Symbolism was a late 19th-century movement which arose in dramatically changing times: industrial revolution, rural exodus, population growth, the development of socialism, the emergence of biology and the evolutionist theory, awareness of the ‘self’ and the role of conscience. It evolved as a reaction against materialism, positivism and realism in art. Although admittedly reactionary, it influenced the advent of Modernism and heralded movements such as Abstraction and Surrealism. Upholding a perception of reality infused with spirituality, Symbolist artists favoured the subtle expression of moods, ima- ginary worlds and dreams, and were naturally fascinated by the elusive, ever-changing nature of the liquid element with its infinite poetic variations and powerful mythological and symbolic imagery. Water is both surface and depth, purveyor of death or life-giving energy, opaque or transparent, crashing waves or total peaceful calm; it also expresses the strong polarization which inspired Symbolism, oscillating between the blackest pessimism and idealism, the quest for a new formal language or the return to pre-Renaissance roots. The exhibition aims to reveal all Symbolism’s different facets through the prism of water whose rich and varied repertoire was to inspire painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, cabinetmakers, glassmakers and ceramists. Part of the exhibition will travel and be shown at the Musée Félicien Rops, in Namur, Belgium.
Because western artists fantasized a great deal about the Orient and all the secret places that were strictly out of reach, they dreamed up what they were unable to see: jealous showdowns in the seraglio, languorous ladies leisurely smoking a hookah in the harem or sweating in the steam bath, their skin glowing from lavish washing with copious amounts of water by bare-breasted mulatto girls. Popular imagery from Islamic countries emerged at the height of the golden age of Orientalist painting in the late 19th century, and highlighted everything Orientalism had precisely overlooked: religious sentiments, calligraphy associated with image and the heroes and martyrs of Islamic culture and history. The arrival of new technology meant that these pictures were increasingly available during the second half of the 20th century, at the very time when Orientalist painting was seriously losing momentum. “The Two Faces of the East” focusses on the portrayal of women in Orientalist painting and popular imagery from Islamic lands; it reveals the deep gap between how the Orient was seen, not as it is, but as the West wanted to see it, and how Islamic countries would like it to be seen.