Symbolisme en Belgique

Symbolism in Belgium

Brussels, Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts, Musee d’art moderne from 26 March to 27 June 2010

Xavier Mellery (1845-1921
Eglentine Bush, 1895
Pencil, charcoal, gold and oil
maroufled paper on canvas - 80 x 57.5 cm
Bruxelles, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts
de Belgique
(deposit of the Région de Bruxelles Capitale)
Photo : MRMAB 2010

Everyone knows the important role Belgium played in the Symbolist “movement”, its literature, poetry and painting. It seems natural therefore that Brussels organize a major exhibition highlighting the subject at the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts, particularly since their Symbolist collections had not been very visible for quite a number of years. We highly recommend a visit to this presentation as art lovers will once again be able to enjoy a number of essential works as well as having the chance to discover others.

Is this however reason enough to consider the show successful ? Unfortunately not since an exhibition does not consist merely of lining up paintings in a different order. First of all, we should say that the temporary exhibition space currently at the museum’s disposal is singularly unattractive. It is bunkered down in a deep underground room accessible via a sinister staircase opening on to an architecturally outdated immense space with inhospitable volumes, an excessively light coloured floor and an obviously unmanageable lighting system, none of which is conducive to subtle statements. One can often adapt a room, play down its faults, try to soften its rough contours ; none of the elements here has achieved that. The same colour was chosen throughout (except for one gray wall) to present the works, an azure blue of a very “60’s” style (a total contradiction) which is too overwhelming for the paintings and in no way provides the enhancement needed by the complex and delicate art of Symbolism. In this rather strident universe, where visitors are blinded by projecting lights while the works themselves are often eclipsed and overpowered, the many galleries wind through the show in a problematic and unpleasant manner. On entering, after a few literary and philosophical quotes, the visitor is met with the only presentation text in the whole exhibition which, following a brief introduction to the subject, promises a kind of revelation : this in fact to justify the total absence of further explanations (no texts in the rooms, no brochure, nor any other kind of pedagogical tool, which is inconceivable in an exhibition of this stature presented in what is supposed to be a major institution) in favor of a “visual narration” highlighting the “power of the works” and evoking an “aspiration to silence in order to surpass verbal language which is by its essence limited and as a condition for a full realization of the visible” [sic !]. We cannot help but wonder. Aren’t all exhibitions a kind of visual narration ? Is an explanatory accompaniment (which may or may not be consulted at will) really at odds with a purely plastic demonstration of a hang ? Shouldn’t a public establishment having any respect for its visitors provide this minimum service, especially when recalling that its director had qualified the educational role as “essential” when he was appointed as head of the museum ? [1] Shouldn’t adults be entitled to the same thing as children ?

Let us however accept this verbose “bet” on good faith, but this would imply an aesthetic ‘tour de force’, a series of formal dialogues, abundant thematic proof and logic, a certain eloquence and attention to the scenography making the visit fluid and delectable ; the layout of the works, their “power” and their dialogue would thus communicate, on their own, an intimately felt conviction of what the Symbolist spirit and aesthetics represented ; a difficult task given the specific character of this very “refined” movement, full of artistic references and embodied in multifaceted forms, but why not ! The Symbolists themselves believed in the power of suggestion, in a secret dialogue between the work and the viewer and in the communion of artists ! In short, accepting this notion, and with ready willingness, we enter the exhibition…but are quickly forced to abandon any illusions.
In the first room, unfortunately, one can already see that there is no cohesive idea behind the presentation and that this “visual narrative”, illegible due to the number of works, their varying quality and their chaotic organization is simply a formula to mask the reduced intellectual and aesthetic means put forth by the organizers : the public is literally stranded, left to its own devices, wandering in front of works which are very complex and subtle without being guided or given any assistance. Here and there, true, there are a few poetic quotes on the walls (a grand total of four), welcome but sorely lacking in real information which might enlighten the amateurs lost in rooms where they look in vain for some kind of logic. Of course, visitors will enjoy a group of admirable sculptures by Georges Minne as well as three whole walls of splendid works by Khnopff, along with such interesting unpublished pieces as the Three Holy Women by Constant Montald on a gilt background, Death’s Servants by Degouve de Nuncques and the fascinating Twilight by Paul Artot. Still further, there are more masterpieces, Head of Orpheus Dead by Jean Delville which appears on the exhibition poster, the Portrait of Josephin Peladan in Choir Habit also by Delville (on loan from the Musee de Nimes), the magnificent works by Degouve de Nuncques, Xavier Mellery (ill.), Emile Fabry, Charles Doudelet, etc. But these rare moments are lost in the corpus of over two-hundred works of differing quality and hung without any guiding principle. A disturbing question arises, which is why many masterpieces belonging to the Musees royaux are missing from the exhibition : such as the Portrait of Madame Stuart Merril, by Delville, the mythical Memories by Khnopff, etc. The fact that they are in the museum’s storage rooms, or hanging in a nearby room, does not justify their absence in a major exhibition focusing on this subject. This is highly regrettable as in some instances, their place has been taken, if we may say so, by minor works or pieces which are not Symbolist at all (Constantin Meunier, Eugene Laermans, some by Leon Frederic), as if the curators had not distinguished between essential works and those of average quality or, within an artist’s oeuvre, his Symbolist examples and those which obviously are not. We will be kind enough to overlook mentioning some paintings which, honestly, lack the quality to be admitted into a major museum.

