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Jean Delville, L’Amour des âmes, 1900
Jean Delville, L’Amour des âmes, 1900 © Musée d’Ixelles Brussels / Foto: Vincent Everarts
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Decadence and Dark Dreams

Belgian Symbolism

The voluptuous gaze upon the abysmal, the exacerbated aestheticism of a jaded society, which considered itself as being in crisis, the morbid allurement of the tension between Thanatos and Eros – all these are artistic topics that took shape in the late nineteenth century and found expression especially in Belgian Symbolism.

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Alte Nationalgalerie

Bodestraße 1 10178  Berlin


In sharp contrast to naturalists’ and impressionists’ excitement for those facets of modernity that lie on the surface and in the ephemeral, a new artistic movement emerged in the 1880s, whose main characteristics were sensuality, fascination for magic, profound signification, as well as irrationality. Thus, symbolism can be regarded, in many aspects, as an anticipation of Freud’s theory on the interpretation of dreams, which was eventually published in 1899.

Peculiar to Belgian symbolism is a predilection for morbid and decadent subject matter. Already in mid-century, Antoine Wiertz ushered in death and decline as leitmotifs in art, as can be observed in a range of artists, from sculptors such as George Minne to the master of the absurd James Ensor. Inspired by contemporary literature, artists around 1900 attempted to unite a new mysticism with an extravagant and precious style, as seen for example in the sculpture of Charles van der Stappen with its combination of valuable materials. Advancing to become a central figure in this context was the femme fatale as an expression of abundance and voluptuousness, encountered for example in the work of Fernand Khnopff. In the case of Felicien Rops and Jean Delville, aspects of the esoteric and demonic enter the picture as well. Symbolism, however, did not influence portraiture and figure painting alone; as paysage symboliste, it also found a reflection in landscape painting, for example that of William Degouve de Nuncques and Fernand Khnopff, as well as in the uncanny interiors of such artists as Leon Spilliaert, Xavier Mellery and Georges Lebrun.

Whereas impressionism has been studied and appreciated in nearly all its facets as well as in its respective country-specific characteristics, a differentiated contemplation of symbolism is still a desideratum. Unlike French symbolism, which is considered to be the root and inspiration of likeminded endeavours in Germany as well, the Belgian manifestation of this artistic current has not as yet been at the centre of focus. This is without reason as Belgium played a central role in the development of Symbolism: Successful and influential in Paris, the writers Maurice Maeterlinck and Georges Rodenbach came from Belgium, while Brussels was a European hub for exhibitions featuring the most diverse styles of art and had much to do with the establishment and spread of Symbolism. In many areas of art, Belgium acted as a link between England and the continent, and the road between Paris and Brussels was well travelled. Les Vingt, the salon for Belgian and international art, functioned as a new stage in Brussels between 1883 and 1893, which connected, among others, the Belgians Ensor, Khnopff and Rysselberghe with artists as, for example, Cezanne, Crane, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, Klimt and McNeill Whistler.

The exhibition aims to present this spectrum of lesser known Belgian positions to a wide public, showcasing them as an important reference for European Symbolism from Gustave Moreau to Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger all the way to Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch.

An Exhibition of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, through the support of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, enabled by the Freunde der Nationalgalerie

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