Antwerp hides a brand new art museum in a stately old jacket

After eleven years of renovation, the Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens. You only discover the spectacular new building inside – Dutch architect Dikkie Scipio created an amazing trick to disappear.

Harmen van Dijk

For eleven long years, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp was under renovation. It cost around a hundred million and the building has grown 40 percent, but from the outside you can’t see it at all. The most important museum in Flanders looks exactly as it did in 1890, when it was completed. The light stones of the neoclassical facades have been stripped of their gray veil and shine brightly in the sunlight.

All new construction is internal. This amazing trick was pulled by Dutch firm Kaan Architecten. Chief architect Dikkie Scipio filled four terraces in the old building with new, brilliant white museum rooms spread over three floors. It seems as if a brand new museum has been pushed into the old one.

The visitor must choose

That feeling is reinforced by the fact that there are no passages between the old rooms and the new ones. At the bottom of the hall, the visitor has to choose: do I first go up the stately staircase to see the old art in the classical rooms, or do I choose the new rooms with modern art?

For Scipio, this was a solid starting point, she says. “I’ve completely separated the old and the new here.” She certainly didn’t want to tinker with the exterior of the building, and the old halls were to be restored as well, with wood paneling on the walls, gilding on the ornaments on the ceilings, the Pompeian red and olive green on the walls.

She looks contentedly around the great hall with gigantic altarpieces by Peter Paul Rubens. “But make no mistake, here too everything has been recreated. Now it looks like we’ve sanded the parquet and put some paint on the wall, but that’s definitely not the case.’

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Sculpture Karin Borghouts, KMSKA

These are two very contrasting worlds that Scipio has created. In the old part you imagine yourself in the 19th century, in the new part you seem to shoot into the future, with the white high-gloss floors, an endless staircase with 103 steps that seems to end on the blue cloudy sky, or, for who can’t handle it, an elevator with a mirrored floor, ceiling and walls.

“I’ve been asked hundreds of times to look at a place from the old to the new part,” Scipio says with a laugh. She said no every time. “Stick to a vision is very important.” If she had admitted, the draft would have been weakened, she believes. “Now everyone loves it.”

Worn and messy

Scipio has been busy with the renovation of the museum since 2003. All the years she was right on top of it, she could be found weekly at the construction site. “I am not an architect who throws an idea over the fence. You have to stick with it, it’s how it’s done that matters. We have been able to use so much craftsmanship here, you have to talk to people. You have to be there and know what you’re talking about, otherwise they will never respect you,” she says. And the end result can never be satisfactory.

When she started eleven years ago, the museum was worn and a complete mess. “I understand how it happens: at a certain time you need a museum shop, and you only place it in a certain room. Well meaning, but it ruined the route. There were all sorts of dead ends and spaces that were not particularly appreciated.” Getting the broom – or rather the sledgehammer – through felt a bit like emptying a cupboard completely after years to put it back in, she admits with a laugh. “Yes nice! Back to the vision as it was originally intended.”

Its predecessors, Jean-Jacques Winders and Frans Van Dijk, built an innovative building at the end of the 19th century. “This was one of the first buildings in the world to be designed as a museum, the concept of a museum was only just beginning,” says Scipio. “They are building a temple of art, this is what the building looks like. For people, a visit was like a walk through the park, a social meeting.” You can now walk around again, all obstacles have been removed.

In the new part, Scipio was able to express his own creativity. The light penetrates through 198 futuristic-looking skylights and the large openings in the upper floors ensure that daylight can penetrate into the ground floor. Finally, there is now space to put the modern art collection, which has always been pushed aside, almost literally in the spotlight.

Bombproof Bunker

It is understandable that such a major renovation took time. But eleven years? Asbestos was one of the causes. But there was also a bombproof bunker and a nuclear vault under the museum that had to be removed – 1,350 tons of concrete and 81 tons of steel. First of all, a new, modern depot had to be built on that site. For what did it turn out? Some of Rubens’ huge altarpieces could not leave the building through any door or window. How they ever got in is a mystery. So before the renovation began, there had to be a safe storage room for these gigantic works. They can descend into the depot through a hatch in the floor.

