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From Belgium, some odd views

At the McMullen, an appreciation for the absurd as well as for the masters

CHESTNUT HILL -- Consider Belgium, a nation the size of Maryland, whose signature artistic export of the early 20th century was delicious weirdness. At least that's the impression conveyed by "A New Key: Modern Belgian Art From the Simon Collection," a mixed bag of an exhibition at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art.

BC professor Jeffery Howe has gathered 53 Belgian works made between 1889 and 1946 from the Simon collection ("the finest assemblage of Belgian modern art outside Belgium," according to exhibit organizers), which is based in Britain and France. The show provides an overview of art produced then in Belgium and argues that the country was "an indispensable font of expressionism and surrealism."

There are artists familiar from the usual textbook histories -- the Surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux and the Impressionist Theo van Rysselberghe. James Ensor, the oddball Belgian master whose work is rarely seen around these parts, is represented by four paintings. The best technically is "Still-life with Fish and Shellfish" (1895), in which his brushstrokes carefully evoke the volumes of fish and shells laid out on a wooden table.

But what we really want to see is Ensor's acid humor and scenes of cavorting skeletons, clowns, and goons, a style that seems to have its origins in his family's seaside souvenir and carnival mask shop in Ostend. This sensibility shines through in "From Laughter to Tears" (1908), which shows, from left to right, a smiling pink face with a mangled nose, a skull, and a weeping white face. A blue parrot, perched atop the skull, smiles. "The Fantastic Ballet" (1918) parodies polite society with aristocrats and wingnuts prancing across a stage. Some roll on the floor. Snot drips from one character's nose. These paintings are just OK, but they suggest the strange psychological charge of Ensor's best works.

Most of the unfamiliar names here seem to be playing catch-up with or are derivative of the era's French and German avant-garde. That's not to say the work is bad, just familiar. Impressionist paintings -- such as Emile Claus's 1897 depiction of a woman hanging laundry behind a field of daisies -- suggest the Belgians generally didn't grasp French Impressionism's attention to modern life or burgeoning abstraction. Instead their Impressionist paintings seem like academic works gussied up in pretty Impressionist wrapping. One Belgian who did get it was van Rysselberghe, but his 1906 "Veere in the Morning Mist," which looks across shimmering green water to a pink and purple Dutch village, is overshadowed by its debt to Claude Monet.

Fighting and occupation during World War I and World War II tore up the country. Edgard Tytgat responded with a cute but anxious 1914 ink sketch and corresponding 1918 painting of the first few German soldiers wandering into his town in suburban Brussels during World War I. Frits van den Berghe's dark, choppy 1919 painting of Gustave de Smet portrays his friend seething with bitterness and anger after his son was killed in a train accident on his way to enlist in 1918. The soldier in van den Berghe's 1929 painting "The Last Gunner" appears burned and scabbed and blasted to pieces.

Van den Berghe, whose art could fit in well with contemporaneous paintings by German Expressionists, is represented by seven works. A sweet 1927 scene shows couples frolicking along a riverbank as boats pass by, as if floating through a tunnel of love. His 1927 canvas "Corridors" is a surreal scene in which a flapper, snake, naked lady, empty coat, and man wander what look like subway tunnels.

Surrealism was an artistic response to World War I. The thinking went that if logic and decorum got us into this mess, let's try nonsense and absurdity for a change. Magritte's 1928 painting "Dialogue Raveled by the Wind" depicts three headless and legless naked female torsos before a fluttering curtain. Paul Delvaux's 1946 painting "The Riddle" is one of his typical enigmatic but ham-handed scenes of naked and scantily-clad ladies in a garden.

Be sure to note Valerius de Saedeleer's terrific 1925 painting "Old Orchard in Winter," which has some resemblance to paintings by the 16th - century Belgian master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Under a deep blanket of snow, a village has fallen into a mesmerizingly dreamy calm, save for black trees with creeping limbs that seem like monsters from a Grimm's fairy tale.


A New Key: Modern

Belgian Art From

the Simon Collection

At: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, through July 22 .