It’s the undisputed diamond capital of the world, it boasts Europe’s second largest seaport and, with the reopening of KMSKA Museum of Fine Arts, is once again staking its claim to be one of Europe’s premier art capitals.
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In fact, it doesn’t take much time spent in Antwerp to realise how important artistry is to the very fabric of this city. Galleries pop-up everywhere, from major institutions to independent exhibitors, and the menu stretches further than art and installation – there’s also photography museum FOMU and fashion museum MoMu, also set to reopen in 2022.
You don’t even need to go inside to understand the importance of art and design in this city. Stroll the streets and you’ll see just about every architectural style imaginable, old and new, from neo classicist to art nouveau and Flemish Renaissance. Head to the elegant district of Zurenborg and you’ll find 170 protected mansions and manor houses within just five streets, more than the entirety of Brussels.
And then there’s the shopping, another way in which this city seems to outdo itself. You’ll find every high-end brand in the centre of town, but there are just as many independent boutiques selling high fashion, leather bags and, of course, lots of jewellery. You can even stick to the budget if you flick through the many retro, vintage and preloved spots, while conscious shoppers will adore Edo Collective, a sustainable fashion and lifestyle store to fall in love with.
The point is that the people of Antwerp love to make things look grand, or at the very least interesting, even when below the surface they aren’t. Boldness, and a sense of identity through unique shapes, colours and materials, be it in the clothes you wear, the house you live in or the art you buy, is simply a part of the culture.
So, to the return of KMSKA, an event locals have been eagerly awaiting for 11 years. Head Curator Nico Van Hout has been busy at work throughout that period – plus another 11 years before that – and the glee on his face when I mention the grand reopening is infectious: “Ah! We feel like fireworks” he says, adding sound effects to emphasise the joy, “like champagne popping open, it’s perfect.”
“For the city it means a lot, not only for tourists, because this is the soul of Antwerp. This is a small city, only half a million people, but it has huge ambition and huge self-confidence. The reputation and grandeur of Antwerp is much bigger than the size of the city and that’s true of [Peter Paul] Rubens, it’s true of this museum and it’s true of the people of Antwerp in general, so they get something to be proud of again. They need it. This building very much reflects Antwerp.”
He’s not wrong. The grandeur, already evident from the outside, in part thanks to Cristina Iglesias’ ingenious alternative fountain at its doorstep, is almost intimidating. The sheen of marble and the epic scale of classical scene-setting artworks hanging high on the second floor hits you as soon as you walk through the door. It’s quite something.
The building itself has been renovated inside and out, with serious artistic thought propping up every decision. Nico says “The building is what it is, it’s beautiful, it’s intimidating but we want to do everything to make people forget that. I want the public to feel at home, like they’re in their living room – not touch paintings or sculptures of course! But to enjoy, be relaxed and not feel intimidated by the monumentality of the building.”
So how have they gone about doing that? Broader accessibility, for young and old, experts and novices, was at the forefront of Nico’s thinking. That’s why he and his team, after plenty of healthy debate, decided to take the (slightly controversial, in some circles) decision to curate thematically, as opposed to chronologically. He points out that this is not an encyclopaedic museum, that the purpose is to shine light on masters old and new, particularly Flemish masters, and to do so in a space that allows the story behind each painting to breathe.
They have split the museum in two, one half belonging to the old masters, another to the new. The architecture reflects that – the modern rooms are incredibly effective – a slick, well-lit space, like a blank white canvas basking in the light that creeps through from the thoughtfully designed, open-courtyard-style ceilings above. Everything here is designed to make visitors think about light, colour and shade, just like the artists themselves. It invites us into the creative process, and illuminates the rich variety of artworks on show.
Thoughtful touches can be found everywhere you look, from creative lighting to mini installations that add an extra dimension, be it a hanging nose or a leg sticking out of the wall, mirroring the painting above. Even staircases are made into works of art.
On the other side, where the old Flemish masters reside, are grand red rooms that give the impression that they remain untouched since the first opening back in 1890. If the other half feels like a gallery then this feels like a museum, or at least it would were it not for the occasional giant animatronic hand on the wall. Here you’ll find many of the museum’s proudest pieces (there are 8,400 in total), most notably a room dedicated to Antwerp’s favoured son, Peter Paul Rubens. The Rubens room is an awe-inspiring space, which gives the Flemish master’s religious epics the breathing space they deserve.
The room that ties together the old and the new beautifully is perhaps the museum’s highlight. What can only be described as a digital wallpaper installation, is an immersive space that turns all four walls into a canvas, one that moves, changes, even makes noise. What you’re actually seeing are hyper-specific, zoomed-in details from some of the museum’s greatest works – a bunch of feathers, or a patch of clothing. The museum invites you to see something new in these classic images, to look closer, to notice the artistry you might otherwise ignore. The result is thrilling, as contemporary methods illuminate old masterpieces, seamlessly tying the two together in a way that is sure to engage younger audiences. A perfect symbol to represent the new era of KMSKA.
Elsewhere in the museum you’ll find works by other Flemish icons such as Jan van Eyck and Anthony van Dyck, the world’s largest James Ensor collection and pieces by Van Gogh, Dali, Rembrandt, Basquiat and Rodin.
Art has lived and breathed in Antwerp since the very beginning and KMSKA’s long awaited return aims to sustain that. The museum’s directors make clear that tourism is not the be all and end all, that this is also a vehicle to help improve the lives of residents and nourish the city’s art scene. Indeed, when you speak to workers in nearby independent galleries, there is no fear of being overshadowed, only excitement at the return of a beloved institution.
Nico adds: “Flemish painting tradition is still very much alive. Even today hundreds of artists are working and living here. Art will always be a part of the city. Fashion is another exponent of creativity here. We don’t have oil, we don’t have gas, today we would have been very happy with that! But here art is trade, it’s economy, that will continue I think.”
KMSKA is the kind of museum you expect to find in Paris, or London, or Amsterdam, not in a city the size of Antwerp. But that’s what this place does. It punches above its weight, always has, always will. The museum is a reflection of the city, its heritage, its culture, and its people. Striving for grandeur, self-confident, endlessly creative. That’s what makes it such an interesting city and, against the odds, that’s what makes it one of Europe’s major art capitals.
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