) and Marcel Broodthaers (Fall 2019) – two tourist photographs situated in Waterloo caught my attention. One depicts James Lee Byars standing next to collector Herman Daled, in front of the Lion’s Mound (Ill. 1). Byars had been travelling frequently and was fascinated by places where history radiated in a monumental manner, like the Pyramids at Giza and the circular megalithic monument Stonehenge. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to find him in Waterloo. Yet it got more interesting when Isi Fiszman told me of a place near Waterloo, called Baisy-Thy, where between 1968-1973 an illustrious group of people gathered on Sundays in a countryside house for discussion. Whenever an interesting professor gave a lecture at the Université Libre de Bruxelles or an important artist had a show in Belgium, they were invited to the house. Baisy-Thy thus constituted a societal network, revealing some connections of the post-war art-scene in Belgium. Alongside Isi Fiszman, one of the regular participants was Pierre Verstraeten, a professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and brother of Nicole Verstraeten, who alongside her former husband Herman Daled built up a seminal collection of conceptual art.1 Baisy-Thy was a place to enjoy Broodthaers’s eloquence and to witness conversations between intellectuals such as scientific autodidact Panamarenko and Belgian theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate François Englert. When Byars was invited to join at Baisy-Thy, Nicole Verstraeten remembers him being “l’Américain qui faisait la gaffe”. Byars made many faux paus – such as exclaiming to the owner of the house, Jean Duboscq, who was having an obvious but unspoken about affair, “Jean, you are a very lucky man, having 100 escargots and two wives!”
The second photograph depicts Joseph Beuys and his daughter standing in front of a life size cut out portrait of Napoleon mounted on a building (Ill. 2). It is an anecdotal image, a tourist picture, published in Caroline Tisdall’s 1979 Guggenheim exhibition catalogue.2 No additional information is given, except that Isi Fiszman is credited as the photographer. Born in Antwerp 1938, Isi Fiszman was a friend of Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys, Panamarenko, Hanne Darboven and many more. He supported these artists financially and mentally, as a patron but also a devoted friend, allied companion and sometimes collaborator. With his generous, and in some ways idealistic support, he became a key figure in the international art-scene of the sixties, but up to today he has remained at the margins of art history discourse. Due to his intimate relationships with influential artists, Isi Fiszman was an important witness of this period. Unfortunately he left us suddenly and too soon (tu me manques, Isi) on January 8, 2019, not long after this conversation.
When I inquired about the photograph of Joseph Beuys, Fiszman told me that it wasn’t him, but Bernard Coppens behind the camera. Born in 1949, Coppens is a Belgian historian, whose research is focused on the period of 1789 – 1815. He has published several books on Waterloo and was an assistant to Joseph Beuys in 1975. Fiszman, who had a talent in bringing people together, introduced me to Coppens to discover more about Beuys’ interest in Waterloo.
Scene 1: Recalling the story of Waterloo
Today it’s August 15, the birthday of Napoleon, an excellent day for a talk with Fiszman and Coppens on the Battlefield of Waterloo.3 Isi Fiszman: “This is a magic place. There are not so many places in the world where you can feel something happened.” Bernard Coppens: “A lot of people talk alike. It is possible, because it must have been very tough for the people taking part in the battle and we don’t know yet what human beings produce.” Isi Fiszman: “And what trees produce. Recently they discovered that trees communicate, only now we start to understand this. Are there still trees who witnessed the battle?” Bernard Coppens: “In Hougoumont, there are still three trees standing, three chestnut trees.” (Ill. 3) “Why did Napoleon choose the eagle as a symbol for his empire?”, I wonder, thinking of Marcel Broodthaers’s Département des Aigles. “He needed a sign”, Coppens responds. “In preparation of his coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, discussions where held, and some of the participants suggested an elephant, others a lion, but Napoleon wanted an eagle. The warrant still exists. It’s the Roman imperial eagle, used by many thereafter and probably already before as well.” Fiszman remarks: “The eagle is the king of the birds, as the lion is the king of all animals.” And Coppens confirms: “Exactly, and often there’s a fight between the eagle and the lion, as in Waterloo, you have the eagle of Napoleon and the lion of the Netherlands.” On the top of the artificial hill of Waterloo, we can still see the monument built to remember the battle: it is a sculpture of a lion, one leg on a cannonball and open mouth directed towards France. Is it a provocation, I wonder?
