Despite its political and linguistic division, the region corresponding to present-day Belgium has seen the flowering of significant artistic movements that have had a considerable influence on European art and culture. Today, cultural life is to some extent concentrated within the individual linguistic communities, and due to various barriers, a common cultural space is less pronounced. Since the 1970s, there have been no bilingual universities or colleges in the country, with the exception of the Royal Military Academy and the Antwerp Maritime Academy, no common media and not a single major cultural or scientific organisation in which the two main communities are represented.
The contributions to painting and architecture were particularly rich. Moorish art, early Netherlandish , Flemish Renaissance and Baroque painting and important examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture are milestones in the history of art. While fifteenth-century art in the Netherlands is dominated by the religious paintings of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the sixteenth century is characterised by a wider range of styles such as the landscape paintings of Peter Breughel and the depiction of antiquity by Lambert Lombard. Although the Baroque style of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck flourished in the south of the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, it gradually declined thereafter.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the emergence of many original Belgian Romantic, Expressionist and Surrealist painters, including James Ensor and other artists of the Les XX group, Constant Permeke, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. The 1950s saw the emergence of the avant-garde movement CoBrA, while the sculptor Panamarenko remains a notable figure in contemporary art. Multidisciplinary artists Jan Fabre and Wim Delvoye, as well as painters Guy Huygens and Luc Tuymans, are other internationally renowned figures on the contemporary art scene.
Belgian contributions to architecture continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, especially through the work of Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde, who were the main initiators of Art Nouveau.
The vocal music of the Franco-Flemish school developed in the southern part of the Netherlands and made an important contribution to Renaissance culture. In the 19th and 20th centuries, great violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe and Arthur Grumiaux performed, while Adolphe Saxin invented the saxophone in 1846. The composer César Franck was born in Liège in 1822. Contemporary popular music in Belgium is also well-known. The jazz musician Toots Thielemans and the singer Jacques Brel have achieved world fame. Today, the singer Stromae is a musical revelation in Europe and beyond and enjoys great success. In rock/pop music, Telex, Front 242, K’s Choice, Hooverphonic, Zap Mama, Soulwax and dEUS are well known. In the heavy metal scene, bands like Machiavelli, Channel Zero and Enthroned have fans all over the world.
Belgium has produced several well-known authors, including the poets Emile Verhaeren and Robert Goffin, and the novelists Hendrik Conscience, Georges Simenon, Suzanne Lilar, Hugo Claus, Joseph Weterings and Amélie Nothomb. The poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. Les Aventures de Tintin d’Hergé is the best known of Franco-Belgian comics, but many other important authors, including Peyo (Les Schtroumpfs), André Franquin (Gaston Lagaffe), Dupa (Cubitus), Morris (Lucky Luke), Greg (Achille Talon), Lambil (Les Tuniques Bleues), Edgar P. Jacobs and Willy Vandersteen have brought worldwide fame to the Belgian comics industry.
Belgian cinema has brought a number of mainly Flemish novels to the screen. Other Belgian directors include André Delvaux, Stijn Coninx, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; well-known actors include Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jan Decleir and Marie Gillain; successful films include Bullhead, Man Bites Dog and L’affaire d’Alzheimer. In the 1980s, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp produced important fashion designers who became known as the Antwerp Six.
Folklore plays a major role in Belgium’s cultural life: the country has a relatively high number of processions, cavalcades, parades, “ommegangs” and “ducasses”, “kermesses” and other local festivals, almost always with a religious or mythological background. The carnival of Binche and its famous gilles, as well as the “processional giants and dragons” of Ath, Brussels, Dendermonde, Mechelen and Mons are recognised by UNESCO as masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Other examples are the carnival in Aalst, the still very religious Holy Blood processions in Bruges, the Basilica of the Virgin Mary in Hasselt and the Basilica of Our Lady of Hanswijk in Mechelen, the feast of 15 August in Liège and the Walloon feast in Namur. Founded in 1832 and revived in the 1960s, the Gentse Feesten have become a modern tradition. One of the most important unofficial festivals is St. Nicholas Day, a festival for children and, in Liège, for students.
Many top Belgian restaurants can be found in the most influential restaurant guides, such as the Guide Michelin. Belgium is famous for beer, chocolate, waffles and French fries with mayonnaise. Contrary to their name, French fries are said to have originated in Belgium, although their exact place of origin is uncertain. The national dishes are “steak and chips with salad” and “mussels with chips”.
Belgian chocolate and praline brands like Côte d’Or, Neuhaus, Leonidas and Godiva are famous, but so are independent producers like Burie and Del Rey in Antwerp and Mary’s in Brussels. Belgium produces more than 1100 types of beer. Trappist beer from the Abbey of Westvleteren has repeatedly been named the best beer in the world. The largest brewery in the world by volume is Anheuser-Busch InBev, based in Leuven.
Since the 1970s, sports clubs and associations have been organised separately within each language community. Club football is the most popular sport in both parts of Belgium; cycling, tennis, swimming, judo and basketball are also very popular.
The Belgians hold the most victories in the Tour de France, all countries combined, with the exception of France. They also have the most victories in the UCI Road World Championships. Philippe Gilbert is the 2012 world champion. Another modern and well-known Belgian cyclist is Tom Boonen. With five Tour de France victories and many other cycling records, Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx is considered one of the greatest cyclists of all time. Jean-Marie Pfaff, former Belgian goalkeeper, is considered one of the greatest in the history of club football.
Belgium hosted the 1972 European Football Championship and co-hosted the 2000 European Championship with the Netherlands. The Belgian national football team reached the top of the FIFA world rankings for the first time in November 2015.
Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin were both named Player of the Year by the Women’s Tennis Association for being the number one player in women’s tennis. The Spa-Francorchamps motor racing circuit hosts the Formula One World Championship and the Belgian Grand Prix. Belgian driver Jacky Ickx won eight Grand Prix and six 24 Hours of Le Mans races and was twice runner-up in Formula 1. Belgium also has a good reputation in motocross. Sporting events held in Belgium each year include the Memorial Van Damme athletics competition, the Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix and a number of classic cycling races such as the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The 1920 Summer Olympics were held in Antwerp. The 1977 European Basketball Championships were held in Liège and Ostend.