It seems that the 11 years of works to which the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) has been subjected have had the sole objective of extolling, even more so, the work of who was its most illustrious neighbor, Pedro Pablo Rubens, and of the much admired James Ensor. But the cultural leaders of Flanders have not stopped at the physical transformation and the rethinking of the exhibition of the collection: the themes prevail over the artists in a succession of spaces dedicated to redemption, education, play or fear. The novelty of the new stage is that, with the museum closed, a commission of eight experts was created to analyze the DNA of each piece (origin, content, state). First they have acted on the hundred paintings that are considered the essential set of the museum. These are distinguished by the extensive and smoky-colored brackets that differentiate them from the others. This luxurious status is enjoyed by Rubens, Van der Weyden, Jordaens, Van Dyck, Patinir, Michaelina Wautier, Clara Peeters, Fouquet, Memling, Grosz, Modigliani or James Ensor, among others.
Dennis Marien, a member of the museum’s team of educators and researchers, assures that he is not aware, at the moment, of authorship errors or illicit origins. He believes that the commission goes deeply into the work and the meaning that some of them have been given up to now. For example, he points out seated nude (1917) by Amédeo Modigliani. In her old cartouche it was said that his face resembled an African mask. Now it is said that he remembers “African cultures”, in the plural, because, the expert reasons, “there is not a single culture in Africa. There’s a lot”. Another example of commission intervention concerns a painting by Ferdinand Bol, Jan van Der Voort with his sister Catharina and a servant (1661). Here the curiosity is provided by the date because the servant is clearly a slave when slavery had been eradicated a century before the execution of the canvas. Historical accuracy is now included in the gusset.
It has been a long decade during which the most important museum in Flanders has remained closed and half of the 8,000 works that make up its collection have been stored in its warehouses while the other part has lived as a luxury guest in the most important art galleries in the world based in London, New York, Berlin or neighboring Brussels. In the reunion, with some 650 paintings and sculptures on permanent display, Rubens returns with more honors than ever to his city and meets the great masters who have given this museum world class.
Before the opening to the public that will take place next Saturday, little had transpired of the surgery that the KAAN Architecten firm has carried out inside the neoclassical building inaugurated in 1810 on the ruins of a citadel built by the Duke of Alba.
Today, Thursday, a sunnier day than usual in Antwerp (a city of some 550,000 inhabitants, the second most populous after Brussels), the artistic and technical managers involved in the renovation have been careful since early morning to show the press the result of so many years of work (the day before the Belgian journalists were able to enter). There is a great desire to see the works of art again, but curious eyes look for the architectural transformations, the result of the surgery. The architect Dikkie Scipio, one of the visible faces of the company responsible for the extension, said that they wanted to play with light and color to ensure that the old structure coexists without friction with the new designs in which vertical lines predominate. The historic corridors recover original routes in which dark pink, green or red rule. The most audacious part of the project is the cube that is alien to the rest of the neoclassical construction. Its managers explain: “It is a vertical museum with 23 meters from floor to ceiling with exhibition halls so bright white that if you look at it intensely it can make you dizzy. This whiteness is the most differential for the visitor because the old spaces like the ones Rubens occupies have wooden floors, pink walls and golden ceilings. Another world”.
Luk Lemmens, president of the KMSKA, declared in the presentation that the new setting could not be more spectacular and considers the economic effort of having spent 100 million euros in a rehabilitation that adds up to 21,000 square meters to be deserved, based on merging four patios into a invisible cube for the visitor.
Carmen Willems, General Director of the art gallery, celebrated the commitment to the new museography focused on themes, so that the old masters and modern artists are exhibited surrounding the new volume. “Under that scheme,” she summarized, “antiquity moves around Rubens and modernity around James Ensor.” The museum has an enviable representation of both artists.
In the case of Rubens, the first place is occupied by the Prado with 123 works, but he lived and worked in Antwerp for most of his life. Here he was educated, lived his family joys and sorrows, and received princes and dignitaries as a diplomat from the Netherlands. With a work that can reach 3,000 paintings, engravings and drawings, according to some records, here he became the greatest painter of his time. His characters with powerful muscles and rosy and exuberant flesh seduced the European courts. The same applause obtained the portraits of him. The great master of the Renaissance liked to idealize faces and magnify attitudes. He portrayed everyone who had power at court and turned to the portraits of his two wives, Isabel Brandt and Helena Fourment. Brandt died in 1626 and four years later, in 1630, Rubens married the second, a beautiful 16-year-old girl whom he had known since she was a child, a choice that in these times could bring him some displeasure. Helena Fourment’s portrait hangs in his museum house, the Rubenshuis, where you can also see one of the four self-portraits that Rubens made throughout his life.
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