Fiszman smiles: “I do not know any place called Waterloo in France.” Naturally.
Scene 2: Stories of Museums and their Motions
During the Sixties l’art pour l’art had come to an end and an overall interest in society and history entered the devoted art temples. In 1979 Isi Fiszman contributed to the publication Museum in Motion? The Modern Art Museum at Issue / Museum in Beweging? Het Museum voor Moderne Kunst ter Diskussie, published after the departure of Jean Leering as director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Initiated by collector Martin Visser, the book aimed to document Leering’s work. In the end it became much more than a review of ten years of museum management in Eindhoven. Several essays by museum officials, artists, critics and theorists resulted in an extensive mix of institutional criticism supplemented with historical documents and art-related statements. Thus, Fiszman contributed a collage of text and images entitled Musée, expositions, révolution et biographie imaginaire.4 Fiszman seized this as an opportunity to publish Marcel Broodthaers’s Open Letters for the first time in book form. Originally the Open Letters were printed and send by the artist. Fiszman was appointed by the artist as ‘mon éditeur provisoire’ [my temporary publisher] and kept on handing out the copies of the letters long after Broodthaers died in 1976. One page of Fiszman’s collage was dedicated to Bernard Coppens. It shows a photocopy of a book opened to a page where a chapter starts on the regiment of Walcheren, a department of Napoleon’s army. Below are two photographs of a soldier figurine, front and back (Ill. 4). Coppens used to make figurines of the soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic wars.5 Back in 1975 he was doing research on the regiment of the town of Walcheren, the current Middelburg, and found it interesting as it was characteristic of Napoleonic politics and the way he treated others. Coppens explains that “in 1809, Walcheren had a terrible climate and was flooded by illness. All soldiers Napoleon couldn’t use – like strangers and deserters – were send to Walcheren to die, they were dropping like flies. It was called the fever of the Polders, now we know it was Malaria. The people didn’t know the illness was transmitted by mosquitoes, so they did all kinds of fumigations. Some thought the disease came from the air, so they covered their water and that helped a bit, because in doing so they killed the mosquitoes.”
Fiszman introduced Coppens to Piet van Daalen, director of the Zeeuws Museum in Middelburg, because he wanted Coppens to make an exhibition on the Regiment of Walcheren. But by the time things became more concrete, Piet van Daalen had passed away. The Zeeuws Museum is a folkloric museum, where Broodthaers staged the Section Folklorique of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles in July 1970. The work mainly consists of a photo, depicting van Daalen and Broodthaers presenting a portrait of one of the founders of the Zeeuws Museum: a triple director-portrait. Coincidentally, early in the same year, van Daalen had organised an exhibition with drawings of Beuys in the Vleeshal. This was the first Beuys exhibition in the Netherlands. Showing a German artist caused a scandal in the city of Middelburg which had been ruined by bombing during the second world war.
Scene 3: Art and Politics
L’ART EST TOUJOURS POLITIQUE
LA POLITIQUE N’EST PAS TOUJOURS DE L’ART
The above quote by Isi Fiszman is also included in his contribution to Museum in Motion? At the age of thirty, he was appointed secretary of the propaganda committee of VAGA (Vrije Aktie Groep Antwerpen, Free Action Group Antwerp). Founded by Antwerp artists, including Panamarenko and Hugo Heyrman, the group wanted to awaken museums – being dismissed by them as mausoleums – and more generally awaken the street, bringing forward the lack of solidarity and green space. As a reaction to the traditional galleries, the Wide White Space Gallery, run by Anny De Decker and Bernd Lohaus, opened in Antwerp in 1966 and showed the international avant-garde. But it wasn’t until the arrival of James Lee Byars to the gallery in 1969 that an entirely new alternative was formed.
