Rubens and the revitalization of Flemish art

Welcome to the museum of the 21st century: tomorrow the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp reopens after 11 years of construction and ambitious renovation

If Rubens were alive today, with this inescapable presence of technology, he would be a magnificent film director. A Flemish filmmaker, in reference to that marked attention to detail, capable of releasing the most information with the least brushstroke. In his canvases, Rubens provides the exact “frame” the viewer needs to understand the context of his work. With no other explanation than to observe the game of his colors, perpendicular lines and large dimensions.

An imposing style that is well appreciated in the main room of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA for its acronym in Dutch). Although the space manages 27 paintings by Rubens and some 600 engravings, figures that do not represent the great production of the artist, it does celebrate hosting some of his “indisputable masterpieces”, such as “The Adoration of the Magi” -which Rubens finished in just two weeks– or “The Virgin enthroned surrounded by saints”. The signature of this Flemish artist is just one of the many jewels included in the ambitious KMSKA collection, which is now presented as a revitalized look at Flemish art. The Antwerp museum reopens its doors tomorrow after 11 years with a vast facelift : both in terms of collection and architecture, the space returns after a “master plan” to expand and review its works. And the result is none other than dialogue.The museum contains the largest and most valuable collection of Flemish art in FlandersThe museum contains the largest and most valuable collection of Flemish art in Flanders.

A “cheap” project

The renovation has been ambitious and total. Instead of expanding through the surrounding space – which with the restoration is implemented as one more work of art – they have opted for a project from within: where there were four interior patios, there are now 10 new modern rooms implemented as Lego pieces. , with pure white as the primary distinctive. A plan that has managed to increase the space by 40%, capable of integrating two artistic worlds in a single building and with more than 100 million euros financed by the Flemish government. An amount that, says President Minister Jan Jambon “is a lot of money, but cheap compared to similar museum constructions abroad.”The new rooms that have been introduced during the reconstruction take pure white as their primary distinctiveThe new rooms that have been introduced during the reconstruction take pure white as the primary hallmark.

KMSKA has therefore prioritized contrast. Not only because of the striking contribution of the visual artist Christophe Coppens, who in the “Los 10” project has interpreted details of a dozen works from the museum’s collection, such as a large sofa in the shape of a dromedary in front of the Rubens’ wise men. But he has also fostered a permanent communication between two main periods: we show the old masters in the historical part and the modern artists in the new rooms –in some spaces they appear mixed–.

Thus, seven centuries of art are exhibited – from the mid-14th century to the end of the 20th century – including works by Modigliani, Cabanel, Fouquet, Pieter Brueghel I, Van Dyck, Titiaan, Rodin and Van Eyck.. Baroque, Flemish painting and modern art are intertwined in a restructuring that, explains Herwig Todts, one of the curators of the space specializing in modern art, has not led to the acquisition of new works, “because most of the collection was the one that was exhibited a decade ago, but we have sought to show them in a better situation ».In the foreground, an interpretation by visual artist Christophe Coppens ofIn the foreground, an interpretation by visual artist Christophe Coppens of Rubens’ “The Adoration of the Magi” (in the background).

All this, with a link: James Ensor. “We have the largest Ensor collection in the world. We have assigned an entire wing to it,” says Carmen Willems, the KSMKA’s managing director. Thus, in the collection of 8,400 pieces that the space possesses –the largest and most valuable in Flanders–, this artist serves as the mouth of the stylistic tributaries, in homage to his work as the opening to modern art in Belgium and, now, as example of the adaptive capacity to the new times of flamenco art. Welcome, therefore, to a museum of the 21st century.“The Intrigue” is one of James Ensor’s best-known works .

The museum as the nerve center of society

In the words of the general director of KMSKA, “a museum has to be the center of society.” For this reason, each renovation takes social changes into account, and “when we conceived the new vision of the space, we took into account issues such as feminism or colonialism.” In fact, they assure that they will continue to study this last aspect especially, because although the original museum was not built with colonial funds, they are preparing a seminar for 2024 where “they will give the place it deserves to this story . ” She assures the director that, before closing for reconstruction, “the museum had a conservative approach”, so they have worked to offer “the greatest sensation of thought, participation and creativity”.

With this, in the same way as when the altarpieces stolen during the Napoleonic wars returned to Antwerp, the city bells will ring on Saturday. A ringing that, says the director, “is a sign of the importance that the museum has for the city. Tomorrow the bells of the Carolus will ring, a tower that is in the Cathedral and that is part of the city. We have also distributed posters among the residents of the museum so that they can show their pride”, she concludes. Once again, and just as civil patronage enriched the museum between 1864 and 1964 with donations under the motto “Artibus Patriae” (“for the arts of the homeland”), what will take place tomorrow in the Belgian city will be an absolute celebration of visitors and neighbors by and for art.