dialogue between ancients and moderns

Confronting a convulsed wax body, sculpted by contemporary artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, with scenes of the Passion painted in the 15the century by Van der Weyden and Antonello of Messina, it is one of the surprises reserved for the public by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA), which reopened on September 24. Its 19th century buildinge century, which had become cramped, decrepit and unsuited to the latest standards, had been closed for eleven years! And there was a certain impatience to find the collections of Flemish primitives, the great altarpieces by Rubens and the exceptional collection of works by Ensor, from this great European museum.

The young Rotterdam agency of Claus and Kaan Architecten (now KAAN Architecten), which won the competition for its renovation, had a bright idea. Rather than digging under the museum to enlarge it as its competitors were proposing, it encased four vertical volumes in the interior patios, like pillars supporting a “table” above the roof.

This “museum within the museum”, invisible from the outside, respecting the old galleries and distinguishing itself by the white volumes reserved for modern collections, was awarded an International Architecture Award last August.

The exhibition surface increased by 40%

A welcome reward at the end of a titanic project. Funded to the tune of 100 million euros by the Flemish government, the works have made it possible to enlarge the surface ofmuseum exhibition, increased to 21,000 m2. It was first necessary to build new reserves (3,660 m2) on two levels, destroying an anti-aircraft bunker and an underground fallout shelter.

Inaugurated in 2013, this deposit then housed part of the collections during the works, while other works were exhibited in the cathedral of Antwerp. At the same time, 1,200 paintings and sculptures were sent on loan all over the world.

Outside, the facades of the neoclassical temple designed by Jean-Jacques Winders and Frans Van Dijk have been cleaned, as well as their statues and mosaics. The garden being renovated by the Team van Meer agency should offer a promenade populated by sculptures, open to the inhabitants of the district.

Inside, after heavy asbestos removal work, the old galleries on the first floor have regained their original row thanks to the destruction of partitions and low walls. Discreet hatches at plinth level have been fitted to lower the paintings in the event of a fire, and air conditioning systems have been hidden high up behind the paneling and moldings.

In a spirit faithful to that of the 19e century, the oak floors were waxed, the colors of the picture rails restored to their historic palette: olive green, antique red and Pompeian red. Even the padded benches in red velvet have been reupholstered or redone identically to comfortably accommodate visitors.

133 paintings and sculptures restored

The collections themselves have benefited from an extensive restoration program that has affected 133 paintings and sculptures since 2011. Part of it has been funded through patrons and the touring of the collection to private locations abroad. Another was produced by partner museums, in exchange for the loan of works. The Getty, in Los Angeles, has thus restored works by Gérard David, Rubens and James Ensor and analyzed, in its laboratory, the famous Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet.

This marble icon, striking with its round breast exhibited among red and blue cherubs, now welcomes visitors at the entrance to the ancient collections. In front of her, the hanging of a little girl revealing her nudity painted in 1993 by Marlene Dumas and entitled Give the People What They Want (Give people what they want) seems to be ironic about the shamelessness of the Madonna, with a very Flemish sass!

Other dialogues between ancient and modern art seem happier in this journey orchestrated by themes. For example, in the room on “self-representation”, where a self-portrait of Kokoschka as a colorful monkey humorously confronts the charming portrait, by Frans Hals, of Stephanus Geraedts, alderman in Haarlemin lace shirt and coat embroidered with gold.

“These confrontations are intended to spice up the presentation of our old collections and to encourage visitors to question themselves, to be creative”, explains Carmen Willem, Managing Director of KMSKA. For this, she has borrowed some forty modern and contemporary works from the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam (currently closed for renovations), as well as from other institutions and private collections.

giant toys for children

The children have not been forgotten. The director and decorator Christophe Coppens has scattered about ten giant toys along the route for them, all inspired by details of paintings (to be found of course!), such as this sofa with bumps and camel heads, in a nod to eye to those of the monumental Adoration of the Magi by Rubens.

The KMSKA has also set up visitor panels, including a group of “hundred graceful”, in order to test all its mediation devices: cartels, room panels or touch screens to go further in the discovery of the works.

In total rupture with the old part, the new clean rooms of the modern collections – on the ground floor and 4e floor – were designed as a showcase “immaterial”, according to Dikkie Scipio, chief architect of KAAN. Natural light generously floods them through a myriad of triangular openings on the roof and three skylights descending to the bottom. With their high black marble border, these wells turn out, alas, to be quite cumbersome on the top floor, in the middle of the modern works arranged, somewhat banally, between ” forms ” and ” colors “. More embarrassing, the ultra-shiny floors dazzle the visitor while reflecting the collections.

An architecture that steals the show from the works

This architecture, which steals the show from the works, is particularly damaging for Ensor, whose paintings seem crushed in two cathedral rooms. As for the vertiginous staircase of a hundred steps and 22 meters high, called “Stairway to Heaven”, he murmured to himself, from the opening, that it was better to prefer… the purgatory of the elevators.

Don’t forget a stop at 3e floor where a midnight blue case has been reserved for sculptures and graphic works. The KMSKA is currently exhibiting a superb donation of drawings by the Antwerp artist Michel Seuphor, offered by his grandchildren in 2021. Undoubtedly, a new jewel of the collections!


The KMSKA in practice

To visit the KMSKA of Antwerp (2 hours by train from Paris), booking is recommended and guarantees a time slot (1).

The museum is open every day (except December 25 and December 1er January) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 6 p.m. on weekends, with late opening on Thursday until 10 p.m.

The entrance price is 20 € at full price, €10 for those under 26 and free for those under 18.

Also not to be missed in Antwerp, a visit to the cathedral which houses three large altarpieces by Rubens.

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