Fin-de-Siècle Museum opens in Brussels


The city’s newest museum spotlights its history as an artistic capital at the close of the 19th century

City was crucial to international spread of Modernism

The deepest sublevels of one of Brussels’ oldest buildings are an unlikely home for the Fin-de-Siècle Museum, the capital’s newest cultural attraction. But it makes some kind of sense. To begin with, the building is the seat of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts on Regentschapsstraat, where Belgium’s largest, most prestigious collections are housed in the Modern and Old Masters Museums.

Then there’s the theme. Fin-de-siècle (the end of the century) technically refers to a time period, but the description is not as innocent as that. The close of the 19th century was lived by its citizens and artists as a time of decadence – as the end of the world as they knew it. The former were right, for this was a time of social injustice and political irresponsibility, the immediate consequence of which was the apocalypse of the First World War.

It ended better for the artists. They welcomed the end of the old order as the beginning of the new. When it came, the Great War was only more fuel for the modernist fire. The fin-de-siècle saw the spectacular death of the classical ideal, which was rooted in a belief no longer shared by a new generation of artists – that of a transcendent, harmonious beauty.

These artists rather felt themselves at the threshold of something new, something modern, although the term had yet to be defined – hence the uncertainty bordering on foreboding. So the quintessential fin-de-siècle artwork exudes a dark, dream-like, subterranean atmosphere. The age of experimentation had begun.

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to these years between 1865 – the year of seminal Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire’s self-imposed exile in “poor Belgium” – and 1914, when the outbreak of the war put an abrupt end to the proceedings. During this half-century, Brussels became an artistic as well as a political capital, thanks to so many indefatigably modernist young locals. Among them were visual artists like James Ensor, Fernand Khnopff, Constantin Meunier and Félicien Rops; architects like Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde; and men of letters like Maurice Maeterlinck and Emile Verhaeren. 

Avant-garde frenzy

The museum’s inauguration in early December was an all-star affair, attended by the international press, a sizeable delegation of federal and regional ministers and the man of the hour, Michel Draguet. Speaking at the opening, the Royal Museums’ director put the whole project in perspective. “The 19th century is a key moment in the history of European culture,” he said, “when modernity announced itself in a flowering of new forms to embrace a wave of new ideas”.

The Belgian art world carried the modern movement forward in all its facets

- Michel Draguet

Impressionism, Symbolism, Realism and Art Nouveau were all stylistic innovations that followed intellectual and social currents. They were reflections of a society in upheaval, torn between yesterday’s classical ideal and tomorrow’s promise of “progress”, alternately heartening and alarming.

Most of these currents originated abroad, in Paris and later Vienna, but Belgian artists were early converts to this fledgling modernism, and their advocacy was crucial to its international spread. “Peripheral in comparison with the scene in Paris but central due to its role as a crossroads of Europe, the Belgian art world carried the modern movement forward in all its facets,” Draguet said, “from avant-garde frenzy to critical backlash.”

Indeed, by the mid-20th century the country would be an established centre of the fin-de-siècle’s triumphant heir, high modernism.

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is not just a celebration of Belgium’s contribution to modern Europe’s cultural heritage; it is also comes as the second step in a long-term policy programme. “The opening of the museum is a milestone in a project to reorganise museums and restructure federal museum collections,” said Philippe Courard from the Belgian Science Policy Office (Belspo), speaking at the museum’s inauguration ceremony.

Multimedia magnificence

The feds’ first move was the establishment of a dedicated Magritte Museum in 2009. If all goes well, the project will culminate in the creation of an ambitious new modern art museum somewhere in Brussels. Though details on that are still sketchy, Courard promises a museum that will “bring together art collections from the 20th and 21st centuries and within a building to be renovated or constructed in a place still to be determined.”

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is also a technical innovation in keeping with contemporary architectural values as well as the latest developments in multimedia technology. This includes interactive touchscreen stations that take visitors on virtual tours of long-demolished architectural gems such as Horta’s Volkshuis.

Luckily, loads of art survived the vagaries of public taste. Some fin-de-siècle artists even became legends. Ostend’s favourite son James Ensor, for example, is still celebrated as a pioneering modern – not just in Flanders, but all over the world.