James Lee Byars was an ever-provocative artist: nomadic, legendary, constantly and relentlessly pursuing a personal poetic dominated by the motifs of questioning, perfection and death. For his first voyage to Europe, Byars went to Antwerp in 1969. He filled his knapsack with light, but big and showy works made of silk meant to be worn by multiple people at the same time such as two interconnected red dresses, two interconnected masks, and 75 interconnected hats. There was also a big pink silk tissue in the form of an airplane with 100 cut out holes to pierce your head. His three-week long and extremely demanding performance at the Wide White Space Gallery resulted in a participative immaterial outcome.6 Except for the artist book 100,000 Minutes or the Big Sample of Byars or 1/2 an Autobiography or the First Paper of Philosophy – which consisted of 200 pages of copies of Byars’ handwriting on pink paper (26.8 × 20.8 cm) and was published by Wide White Space Antwerp 1969 – nothing was for sale. At the core of his practice was the personal transfer of information and beauty (not a transaction). Language-sensitive and committed to the future of knowledge, he spoke of “television museums” and “institutes” evoking inclusion, research and education.
In this atmosphere the space A 37 90 89 was founded in Antwerp. It served as a centre for art and communication, funded by donations from artists themselves and collectors Herman Daled, Hubert Peeters and Isi Fiszman. For the first six months Kasper König was appointed as coordinator. Among other interventions Addi Köpcke, Robin Page and Tomas Schmit installed a café in the institute; La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela transformed the place into “a continuous environment with sound and light with singing from time to time”; Lidl, an artist group founded by Jörg Immendorf, came to Antwerp to organize a football match and bike race; Ben gave a concert; Marcel Broodthaers installed his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département d’Aigles, Section XVIIème Siècle; Carl Andre held a very short lecture; and James Lee Byars performed This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling.
Meanwhile, Fiszman was also involved in the militant left movement around the successive magazines Le Point and Pour (published by Jean-Claude Garot), and brought a political dimension to A 37 90 89, which, towards the end of its short-lived existence of nine months, organized anti-racist actions. The magazine Pour was always in a precarious financial situation and by 1975 Fiszman thought of unifying his interests in politics and aesthetics. He asked Harald Szeemann – famous by then for curating When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and documenta 5 (1972) – to collaborate, and together they organized the exhibition Je/Nous.Wij/Ik at the Museum of Ixelles, Brussels.7 The title was suggested by Szeemann and refers to the tense but fundamental place of the individual in society. All works on display were meant to be sold after the exhibition and the artists were asked to hand over a part of the sales revenue of their work to support the magazine. Marcel Broodthaers sent a telegram stating: “Non, merci” (Ill. 5). We will never truly know whether the participants reacted out of progressive, democratic, Marxist or self-promotional motives, but from the sixty artists that were invited, forty six responded positively: Carl Andre with Segment Hexagon (now part of the collections of the Centre Pompidou), Ben made a serigraphy on black paper Que venez-vous faire ici?, Daniel Buren covered the façade of the museum with 12 elements in white and red striped fabric, James Lee Byars showed The Golden Tower (Ill. 6), On Kawara sent eight I am still alive-telegrams to Jean Coquelet (director of the Musée d’Ixelles). It would be a digression to go through every aspect and motivation of this exhibition, but what is important here is that Joseph Beuys also participated in the exhibition.
Beuys was supportive of the magazine Pour already: he paid for the transport of their rotary press that came from the United States. It was the first press made in production rather than customized, thus it was light and easier to use. Beuys was used to take opposition in an organized way: he was the founder of the Deutsche Studentenpartei (1967), the Organisation for Direct Democracy Through Free Collective Referendum (1972), and The Free International University (FIU) (1974). And he was a sculptor. For the exhibition Je/Nous.Wij/ik he installed Fond IV, an accumulation of felt, iron and copper plates following the same principles of the first battery (a column of alternating copper and zinc plates, separated by felt soaked in saline) invented by Alessandro Volta around 1800, but with materials that are part of his personal mythology. This piece is part of a series of works with the title Fond, meaning “background“ or “core“, and according to Beuys they all manifest the invisible energy in everything and every one of us.
Scene 4: Histories and Myths
Lotte Beckwé: Bernard Coppens, you have been Joseph Beuys’s assistant for Je/Nous.Wij/Ik in 1975 (Ill. 7). You are a historian specialized in the years 1789 – 1815, not an art historian. How did you come to know Joseph Beuys?
