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February 2014

Vol. 156 / No. 1331

Brussels: ends and new beginnings

Nearly two years later than planned, the Musée Fin-de Siècle in Brussels was finally inaugurated on 6th December last year. This brings the number of separate ‘museums’ (or rather discrete parts of their collections) under the umbrella of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to six, four of them housed in the complex of buildings in Place Royale and rue de la Régence. Between 1977 and 1985 the old-master galleries in the main building (Alphonse Balat’s Palais des Beaux-Arts) were renovated and the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Roger Bastin and comprising eight underground levels, was added to accommodate the collections from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. In 2007 the wing housing the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish masters had to close for the removal of asbestos. This setback was followed, however, by the very successful opening in 2009 of the Magritte Museum in the adjacent Neo-classical Hotel Altenloh. But recently, disaster struck again: a fortnight before the opening of the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle, the Royal Museums had to prematurely close their major international loan exhibition, The Legacy of Rogier van der Weyden, when it was discovered that the roof in the galleries in which it was held was not watertight. This seems to have been caused by work being carried out in preparation for the Musée Fin-de-Siècle. Under the circumstances, the motto of the new Museum, ‘Every end is a new beginning’, that greeted visitors as they passed alongside the adjoining last galleries of the ill-fated exhibition, was most unfortunate.

The new Museum, albeit on a more modest scale, is similar to the Musée d’Orsay, but with a slightly shorter time span (between 1868 – when the Société Libre des Beaux-Arts was founded – and 1914) and with a focus on Belgian art and culture.1 Thematic divisions include Realism, Social Realism, plein-air painting and the development of an indigenous Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Symbolism. Major artists have individual sections, as well as being represented more generally. Particularly impressive are the groupings devoted to James Ensor and to Fernand Khnopff, and there is an imaginative coupling of Léon Spilliaert and George Minne.

Like the Magritte Museum, the Musée Fin-de-Siècle is essentially an enlarged display from the collections of the Royal Museums supplemented with loans from other institutions, in this case the Royal Library, the Royal Museums of Art and History, the Royal Belgian Film Institute, the Bibliotheca Wittockiana, Belfius Bank, and the city’s opera house La Monnaie which, in the later nineteenth century, had been a major centre of Symbolist culture. The most important addition is the Roland and Anne-Marie Gillion-Crowet collection of fine and decorative arts, bequeathed to Brussels-Capital Region in 2006 and now on deposit at the Museum. It comprises some 230 items, both of paintings and decorative art; it is particularly rich in works by the Ecole de Nancy (especially Emile Gallé and Louis Majorelle) and it also includes some important examples of works by Belgian Symbolist painters such as Khnopff (A blue wing, one of his masterpieces) and Jean Delville. The collection, which under the terms of the bequest has to be displayed together, occupies most of the final floor of the Museum.2

The Museum prides itself on its multidisciplinary approach. There is an interesting interactive multimedia presentation of Art Nouveau architecture, which includes the Villa Khnopff (sadly demolished) and Maison Bloemenwerf, designed for himself by Henry van de Velde who, by a happy coincidence, was the subject of a remarkable recent exhibition at the Musée du Cinquantenaire.3  Other useful sections chart the activities of Les XX and La Libre Esthétique, display works on paper and photography, and there is a small musical section, with maquettes of notable opera productions at La Monnaie. The literature section is, however, surprisingly thin – there is nothing about Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine or Arthur Rimbaud (three notable visitors to Brussels whose influence on Belgian culture was enormous), and very little about Emile Verhaeren, one of the most important figures of the artistic revival at the turn of the century. Another notable absentee is Gustave Courbet, whose impact on the development of Realism in Belgium was the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Museums last year (and later in Boston). We can only hope that examples of his work will be added at a later stage.

The new Museum’s success throws into sharper relief the present unsatisfactory situation elsewhere, especially in some of the Royal Museums’ core areas. The above-mentioned wing housing the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Flemish paintings remains closed and there are no plans for its reopening in the near future. Meanwhile, highlights from the collection hang in one of the long galleries on the second floor, displacing the seventeenth-century works normally shown there. These are some of the greatest treasures in the collection and the conditions of their display are nothing short of scandalous. Moreover, the gallery with the splendid collection of oil-sketches by Rubens has been closed since 2010 because of a breakdown of its climate control system, while it is rumoured that similar problems have damaged a good number of works on panel in the storerooms. The sculpture gallery is also closed, and the opening of various other rooms is precarious because of staffing problems. Even the special display of the paintings of Michiel Coxcie intended to com­plement the major exhibition of his work in Louvain is often shut. Most of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art have been in storage since February 2011, the spaces they previously occupied now forming part of the Musée Fin-de-Siècle. The Neo-classical room (one of the few rooms where works are satisfac­torily shown) and small, rotating, displays of post-1914 art elsewhere in the building are now the only examples of its collections shown. In response to the strength of protests about its closure (which have included sit-ins and demonstrations in the Museum), the Royal Museums have now announced plans to develop a new space to house the post-1914 collections, in the Vanderborght Department Store buildings, near the Galeries de la Reine, with an opening promised for 2017. A new beginning, perhaps, without, one hopes, an end preceding it.

1    Guide: Musée fin-de-siècle: guide du musée. 158 pp. incl. 109 col. + 35 b. & w. ills. (Editions Hazan, Malakoff, 2013), €15. ISBN 978–2–7541–0746–4.
2    M. Draguet: L’Art nouveau retrouvé à travers les collections Anne-Marie Gillion-Crowet, Antwerp 1999.
3    Catalogue: Henry van de Velde: Passion, Function, Beauty, 1863–1957. Edited by Thomas Föhl, Sabine Walter and Werner Adriaenssens. 302 pp. incl. 190 col. + 233 b. & w. ills. (Lannoo, Tielt, 2013), €45. ISBN 978–9–4014–1094–6.