The painter took his cue from the French Impressionists, who had experimented with the optical and psychological mechanisms of perception, but Ensor ended by pioneering a form of expressionism, bordering on surrealism, that anticipated the 20th-century movements of the same name.

Meanwhile, in Bruges, Khnopff was putting his stamp on another French import, Symbolism. Influencing the visual arts, poetry, music and theatre, Symbolism can safely be described as the defining movement of the fin-de-siècle, and its rejection of representation in the classical mould would pave the way for even bolder experiments in both the following and present century. 

Dream sequences

Khnopff and his Symbolist confreres developed an art that operates more like dream than waking reality. Their art is rooted not in literal signs but in “symbols”, with meanings that must be deciphered. If all this sounds familiar, that’s because the fin-de-siècle was also the age of Freud, who absorbed the spirit of Symbolism and incorporated it into his psychoanalytical model.

When it comes to Art Nouveau, people automatically think of Brussels

- Federal culture minister Laurette Onkelinx

Khnopff’s “symbol” of choice is the femme fatale. His canvases are bursting with women: Some are angelic but most are diabolical or at least vaguely unsettling. Almost all of them are modelled after Khnopff’s muse, his own sister Marguerite.

The fin-de-siècle fixation on this particular symbol can be read sociologically as anxiety over the growing public role of women, or artistically as evidence of the Symbolists’ search for new, subversive ideals of beauty.

Still other fin-de-siècle artists were not interested in “beauty” at all. Their ideal was social justice. Brussels-born sculptor Constantin Meunier conducted a warts-and-all investigation of contemporary labour conditions and presented his findings in timeless bronze. His noble (although often exhausted) proletarian figures brought attention to the plight of the industrial worker. They also made him an international standard-bearer of Social Realism.

Belgium’s Art Nouveau legacy is more controversial. Of course, the style is one of the capital’s signatures. Speaking at the inauguration, federal culture minister Laurette Onkelinx said that, when it comes to Art Nouveau, “people automatically think of Brussels, next to other larger cities such as Vienna, Paris, New York and Nagoya.”

The trouble with Art Nouveau

But the co-existence of both fine and decorative aspects under the heading Art Nouveau was and still is a bone of contention among critics. “Decoration” – encompassing privately commissioned architecture, furniture and what we would now describe as design – is still not recognised by all cultural “authorities” as worthy of the arts-museum treatment.

They started this collection during a decade when Art Nouveau monuments were being destroyed

- Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort

In light of this schism, the bequest of Anne-Marie Crowet and Roland Gillion’s extensive, formerly private collection of Art Nouveau “art” and “decoration” posed a problem. This gift is the heart of the Fin-de-Siècle Museum, but there were some who would have split up the Gillion-Crowet collection, incorporating the paintings and sculptures into the museum collection while excluding the hand-crafted chairs, desks, lamps and tableware.

It was, after all, just this sort of fine-arts chauvinism that allowed the couple to amass such an extraordinary collection in the first place. “Mr and Mrs Gillion-Crowet started this collection in the 1960s, a decade during which some Art Nouveau monuments were destroyed both in Belgium and other parts of Europe,” said Brussels’ minister-president Rudi Vervoort, speaking at the museum opening. “Their painstaking search enabled them to assemble one of Belgium’s most exceptional collections of decorative art from the late-19th century.”

They did us a favour by preserving these objects, whatever their official status. After delicate negotiations between the Gillion-Crowet family and representatives of both the Brussels-Capital Region and the federal government, the collection was finally donated in its entirety to Brussels in 2006. Again, modernity wins out.

Fin-de-Siècle Museum
Regentschapsstraat 3, Brussels 

Pictured above: Fernand Khnopff’s “Memories: Lawn Tennis” (1889)

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels comprise a handful of thematically oriented museums at different locations across the city. Their combined collections cover Western fine arts from the 15th to the 21st century.
Themes - The museums are the Old Masters Museum, the Modern Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum and the Magritte Museum.
Location - Only three of the museums are actually housed in the Regentschapsstraat building commonly mistaken for the “Museum”.
Fin-de-siècle - A new and sixth Fine Arts Museum focusing on fin-de-siècle art is slated for 2013.
1 803

Museum opens

3 000

book titles in museum library

20 000

combined artworks