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Brussels sprouts: Laura Gascoigne is impressed by an intelligent new fin de siecle museum in the Belgian capital.

Musee Fin-de-Siecle Museum


Opened 6 December 2013

Museum guide (English edition) by Anne Sefrioui

ISBN. 9782754107488 (paperback), 615 (Editions Hazan)

Despite sitting on top of a designated Mont des Arts, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium have not been high on the list of European art tourist destinations. But that is changing since the creation in 2009 of the hugely popular Magritte Museum, which has doubled attendance figures. Now the Royal Museums are hoping to build on that success with the unveiling of a second stage in the redeployment of their collections= the launch of a dedicated fin de siecle museum on the four basement floors formerly occupied by the Museum of Modern Art.

The pragmatic principle behind their current campaign of reorganisation is to play to their collections' strengths, while admitting their weaknesses. 'We have a museum of modern art but I'm not sure we have a history of modern art,' the director Michel Draguet freely confessed at the launch of the new museum in December. 'Belgium is the country not of modernity but of post-modernity, of irony.' The Belgian artist who best exemplifies this national characteristic, James Ensor, is well represented in the new displays. But the fin de siecle tag has also enabled the new museum to capitalise on Brussels' reputation as the capital of art nouveau by incorporating the Gillion Crowet Collection, donated to the Brussels Capital Region in 2006, into its display.

The turn of the century, as interpreted in these galleries, describes a wide arc. It starts in 1868 with the foundation of the Societe Libre des Beaux-Arts, the first salon in Brussels to reject academicism in favour of naturalism. But the main focus is on Les XX (1883-94) and La Libre Esthetique (1894-1914), the two salons that were held upstairs in this very building and kept Brussels up to speed with European avant-garde movements and styles, from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to synthetism and Symbolism.

The mercurial Ensor experimented with most of these styles before evolving the personal aesthetic of masks and skeletons that proved too advanced even for his fellow members of Les XX. Ensor was not the only complete original to emerge from the Belgian art scene of the period, as the works of Leon Spilliaert and George Minne on display here testify. But while these artists are still achieving international fame, the Brussels salons of the time were quick to recognise foreign talent. Through their enlightened policy of allowing members to show a work by a guest artist at each annual exhibition, Les XX introduced Belgian audiences to Monet, Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Whistler, Rodin, Liebermann and Sargent. Van Gogh made his only sale of a painting, The Red Vineyard (1888), at their 1890 Salon --to the woman painter and Vingtiste Anna Boch. The picture is now in Moscow's Pushkin Museum, but Van Gogh's early social realist portrait The Peasant (1885) is on show, along with a wonderfully animated reed-pen drawing of a Seascape at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888) first exhibited at the 1891 Salon des XX.

Other paintings bought by Boch, including Gauguin's Conversation in the Fields, Pont-Aven (1888) and Seurat's The Seine at la Grande Jatte (1888), are on display. Seurat was the star attraction of a special 1889 Salon des XX dedicated to the Parisian Vingtistes, which drew huge crowds. Impressionism was never big in Belgium, but pointillism hit the spot with artists who identified its scientific approach with progress. The designer Henry van de Velde started out as a painter of pointillist pictures, while the painter Theo van Rysselberghe became a lifelong adherent of 'luminism', as the style became known in Belgium. But for social realists like Constantin Meunier, divisionism was no cure for a divided society. Meunier sought to dignify industrial labour in monumental paintings and sculptures such as The Puddler (1884/87-88; Fig. 3), a working man's version of Rodin's Thinker (first conceived 1880) with no time to think.

The Parisian Vingtistes featured a dozen Pont-Aven paintings by Gauguin, among them the prototypically synthetist Green Christ (Breton Calvary) (1889). To Belgian artists disenchanted with materialism, Gauguin's subjective vision had a strong appeal. The influence of his flattened forms and simplified contours can be seen in the precocious paintings of the tragically short-lived Henri Evenepoel, although the saturated colour of Evenepoel's sun-drenched figures in The Orange Market at Blida (1898) looks forward to fauvism.

Among the Belgian Symbolists on the third floor down one finally enters the decadent atmosphere associated with the fin de siecle. The crucified nude woman in Felicien Rops' The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1878) still has the power to shock, but the evil genius of Belgian Symbolism was Fernand Khnopff. In his most disturbing image, The Caresses (1896; Fig. 1), the head of his sister and principal muse Marguerite appears on the body of a cheetah-sphinx, cheek-to-cheek with an androgynous semi-naked youth wearing the face of Brussels 'It' girl Elsie Mackay.

Painter, sculptor, opera designer, photographer and architect, Khnopff aspired to a 'total art' enshrined in his 'temple of the self', the Villa Khnopff. An interactive display offers a virtual tour of this and other buildings since demolished, including Victor Horta's art nouveau masterpiece, the Hotel Aubecq. Fortunately objects from the period have survived changes in fashion better than its buildings, and the Aubecq's original dining table and chairs can be found downstairs in the Gillion Crowet Collection.

The 200 items of art nouveau furniture, sculpture, ceramics, glass and silverware, as well as paintings, amassed between 1960 and 1990 by Anne-Marie and Roland Gillion Crower, occupy the whole of the bottom floor of the museum. They exemplify the ideals of an era that sought to eliminate distinctions between art and craft. Highlights include an intricate vase in layered glass, Seahorses (c. 1901-03; Fig. 2) by Nancy master Emile Galle, and Georges Despret's pate de verre mask of Clio de Merode (c. 1907), young mistress of the elderly Leopold II (the Brangelina of their day, the couple were jointly known as Cleopold). But the flamboyance of the era is best captured in the gilded bronze swirls of Francois-Raoul Larche's study for a lamp portraying the famous dancer Loie Fuller.

The Gillion Crowet Collection is the cherry on the Musee Fin-de-Siecle Museum's upside-down cake. The third and final stage in the Royal Museums' reorganisation, to be unveiled in 2017, will cover the period from 1914 to the present day--a curatorial challenge for a nation self-confessedly unsure of its place in modern art history, but one that, on the evidence of stages one and two, it will rise to.

Laura Gascoigne is a freelance art critic and commentator on the visual arts.
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Author:Gascoigne, Laura
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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