At the end of the 19th century, Bruges and Venice held a strong allure for Symbolists such as William Degouve de Nuncques, Henri Le Sidaner and Fernand Khnopff. The Symbolists wanted to escape from their modern, industrialised environment. Their focus was on fantasy and spirituality, and on a higher dimension that is obscured by the visible reality. Their artworks depict a secretive, shrouded world. A world that is also evoked in the popular novel Bruges-la-Morte by George Rodenbach.
Symbolism and other new art movements such as Impressionism and Pointillism were propagated in Brussels by avant-garde artists’ groups such as Les XX and its successor La Libre Esthétique. They organised exhibitions, lectures and concerts and published journals.
Historicism also emerged in the same period. Edmond Van Hove, the leading Bruges-based artist of his generation, borrowed detailed realism from the art of the Flemish Primitives. His oeuvre comprises portraits, religious works and allegories.
Henri Le Sidaner painted this Symbolist canvas during his first sojourn in Bruges. Like many artists of the era, he fell under the spell of the city’s mysterious and melancholy mood. At dusk, the Lange Rei exudes calm. The deserted quay contrasts with the intimate atmosphere of the illuminated houses.
Le Sidaner felt so good in ‘The Venice of the North’ that he decided to move here, living on the Spiegelrei for around a year. Across from him was the Spinolarei, which he captured on this canvas. The canal with the moored barge and St Walburga’s Church in the background are shrouded in mist. There are no people. Le Sidaner’s Bruges townscapes were enthusiastically received in Paris.
Khnopff brings together two enigmatic drawings in a gilded frame. At the top is a pastel drawing: a portrait of his sister and muse Marguerite. She is stroking the mouth of a mask that will keep a secret. The pencil drawing beneath it depicts the side wall of the St John’s Hospital, but especially its reflection (reflet) in the water. For a Symbolist, the reflections of objects were more important than the things themselves.
During the 1860s, when still a child, Fernand Khnopff spent several years in Bruges. Back then, the city exuded an air of melancholy and languor. The surroundings made a profound impression on the young Khnopff.
Forty years later, the artist created this work, Secret-Reflet, two separate and very different drawings that he united within a gilded, rectangular frame. The pencil drawing underneath shows the Gothic retaining wall of the medieval Saint John’s Hospital, but especially its reflection in the water of the Reie canal. In French: le reflet. Khnopff is a Symbolist artist: it is not the objects themselves that are important, but their reflections. The mirror, with its many connotations, was extremely popular in Symbolist art.
The pastel drawing at the top is a portrait of Khnopff’s sister, Marguerite, his muse, whom he greatly admired. She resembles a priestess in this work. Marguerite caresses and closes the mouth of a mask, which shares her features. The mask – or is it Marguerite herself? – will keep a secret, in French: un secret. That which is unspoken, is not visible, and thus not immediately comprehensible: in the eyes of a Symbolist like Khnopff, this is where you find the essence of life.
But what is the connection between these two very different drawings? Fernand Khnopff leaves it up to us to solve the riddles. It is completely open to interpretation.
Today, Henry Van de Velde is chiefly known as an architect and designer. Nevertheless he began his career as a painter. He was heavily influenced by Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. He adopted the latter’s Pointillist technique in this portrait, which probably depicts his brother Laurent. Henry stayed with him in Blankenberge whilst suffering from severe depression following the death of their mother.
Van Hove painted this melancholy canvas at the end of his career. It has a warm colour palette and a more spontaneous touch than his earlier works. An elderly couple sits amid a rolling landscape in the twilight of their lives. Their close bond is symbolised by their clasped hands. The setting sun reinforces the allegorical subject.
This expressive plaster bust depicts a mute woman. It is one of the few sculptures by Chainaye, who would chiefly make a name for himself as a journalist. It was on display in 1884 at the first exhibition of Les XX, of which he was a member. It is striking that the bust not only bears his own signature, but also that of its owner: his good friend and fellow sculptor Jef Lambeaux.
James Ensor presents his friend Eugène Demolder, a writer and art critic, as a saint bestowing a benediction, as on a medieval icon. In the upper registers we see scenes from Christ’s passion and an idiosyncratic copy of a panel by the 15th-century German artist Stefan Lochner. In their lifetimes, both Demolder and Ensor were subject to criticism, hence the inclusion of the imps to the left and right.
This panel by James Ensor resembles a triptych, but in a vertical format. The man at the bottom is Eugène Demolder, a writer, art critic and one of Ensor’s closest friends. Demolder organised Ensor’s first solo exhibition in Brussels and also wrote the first book dedicated to the painter. Ensor presents his friend face on, like a saint raising his hand in benediction. This is exactly what we see on medieval icons. Hence the French title of this work: Icône.
The entire panel is devoted to Eugène Demolder. He was passionate about medieval art. This is why Ensor made his own idiosyncratic copy of a 15th-century panel by the German artist Stefan Lochner in the upper section.
Eugène Demolder frequently wrote about the Bible and the life of Christ. In the middle section, we see scenes from Christ’s Passion. Demolder adored rich textures and beautiful colours: look at the sparkling accents of colour on this panel. Yet Demolder was also the subject of criticism in his day. At the bottom left and right, we see two seething devils, one of whom is spitting. For a long time, Ensor also felt that he was misunderstood by the wider world.
At the bottom right, we read that James Ensor made this panel in 1893. By this date, he had already painted many of his famous mask paintings.
Human figures represent ‘History’, ‘Time’ and ‘Legend’. ‘History’ deciphers a text with a magnifying glass. ‘Time’ – with an hourglass and a rat nibbling a book – tears apart a document as Bruges’ Ezelpoort burns in the background. ‘Legend’ records the legend of Saint Isidoor, the holy farmer behind her, who prays whilst an angel ploughs in his stead.
In this self-portrait, the focus is on the frontally portrayed face that stares at us penetratingly and assertively. Van Hove was just twenty-eight when he painted this work. Apart from the white collar, everything – the clothing and the background – is black. Van Hove’s distinctive detailed realism is reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. He was consequently known as ‘The modern Memling’.
In this self-portrait, the artist has made some very clear choices: all of the attention is focused on his face, which looks straight ahead. The remainder of the image, namely the background and the clothing, is black. Except for the white collar. The picture is also devoid of attributes.
Edmond Van Hove gazes at us with a look that is both penetrating and self-conscious. He was twenty-eight years old when he painted this work in 1879, which is both realistic and incredibly finely painted. Look at his eyes and nose, and at his beard and hairstyle. Van Hove’s realism is reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. He would have greatly appreciated this connection. Van Hove had a fondness for his 15th-century predecessors. His portrait is even comparable to a frontal portrait of Christ from the museum collection, a copy after Jan van Eyck.
Edmond Van Hove studied in Paris and became the most important Bruges artist of his era. He is called ‘the modern Memling’ because of the way he consciously assimilated the characteristics of his late medieval predecessors, such as realistic detail.