ART EXHIBITIONS / XX things you didn't know: The title of the Royal Academy's latest historical survey suggests something small, obscure, perhaps dull, and certainly Belgian. In fact, it's the best show of its kind at the Academy in years

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE person in the Royal Academy who combines taste and art- historical knowledge is MaryAnne Stevens, the RA's Librarian and an authority on late-19th-century art. She has selected 'Impressionism to Symbolism: the Belgian Avant- Garde 1880-1900', and it's the most successful historical exhibition at the Academy for years. The subject may seem rather recondite, but Stevens's perfectly judged survey (which fills the Sackler galleries) convinces us that this fin de siecle movement has been wrongly neglected.

Of the painters Stevens presents, perhaps only James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff are familiar names in this country. The sculptor Constantin Meunier also has some repute in Britain but most of the artists in the show are obscure, their reputation confined to their own country. No doubt many of them were content to be provincial. There was a Belgian expression, 'under one's own church tower', that speaks much of the placid satisfaction to be found in wholly local affairs; and a quiet observance of routine - an almost pious devotion to the everyday - is a theme of modern Belgian art, often combined with quaintness and medievalism.

Of course, Belgian artists had to be aware of developments in Paris, and some of them studied or lived there for long periods. On the other hand, the French-speaking Ensor never set foot in France in his life, indeed scarcely ever left his native Ostend. The conflicting calls of homeland and internationalism give Belgian art its flavour, also its somewhat timid role on the pan-European scene. It could be argued that Belgian artists were merely followers, that they copied innovations made elsewhere. I would prefer to say that they knew just how much to take for their own purposes. Here Ensor offers another surprising lesson. Alone of his generation, he had no feeling of indebtedness to Impressionism. It simply didn't interest him, and probably he took more from Turner, not that he can have seen much of his work.

Ensor was a prominent figure in Les Vingt (usually written as Les XX) and its successor La Libre Esthetique, the avant-garde groups that made the running against salon art from 1884 to the beginning of the First World War. Characteristically, Les XX was split between those who wanted the organisation to be purely Belgian and those who wished to invite corresponding members from other countries, artists such as Whistler and Gauguin. Of course it was right to have invites: they helped the Belgian artists to put on mixed exhibitions that must have had a revolutionary look in the Brussels of the day.

Significant invites were musicians no less than writers, prominent among them Cesar Franck. Two thoughtful paintings attest to the vingtistes' feeling for the sister art, Ensor's Russian Music and Fernand Khnopff's Listening to Schumann. Ensor's chopped surfaces come from unctuous pigment, varied brushes and palette knives. Khnopff's painting is more tender, closer to Whistler and French art. And yet both paintings, together with Charles Mertens's The Trio, belong to the conventions of the salon. We are not very far away from academic art.

MaryAnne Stevens's selection is so deft that a visitor to this show would scarcely be aware of the overall defects in Ensor's painting: his slabby and shiny touch, his excessive love of creaminess and floridity. And in one painting, Skeletons Warming Themselves, we have Ensor at his best. Here is a studio, warmed by a stove, with draped skeletons who appear to be artists or musicians. Nobody knows the picture's real import. I interpret it as a grotesque tribute to Ensor's Flemish forebears and an acknowledgement that he did not know where his own art would lead him, except into decadence. Messages of socialism and the bright future were found more often in the fogs of Brussels than in the breezes of Ostend. Ensor knew about such matters, or we wouldn't have that wonderful failure of a picture, The Entry of Christ into Brussels (not in this show and ironically housed in the Getty Museum, Malibu), yet he really preferred an occluded life, his domesticity in the end supported by flashy reworkings of his early art, thus satisfying a second-hand 1920s taste for the 'Belgian Renaissance' of three decades before.

I have no doubt that there really was a Belgian renaissance before the turn of the century. A new creative spirit was accompanied by nationalism, even a cult of the native. L'ame belge of the 1890s has parallels all across Europe, particularly in Barcelona and Dublin. Common to the movements in all three places were a feeling for the unity of the arts, historical awareness and more than a small amount of mysticism. And then there is all the bustle of idealistic organisations. Still, it was harder to make fine art of a new type than to set up magazines and exhibiting societies, and the sadness is that Belgian painting and sculpture do not attain the creative heights.

Ensor is an interesting painter but he does not have the elevated aesthetic devotion of his contemporary Belgian writers Maeterlinck and Verhaeren. Alas, there's a special kind of neat artistry in much Belgian painting that gives a minor look to Willy Finch, Georges Lemmen, George Morren, Henry van de Velde and the fundamentally more gifted Theo van Rysselberghe. The problem is the nature of Divisionism (the Belgian version of French pointillisme) and the influence of Seurat, one of the most notable of the invites. His calm, theoretical paintings, with their multiplicity of little dots, were widely imitated. I think Seurat a much more academic artist than he first appears. And the Divisionist style, which could never deal with movement and organises space by silhouettes and a succession of backdrops, was fatally suited to the Belgian love of enclosure and stasis.

Some beautiful pictures resulted: but when we consider a whole wall of them there quickly comes a longing for expressionism. As many pictures by Khnopff and Xavier Mellery show, the Belgians liked a spooky symbolism but avoided personal extravagance. Surprisingly, there's quite a lot of un-Belgian energy hidden beneath the sombre folds of Meunier's sculpture. He comes in an instructive but disappointing section devoted to social problems. Meunier's kind of progressive outlook was miserabilisme, looking at workers' suffering as though the human condition would always be such. L'ame belge should not have been dispirited in this way, but the exhibition as a whole is too intriguing for visitors to be cast down by Belgium's sorrows.

It would be good to be able to follow various suggestions made by contributors to the catalogue, all of them Belgian. We want to know more about the pressures of language and nationality. I suspect that a larger survey of Belgian art and a more critical look at the country's culture would help us to understand other fissures in European societies today. Belgium has never been an uninteresting country, as people often carelessly say. It's a test case for social progress, recovery from war and the difficulties of political harmony. The Royal Academy has little interest in such things - so, as often, an exhibition makes us hope for a good book on the questions the show raises.

Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 7438) to 2 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)

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