Belgium, Symbolist land

"The relic bearer" by Minne.

The relic bearer” by George Minne. Image credit © Horta

At the turn of the twentieth century, a new artistic movement named Symbolism was born in France as a rejection of Impressionism, deemed too materialistic for the new aesthetic aspirations. It flourished in Belgium, which shone as the second homeland of Symbolism before becoming the cradle of Surrealism. If life is too ridiculous to take it seriously for surrealists, life had been too mysterious to take it materialistically for Belgian artists some decades before.


“The Sphinx” by Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921).

Fernand Khnopff’s paintings transcend reality on moving us into a world of dreams and myths. Symbolism was very spiritual, with a fair amount of esoterism and occultism. The “Super Magician”—according to himself—and art critic Josephin Peladan, supported Symbolist painters, writers and musicians against the materialism of the day through the salon of his “Mystic Order of the Rose+Cross”. This charlatan failed in his spiritual goals but succeeded in creating a new atmosphere of symbols for a new art considered as sacred. Perhaps Symbolism, as Peladan, was nothing but a bluff and there is nothing more than meets the eye. This week at Horta, you can make up your mind with a bronze at auction, “The relic bearer” by the best Symbolist Belgian sculptor, George Minne (1866-1941).


“Josephin Peladan” by Alexandre Séon (1855-1917).

“Mother crying the death of her child” by George Minne.

Minne shook the bourgeois sense of beauty with the presentation in 1886 of his “Mother crying the death of her child”, considered at the time too primitive and pathetic. As usual, people could not tell if Minne was a genius or an ignorant fool. Maurice Maeterlinck—the Belgian author of the Symbolist drama “Pelleas and Pellissande” with which Debussy would compose the ultimate homonymous Symbolist opera—would appreciate in Minne’s work the incarnation of Symbolism in sculpture after having recognised that Minne “is just twenty years old and has read nothing”. Minne had still to face incomprehension and hardship for a long time. In 1898, with “Kneeling youth”—a very similar sculpture to the one at auction—he made the general public realise the silent harmony of his work with a very simple trick: instead of one figure he put together five of them around a fountain. The work suddenly sang. A new era was born in sculpture.

Fountain with “Kneeling youth” by George Minne.