The Cubes of Herne

For Christmas, I got F a book called De Gekste Plek van België, a list of 111 weird and wonderful places in this country, which is after all the home of surrealism; and this weekend I offered him his choice of place to visit for a day trip. He picked one of the Cubes of Herne – only one is mentioned in the book, but it turns out that there are five altogether. Belgian public art has its moments, and this is one of them.

Herne is about an hour’s drive from us, as far on one side of Brussels as we are on the other. A few years ago, local campaigners persuaded various funders (mostly taxpayers) to support the construction of the wooden cubes. They are all open in one way or another, all embrace the landscape and the surroundings, and four of the five celebrate the painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who among other things painted Flemish landscapes, though I am not aware of any that have been specifically tied to Herne.

The first cube (at 50.73154, 4.03759) commemorates Brueghel himself. Like all of them, it’s 3m x 3m x 3m. There’s a Little Free Library outside.

It’s a straightforward open box, with the words “connected”, “resilient”, “respectful” and “authentic” inscribed on one wall.
Someone on Facebook asked when our album is gonna drop.
Thought to be a self-portrait of Brueghel.

The second cube (50.71373, 4.06526) commemorates Brueghels’ famous painting, “The Fall of Icarus”. (Some sources, including the information boards by the cubes themselves, have the identities of the second and third cubes the other way round; but checking local information I think this is Icarus and the next is Mayke.)

It sits in a river valley, with a pattern of open slats on the sides, maybe making you think of a catastrophic fall which leaves the surroundings untouched? Or possibly echoing the shapes of the original picture?

Icarus’ feet.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, William Carlos Williams

The third cube, “Mayken”, is named after Brueghel’s wife, Maria or Mayken Coeck. We have no records of what she looked like. She is said to have been a painter too, but no identified works have survived. The cube sits on a hill (at 50.74158, 4.10979) with good views of the surrounding countryside; it’s a long way from the centre of Herne.

We came seriously unstuck visiting the fourth cube (at 50.71207, 3.99217). It is named “Dulle Griet” after the woman in Flemish folklore who raided Hell, and is the subject of a very Boschian painting by Brueghel.

Perhaps the shape of the cube reflects the opening of Hell, a place of transition? But then why is it aligned with a distant church steeple?

It turns out that our gallant steed is not well suited for off-road action, and it managed to dig an impressive hole in the mud, attracting much scorn from passers by (including a club of elderly hunters with rifles). But a man came with a long cable and a thick accent and got us out of it.

Finally, the fifth cube, so far unnamed, sits outside a Dominican convent just north of the linguistic frontier (at 50.7009, 4.03758), welcoming visitors.

You could visit all the cubes as a long day’s walk (as this couple did), but my recommendation would be to do it by bike, starting and finishing at Herne and Enghien. We discovered the hard way that you cannot drive all the way up to some of them.

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