THE ONE person in the Royal Academy who combines taste and art- historical knowledge is MaryAnne Stevens, the RA's Librarian and an authority on late-19th-century art. She has selected "Impressionism to Symbolism: the Belgian Avant- Garde 1880-1900", and it's the most successful historical exhibition at the Academy for years. The subject may seem rather recondite, but Stevens's perfectly judged survey (which fills the Sackler galleries) convinces us that this fin de siecle movement has been wrongly neglected.
Of the painters Stevens presents, perhaps only James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff are familiar names in this country. The sculptr Constantin Meunier also has some repute in Britain but most of the artists in the show are obscure, their reputation confined to their own country. No doubt many of them were content to be provincial. There was a Belgian expression, "under one's own church tower", that speaks much of the placid satisfaction to be found in wholly local affairs; and a quiet observance of routine - an almost pious devotion to the everyday - is a theme of modern Belgian art, often combined with quaintness and medievalism.
Of course, Belgian artists had to be aware of developments in Paris, and some of them studied or lived there for long periods. On the other hand, the French-speaking Ensor never set foot in France in his life, indeed scarcely ever left his native Ostend. The conflicting calls of homeland and internationalism give Belgian art its flavour, also its somewhat timid role on the pan-European scene. It could be argued that Belgian artists were merely followers, that they copied innovations made elsewhere. would prefer to say that they knew just how much to take for their own purposes. Here Ensor offers another surprising lesson. Alone of his generation, he had no feeling of indebtedness to Impressionism. It simply didn't interest him, and probably he took more from Turner, not that he can have seen much of his work.
Ensor was a prominent figure in Les Vingt (usually written as Les XX) and its successor La Libre Esthetique, the avant-garde groups that made the running against salon art from 1884 to the beginning of the First World War. Characteristically, Les XX was split between those who wanted the organisation to be purely Belgian and those who wished to invite corresponding members from other countries, artists such as Whistler and Gauguin. Of course it was right to have invites: they helped the Belgian artists to put on mixed exhibitions that must have had a revolutionary look in the Brussels of the day.
Significant invites were musicians no less than writers, prominent among them Cesar Frnck. Two thoughtful paintings attest to the vingtistes' feeling for the sister art, Ensor's Russian Music and Fernand Khnopff's Listening to Schumann. Ensor's chopped surfaces come from unctuous pigment, varied brushes and palette knives. Khnopff's painting is more tender, closer to Whistler and French art. And yet both paintings, together with Charles Mertens's The Trio, belong to the conventions of the salon. We are not very far away from academic art.
MaryAnne Stevens's selection is so deft that a visitor to this show would scarcely be aware of the overall defects in Ensor's painting: his slabby and shiny touch, his excessive love of creaminess and floridity. And in one painting, Skeletons Warming Themselves, we have Ensor at his best. Here is a studio, warmed by a stove, with draped skeletons who appear to be artists or musicians. Nobody knows the picture's real import. I interpret it as a grotesque tribute to Ensor's Flemish forebears and an acknowledgement that he did not know where his own art ould lead him, except into decadence. …