Bernard Coppens: We had seen each other, because I knew Isi (Ill. 9). Actually, I was kind of a state secretary driving the car. It’s not that Isi cannot drive, but it’s … well, it’s better he’s not behind the wheel because he talks a lot.
LB: And how come you became the assistant of Beuys for this exhibition? Do you speak German?
Isi Fiszman: It was me who chose him, because I thought Bernard was the most apt for the job.
LB: After the exhibition you two took Beuys and his family to Waterloo (Ill. 8).
IF: Yes, I used to take all my visitors to Waterloo and when they were celebrities I always asked Bernard to come with us, because he knows all the details of the battle.
BC: Beuys had put foliage on his hat. I remember, because I thought it was strange. Later I understood it’s something the Germans and the Austrians always did during Napoleonic wars, when they were in the field. It’s called the sign of the campaign. Maybe Beuys knew about that.
IF: You know that for people from the Rhineland, where Beuys is from, Napoleon was the great liberator.
BC: Me, I have a much more divided opinion on Napoleon. At one hand there is the revolutionary aspect, the ideas he brought, that’s true. But, on the other hand Napoleon is the model for all dictators. The man who comes from the people. My facebook – a lot of admirers of Napoleon send me friend requests because they find out on the internet I’m also interested in Napoleon, although often in another way – allows me to follow what people are saying and the moment there is a social problem, you hear the same sounds everywhere: what we need now is a leader like Napoleon. If they all invoke a strong power, it means that few learnt from history. I need to be careful, because Napoleon is like a god for so many people. For the French, he is part of their superiority complex. He is part of a mental construction. I have a friend who is French, and not an admirer of Napoleon at all. Though he lives here in Belgium, when you attack Napoleon he is hurt personally. It’s part of the French mythology.
LB: In 2009 your extensive study Les Mensonges de Waterloo [The Lies of Waterloo]8 was released. The title alone hints to a complete demystification of the Battle.
BC: The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was the biggest military catastrophe of all times. Napoleon arrives with an excellent army and after three days it’s all but one absolute disaster. And they call him the god of war. This needs an explanation.
LB: In his Misérables (1862) Victor Hugo stated “Had it not rained in the night of 17-18 June 1815, the future of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, were what decided Napoleon’s fate. […] The Battle of Waterloo could not start until eleven-thirty because the ground was too wet. It had to dry out a little before the artillery could manœuvre. And it was this that enabled Blücher to arrive in time.”9
BC: It has nothing to do with it. Blücher arrived without the French army taking notice. And that is something Napoleon tried to hide, because to be surprised in a war is the worst thing that can happen to you.
LB: The city already was called Waterloo? Because Napoleon called it Mont Saint-Jean?
BC: The city was called Waterloo, but the battle took place on Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit. It is called the Battle of Waterloo because that’s where Wellington had his headquarters. The evening after the battle he made his newsletter dated and located Waterloo. The French called it the battle of Mont Saint-Jean, but that’s even worse, because Napoleon made a mistake reading the map. The hill he thought was in front of him was actually one kilometer away. When you look at many of the plans which were made afterwards, they show the sixth corps at this side of the road, but it’s wrong. It is something Napoleon invented. He made three reports on the Battle. In the first one he says the sixth corps was at the right side of the road and in the second they were at the left. He changes position. That’s strange, so there must be a reason. It is a lie to cover up that he was surprised by the Prussians. It was a big mistake, but a lot of historians show what Napoleon wants them to believe. And you can think, but why didn’t the English and German historians react? Because they have their own interest in beating the man who’s supposed to be the genius of warfare. Everyone has an interest in that lie.
We depict Napoleon as a genius, but it is exaggerated. It is a fabricated tale in which many are mirroring themselves, causing erroneous historiography.
IF: Do we have to hold on to reality? I’ve always thought you should intermingle dream and reality. Not all dreams come true, but if we stick to reality what boredom will come over us?
BC: But I’m not talking about poets, I’m talking about historians messing with history. The problem is that many historians chose their profession because they were fascinated by Napoleon. Me as well, I was part of the cult of Napoleon. That’s how I understand what’s going on in the heads of certain people. It might go like this: one day you are sick as a boy, staying home from school and your parents give you an album of Napoleon. You start dreaming. Suddenly you’re triggered by history. You think you are, but you’re not, you don’t like history, you started to like the past and an image of the past. A lot of historians spread the cult of Napoleon, because it suits them, because it comforts them, because it’s their little childhood toy. This way they minimalize the fact that the reign of Napoleon ended three times in a disaster, three times he brought disaster to France; starting with the expedition to Egypt (1798 – 1801).