As the show highlights Symbolism in Belgium (and not merely the Belgian movement), there are also works by foreign artists but with what we find to be a bewildering logic. Do a Thorn Prikker, some Toorop, some Odilon Redon and one Maurice Denis (a stained-glass project whose shape and colours clash alongside a small monochromatic Spilliaert), as well as some Galle vases on loan from Nancy suffice to underscore a strong foreign presence and to symbolize Belgium’s key position at the time thanks to, among others, the Salon d’art idealiste, the XX, the Libre esthetique and their many international exhibitors ? A specialist of that period is aware of course that Redon’s illustration of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal was published in Belgium by Edmond Deman and that the head of Christ also by Redon belonged to this Belgian editor but what about the layman visiting the exhibition ? No explanation is provided. There is either too much or not enough and, once again, the public is not informed of the organizers’ intentions. This lack of information is also evident in the decorative arts, publishing art and other domains which are nonetheless essential for a full grasp of Symbolist art : literature as an exercice in itself (there are no manuscripts, no correspondence, photographs, journals, documents, etc.) is ignored, no doubt here again to observe the vow of silence so solemnly invoked in the introduction… But there is a difference between the sounds of silence, such as in Claude Debussy or Stephane Mallarme, full of suggestion and intimate dialogues, and the dead silence resulting from an absence of life. The exhibition here does not come alive : the works are the scattered fragments of a body, left to their sad fate. Despite glimpses of a certain logic off and on, a cohesive group of landscapes, or a short (very short) Wagnerian theme (including, goodness knows why, som masks by Isidore de Rudder hanging 4 metres high on unpainted hardware hooks which shine under the spotlights !) : these are rare snatches which do not however overcome the general impression of unorganized shambles and cacophony. Many of the comparisons are untenable, both in form and theme, and not only go against logic but are also shocking to look a ; even masterpieces like Khnopff’s Caresses and Fabry’s Gestures cancel each other out on the same wall to general indifference by viewers. These parallels are not only embarrassing and incomprehensible but also work against the focus of the exhibition itself, as the subject invariably suffers from such a poor presentation. Although a specialist or knowledgeable art lover might be able to overlook these problems and simply delight in looking at the works themselves, elaborating his own imaginary exhibition among the works on display, we venture to think that this will not be the case for the average museumgoer or journalist. Exhibitions such as this one do a disservice to the Symbolist art movement and its artists.

The best choice for the general public is to follow the advice at the entrance to the show which appears alongside the famous “visual narration” idea : that is to refer to the catalogue although it “is in itself another narration” (this is becoming complicated !). But this catalogue isn’t really that at all since it is, word for word, a new edition of the inextricable work by Michel Draguet which appeared in 2005 and already mentioned in The Art Tribune, with a very brief bibliographic addition, an additional page (polite expressions of appreciation which describe the exhibition as “a total art work” : far from it in our humble opinion !) and a change in the illustrated corpus. Besides the many reproductions of works which are not presented in the show, readers can see those corresponding to the objects exhibited, added here for the event, with no references to these in the text and of course without any entries, thus being of little use if they expected an explanation of their meaning or history. In fact, the act of bringing out a new edition by sprinkling it with new illustrations, withdrawing some of the original ones, without in any way changing a word in the text, reveals just how these images and words are interchangeable, without any real connection between them. Although this type of work claims to be purely theoretical, its content corresponds more to a smoke screen. Consulting it will only increase the confusion in the mind of the museumgoer. Let us not forget either, that since there is no list of works, future researchers will not be able to determine whether or not a work appeared in the show. Was the exhibition organized in such a haphazard way simply as an event to accompany the book’s new edition and publicize it ? The rather vague wording of the press release by Fonds Mercator emphasizing that “the work is the basis of the exhibition at the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts and accompanies it as a catalogue” would tend to make us think this is indeed the case. Symbolism in Belgium was in fact a rich, beautiful subject, well adapted to a magnificent demonstration ; it is really too sad to see that this exhibition in Brussels will not have achieved the goal of providing us with a complete scholarly vision full of the harmony and sensitivity the subject requires.

Michel Draguet, Le Symbolisme en Belgique, 2010, Fonds Mercator – Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 350 p., ISBN : 9789061539438.

Visitor information : Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Musee d’art moderne ; 3 rue de la Regence, 1000 Brussels. Tel : 32 (0)2 508 32 11. Open every day from 10 to 17, except Monday. Rates : 9 euros (reduced : 6.50euros).

Version française

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, vendredi 2 avril 2010


[1] In an interview with Guy Duplat for La Libre Belgique, on 15 April 2005.

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