A whole decade! The time taken by Dutch firm KAAN Architecten to complete this astounding project took a whole decade. Located less than an hour’s train ride from Brussels, Antwerp is a perfect spot to explore what Belgium has to offer. The city has a variety of important cultural and historical sites to discover. Apart from its historical treasures, such as the massive cathedral of Antwerp, and cultural places like the Italian-inspired house of Rubens, a newly reopened temple of arts The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) has been attracting more and more visitors. Belgium and Belgians can surely be proud of this newly renovated museum.
One may ponder why the company from Rotterdam needed such a long time to complete it. The first phase of the project aimed to free up the original museum circuit dating from 1890. Throughout the years and decades, the museum had gone through multiple renovations, meaning its features were constantly reshaped. Firstly, The KAAN Architecten focused on the restoration of the original galleries, returning them to their former great splendor. One can say it was a definite success. The Rubens collection had never looked more astonishing. Beautiful golden friezes on the top of walls in various rooms are worth paying attention to. But the museum offers many more features than that.
A completely new wing is located within the former courtyard of the museum, which has now been transformed into a bright contemporary gallery. The newly acquired additional space created 40% more space in this historical building for further exhibitions. The façades and sculptures around the museum have been fully restored. Additionally, a new garden has been designed, and the mosaics within the building have been replaced according to a centuries-old Italian grouting technique. We can only speculate that the Covid pandemic complicated and prolonged this ambitious makeover. However, it is not just the pandemic that is responsible for the delays. The Flemish Government has drastically cut the subsidies for the cultural sector in Antwerp.
Without focusing on well-known Great Masters like Anthony van Dyck or Frans Floris and giving space to more contemporary artists – I would like to introduce you to two less familiar painters – James Ensor and Rik Wouters. These artists made an astonishing impression on me. Their fascinating artworks are now residing in the brand-new and gleaming part of the museum that is dedicated to Modern Masters. The collection will reside in a new virginal white environment decorated with marble and golden banisters.
The composition of the painting is simple: a vase, a fan, and luxurious piece of fabric falling on the table, and numerous little figures made of the most refined Chinese porcelain. One composition, but two versions. Walking through this new part of KMSKA one can spot two still-life paintings from James Ensor. The technique used in each painting is radically different. The time separating the two pieces is twenty-six years. It is fascinating to observe the evolution of artists like James Ensor. One must not forget that Japan opened its borders in the middle of the 19th century and allowed the rest of the world to discover its rich culture. Europeans immediately fell in love with the aesthetics of Japanese furniture, architecture, and tradition. After more than two centuries of self-isolation, Japan started selling various daily life objects to buyers from Western countries. This newly established trade may have inspired Ensor to paint his own belongings. It is a known fact that during his lifetime the artist was a very keen art collector and accumulated several East-Asian pieces of art. People can still admire his atelier and home in Ostend, which has been transformed into a public museum.
We could observe that at the end of the 19th century Ensor was influenced by the impressionist movement by looking at “Still Life with Chinoiseries”. The brightness of white on the porcelain is striking to the eye. Various light-reflecting, glossy objects contrast with the texture effects of the fabric piece wrapped around the table. This juxtaposition creates the perfect contrast. The paintings representing interiors are what I personally admire in the works of James Ensor. The intimate atmosphere of the canvas leaves us with a feeling that time had stopped.
Most of the time, Ensor sets the personage turning back to their guests. You as a guest are also invited to sit down on those sumptuous chairs and enjoy a cup of tea whilst listening to the music being played. Such details and great mastery can be appreciated in “The Bourgeois Salon” from 1881. Whilst looking at the scene, we observe a salon that directly projects us into the gloomy vibes of the interiors of that time. It leaves you with the impression that the frame literally swallowed you in. The aforementioned painting has a little sister in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, titled “Russian Music”. It is surely worth a visit if you stop by the Fin-de-siècle Museum.
At the beginning of the 20th century, bright colors, sarcastic faces, and unrealistic compositions started to come about in the work of Ensor. This sets him, together with Edvard Munch, to become one of the forerunners of 20th century expressionism. Looking at the “Still Life with Chinoiserie” from 1906, the transition is explicit. The blue color of the tablecloth seems to be moving like waves in the ocean, the mask is mocking the visitor and the tiny Samurai figure appears to be jumping out of the frame. In this late work, Ensor enjoys playing with his imagination by disturbing conventional themes in order to shock anyone coming across his paintings. The ridiculousness of certain situations was a direct reflection of events of his time. The works of James Ensor that can be particularly enjoyed are those depicting carnivals or religious processions of Ostend and Brussels.
The first floor of the new wing of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp offers visitors a burst of colors spreading on minimal white walls. One can only be enchanted by (re)discovering the lifetime achievement of Rik Wouters; a man who was so madly in love with his wife that he portrayed her in most of his works. His beloved wife Nel became the center of his attention, and we can admire her in various kinds of situations. Wouters patches color with different forms in order to create a new reality with a bolder expression, directly descending from the latest work of Cezanne.
Some painters, such as Braque or Picasso focus on geometrics (which later became known as Cubism), while other artists such as Matisse or Vlaminck pay more attention to colors (Fauvism). The artwork can leave you with a very intense “feel good” sentiment while passing this gallery. Both Cubism and Fauvism give less significance to the subject and more space to the importance of more simple forms and striking colors. “The Red House, Late Snow” painting of Wouters demonstrates a very common corner in Belgium with a house made of red bricks facing a bright blue sky during winter. The overwhelming simplicity of the theme is so poetic that it speaks to most of us that reside in smaller towns around Brussels. Rik Wouters repeated the same color in different objects, for example in “Woman Reading”. During his short career, Wouters left us a very joyful story which we are very fortunate to enjoy in Antwerp.
Unfortunately, Rik Wouters suffered from cancer in the upper jaw and had to be operated on. He lost an eye during his battle with cancer. However, he carried on with his work. The artist then often represented himself eye-patched wearing his pajama and chose to focus on the unmutilated side of his face with an unusually dark color palette. Sadly, he passed away a few years later after finishing his last piece in 1916.
Visitors to KMSKA end up their tour by The Salon; a renovated gallery that revives the 19th century way of exposing paintings and sculptures. The predecessor of KMSKA, the Museum of Academics, brings a marvellous selection of pieces from young artists who studied at the Art Academy in Antwerp. The museum also features some works by international painters such as Dalí, Modigliani, van Gogh, and Titian.
A well-designed app has been made to help visitors find their way around different rooms. Visitors can find two routes: a short one with a fast overview and a more complete route with details of different works in each room. Visitors can also follow a guided tour in a language of their choice. Take time to explore the Museum gardens with their mesmerising statues. I find it a very peaceful place to read a book or enjoy the lunch break.
The surroundings of KMSKA are also abundant in cafés, restaurants, as well as houses in Belle Epoque style and Art Nouveau gems. A true delight for your eyes!
Address: Leopold de Waelplaats 2, 2000 Antwerp
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 10:00 am-5:00 pm
Thursday: 10:00 am-10:00 pm
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00 am-6:00 pm