The Happy Donor by René Magritte is the crowning jewel of this Belgian art exhibition. / SALVADOR SALAS

The Thyssen Malaga reveals the audacity of Belgian painting: René Magritte and other artists

The museum is displaying works from the Musée d'Ixelles in Brussels to show the history of art in Belgium from the grand masters to modernity

The highlight of the exhibition comes at the end and is on the third floor: The Happy Donor, by René Magritte. This Belgian artist used all his imagination for this oil painting, which he completed shortly before his death. There is the iconic silhouette of the man in the bowler hat (himself), the nocturnal landscape to which he kept returning, the mixture of the dream world with the real world and that sphere, whose meaning remains a mystery.

This is the painting chosen as the image of this exhibition, a universally recognisable work, but before reaching it there are another 70 pieces to demonstrate that Belgian art consists of much more than this genius of surrealism.

For the first time in Spain, the Carmen Thyssen museum is displaying a complete selection of modern Belgian art from the Musée d'Ixelles in Brussels, which holds the second most important public collection in that country but is currently closed while improvement works are carried out.

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"It is a tangible demonstration that the history of art needs to be revisited," said the director of the Thyssen Malaga, Lourdes Moreno, at the inauguration, who was accompanied by her counterpart at the Musée d'Ixelles, Claire Leblanc. The magnetism and relevance of the art scene in Paris at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries "has overshadowed" other equally fertile, dynamic and active cultures such as that of Belgium. The "audacity" and the "experiments" characterise, Leblanc said, an artistic creation that serves to "reclaim the identity" of Belgium and "forge the character" of a young country, which is about to celebrate "just 200 years" of existence.

The artists absorbed the influences of the powerful countries around them, from French impressionism and German expressionism, but applied them in their own way. "Belgian art doesn't like dogmas, doctrines or ideas forced by a group. It takes everything around that interests it with a free spirit. It is art between dream and reality," the museum describes its first completely international exhibition.

The Belgian Art: from Impressionism to Magritte. Musée d'Ixelles exhibition is sponsored by the Unicaja Foundation and it begins in the Sala Noble at the Thyssen as a form of introduction. It transports visitors to the Belgium of the end of the 19th century, a country in the midst of an industrial boom where progress coexists alongside the hardships of labourers and country dwellers.

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The dark, cloudy landscapes mix with realistic portraits of peasants - Woman in the Field, by Isidore Verheyden - and the bourgoisie - The Consolation, by Alfred Stevens. Then suddenly, it becomes colourful. Jos Albert's The Large Interior (1914) welcomes visitors on the third floor with an impact, a radical and almost expressionist work with very free composition which influenced artists of the same time and showed some early signs of modernism.

Revolution

And so begins the tour of Impressionism and its Derivations, because there is more than one. And Théo van Rysselberghe is proof of that: he has the ability to pass from the classic cloudy landscapes (Holy Cross Church) to the luminous and colourful pointillism of Tea in the Garden. He was a revolutionary of his time.

"He set himself free," Leblanc explained, indicating the intimate scene of Van Rysselberghe's wife, sister-in-law and a friend sat in silence at the table. "It was a forerunner of symbolism," she added. Van Rysselberghe was encouraged to visit Spain by Darío de Regoyos - the only Spanish artist in the exhibition - on a journey which is reflected in his interpretation of The Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra.

It was during this period that luminarism began, a movement created by Émile Claus in which "light is the rule of expression" (Bringing in the Nets). Here, the painting Dunes in the Sun by Anne Boch, the only woman in the exhibition, stands out. She painted as a hobby, and her work, although inconsistent, has a special sensitivity. She was the only person to buy a painting from Vincent van Gogh while he was alive.

Beside her is one of the best-known and most influential influences in Belgian art, the avant-garde James Ensor, who successfully created a synthesis of modernity in his Christ Calming the Tempest.

At the same time, the use of academicism and classicism to shape the inner universe continued to spread. This is symbolism connected to the avant-garde fauvists and expressionists, as shown in Portrait of Maurice Spilliaert by Léon Spilliaert, showing German influences with simple lines but powerful in dark and greenish tones. Optimum expression is sought with few elements, as Rik Wouters achieved with Nel with a Red Hat. During and after the war, the artists longed for the serenity of other times and returned to interior spaces and landscapes (Snowy Landscape, by Jean Brusselmans) but with a freer brushstroke in light and colour, and cubist influences (De Zeearend, by Gustave de Smet).

But without a doubt, Belgian art exploded internationally thanks to the surrealism of two great masters: René Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Unlike France, there was no revolutionary or political commitment behind it, just the aim of opening a window onto an imaginary and psychic world. "Always with a clear reference to what is real, but making it poetic and mysterious," Leclerc said.

The Happy Donor, the jewel in the crown of this exhibition, was a gift from the artist to the Musée d'Ixelles in thanks for his first retrospective in his own country. In Malaga it is displayed with three more of his works: the disturbing house seen through the window (In Praise of Dialectics), the original band of clouds (The Summer) and the funeral mask of Napoleon in one of his first surrealist paintings (The Face of Genius).

On the other wall hangs the enigmatic Ancient Landscape (Naked Women) by Delvaux, who was described as " an independent man who lived in his bubble" on the edge of the art circuit.

These two creators who couldn't stand each other - they each laughed at the other - are now obliged to maintain a dialogue at the Thyssen Museum in Malaga until 5 March. And the conversation has turned out to be most interesting.