Freedom expo: Forget the message, enjoy the art


Brussels’ Royal Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a weighty exhibition to mark the end of a Europe-wide touring commentary on freedom

See what we’ve missed out on

Critique – Crisis – Desire at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels is a serious exhibition which demands a certain degree of intellectual engagement. I suggest you ignore this demand. Walk past the introductory text, and once you reach the middle of the room, take a left and look around.

What you will see is a reminder that the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has an amazing collection of contemporary European art. Formerly displayed over several floors, it now tends to get rationed out in temporary exhibitions like this.

Here is one of its jewels, Francis Bacon’s “Pope with Owls” (1958, pictured), an eerie addition to the painter’s series of sinister and screaming pontiffs. The two birds perch on the back of the throne, seeming to share the pope’s questioning gaze. This canvas is perfectly complemented by Christian Boltanski’s “Reliquary: Murders” (1989-90), with its murky true-crime images sanctified on an altar of rusting metal boxes.

In the corner stands “The Lieutenant” (1966) by Flemish sculptor Roel d’Haese, a beguiling figure that appears to have two heads. Opposite hangs one of Roman Opalka’s large paintings presenting a ‘detail’ of his life-long project to write down all the numbers from one to infinity.

This canvas begins at 1,556,343, the numbers painted in white on a silky grey background. From 1972 each work became progressively lighter, and by the time Opalka died in 2011 he had been painting white-on-white for several years.

Scale and structure

Explore further and you will find other fascinating works by Oscar Jespers, Jean Dubuffet, Thomas Struth, Alberto Burri, Jephan de Villiers and others. Hopefully, questions about why they have been brought together will not intrude on your rapt attention.

But if you must know, here is the reason. For the past two years a large exhibition called Critique and Crisis has been travelling Europe, making stops in Berlin, Milan, Tallinn and Krakow. Put together under the aegis of the Council of Europe, it takes the thesis that freedom to criticise helps to overcome social and political crises. Using loans from major art collections across Europe, it examined how the concept of freedom has been interpreted, understood and defended in art since 1945, with particular reference to the divisions created by the Cold War.

This exhibition did not come to Brussels, but the city was chosen to host a symposium to mark its conclusion this month. Critique – Crisis – Desire is therefore a local attempt to complement or perhaps evoke the absent Council of Europe exhibition.

Unfortunately, the Brussels show lacks the scale and structure of the original. Instead of a detailed and closely argued framework, the reasons given here for each work’s inclusion are so broad as to be meaningless.

So we have Henry Moore’s “Warrior Head” (1953) because the artist was concerned with the human condition, and David Nash’s “Pyramid in the Sticks” (1989), a large charcoal drawing of a woodpile, because it evokes the forces of nature. Add in Nam June Paik’s inhuman and unnatural “Capella” (1966), with six miniature TV sets arranged around a car hubcap, and it would seem that anything goes.

Surveillance and spectacle

The notion of freedom is strongest in the work of artists with some skin in the game. For example, Victor Brauner was a Jewish Romanian artist driven out of Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940. Usually a painter, Brauner was forced by refugee conditions to improvise a new way of working with the materials to hand: candle wax, pencil and ink. The figure in “Convulsion of Fluids” (1943) is an outline, a provisional human being, containing a network of dots or perhaps constellations.

Ossip Zadkine, a Russian of Jewish ancestry, also fled France in 1941. When he returned he created “The Destroyed City”, an anguished Cubist figure throwing its hands skywards, with a deep gash where its heart should be. The final monumental sculpture is a Rotterdam landmark, but the smaller version on display here is no less powerful.

Or take Dimitri Perdikis, an abstract artist who responded to the rise of the Greek dictatorship in 1967 with more political work. In “Fear” a sinister young man stares out of a newspaper photograph collaged into a geometric arrangement of squares and circles, the smears of red paint strongly suggesting blood.

Political and social crises are addressed head on in recent work by two Flemish artists. In “Border” (2001) Hans Op de Beeck eavesdrops on a conversation between refugees, before expanding the thermal imaging to show that they are concealed in a large lorry. Meanwhile, “Plot Point” (2007) by Nicolas Provost builds the appearance of a drama from images filmed in public, an eloquent commentary on surveillance and spectacle.

All of which is fine, but take a look at the catalogue of the Council of Europe exhibition tethered by the door, and you can see just what Brussels is missing.

Critique – Crisis – Desire, until July 19, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Regentschapsstraat 3, Brussels

Picture (c) SABAM, Belgium/DACS London/KMSK Brussels, photo: J Geleyns-Roscan

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