Beautiful Maria’s, baroque and silence: this is the renovated ‘Rijks’ of Antwerp

1. What kind of museum was this?

As Adam Verver, the wealthy art collector from Henry James’ novel The GoldenBowl (1904) wanting to give something back to the thousands of workers whomade him immensely rich, he decides to build a museum full of masterpieces: a“house with open doors and windows, from which the highest knowledge” radiatesover “grateful, thirsty millions”.

Many museums in Europe and America have been influenced by this classicalidea. And now a new offshoot has been added to that tree: the renovated RoyalMuseum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. As a child I thought it was an intimidatingmajestic building. It lifted the square in front of it, the streets andhouses, as it were and transformed the then poor Scheldt city, with chip shopsunder rusty viaducts and holes in the pavement, into a true metropolitan fairytale.

The Madonna by Jean Fouquet (about 1450).

is perhaps the masterpiece of the renovated KMSKA. Collection KMSKA

For the Rubens Hall, Christophe Coppens made a sofa with camels which isinspired by Rubens’ ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (1624). Photo Karin Borghouts

Photos Karin Borghouts / KMSKA

Inside the museum, Flemish primitives and the great masters of the FlemishBaroque were on display. The latter took up so much space with their giganticaltarpieces, where no one meter more or less looked at linen, that it made youdizzy. On the roof of the museum were two triumphal chariots with proudlytrotting horses in front of them and winged angels behind the reins. It seemedas if they were riding out into the world, and we were riding along.

That building became dusty and silent. Climate installations were no longer inorder, the original architecture became less and less visible due to smallrenovations inside and the varnish on the paintings yellowed.

2. What does it look like now?

Since last weekend, the museum, which originally opened in 1893, has beenrestored to its new splendor. The facades gleam in ivory white. In the groundsin front of the main entrance, a fountain designed by Spanish artist CristinaIglesias slowly trickles down to your feet.

Inside, the walls are painted olive green, antique red or bright Pompeian red.Ceiling decorations have been restored to their shine, retaining walls havebeen removed, doors have been bricked up and the old central pedestrian routehas been cleared. Under the floors of the museum, a nuclear-free air-raidshelter of concrete and steel has been crushed with pneumatic hammers.

Also read it interview with KMSKA director Carmen Willems : “We can tellabout Rubens’ whole life, but the absolute top work is not hanging here.”

A masterpiece has arisen in the four old courtyards: a completely new museum,placed in the old building and invisible from the street. The minimalistdesign by KAAN Architecten from Rotterdam is characterized by a rigorousseparation from the old building, with all its frills and stately elegance.This new museum is accessible via a ‘stairway to heaven’: an endlessly highstaircase bathed in white that dissolves every step you take in light.

3. How to find your way?

According to the management and board, the museum is a ‘labyrinth’, but thatis not so bad. The architecture of the old and new building is too symmetricalfor that. And the Antwerp museum is nowhere near as big as the Prado or theHermitage in St. Petersburg, where you can spend days and still not seeeverything.

With the exception of the show rooms with paintings by Rubens, Jordaens andVan Dijck, each room has a theme: power, colour, form, sky, horizon. Thesethemes are somewhat of the ‘picked from the fruit basket’ caliber, but theyalso make for surprising ensembles. Old art may be mixed with new art and viceversa.

A seemingly infinite staircase connects the old with the new building,designed by KAAN Architecten. Photo Karin Borghouts

A good example in the old building is the blood-spattered Kings of Egypt(1982) by the American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (on loan fromMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen). The painting hangs next to a magnificent early16th-century toddler portrait by Jean Clouet of the chalk-white heir to thethrone of King François I. Basquiat has his Egyptian king’s crown hoveringover skulls, because, as he once noted, many kings die early. The pretender tothe throne in Clouet’s portrait would never become king, because he died whenhe was eighteen.

