Friday, April 17, 2009

The Palette

Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians was devastated by the loss of her husband, King Albert I, in 1934. Yet, following the equally tragic death of her daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, in 1935, she forced herself to rally, in order to support her grieving son, King Leopold III, and assist his motherless children.

Meanwhile, political tensions in Europe were mounting, as World War II swiftly approached. Belgium, devastated in World War I, would soon be hurled, yet again, into a disastrous conflict. For the second time, in less than 30 years, a German invasion would overwhelm the country. 

The itinerant, Russian-born sculptress, Catherine Barjansky, was a close friend of the Belgian royal family during the 1920's and 1930's. In her memoirs, Portraits with Backgrounds, she touchingly recalls Albert, Elisabeth, Leopold, Astrid, and their children. In Chapter 21, entitled "The Palette," she captures the atmosphere of the period immediately preceding Hitler's invasion of Belgium in May, 1940.

The war had already begun in France, but it was then in that strange quiescent stage which made people refer to it as the "sitting war." There was uneasiness in Belgium, but no sense of immediate danger. Nobody believed Hitler would repeat the tactics of Kaiser Wilhelm and send his troops marching through Belgium.

There was no place left in Europe where an artist could create undisturbed. Alexandre (her husband) and I discussed it over and over. I wanted to leave, but he preferred to remain. His friends were there and his public and his life. But for me, life is not static, it constantly renews itself; there is always a fresh canvass on which to create a new picture...

At length we came to the conclusion that he would stay in Europe... and I would go away...

I began to arrange for my passport, visas, and steamer tickets. The evening before my departure I walked for the last time with the Queen (Elisabeth) and we stood beside the lake (in the park at Laeken Castle) with its hundreds of black and white swans. During the war, all the swans disappeared. I do not know whether they were eaten by the Germans or whether they died of starvation.

That night there was a moon which made the whole park unreal, as though it concealed untold mysteries. And indeed, I never came to the end of its surprises in all those years. 

For instance, there was a little pavilion where long ago King Leopold II had lived. For many years the doors had been locked on its empty rooms. Then on one of her walks in the park, the Queen came across the pavilion and decided to make her home there. After the death of King Albert, she found it too painful to go on living in the palace rooms where she had been so exceedingly happy with her husband. 

The pavilion was a one-story building in the middle of the woods, wide and low, with a terrace from which there was a magical view of the lake and its swans. The big living rooms were furnished in simple, modern style, with deep armchairs drawn up to the fireplace. Everything was done in light green and pearl- grey. Beyond this were the Queen's personal rooms. There were two entrances, one from the park and one from the green-house, through which, in case of rain, she could make her way to the palace where her son, King Leopold, was living with his three children.

And once the Queen showed me a fairy-tale house in the depths of the woods. It was a house which she had planned for her grandchildren; a charming, imaginative world of play and make-believe that could have been created only by a poetic woman. It was a small cottage whose roof was made of turquoise-blue tiles. The living room was done in Swiss style and had a big Dutch oven. Each child had his own room, all of them decorated in an amusing way with the walls painted by a young Belgian artist. In every room there were birds in cages, and flowers and plants at the windows. Near by there was a small enclosed paddock for horseback riding.

Prince Baudouin, the oldest son- and the only one of the three who did not dislike the public appearances which they were all required to make from time to time- had a room whose walls were decorated with sketches representing all the sports: a man on horseback, someone skiing down a hill, people playing tennis. In little Prince Albert's room, there were reproductions of all his toys in a frieze around the walls: all sorts of animals and trains and games and playthings. Princess Josephine had a gay and cozy little room in which she could study, and a big kitchen where she learned to cook. 

I remember a funny scene. The Queen was seated near the window of the pavilion, drawing, when little Princess Josephine raced into the room, clutching in one hand her coat and in the other a toy electric iron which had been given her as a present. 

"It's a real iron!" she cried. "I can iron my coat!" 

She plugged in the iron which soon heated. The little girl was so excited that she hurled herself at the Queen who fell on the floor, her drawing flew out of the window, and all three of us laughed madly. 

During those last days before the catastrophe, I often met King Leopold in the park, dressed in blue dungarees, his collar open. He was sunburned, and with his golden hair and blue eyes he was a handsome man. He glowed with health, for he frequently played golf and he went swimming in the pool which he had constructed in an abandoned chapel in the park that had been built in the reign of Leopold II. As the old King had a mania for glass roofs, the chapel had been build with one, and sunlight flooded the pool...

Not long before I left Belgium, I met the King at the little pavilion. That day Hitler had made one of his hysterical speeches at a big gathering in Berlin, and all Belgium had listened in fear and disgust. King Leopold was white with rage.

"Those Germans!" he exclaimed hotly. "There's only one way to get rid of them- gas them!" 

Later, I remembered that when he returned to the palace at Laeken as a German prisoner, and the newspapers proclaimed that Leopold was a traitor who had been dealing with the enemy.

I find Queen Elisabeth's efforts to keep her own spirits high and cheer her grandchildren so touching, given the family's tragic background, and the atmosphere of impending disaster. Elisabeth's husband and daughter-in-law had, quite recently, died in ghastly accidents; a terrible war was fast approaching. The Queen must have been suffering severely, yet she could be so charming and cheerful, and plan so many lovely things for her family. What courage and generosity! 

Leopold's comment about the Germans is a bit harsh; we must remember he was speaking in anger, at a dark and desperate moment. But at least it proves he was no friend of the Nazis! 

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