IF: But he took scientists and knowledge from Egypt.
CP: He did that expedition to…
IF: …to cut the road to India.
CP: Also. He left with the best troops of France and attacked Egypt. But Egypt – the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish empire if you like – was an ally of France since François I, beginning of the 16th century. What he did was a reversal of alliances. Not very smart. He did it because it suited him. His idea was after all to take the power in France and by doing this expedition he created the conditions to do so. Having the best troops with him, attacking an ally. England, the Ottomans and the Russians quickly found each other in their distrust of France. And when Napoleon heard things went wrong in his home base, he could return as a saviour and take the power. The problems got worse when he had that power.
IF: Few people resist the power, the power corrupts.
BC: Or it makes crazy. At a given moment Napoleon completely lost sense of reality. I wrote a book on the campaign to Russia (1812)10, in which I demonstrate that everyone in his entourage was aware of the madness of the campaign except for him, because he thought he knew better. It ended in a loss of his entire army of 600’000 men. The Napoleon formula to resolve problems? It doesn’t exist. Well on the contrary, it brings the final catastrophe. The Napoleon myth is a deadly myth.
To tell the truth
Marcel Broodthaers put on his clown’s nose in Waterloo to celebrate Napoleon’s 200th birthday in 1969. The tourist picture of James Lee Byars seems a romantic and tranquil continuation of Tischbein’s Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787), depicting travelling as a form of enlightening, although in a less conceit pose, Byars is standing in front of the monument, the most monumental at the site. And Joseph Beuys, frowning, his right hand resting on his stomach, choose to stand in front of the legendary portrait of Napoleon.
1 The Daled collection forms one of the most comprehensive collections of European and American post-war avant-garde and Conceptual Art, including an extensive archive, the “Daled papers”. In 2010, the collection was exhibited at Haus der Kunst München “A Bit of Matter and a Little Bit More. The Collection and the Archives of Herman and Nicole Daled 1966–1978”. Cf. https://hausderkunst.de/entdecken/publikationen/a-bit-of-matter-and-a-little-bit-more-the-collection-and-the-archives-of-herman-and-nicole-daled-1 [27.1.2019]. In 2011, the Daled collection was finally acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Cf. http://press.moma.org/wp-content/files_mf/daledcollectionacquisition_finalpressrelease.pdf [27.1.2019].
2 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York (ed.), Joseph Beuys (cat.), New York 1979.
3 Today it’s August 15, possibly the birthday of Napoleon. Cautiously Bernard Coppens suggests the hypothesis that this might be a lie. It is generally assumed that Joseph is by one year the elder brother and Napoleon second. But when Napoleon married he stated another date of birth, 1768 instead of 1769. In those days there was a deadline to apply for a scholarship for military school. It is thus plausible his father changed dates and made Napoleon one year younger in order to inscribe his son. Joseph was destined to become a priest, while in all former families, the first becomes military and the second priest. Also, Napoleon was said to be the head of the family, while in Corsican and other traditional families, the eldest is the authority.
4 Isi Fiszman, Musée, exposition, révolution et biographie imaginaire, in: Carel Blotkamp (ed.), Museum in motion? The Modern Art Museum at Issue / Museum in Beweging? Het Museum voor Moderne Kunst ter Diskussie, Den Haag 1979, p. 242 – 256.
6 M HKA Antwerpen/Lotte Beckwé (ed.), James Lee Byars: The Perfect Kiss (cat., Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst), London 2018.
7 Museum van Elsene, Je/Nous.Wij/Ik, 23 mei – 13 juli 1975, Brussels.
8 Bernard Coppens, Les mensonges de Waterloo, Waterloo 2009.
9 Victor Hugo, Waterloo, London 2016, p. 1.
10 Bernard Coppens, L’aveuglement de Napoléon : Russie 1812 (Carnets de guerre 1789-1815), Waterloo 2012.