Fin de Siècle gems glitter in Bruges

The Groeninge Museum in Bruges is perhaps best known for its impressive collection of Flemish Primitive Art, but until 4 November the museum is seizing the opportunity to put works from its collection from the Fin de Siècle era in the spotlight.

Fin de Siècle showcases sixty works from the Groeninge Museum’s own collection representative of that extremely productive era between 1880 and the start of the Great War.  It includes some of the great Belgian masters, James Ensor, Félicien Rops, Fernand Khnopff and George Minne and sheds light on the Belgian contribution to Symbolism, Naturalism and Impressionism.  The output during this period was very diverse: paintings, sculptures, prints and etchings.  Works by foreign artists in the Groeninge Museum collection are also included.  The present exhibition is an opportunity to show two new acquisitions to the public for a first time: Achille Chainaye’s The Mute and Charles Doudelet’s Charon or the Accursed Ferryman.  The exhibition also draws heavy on the collection of Guy Van Hoorebeke that Groeninge acquired in 2014.  Many of the works are being shown in public for the first time.

Félicien Rops  and James Ensor are giants of the Belgian Fin de Siècle.  Here they are joined by a third artist, Armand Rassenfosse.  Rops’s erotic art is well known.  In Bruges the emphasis is more on his darker works. The Absinthe Drinker (above) is a good example.  The subject has been identified as a prostitute who moved in Bohemian circles in Paris where this Namur-born painter joined artists who had flocked here from across the continent.  Armand Rassenfosse was some thirty years Rops’s junior, but when he too ended up in Paris, where they could converse in their Walloon dialect, it was friendship for life.  Rassenfosse experiments with graphic techniques.  Like Rops he delights in depicting woman as the satanic temptress and object of desire.

The Entry of Christ into Brussels is perhaps James Ensor’s best known work.  Groeninge possesses a hand-coloured etching (below) of this painting.  Ensor loved to produce etchings of his best works.  These were cheaper than actual paintings and could be produced in greater numbers to satisfy the demands of a growing public.

In a section on Naturalism in Belgian art we encounter Achille Chainaye’s The Mute (photo bottom).  The work is a splendid, new addition to the Groeninge collection.  Groeninge assistant curator Laurence Van Kerkhoven (above): “Chainaye is an important avant-garde artist.  Apart from The Mute only three works by the Liège artist are still known to be in existence.  This work truly reveals his skills.  Chainaye was one of the founders of Les XX (The Twenty), a ground-breaking Belgian grouping of artists. We have photographs of their first exhibition and can see how The Mute was among the works on display. Here it is on show next to Constantin Meunier’s A Woman of the People that is on loan from a Bruges collector.”

Other works in this section, mainly drawings, reveal the grime of the Liège coal mining area.

Belgians played an important role in the symbolist movement.  Fleming Fernand Khnopff is represented with “Secret-Reflet” (above), a multi-layered work in which his sister Marguerite is depicted opposite a silent masque that reflects her face.  Khnopff spent much of his youth in Bruges and this work also depicts the St Jan’s Hospital that today serves as the Memling Museum.  The emphasis is on the building’s reflection in the water as the top of the building has been cut away.

Another highlight of the exhibition is George Minne’s sculpture Three Holy Women at the Tomb (top).  Various versions of this sculpture exist made from different materials.  The Bruges version is a bronze.

Here too you will find the second new acquisition that is being shown to the public for a first time: an aquarelle made with pen and ink by Charles Doudelet: Charon or the Accursed Ferryman.

German and Austrian guests will be eager to admire three works from the Van Hoorebeke collection by Max Klinger, August Brömse and Alois Kolb.  Though the emphasis of this exhibition is on Belgian artists, many of whom incidentally worked abroad, chiefly in Paris, Guy Van Hoorebeke’s collection has allowed Fin de Siècle to show off a number of international gems: Don’t miss the print by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicting cancan dancer Jane Avril.   Laurence Van Kerkhoven: “He makes it look so simple. With only a few lines he has succeeded masterfully in creating a very expressive portrayal of this famous cancan dancer.”

Fin de Siècle concludes with a look at the Belgian contribution to impressionism.  Here we find Flemish great Emile Claus, who gave the world Luminism.  Gustave De Smet is best known for his expressionist work, but here an early painting espousing impressionism Bruges the Dead, Bruges the Living is included.  Albrecht Rodenbach’s literary work Bruges la Morte had put the city on the international map.  It was the start of Bruges as a tourist destination, but also brought artists to the city including France’s Henri Le Sidaner (above) who recreates the dark, eerie atmosphere of the Bruges waterfront.

Fin de Siècle, a selection of art from 1880 to 1914 runs at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges until 4 November.