A chiaroscuro of Belgian artistic expression

by Marius Gombrich

Looking at the Tokyo listings, I see that there are a couple of exhibitions focusing on bygone civilizations — a not uncommon theme for exhibitions in Japan. The National Museum of Nature and Science is presenting “The Golden Capital of Sican,” which looks at one of the South American societies that predated the Incas; while those entering the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum can encounter, once again, the manifold riddles of ancient Egypt.

Adding to this exposition of mysterious societies from far and wide, are two other shows that, while masquerading as twin displays of 19th and 20th century painting, shine a light on that most sphinx-like of cultural entities — Belgium!

“A Museum of Belgian Visionary Art” at the Bunkamura Museum of Art presents a range of Symbolists and Surrealists from the late 19th century onward, complemented by the Sompo Japan Museum of Art’s “History of Modern Belgian Painting from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium,” a show devoted to Fauvist and Impressionist painters.

Comparing a modern European state to departed civilizations may raise eyebrows, but, in its own way, Belgium is just as enigmatic and baffling as Sican or the kingdom on the Nile, and may be just as ill-fated. The long-standing political apartheid of the country’s political system — the main political parties are either Francophone or Flemish, but never both — along with the continuing rise of nationalism in Europe means that there is a real chance that the state of Belgium could also figuratively disappear beneath the sands.

But the factor that threatens Belgium’s continued existence — its lack of a homogenous or dominant linguistic culture — is also what gives it its unique character. While its neighbors, along with the majority of European states, emerged as incarnations of ethnically and linguistically defined entities, Belgium has always operated by different rules. The issues raised by multiculturalism — inclusivism, affirmative action, mutual coexistence — that other states are only now grappling with due to mass immigration, have been part of the Belgian psyche since its foundation in 1830, when the half-French, half-Flemish state first came into existence as a buffer state between the major powers of Western Europe.

A s one would expect, Belgium’s unique situation is reflected in the art at the exhibitions. Rather than developing a distinct local style like Dutch, English, or French painting, the Belgian art scene became something of a conduit through which ideas, influences, and foreign artists flowed. The Sompo highlights this best, focusing on the cultural hotline between Paris and Brussels, which allowed Paris-based movements, like Impressionism, Pointillism and Fauvism to spread rapidly north. For example, the subject matter and light, feathery brush strokes of Fernand Khnopff’s “Portrait of Mademoiselle Van der Hecht” (1883) are an obvious stylistic echo of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but without the French Impressionist’s personal obsession with rotundity.

The lack of a strong Belgian identity is also signaled by the inclusion of a great many foreign painters in what is supposedly an exhibition of “Belgian art.” Apart from a stunning canal scene, “Ghent, Evening” (1903), by the little known Albert Baertsoen, and a well-worked seascape, “Coast of Brittany” (c. 1901), by Anna Boch, the highlights of the show are by foreigners, including a few paintings by the English impressionist Alfred Sisley and a selection of characteristically understated, but atmospheric studies by the French Barbizon painter Jean-Baptiste Corot.

Viewed in a positive way, this exhibition presents an attractive picture of Belgium as an outward-looking, multicultural crossroads. However, this is not an image that squares at all well with the show at the Bunkamura.

Here the focus is on Symbolism and Surrealism, two movements, which although they originated in France, were taken up with especial enthusiasm by Belgian artists, providing a sort of default artistic identity. In its Belgian incarnation, however, Symbolism seems to have struck a particularly dour note. Emile Fabry’s shadowy allegory “Night” (1892) and Leon Spilliaert’s gloomy “Self Portrait” (1907) create a somber mood; while a selection of tiny pornographic etchings by Felicien Rops reveal a decadent aspect.

The dark, subjective, inward-looking atmosphere this creates seems almost the polar opposite of the brighter image presented by the Sompo exhibition. This suggests the negative side of Belgium’s diversity and position at the heart of Europe, perhaps stemming from a lack of identity, combined with a sense of cultural claustrophobia. The result is that most of the art in this exhibition is simply unattractive and lacking in warmth.

Even the famed humor of the Surrealists can’t quite save the day. The few paintings by Rene Magritte — padded out with plenty of lithographs — sparkle with a cold, unsatisfying humor that suggests ironic detachment rather than witty engagement.

The most emotionally satisfying paintings are the dreamlike works of another Surrealist, Paul Delvaux. With his trademark large-eyed, female nudes, he creates images that gently mesmerize without elucidating — rather like a beautifully carved hieroglyph might, or a piece of abstract decoration on the funeral mask of the Lord of Sican.

“A Museum of Belgian Visionary Art” at the Bunkamura Museum of Art runs till Oct. 25; admission ¥1,300. For more information visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. “History of Modern Belgian Painting from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium” at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art runs till Nov. 29; admission ¥1,000. For more information visit www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum/ english/index.html