Antwerp’s Letterenhuis ft. Paul van Ostaijen exhibition

“Boem. Pauleslag.”

The Letterenhuis in Antwerp is the literary archive of Flanders. It collects and preserves manuscripts, letters, photographs and other documents by writers, poets, publishers and literary magazines from 1800 to the present. Thanh and I went for a visit while the ‘Boem Paukeslag. Bezette Stad 100!‘ exhibition was (is) on.

Paul van Ostaijen.

The House of Letters is the largest literature archive in Flanders. Its mission is to safeguard the literary heritage. You can visit the reading room to consult the extensive collection for research. In the museum there is a permanent exhibition about 200 years of literature in Flanders.

Since January 2004, the Letterenhuis has been recognised by the Flemish government as the literary archive of and for Flanders.

This recognition provides important support for the operations of the archive and allows the Letterenhuis to extend, strengthen and optimise its operations further. Its own collection is stored and made accessible according to international standards to allow it to be studied by researchers. The Letterenhuis also deploys its expertise in the whole field of literary heritage, and maps the needs and requirements of it.


The Letterenhuis was founded in 1933 and is the largest literary archive in Flanders. Manuscripts, letters, documents, portraits and photographs of Flemish authors are collected, preserved, and made accessible.

Not just authors’ archives, but also archives of literary magazines and publishers are part of the collection. The starting date for the collection is around 1780.

As the ‘memory of Flemish literature’, the Letterenhuis has more than two million letters and manuscripts, 130,000 photographs and 50,000 posters. The literary correspondence, manuscripts and documentation provide an excellent source of material for research, text editions, biographies and the history of literature. The holdings can be consulted online via the Agrippa database and all documents can be requested and consulted in the reading room.

The general public can learn about it in an exhibition which features the treasures of the archive. The fascinating story of Flemish literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is presented in a permanent museum exhibition. Temporary exhibitions also highlight aspects of the Flemish literature (and its history).

Permanent exhibition

So all this translates in a quite large permanent exhibition space. It feels like a pantheon for Flemish authors. Including characters with a darker past and including francophone Flemish authors. 

The exhibition was composed at the start of the century and it shows. Old tv screens, an old design. Time to think of an update. 

Also the homosexual Georges Eekhoud is being shoveled back into the closed as the exhibition is not mentioning its groundbreaking novel ‘Escal-Vigor‘ is not mentioned.

Georges Eekhoud.

Paul van Ostaijen

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of ‘Bezette stad‘, Paul van Ostaijen’s major work. 

Exactly 100 years after the collection of poetry ‘Bezette stad’ was published, its manuscript can be seen for the first time in Antwerp. Due to its modernist tone and content, ‘Occupied City‘ is an icon in international literary history. At the same time it is a pioneering work within avant-garde art. 

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) wrote most of this collection in the summer of 1920 in Berlin, where he was on the run from the Belgian government. He wanted to prosecute him for his flamingant activism. Flamingantism is the movement for more power to or even independence for Flanders. It comes in many forms and degrees and has (had) dark pages in its history. 

With ‘Bezette stad’, Van Ostaijen not only wanted to sketch an era, but also radically renew the form and content of the poetry. The poems can be read as a score through the rhythmic typography. 

The collection not only evokes images of an abandoned city, but also creates a new world with its poetry and typography. It’s a revolution on paper.

After the First World War, a feeling of disillusionment about the past went hand in hand with a rock-solid belief in the renewal of the future. The exhibition therefore paints a picture of a time, a city, a poet and his artist friends in a period when everything could and had to change – or not.


The ‘Paul van Ostaijen Boom Kettledrum Beat. Occupied City 100!’ exhibition takes you back in time, to the First World War and the years after. Sound and film fragments, works of art by the friends of Paul van Ostaijen and a projection of text fragments transport you to Van Ostaijen’s artistic world and his network of idealistic poets and artists. 

Despite its age, the manuscript is in excellent condition. It provides a spectacular insight into the working process of Paul van Ostaijen. The poet’s aim with his collection can be seen down to the smallest details. 

He designed the complete layout of the work for his designer Oscar Jespers (1887-1970) so that he could translate the eccentric design to the printing press. The manuscript shows how and where the poems should be placed in the collection and which verses Van Ostaijen edited, shortened or deleted. 

In 2020 the Letterenhuis was able to purchase the literary archive of the Baestaens family. This breathtaking collection also contains key work and documents by Paul van Ostaijen. In addition to the original proofs of the collection ‘Bezette stad’, there is also wonderfully extensive correspondence with its designer Oscar Jespers. 

In addition, the Letterenhuis preserves, among other things, the original and beautiful design of the cover of ‘Bezette stad’, lists of copies sold and the correspondence between Van Ostaijen and his friend Peter Baeyens

Thanh and I missed some captions with the pictures of some one hundred years ago, but otherwise it is an interesting exhibition. It’s in Dutch, obviously. 


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