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null Sculpture Karin Borghouts, KMSKA

Sculpture Karin Borghouts, KMSKA

So one problem led to another and the years piled up. Scipio shrugs. “Disasters are part of our job. When you are very young you think: ‘ouch’. Now I think: he had to come sometime. But there is always a solution.” She hopes to have the museum ready for the coming century. “My story is that you have to make a building there future-proofed is, with which users can do a lot, made with such craftsmanship that people maintain and care for it well. As architects, we must not be tempted by a fad and a quick turnover.”

Sustainability and respect for history – Scipio also applies this vision to another project she is working on, the renovation of Paleis Het Loo. The historic building has since been carefully restored. Almost invisible underground, Scipio has designed a large additional room that will open next spring. Utrecht Catharijneconvent will also take care of Kaan Architecten. How does she do it, so many big projects at once? Scipio laughs. My worst quality is also my best; I am very persistent, I have a strict regime.”

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null Sculpture Karin Borghouts, KMSKA

Sculpture Karin Borghouts, KMSKA

Worldly madonnas and velvet dromedaries

The collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp – KMSKA for short – relies on two great names: Peter Paul Rubens and James Ensor. Rubens is appointed as an ambassador for the old part of the museum, where art is housed until the mid-1800s. The museum has no fewer than 27 works by the Antwerp Rubens, often large paintings filled with biblical stories and his well-known Rubensian female figures.

In the new part, Ensor plays the main role – with 38 paintings, KMSKA has the largest Ensor collection in the world. They show the development of the Flemish painter, from realism to symbolist works. The somewhat terrifying, mask-like heads made him famous. Ensor’s development clearly shows the transition from ancient to modern art.

Rubens and Ensor are the only artists with their own room, moreover, works by other famous artists – Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Memling, Modigliani, Kiefer – are grouped around themes such as ‘Power’, ‘Entertainment’ or ‘Evil’. It works well; Still lifes from the 17th century with food or flowers come together under the heading ‘Abundance’ and form a tasty room. In ‘Heaven’ you can see the famous God the Father with singing and music-making angels by Hans Memling. Fine detail: Instrument builders copied the angels’ musical instruments from the 15th century, and they now hang alongside.

In the modern wing, under the heading ‘Light’, it is made clear how the abstract artist Jef Verheyen actually does the same as Hendrik van Minderhout in the 17th century: both paint the sunlight. Van Minderhout in a dramatic sunset in an exotic port, Verheyen only with color – he omits the performance.

Mary or Mistress?

This immediately shows that the strict separation of ancient and modern art is not so bad in the museum. Subtle, transhistorical combinations are made in many places. It also happens with the painting that the museum has turned into its own ‘Mona Lisa’, the Madonna by Jean Fouquet from c. 1454. Opposite is a small work by Marlene Dumas from 1992.

The medieval Madonna has bared one breast to feed the baby Jesus. An innocent scene, unless you know that Agnès Sorel, the French king’s mistress, probably modeled this painting. Who are we really looking at? The Holy Virgin or a beautiful worldly woman? Dumas’ work seems to want to provide an answer. Then a young woman, a girl in a hurry, drops her towel and shows her naked body under the title: ‘Give the people what they want’. It provides a sharp contrast.

KMSKA also wants to be child-friendly and does so in a daring way. Christophe Coppens picked details from paintings and turned them into large objects. In James Ensor’s hall hangs high on the ceiling a huge pointed nose with a pier attached to it. Children can find this nose at Amazement of the mask Wouse. In the Rubens Hall, a pair of dark red velvet dromedaries in almost life size lie on a classic museum bench. Sure enough, in the Adoration of the Kings you see dromedaries.

Some objects may even be a little too scary for the little ones, such as the huge, gaunt grasping hand that swings back and forth over the entrance to the hall where St. Jerome by Marinus van Reymerswale hangs, with just such a terrifying hand. But it is precisely this somewhat surreal Flemish humor that brings a smile to the adult visitor’s face.

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