'Symbolism in Belgium'
Peeters, Nic, British Art Journal
'Symbolism in Belgium'
Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 26 March-27 June
According to Elizabeth Prettejohn, Symbolism is the link between the Pre-Raphaelites and Surrealism. The art generally known as 'Symbolism' flourished in quite a few European countries, but especially in France and Belgium around the turn of the previous century. It is generally agreed that Symbolism started with the publication of manifestos in Paris and Brussels during the year 1886. In Brussels the public came to know Symbolist art mainly through the annual exhibitions organised by the artistic associations of 'Les XX' and 'La Libre Esthetique'. These associations were truly international: they invited foreign artists to exhibit with them and their members showed their work in Paris, Venice, Weimar and Amsterdam among other European cities. They also kept a keen eye on the British art scene.
The Belgian Symbolists particularly admired both the first and second generation Pre-Raphaelites in Britain. In fact, the second generation, with Edward Burne-Jones at its centre, has for some years now been known as the 'British Symbolists'. There were many personal and artistic ties between the Belgian and British groups. Fernand Khnopff, the most famous Belgian Symbolist, was a friend of Burne-Jones and exhibited frequently at London's New Gallery, which was the most important platform for late Pre-Raphaelite art from 1888 till 1909. Other Belgian Symbolists such as Willy Schlobach and Jean Delville either visited London and other parts of Britain or even lived and worked there for a number of years. The works of British artists such as Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt, William Morris, Walter Crane and George Frampton were exhibited at shows of 'Les XX' and 'La Libre Esthetique' in Brussels where paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones and again Madox Brown became known through Frederick Hollyer's photos. A large number of pictures by the Pre-Raphaelite photographer Julia Margaret Cameron met with great success in the same city: Besides all this, both groups shared the use of English and Belgian literature (eg, the writings of Christina Rossetti and Maurice Maeterlinck) as well as the act of looking within oneself as an important source of inspiration. Consequently, the same recurring themes appear in both the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and those of the Belgian Symbolists: the femme fatale, the feminine ideal, androgyny, the mirror as a symbol of introspection and the interrelated concepts of sleep and death. This firm bond between the two schools of art is possibly best represented by Schlobach's La Morte ou Ophelia (The Dead Woman or Ophelia, 1899), which--reminiscent of John Millais's 1851-2 Ophelia--shows the corpse of a beautiful Lizzie Siddal look-alike floating down the Thames.
Not only in content but also in style, a large number of works at this exhibition betray the Belgian admiration for the Pre-Raphaelites. Khnopff's style is, of course, strongly related to the Aesthetic' approach of his great idol Burne-Jones. So is Xavier Mellery's, but in his work one also detects clear traces of Crane's and Evelyn De Morgan's more academic execution. Leon Frederic's fusion of photographic realism, achingly bright colours and spirituality;, displayed by, for instance, La nature ou La fecondite (Nature or Abundance, 1897), uncannily resembles later works by Holman Hunt such as The Triumph of the Innocents (1876-87). In his stunningly evocative paintings such as L'amour des ames (The Love of Souls, 1900) and L'ange des splendeurs (The Angel of Splendours, 1894) Jean Delville, the most esoteric Belgian Symbolist, placed his figures in almost abstract, cosmic compositions reminiscent of the 'British Symbolist' George Frederic Watts--who was close to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Regrettably, curator Michel Draguet does not draw attention to this Anglo-Belgian alliance in his exhibition. This is quite odd because he dedicates half a chapter to it in the book-length essay that he has published for the show and that serves as a catalogue This update of a 2004 publication makes excellent, informative reading and is profusely illustrated, including a colour print of Burne-Jones's The Golden Stairs (1872-80) that was on sale in Brussels during the 1880s. …