Decadence and Dark Dreams
Belgian Symbolism

18.09.2020 to 17.01.2021
Alte Nationalgalerie

The seductive glimpse into the abyss, the exaggerated aestheticism of a society marked by overabundance and crisis, the morbid attraction between Thanatos and Eros – these are some of the themes that found expression in the art of the 19th century, especially in Belgian Symbolism.

In sharp contrast to the enthusiasm of Naturalism and Impressionism for the superficial, a new artistic movement emerged in the 1880s characterised by the sensual, by magic and profound meaning, even irrationality. As such, Symbolism can be seen as anticipating Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams, which he published in 1899.

Belgian Symbolism was unique for its predilection for morbid and decadent subject matter. In the mid-19th century, Antoine Wiertz introduced death and decline as leitmotifs in art, which were taken up by a range of artists, from sculptors such as George Minne to the master of the absurd, James Ensor. Inspired by contemporary literature, artists around the turn of the 20th century attempted to unite a new mysticism with an extravagant and sumptuous style, as seen for example in the sculptures of Charles van der Stappen, with their combination of highly valuable materials. The figure of the femme fatale emerged in this context as a central figure, an expression of excess and lust, as can be seen in the work of Fernand Khnopff. In the production of Felicien Rops and Jean Delville, aspects of the occult and the demonic are also present. Symbolism did not only influence portraiture and depictions of the human form, but was also reflected in landscape painting, as in the paysage symboliste works of William Degouve de Nuncques and Fernand Khnopff, or in the uncanny interiors of artists such as Leon Spilliaert, Xavier Mellery and Georges Lebrun.

Whereas Impressionism has been studied and appreciated in nearly all its facets, including analyses of its country-specific characteristics, a more nuanced consideration of Symbolism is yet to be carried out. Unlike French Symbolism, which is considered to be the root and inspiration of similar endeavours in Germany, the Belgian manifestation of this artistic tendency has not yet received concerted attention. This is unfortunate, 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 were central to the establishment and spread of Symbolism. In many areas of art, Belgium acted as a bridge 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 for art in Brussels between 1883 and 1893, and connected Belgian artists such as Ensor, Khnopff and Rysselberghe with key international figures such as Cezanne, Crane, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, Klimt and McNeill Whistler.

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

A special exhibition of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, with the support of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Made possible by the Freunde der Nationalgalerie.

An exhibition catalog has been published by Hirmer Verlag.

Table telephone set, Zwietusch, manufacturer, 1930s, place of use: Berlin
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen / Ute Franz-Scarciglia
Fernand Khnopff, The Caresses, Detail, 1896
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / akg-images
Education and outreach for adults
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Juliane Eirich
Exterior view of the Alte Nationalgalerie
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

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Related Links

Exhibition website

Tour through the exhibition "Decadence and Dark Dreams. Belgian Symbolism" in the Alte Nationalgalerie (German)

Artikel „Die Malerei aus der Dunkelheit“ von Boris Hohmeyer in der Mai-Ausgabe 2020 des Kunstmagazins ART, präsentiert mit freundlicher Genehmigung von ART (PDF, 1,59 MB)

Museum and the City: "Leichtfüßig in den Herbst: Jetzt ist die optimale Museumszeit!" on the blog of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Exhibition catalogue in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin webshop