I Belgi, Barbari e Poeti,
Espace Vanderborght, Brussels.
Until January 24.



Wry, strange, self-mocking, subversive, acerbic, ironic, cynical, sarcastic, bitter, unconventional and of course surreal – are just some of the adjectives that spring to mind as you browse the unsettling Belgian art on display in a central Brussels venue until 24th January.

But for curator Antonio Nardone, who describes himself as a Belgian of Italian origin, “barbari” or barbarian is the mot juste.  He uses it in the classical sense of foreigners or outsiders and sees his exhibition I Belgi, Barbari e Poeti — held in Rome to glowing reviews before its stint in Brussels — as a tribute to the peculiar freedom of Belgian artists to be experimental.  The inhabitants of a small nation surrounded by borders, they have no overwhelming national establishment to oppress them, he says.

Roman Emperor Julius Caesar gives historic depth to the argument.  In his commentaries on the Gallic war, the Roman emperor concluded that of all the “barbari” the Belgians were the bravest.

Certainly, the Belgians have endured their fair share of war from Roman times to the battle of Waterloo to the trenches of World War I, so we should not be surprised that skeletons are a recurrent theme in the 19th-to-21st century Belgian art Nardone has assembled from private collections and, in some cases, from collaborating with the artists.

We begin with the modern classics as we’re greeted by Paul Delvaux’s Conversation – between a woman and her skeleton, whose shadow is eerily reflected, while a half-seen figure looks on from the corner of the frame.

Other modern legends of Belgian art are represented by a haunting Leon Spilliaert – Plage au Clair de Lune (beach by moonlight) — and a lesser known Rene Magritte – l’Oracle, which combines one of Magritte’s bright, breezy, daytime skies of fluffy white clouds with an indoor blazing oracular fire.

Taking up the skeleton/war theme, engraver Felicien Rops’ La Medaille de Waterloo (the Waterloo medal) juxtaposes military decoration with a mass of skeletons, while James Ensor’s Du Rire aux Larmes (from laughter to tears) reminds us that the flesh and blood of our faces are merely masks we wear all too briefly.

As we ponder such thoughts, we’re aware of a grating tango playing in the background that leads us to the next room and an installation of tangoing skeletons Ni un Paso Atras (not one step back), the work of Johan Muyle.  His danse macabre signals the shift to the exhbition’s most discomforting exhibits, although perhaps the classics of the exhibition’s first session, made relatively cosy by the passage of time, were once just as insistently provocative.

Death is an overwhelming preoccupation, together with religion, or rather the subversion of it.

From Jan Fabre, we have a human skull decorated with shiny beetle wings and with a dead bird in its mouth and then seven owl heads with troublingly human eyes.

Patrick van Roy’s The Soldier creates a Shroud of Turin image from backlit cannon fodder, while Jean-Luc Moerman’s absolutely contemporary tattoed Christ on the Cross, dated 2015, is at once a tribute to and a parody of the great Flemish master Rubens and the entire history of Belgian Catholic religious art that has gone before.

Whatever your preference, whether for the poetry of Belgium’s revered greats, or the vibrant experimentation of the brave, new generation, Nardone makes a powerful case for putting it all on display.

As a fearless entrepreneur, he has made that happen and has managed to rekindle a passionate debate in the Belgian press about the need to cut through the complexity of Belgium’s multi-layered government, take thousands of publicly-owned works out of storage and create a national contemporary art museum.

Barbara Lewis © 2015.

Phil Van Duynen, Rooting
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