Diabolic torture inflicted on the ungodly; unspeakable yearnings straight out of the subconscious — the country now known as Belgium has given the world over five centuries’ worth of depictions of the unimaginable.
“Fantastic Art in Belgium” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art places Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder(c. 1525-1569) alongside 20th-century Belgian surrealists and more, making up a show of more than 130 paintings and objects.
It opens with “Tondal’s Vision,” a work that was made around 1490-1500 in Bosch’s workshop, possibly by the master himself. Based on a 12th-century text of “infernal literature,” a literary genre that includes the later more famous example of Dante’s “Inferno,” the painting depicts hell as seen in a dream by the knight Tondal and reveals various cruel punishments for sinful behavior — such as a glutton being force-fed an endless supply of drink by a demon.
Engravings from the early 16th century by Bruegel follow. The hellish cruelty visited on wrongdoers by demons in his series “The Seven Deadly Sins,” however, is here matched by earthly punishments meted out in the name of justice by humans in a work of his series “The Seven Virtues.”
The exhibition takes a leap forward in the second section to another great era of Belgian artistic imagination — the late 19th century and shortly thereafter. Artists featured heavily include the painters Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor. There are also nearly a dozen works by Felicien Rops, with many illustrating the artist’s brand of the macabre tinged with the erotic. One such piece is his take on the traditional theme of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” where he depicts a naked woman in place of Christ on the cross.
One of the more startling images in this section is Jean Delville’s “The Mask of the Red Death” (1890). Based on the titular tale by Edgar Allan Poe, it visualizes both the face of death and the clock that strikes midnight so ominously in Poe’s masterpiece.
The closing section of “Fantasic Art in Belgium” deals with the country’s particular brand of surrealism from around the mid-20th century as well as examples from its contemporary art scene.
The link between these artists and the grotesquery of Bosch and Bruegel is evident in the recurrence of death imagery in the work of Paul Delvaux. “Woman and Skeleton” (1949) shows a finely dressed lady, seemingly deep in philosophical contemplation, her pose closely echoed by the skeleton in the alcove behind her.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Much humor and whimsy also feature in the exhibition. Imagine a single lens set in a spectacle frame — like a monocle with arms — and you have Marcel Marien’s absurd “The Unobtainable Thing.” The fantastic works on display here by Rene Magritte, perhaps the most famous Belgian surrealist of all, also veer toward the dreamlike and visually paradoxical. Such is his “The Great Family,” a swath of cloud-filled blue sky in the shape of a huge bird.
Luc Tuymans is one the few contemporary artists known to address one subject conspicuously absent from the collection of works — Belgium’s history of real, not imagined, violence from its own colonial past. Here, he helps close this intriguing exhibition with the seemingly simple but evocative work “Crucifix “(1999).
“Fantastic Art in Belgium” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs until Sept. 24; open daily 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,500. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum