During the mid-to-late 1800s the coastal city of Ostend (Oostende) was a fashionable resort frequented by Belgium's royal family. The coastline, with its exceptional light, also became a popular sojourn for artists, causing a cross-fertilization between the French and Belgian avant-gardes. A key figure in the latter was Ostend-born James Ensor, who spent most of his life in his home town, where he became the founding member and leader of avant-garde art group Les XX.

Highly sensitive to the sea and its reflections of the northern light, and influenced by painters from Caravaggio to Whistler, Ensor developed a new approach to reality. He was also a keen agitator against the art establishment, producing canvases of biting satire on the masses, religion and the Paris-centric art environment of Brussels, of which the centerpiece of this exhibition, his vast carpet design The Entry of Christ into Brussels is the supreme example. Far more than a retrospective, this exhibition places Ensor in the context of larger European art movements by comparisons with 207 works by artists including Monet, Courbet, Picasso, Magritte, Toulouse-Lautrec and Alechinsky up to Jean Tinguely, as well as Flemish luminaries Constant Permeke and Lon Spilliaert.

Ensor and the avant-gardes by the sea chronicles the importance and popularity of Belgium's coastline through the century, from realism and romance, through to the abstract COBRA art movement of Denmark, a reaction to the light and reality of the early Impressionists.