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 Golden Bowl (1904) wanting to give something back to the thousands of workers who made him immensely rich, he decides to build a museum full of masterpieces: a “house with open doors and windows, from which the highest knowledge” radiates over “grateful, thirsty millions”.

Many museums in Europe and America have been influenced by this classical idea. And now a new offshoot has been added to that tree: the renovated Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. As a child I thought it was an intimidating majestic building. It lifted the square in front of it, the streets and houses, as it were and transformed the then poor Scheldt city, with chip shops under rusty viaducts and holes in the pavement, into a true metropolitan fairy tale.

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 camelswhich is inspired 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 Flemish Baroque were on display. The latter took up so much space with their gigantic altarpieces, where no one meter more or less looked at linen, that it made you dizzy. On the roof of the museum were two triumphal chariots with proudly trotting horses in front of them and winged angels behind the reins. It seemed as if they were riding out into the world, and we were riding along.

That building became dusty and silent. Climate installations were no longer in order, the original architecture became less and less visible due to small renovations 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 been restored to its new splendor. The facades gleam in ivory white. In the grounds in front of the main entrance, a fountain designed by Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias 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 have been removed, doors have been bricked up and the old central pedestrian route has been cleared. Under the floors of the museum, a nuclear-free air-raid shelter of concrete and steel has been crushed with pneumatic hammers.

Also read it interview with KMSKA director Carmen Willems: “We can tell about 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 minimalist design by KAAN Architecten from Rotterdam is characterized by a rigorous separation from the old building, with all its frills and stately elegance. This new museum is accessible via a ‘stairway to heaven’: an endlessly high staircase 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 that is not so bad. The architecture of the old and new building is too symmetrical for that. And the Antwerp museum is nowhere near as big as the Prado or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where you can spend days and still not see everything.

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

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 from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). The painting hangs next to a magnificent early 16th-century toddler portrait by Jean Clouet of the chalk-white heir to the throne of King François I. Basquiat has his Egyptian king’s crown hovering over skulls, because, as he once noted, many kings die early. The pretender to the throne in Clouet’s portrait would never become king, because he died when he was eighteen.

The modern art can be found by entering the ‘stairway to heaven’ and via the drawing cabinet clad in sublime night blue to the top floor. There are again two parallel rooms, built around light shafts. One of the most creative combinations here is a sizzling flamethrower made Big Sun (1965) by ZERO artist Otto Piene, next to a small Madonna (1470-1500), painted by a follower of Dieric Bouts and the enigmatic two springs (1910) by Gustave Van de Woestyne. It is the color red in different nuances that connects the paintings, 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 back and forth. What is striking is that the KMSKA does not have a world-class twentieth-century collection. Collecting modern art was slow, directors chose conservatively, very subjectively, cheaply (for lack of money) and local. Great international masters are missing. French Impressionism, German Expressionism, Cubism, the abstract art inspired by Mondriaan and also the following movements: there is little. The modern masters in the Antwerp museum are mainly Flemish masters.

5. Which Madonna is the most beautiful?

The museum owns no fewer than seventy paintings depicting Mary. The most beautiful and unforgettable is that of Jean Fouquet (circa 1450). Although the rooms with altarpieces by Rubens are officially the halls of honour, the room of Fouquet’s Madonna, surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, is the undeniable highlight of the museum. This is primarily due to the way in which Fouquet painted the virgin untouchable, almost like a statue. Her white bare left breast contrasts sharply with the blue-purple of her dress and the red of the cherubs behind her. Her eyes are almost closed as she looks at the baby on her lap. 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 Mona Lisa van Antwerpen, there are three other, equally intimate, paintings in small format: The diagnostic look (1992) by Luc Tuymans, an exhibitionist madonna by Marlene Dumas (Give the people what they want1992) and a very loving Madonna at the fountain (1439) by Jan van Eyck. Together, these four certainly 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 the first big surprise. But there are more. Remarkably enough, the museum still does not know how the largest altarpiece by the young Rubens, The Baptism of Christ (1605), ended up in the museum at the end of the 19th century. The doors 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 was hoisted through a special hatch in the floor to the underground depot, and from there it rose again. If you look closely at the skirting boards, you’ll see where.

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

It ‘Baptism of Christ’ (Peter Paul Rubens, 1604-1605) is so large (over 6.5 by 4 metres) that it does not fit through the door of the museum. Photo Karin Borghouts

A large number of paintings were restored during the closure. Including one exceptional masterpiece: James Ensors oyster eater from 1882. Ensor painted his 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 the restoration in 2020, the bright colors of the oyster-eater’s dress, the tablecloth, the cutlery, the lemons and the mother-of-pearl colors of the oysters will shine at you. All those shades of white: they form a shout of joy.

7. What vision does it express?

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

The new museum still radiates that conservatism from then. Everything is magnificent and radiantly clean, but the world outside the doors of the KMSKA does 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 where we would like to go – not a word is said. And thus the KMSKA embodies the ideal of James’ Adam Verver: it is beautiful, meditative but far removed from the world.

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