The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens with Slick Modern Art Wing – ARTnews.com
Antwerp, the port of northern Belgium, is a city of gems, some literal – it’s a European diamond capital – and some cultural. Two of them are the studio of Peter Paul Rubens and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), depository of one of the most important collections of Flemish Old Masters. These two sites are currently in expansion mode.
This weekend, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens to the public after an 11-year, $105 million overhaul. In the meantime, the Rubens House has announced a staggered renovation that will see the site expand significantly over the next five years.
Both renovations offer insights into how major art institutions rooted in Old Master collections can meet “the expectations of today’s museum-goers”, according to KMSKA Director General Carmen Willems. These expectations, she said, are “very different” from those of visitors from other centuries.
People entering KMSKA’s Great Hall face a choice: continue to the Old Masters Wing or climb the spiral staircase to the new Modern Art Wing, courtesy of the firm’s Dikkie Scipio dutch KAAN Architects. It’s an airy space of white cubes with cast resin floors that added 40% more display space. The set is very elegant.
The old courtyards of the museum have been transformed into exhibition halls and two additional spaces have been added on the roof. The new wing is invisible from the street, preserving the grandeur of the original limestone facade, which features neoclassical columns and carved reliefs.
This space signals KMSKA’s ambitions to be a living creature of the 21st century, rather than a monument to dead white men – the kind of artists for which Flanders is famous, but who are not entirely representative of the collection of the museum. According to Willems, only about 30 percent of the museum’s 8,400-piece collection consists of works by Old Masters. Are now exhibited the works of Amedeo Modigliani seated nude (1917), Rene Magritte September Sixteenth (1956) and numerous works by the Belgian expressionist James Ensor.
Both wings have been rearranged according to themes, some simple – “line, color, shape” – and others more esoteric – “power, motherhood, evil”. In an inspired movement, old works of art are mixed with new and vice versa.
“We didn’t want a museum with two separate worlds, we wanted to bring them together. And we do that by creating a dialogue through counterpoint,” Bulckens said. “The intention here is to get viewers to look at ancient and modern works through a different lens. You have the classic grandeur typical of museums built in the 19th century, but also the shock of modern galleries. really no other museum like this.
In the modern wing, curated by Adriaan Gonnissen, a crucifixion scene by an unknown 14th-century artist is displayed next to a 1979 wall sculpture of undulating nails by Günther Uecker. But it’s the Old Masters wing that contains the most challenging combinations.
In encyclopedic museums, the Old Masters’ quarters are usually sacred places, still, silent and dark, except for the exuberance of the canvases. Here, the curator, Koen Bulckens, did the equivalent of bawling in a church or graveyard.
Take the room labeled “Evil”, which contains a scaled T. rex skull. His didactics frames morality in the Christian binary: “The struggle between good and evil is always topical in art. But who or what is wrong? Does evil come from outside or are we inherently evil? Francois Florisit is The fall of the rebel angels, the cacophonous surviving panel of a 1554 triptych, says that evil is an ugly, noisy force – a tangle of wings, arms and beaks to be felled. He faces Salvador Dalí Landscape with a girl skipping rope, which depicts a desert of sand populated by stragglers of humanity: a girl jumping rope and two men, one half skinned, leaning on each other. Biblically, evil is not natural. A modern interpretation of evil, however, imagines it as an inevitability of existence, like depression, loneliness, or boredom. Both paintings speak to the evolution of ideas of individuality and soul since the 16th century.
In the room dedicated to “powerlessness” – defined as the potential of art to commemorate the powerful and the powerless – a painting by Basquiat hangs alongside a portrait of the Dauphin François by the French court painter Jean Clouet. The logic is there: Basquiat has a firecracker biography and a jazzy hand that compliments the meticulous rhythms of court painting. Kings of Egypt II invokes Ramses II, one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most successful rulers, but Basquiat ruled downtown Manhattan, and his art is inseparable from the history of this land. He lived and worked within the American social hierarchy, which is uniquely shaped by his racist heritage. The machinations of a European monarchy – and their relationship to artistic patronage – are not quite comparable.
Flemish Old Master paintings are easy to appreciate with just a cursory knowledge of art history. They are big and busy and golden. Saint George Slaying the Dragon appears frequently in galleries because Rubens and his ilk knew people wanted a show. People still do it, but the idea of spectacle – “the expectations of today’s museum goers” – has been supercharged, mechanized like the giant rotating red hand affixed to one of KMSKA’s walls or its new immersive room that projects animations of its choice properties.
“A museum like ours must evolve with the times, and it does. Visitor expectations are also rising, in part due to competition from innovative initiatives appearing in areas close to museums,” Willems said.
Visitor engagement through such strategies is unavoidable and probably vital. A museum, especially one like this, without generational appeal is a dead thing. But when the hand begins its creaking rotations, cracking the contemplative air of the gallery, you might miss the silence.
The Rubens House – or Rubenhuis – is being modernized in other ways. It will close on January 9 and reopen in June 2027, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Rubens’ birth. This is the famous studio’s first major renovation since it opened to the public in 1946, and it includes a revamped garden and library, as well as improvements to its accessibility and sustainability.
The first phase is the construction of a new “immersive experience center” adjacent to the gardens that will meet the “practical needs of a 21st century building without disrupting the historic workshop”, said Bert Watteeuw, director of the museum during of a press conference on the weekend.
The museum will feature virtual reality goggles that boost the studio to peak productivity. Most notably, visitors will be able to examine in detail the 24 majestic tapestries created by Rubens which are too monumental to be exhibited in a museum. It’s tempting to discount VR experiences in arts institutions, but that’s an argument for their value.
Later, the historic home will receive long-awaited upgrades to its sustainability and accessibility. An elevator will be built outside the house to accommodate wheelchair users who cannot enter the premises. It is a pity that visitors with limited mobility have been unwittingly excluded from these radiant works by Rubens and his students and peers, most of which are too large to travel outside the home.
Additionally, Rubens’ private studio and library will be restored to their original appearance (or as close as possible) and opened to the public for the first time. The slightly dilapidated museum garden will also be replanted with period flora. A new state-of-the-art research center will be hidden behind the garden wall.
There are merits to the multicultural integration of the KMSKA and the partitioning of the Ruben House. Curating at KMSKA will spark new conversations about works, such as devotional icons, which, even when first encountered, still have familiar outlines. Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, a surprisingly sultry depiction of Marie baring her bosom, inspired by France’s first official royal mistress, Agnès Sorel, now keeps company with a full nude by Marlène Dumas. It has the effect of bringing Mary back to Earth: it is a woman’s body, fleshy and desiring.
The Rubens House has no room (literally) for visual preludes or epilogues (and there would likely be a revolt if the curators tried to stick a gooey Dalí above Rubens’ bed). The needs of this museum correspond to the needs of artistic creation: a certain calm.
“The whole splendid museum machine that has been built in Antwerp could never function without the art created in this workshop,” Watteeuw said. “Our story is different from the royal museum and all the others.”