The modern art can be found by entering the ‘stairway to heaven’ and via thedrawing cabinet clad in sublime night blue to the top floor. There are againtwo parallel rooms, built around light shafts. One of the most creativecombinations here is a sizzling flamethrower made Big Sun (1965) by ZEROartist Otto Piene, next to a small Madonna (1470-1500), painted by afollower of Dieric Bouts and the enigmatic two springs (1910) by Gustave Vande Woestyne. It is the color red in different nuances that connects thepaintings, but also makes them differ enormously from each other.

4. Are there great 20th century masters?

The surprising suspension ensures that you look and compare while walking backand forth. What is striking is that the KMSKA does not have a world-classtwentieth-century collection. Collecting modern art was slow, directors choseconservatively, very subjectively, cheaply (for lack of money) and local.Great international masters are missing. French Impressionism, GermanExpressionism, Cubism, the abstract art inspired by Mondriaan and also thefollowing movements: there is little. The modern masters in the Antwerp museumare mainly Flemish masters.

5. Which Madonna is the most beautiful?

The museum owns no fewer than seventy paintings depicting Mary. The mostbeautiful and unforgettable is that of Jean Fouquet (circa 1450). Although therooms with altarpieces by Rubens are officially the halls of honour, the roomof Fouquet’s Madonna, surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, is the undeniablehighlight of the museum. This is primarily due to the way in which Fouquetpainted the virgin untouchable, almost like a statue. Her white bare leftbreast contrasts sharply with the blue-purple of her dress and the red of thecherubs behind her. Her eyes are almost closed as she looks at the baby on herlap. A crown of pearls rests on her apparently hairless skull.

‘ Madonna at the Fountain’ (1439) by Jan van Eyck shows a loving Mary.Collection KMSKA

Around this Madonna, who according to the management will become the MonaLisa van Antwerpen, there are three other, equally intimate, paintings insmall format: The diagnostic look (1992) by Luc Tuymans, an exhibitionistmadonna by Marlene Dumas ( Give the people what they want 1992) and a veryloving Madonna at the fountain (1439) by Jan van Eyck. Together, these fourcertainly do not make up the most meters in linen, but they are the very best.

6. What surprises do you encounter?

In fact, the new museum inside the museum, invisible from the street, is thefirst big surprise. But there are more. Remarkably enough, the museum stilldoes not know how the largest altarpiece by the young Rubens, The Baptism ofChrist (1605), ended up in the museum at the end of the 19th century. Thedoors are not high enough, even if the door jambs are cut to the ceiling.During the renovation, the colossus measuring almost 6.5 by 4 meters washoisted through a special hatch in the floor to the underground depot, andfrom there it rose again. If you look closely at the skirting boards, you’llsee where.

Because everything is done in the halls of the Flemish Baroque giants toinspire awe, the decorations have been removed from the ceiling, cleaned wherenecessary and covered with a layer of gold. At least, so it seems. But thedecorations are ordinary aluminum and varnish. Brilliant, and just like real.

It ** ‘Baptism of Christ’ ** (Peter Paul Rubens, 1604-1605) is so large (over6.5 by 4 metres) that it does not fit through the door of the museum. PhotoKarin Borghouts

A large number of paintings were restored during the closure. Including oneexceptional masterpiece: James Ensors oyster eater from 1882. Ensor paintedhis gourmand at a time when he was experimenting with a light color palette.That light palette had become hidden under a layer of tan. After therestoration in 2020, the bright colors of the oyster-eater’s dress, thetablecloth, the cutlery, the lemons and the mother-of-pearl colors of theoysters will shine at you. All those shades of white: they form a shout ofjoy.

7. What vision does it express?

The Antwerp salons from the 19th century were by no means avant-garde breedinggrounds. Artists left for Paris, where innovation was not seen as disturbingand threatening.

The new museum still radiates that conservatism from then. Everything ismagnificent and radiantly clean, but the world outside the doors of the KMSKAdoes not seem to exist.

In fact, it seems as if it never existed. Discussions of colonialism,migration, feminism, social justice, any sense of where we come from and wherewe would like to go – not a word is said. And thus the KMSKA embodies theideal of James’ Adam Verver: it is beautiful, meditative but far removed from