Antwerp’s largest museum finally reopens

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (vs. 1450), Jean Fouquet. Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Photo: Karin Borghouts

With the removal of ad hoc elements from the Old Masters portion of the museum and the addition of new modern galleries, the museum’s wall space has increased by 40%. Unlike most museums which have expanded and wish to show more works overall, in Antwerp there has been a reduction. Only 650 works are now exhibited, a little less than before. A good example is the large high-ceilinged hall which contains three of KMSKA’s most important works. These are – hung on the wall – the small Van Eyck panel, Madonna at the Fountain (1439), which faces Rubens The Holy Family with a parrot (1614-1633). The triptych of very different Madonnas is complemented by what could be the public face of the museum and is certainly one of the most dressed Madonnas in art history. Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (vs. 1450) is half of Melun’s diptych, the other half of which depicts its curator Étienne Chevalier and Saint Étienne and is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The almost grisaille Madonna with three blue and six red angels came to the museum in 1841 as part of a bequest of some 144 Northern Renaissance from Florent van Ertborn, a former mayor of Antwerp with a passion for the Flemish Primitives who n was not widely shared in his day. On what acts as the fourth wall, but which are actually two doorposts, are two modern works: one by Luc Tuymans, the other by Marlène Dumas. They’re part of a sparse sprinkling of new among the old, reflected in the insertion of a Bruegel or something in the new galleries – but there’s no blunt attempt to draw parallels , and the lighting scheme, which is adjusted as we walk around, is to enjoy the Madonnas. The goal, Bulckens says, is to “create a sacred space” for the three stars.

terracotta models at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp

A display of small terracotta models, including Joannes Cardon’s Madonna of 1643 (far right). Photo: Karin Borghouts

James Ensor is the artist who separates the old from the new by starting the gallery trail in sparkling white. As opening nears, the museum has made a big deal out of it by creating what amounts to a museum within a museum – and allowing visitors to walk around each without noticing the other. It was no exaggeration. In the space separating the structure of 1890 from those of 2022, the architect dug a third set of spaces. Bulckens calls it “a twilight zone”: an inky blue and slate gray sequence of galleries designed for sketches, works on paper and small-scale sculptures. The latter includes a striking display of modelsbaked clay figures which were treated by sculptors almost as sketches (to be taken up again in marble if approved), although examples such as Joannes Cardon’s Madonna Nursing from 1643 may be too finely detailed to be anything else than the final product.

Some purists – the 100 former visitors to Willems’ imagination, perhaps – might not like the slight upheaval of an internationally significant collection made up mostly of Flemish paintings; those more interested in modern art may be slightly skeptical about the organization of these works into three groups of ‘light’, ‘color’ and ‘form’, but can still make discoveries. (I think mine is perhaps one of the most figurative works by Jules Schmalzigaug, the Belgian futurist who died in 1917.)

In 2008, in his introduction to a history of the museum from 1810 to 2007, its director at the time, Paul Huvenne, described him as “a stylish old lady […]. She’s neither stylish nor trendy, but she has class and keeps a cool head. Willems describes what she found upon entering as “a sleepy museum.” At the time of writing, however, it’s more accurate to say he’s both stylish and wide-awake.

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