The young man who paid 60 yuan to see an exhibition of Flemish art in the Wumen gallery of the Forbidden City gazes for a long time at Reading Girl, a gently luminous black chalk drawing of a small girl by 19th-century artist Henri Evenepoel. 'You can really see the inside of the girl, on the outside,' he says. 'It's different from our art.' What the exhibition-goer has no way of knowing is that he's looking at only half a show. The other half of The Forbidden Empire, intended as the first comparative look at 500 years of art from the southern Low Countries and China from 1450 to 1950, is hidden 500 paces away in the Wuying Palace on the western side of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Instead of a planned exhibition comparing cultures, there's a sterile separation - which observers say reflects the deep conservatism of the host, the Palace Museum. There, in splendid isolation, representative works from half a millennium of Chinese art - mostly ink-and-wash pieces by masters such as Shi Tao and Zhu Da - languish unvisited, the thrill of the cross-cultural comparison gone. Billed as a 'dialogue between the southern Low Countries and China' and jointly curated by Belgian conceptual artist Luc Tuymans and the Palace Museum's Yu Hui, the show was a must-see at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels when it was launched there in February. It moved to the Palace Museum on June 27 and will run until September 5. 'The idea was to make a juxtaposition between art in the southern Netherlands, which is really Belgium, and Chinese old masters,' says Tuymans. Yet on the mainland the exhibition has been transformed. Flemish and Chinese art separated, joined only by a 'corridor of culture' - eight red display boards with photographs of dignitaries and selected masterpieces that snakes some of the way between the galleries. A private soiree was held after the opening in Beijing on June 26, but many art lovers left early. What went wrong? Exhibition conditions at the Palace Museum didn't allow the display of the foreign art in the way originally planned, the Belgians were told when they arrived in China in mid-June to hang the show. The Chinese were afraid of damaging the Flemish oils and drawings. 'Things turned out a little different because of technicalities,' says Tuymans. But the issue ran deeper than that. 'This is a problem that has to do with the official situation in China and the structure [of the Palace Museum] that is highly hierarchical. And it's also the Forbidden City, so that's something that's different. We had talked about this concept and we wanted to do the same thing we did in Brussels, but it turned out differently. I understand the climatological considerations, but it could have been something else.' 'It was an excuse,' says someone who attended the soiree. 'Basically they wanted the foreign art, but not hanging next to the Chinese works, and they used the absence of proper hanging conditions as an excuse.' Tuymans says one of the first remarks his delegation heard from art officials on arrival was that it was enough to show western art in the Palace Museum. The museum has declined to comment. Fighting to save something of the initial concept, Tuymans persuaded the museum to let him hang two Chinese paintings among the Flemish works: Scroll of the Imperial Concubine of Emperor Hongli in Han Costume and Hongli in Han Costume, by an anonymous Chinese court painter. Hopes that the show could be salvaged by publishing a catalogue in the original, mixed format were dashed by Palace Museum officials, who issued two separate catalogues. 'We had a contract, but the reality turned out differently,' says Tuymans. 'What's left for the Chinese museum-going public is just a residue.'