Belgium!

30 Sep

This was my first trip abroad for seven or eight years. You can imagine how much thought I put into what I wanted to see and do; this wasn’t a beach holiday (I don’t do beach holidays, or even relaxing holidays, but still). This was a trip to find the art and the beer that can’t be found at home.

First stop Musée du Fin de Siècle at the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It was arranged so as to make me wait for the good stuff, which is mainly kept on the last floor.

What follows is a lot of images of their collection of Symbolist paintings. They need a bit of explanation, I feel. Symbolism was an art movement which peaked in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The society in which they lived was an increasingly calculating and industrialised one. The population of Brussels had increased enormously in the previous few decades and the bourgeoisie had grown in wealth and confidence.

Symbolist artists were self-consciously making demands which were incapable of satisfaction within that society. In that sense, it is an Ideal art. There was, among the artistic circles of that time, a widespread interest in esoteric or occult beliefs, Theosophy and Rosicrucianism for example. The artistic muse was a way out of the world, and beauty was the apotheosis of any such visions as the artistic muse could offer. What we now call modern art followed a different path, towards self-expression through abstraction. It made the artist into God. Symbolist art, by contrast, did not serve to deify authorship. Its gods were a panoply of symbols – chimeras, Philippe Jullian calls them – and its religion was the clamourous pursuit of transcendence through beauty.

All of this is totally foreign to the Anglophone world.

Jean Delville first.
The Treasures of Satan:

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The Angel of Splendour:

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Orpheus:

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Parsifal:

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Carlos Schwabe, Spleen and Ideal:

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Fernand Khnopff, Les Caresses:

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The Faerie Quuen Acrasia and Britomart:

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The Temptation of Saint Anthony:

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A Blue Wing:

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