Two museums for the price of one. With a Mona Lisa in the making. 20 km from the Dutch border. Which is more beautiful? The building or the collection? Last weekend, Antwerp's Royal Museum of Fine Arts reopened after no less than 11 years. And that resonates far beyond the port city.
I walk in with a Danish art historian, who says she curses and rants about the prickly text signs in Copenhagen museums. 'I was at the Design Museum the other day and there the explanations were projected On the floor between my feet, utterly illegible.' Here in the new KMSKA, she is cheering. 'What beautiful signs. What legible lettering, what compact text.'
'And neatly placed right next to the artwork in question, come to think of it,' I add.
The texts are plastic and playful; a far cry from the often intimidating curatorial prose in Dutch museums. "Heaven. Artists portray the invisible. (...) Celestials become creatures of flesh and blood, sinners become monsters."
They are not the main fruits of the renovation, but it shows KMSKA's warm eye for the important detail. The 'signage' of the revamped museum, if you wish, takes you by thick gold pictos to toilets like nightclubs, with white leather, heavily padded walls, and leather-covered toilet doors that close behind you like a safe.
But of course you don't need 11 years of thorough renovation for that.
It called for three years. But "it's been a bit drawn out," the management said with a sense of irony. The famous, house-high Rubens paintings were sunk through large shutters in the catacombs and hidden for 11 years straight. Above ground, restoration raged and the decrepit19th-century museum building was restored to its full grandeur. A thick decade later, the Rubens pieces were hoisted back up to a brand new setting.
The majestic Rubens Hall, full of flying saints and corpulent naked boys, is the shining sun of the new KMSKA. Around it, some 20 thematically labelled rooms with one-word motifs such as Heroes, Salon, Life Lessons, Light, Form. Colour, Fame, Power, Heaven, Redemption and Suffering. And all in a 'transhistorical' - the guides don't tire of talking about the 'transhistorical dialogues' - arrangement. That means portraits, busts, landscapes and installations of all times mixed together. And it works.
Brothel red rooms
But first, visitors must choose. Will it be the historic rooms full of artworks from before 1880? Or do you prefer more modern art? In the first case, go straight ahead, to the tall, brothel-red halls with pre-1880 art and generous, velvet reverie sofas. Or you can turn left and take the 'Stairway to Heaven', a 40-metre-long, brightly lit staircase, on which visitors slowly transition into hospital halls with dazzling ice-skating floors, which you almost don't dare step on.
For the first hour, you don't understand a thing about the building and walk around dazed. Where has the old building gone? Here's the thing. The architects speak not of an extension, but of an 'infill' (see attached image): as if a snow-white spaceship had descended through the roof, after which the old building (from 1890, about half the size of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum) closed again like an oyster. Nothing wrong. All the facades are just as they were before. 40 per cent extra exhibition space added without seeing it from outside.
This is clever and almost fairytale-like. The (Dutch) architect of this is called Dikkie Scipio. She is from KAAN Architects (known from the Salmon Harbour Tower in Rotterdam and the new construction of the Amsterdam court). Scipio makes the comparison with "a piece of bacon cake". A building within a building. Layer after layer woven in. A magic intervention of 11 years that you don't understand until you walk around for a few hours. In other words: you don't start seeing it until you realise it. The arrangement helps: historical details and futuristic objects blend seamlessly at KMSKA.
The trait-d'union between the Flemish Masters and the Modernists is James Ensor. KMSKA has the largest Ensor collection in the world and it is celebrated with many of his masterpieces. From herringbone parquet via Ensor to the ice floor with René Magritte, Modigliani, Rik Wouters and the KMSKA's peekaboo instagram moment: the glitzy Colour Method in 7 Layers by Boy & Erik Stappaerts. To keep you on your toes, there are installations by Christophe Coppens in between. Life-size, purple-red plush dromedaries, detail from Rubens' The adoration of kings behind. A giant, bony hand spinning above your head, from Marinus Van Reymerswales painting. A big dino head among the old masters. The dripping nose. A ghostly leg from the wall in the white rooms. Exuberant Flemish surrealism on display. A bit sought-after at times, but it never bores and it desecrates blood-serious art.
Museum seeks Mona Lisa
The innermost wish of every museum director in the world: owning your own 'Mona Lisa'. One of those works of art for which people flock to your museum. Like the Night Watch, or the Girl with the Pearl Earring. KMSKA is aiming high with the marketing of its Jean Fouquet's Madonna surrounded by seraphim and cherubs (c. 1452), a painting of Mary and Christ surrounded by bright red and blue angels. There is a special Madonna room for made, which is virtually empty except for the white Madonna: a pale child like a robot in his lap, a Madonna with a bare, geometrically rounded chest. As if the panel was created this year by a gifted graffiti artist. Across from the Madonna hangs a small modern painting: Luc Tuymans' Der diagnostische blick IV, a portrait of a patient with breast cancer. Shocking.
KMSKA management's mission: we want to touch visitors in their 'emotionality': anger, sadness, joy. There is a lot to see in Antwerp.
See more kmska.be for practical information. 'The cleanest feeling' is open every day of the week, as is the indoor restaurant Madonna, which alone is worth a visit. Admission costs €20.