A gigantic, dark red plush sculpture resembling two camels welcomes visitors when they enter the Rubens Room at the heart of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, or KMSKA, as the locals call it. A cross between a giant sofa and a climbing gym, the whimsical creature is the work of Belgian artist Christophe Coppens and was inspired by Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens’ monumental painting “Adoration of the Magi” (1624-25). It’s one of ten enlarged contemporary artworks Coppens recreated based on paintings that are currently found in the Belgian museum.
“The museum is also a living room, as long as visitors don’t sit down on the paintings,” says Nico van Hout with a wink. The chief curator of the KMSKA is a connoisseur of Antwerp’s Baroque painting star Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, the KMSKA first opened in 1890 for the express purpose of holding and showing the paintings by the Flemish “Old Master” who died in 1640. Now, Rubens’ works once again have a place of honor in the newly renovated, fin-de-siècle-style building. Although it’s been redone, the museum hasn’t entirely lost its old-world charm, with rooms featuring warm pink walls, golden stucco ceiling décor and dark parquet flooring.
In the past, Rubens’ works decorated churches and were so popular that people made pilgrimages to them to pray. Now, some will get a touch-up, since a large-scale restoration of the works will take place in 2023 in full view of the public, van Hout tells DW. With actions such as these, it’s clear that The Royal Museum of Fine Arts aims to be among Europe’s museum big league.
Museum in Antwerp shines again
The building on a magnificent boulevard of Antwerp was closed for more than eleven years, much to the frustration of tourists. Now, after a 100-million-euro makeover ($100 million) the reopened museum displays 650 works spanning seven centuries, including numerous masterpieces of art history. Each gallery is painted in its own color: from burgundy to dark green. Works include altarpieces by Hans Memling, Jean Fouquet and Simone de Martini, as well as Belgian surrealist and expressionist painter James Ensor.
“No other museum in the world has as many Ensors as Antwerp,” says van Hout. “Ensor was born in 1860 in Oostende, Belgium, and his circle of friends was in Brussels, but his collectors lived in Antwerp. That’s how the paintings came to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.”
Antwerp as an arts hub
These days, Antwerp may not be considered a world-wide hotspot for contemporary art. However, the city was once one of the world’s most important art capitals and many hope it will become that once again. The newly renovated building certainly can’t hurt. Rotterdam-based Kaan Architects won the bid with its proposal to integrate the building’s four courtyards into their design. As a result, the new construction has an interesting effect whereby the new exhibition halls featuring 20th and 21st century art are located in the heart of the neoclassical-style building.
The expansion also gave the museum 40% more exhibition space, allowing curators to show more artworks than ever before. The high-gloss floors and bright white walls of the new halls take some getting used to, since the aesthetic is a stark contrast to the dignified flair of the old building. Yet this was precisely the intention of the architects: to create two museums in one. “The museum of the 21st century and the museum of the 19th century could hardly be more different,” says Dikkie Scipio, architect and co-founder of Kaan Architects in Rotterdam.
Old and new united
The etherial bright white “stairway to heaven” connects the four floors and takes the public on a tour of modern art. The “museum within a museum” design also has another advantage: “All rooms have direct or indirect daylight,” Scipio explains to DW. “We developed a complete contrast. Instead of warm colors, we opted for white. We wanted to create new spaces with different spatial experiences. We created a permeable cube here which lets natural light in.”
Unusually, classic works in the museum are exhibited next to more recent works of art. This juxtaposition allows Old Masters to be seen in a new light. Jean Fouquet’s “Madonna” (c. 1450) — the “Mona Lisa” of Antwerp, as Nico van Hout calls her — hangs in a room next to the painting “The Diagnostic View” (1992) by Luc Tuymans.
Meanwhile, Bill Viola’s video installation “Man of Sorrows” (2001) stands next to the sculpture “Our Lady of Sorrows” by Mattheus van Beveren from the 17th century. Rembrandt’s portraits are near Oskar Kokoschka’s zoological painting “The Mandrill” (1926), for example.
According to van Hout, the era of artworks in chronological order is over — it’s simply not interesting to visitors anymore. Instead, the exhibition is arranged according to themes such as color, form and topics, like pain or evil. “We not only have the canon of Flemish masters here, we also want to show today’s canon,” van Hout said.
Artworks viewed over ages show many parallels as well as fissures. Antwerp’s new museum aims to become one of the newest museums in Europe to show history in this way. There’s something to explore for everyone: for fans of the Dutch Golden Age, as well as those of contemporary art — whether by examining a work by Peter Paul Rubens or simply lying on a shaggy stuffed camel.