Belgian's innovative art: a delightful surprise

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Brussels is seldom listed among the major nerve centers of early European Modernism. We know a few names: James Ensor, Theo van Rhysselberghe, and Felicien Rops. We may have heard of Les XX or know that the Art Nouveau movement had important roots in that Belgian city. But we know little else about Brussels' role in the development of modern art.

That flaw in our education is being corrected at the Brooklyn Museum in this country's first comprehensive exhibition of pre-World War I Belgian art.

In more than 170 examples of painting, sculpture, graphic art, architectural renderings, and the decorative arts, "Belgian Art: 1880-1914" surveys Brussels' importance as a focal point and breeding place for some of the most original and innovative art of the period.

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Viewing this exhibition is an act of discovery. It comes as something of a surprise to realize how much vital art was being produced in such a concentrated area over such a relatively short period of time. It whets one's appetite for more. I hope we will see more of the art of Xavier Mellery -- whose "The Staircase" is a little gem of intimacy and mystery, Georges Le Brun, Georges Lemmen, Fernand Khnopff, Henri Evenepoel, and Gustave van de Woestijne. The latter's "The Two Springs" is a wonderfully witty and yet lyrical study of two types of young womanhood.

But it is James Ensor who steals the show. He towers over his fellow Belgians not only in originality but in his ability to speak beyond his own time. He is the only one whose art is more at home in the 20th century than it was in the 19th. Unlike the other Belgian artists, whose work generally remains local in scope or vaguely reminiscent of someone else's, Ensor's art is universal -- and totally and absolutely his own.

Not only is it his own, but it is brilliant, imaginative, and innovative, the product of one of the true originals of a remarkable generation. Although this exhibition can only hint at his total production, "Somber Lady" -- an early work -- and the middle-period "Portrait of the Artist Surrounded by Masks" are good examples of his extraordinary talent.

This exhibition is part of "Belgium Today," an American commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Belgian independence. It was organized jointly by the Brooklyn Museum, the Royal Museums of Belgium, and the Ministries of Culture of the Government of Belgium. Its coordinator for the Brooklyn Museum was Sarah Faunce, the museum's curator of paintings and sculpture.

For Brussels, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was a time of great social and economic unrest. It was also a time of fermentation and revolution in the arts. Innovation, both in individual works and collaborative efforts, became the order of the day.

Organizations sprang up to draw talent together and to focus public attention on the ideas and forms erupting at the time. Of these organizations, Les XX -- the Group of Twenty -- became the best-known rallying point for the avant-garde. Founded in 1883 to encourage freedom and diversity in the visual arts, it rapidly achieved an international reputation for its open and evenhanded attitude. Both Belgian and foreign artists participated, including among the latter Van Gogh, Whistler, Seurat, and Gauguin.

The list of 128 artists invited to exhibit by Les XX is an honor roll of the important artists of the period. Indeed, as Jane Block writes in the exhibition catalog, "During its 10- year existence, Les XX succeeded in introducing into Belgium the most avant-garde movements: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, and the decorative arts. Les XX provided an alternative exhibition ground to the Salon and established a climate of artistic freedom. The group, as a model of a jury-free, independent society, helped to galvanize artistic forces both at home and abroad."

Georges Seurat's influence was particularly strong in Belgium. His most important works were shown there during the years he exhibited with Les XX, and the Seurat memorial exhibition it sponsored in 1892 included a large number of his major paintings and drawings.

Seurat's ideas and his art struck highly sympathetic chords in van Rhysellberghe, Henry van de Velde, and Alfred Finch, all of whom managed to integrate his influence and to produce extremely handsome works. Van Rhysellberghe in particular made Divisionism his own in such works as "Sailboat on the Escaut" and "The Reading." The latter, a large painting of a gathering of poets, could easily have turned into a ponderous group portrait -- but didn't by virtue of his compositional and coloristic skills.

Also on view are examples of the decorative and graphic arts of the period, as well as architectural drawings. Among these posters, vases, furniture, jewelry, and renderings are some exceptionally handsome ceramics by Alfred Finch and furniture and silverwork by Henry van de Velde.

As an introduction, the museum has assembled a 10- minute slide presentation: "Crossroads of the Avant- Garde." It's a good way to get into the spirit of this beautiful and important exhibition, which will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum to June 29.

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