Two of Belgium’s Most Important Art Institutions Are About to Get Much Bigger

Antwerp, the northern port of Belgium, is a city of gems, some of them literal—it’s a diamond capital of Europe—and others cultural. Two of them are the studio of Peter Paul Rubens and the Royal Fine Arts Museum of Antwerp (KMSKA), keeper of one of the most important collections of Flemish Old Masters. Both of these sites are currently in expansion mode.

This weekend, the Royal Fine Arts Museum of Antwerp reopens to the public after a $105 million, 11-year overhaul. Meanwhile, the Rubens House has announced a staggered renovated that will see the site significantly grow over the next five years. 

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A mural dating from the date

Both renovations offer ideas for how great art institutions anchored by Old Masters collections can meet “the expectations of today’s museum goers,” according to the KMSKA’s general director, Carmen Willems. Those expectations, she said, are “very different” from those of visitors from other centuries.

People who step into the KMSKA’s grand hall must make a choice: continue ahead to the Old Masters wing or ascend the winding staircase to the new modern art wing, courtesy of Dikkie Scipio from the Dutch firm KAAN Architects. It’s an airy, white-cubed space with poured-resin floors that added 40 percent more exhibition space. The overall effect is very elegant.

The new Modern Art wing in the Royal Fine Arts Museum of Antwerp.

The museum’s former courtyards have been converted into exhibition halls and two more spaces were added on the roof. The new wing is invisible from the street, preserving the grandeur of the original limestone facade, which boasts neoclassical columns and carved reliefs.

This space signals the KMSKA’s ambitions to be a living, 21st-century creature, rather than a monument to dead white men—the sort of artists Flanders is renowned for, but who aren’t entirely representative of the museum’s collection. According to Willems, only about 30 percent of the museum’s 8,400-piece collection is made up of Old Masters art. Now on display are Amedeo Modigliani’s Seated Nude (1917), René Magritte’s The Sixteenth of September (1956), and a wealth of works by Belgian expressionist James Ensor.

Both wings have been rearranged according to themes, some straightforward—”line, color, form”—and others more esoteric—”power, motherhood, evil.” In a inspired move, old artworks are mixed in with new ones and vice versa. 

“We didn’t want a museum with two separate worlds—we wanted to bring them into contact. And we do this by creating dialogue through counterpoints,” said Bulckens. “The intention here is to have viewers look at old and modern works through a different gaze. You have classical grandeur which is typical for museums constructed in the 19th century, but also the shock of the modern galleries. There really is no other museum like this.”

In the modern wing, curated by Adriaan Gonnissen, a crucifixion scene by an unknown 14th-century artist is displayed beside a 1979 wall sculpture of undulating nails by Günther Uecker. But it’s the Old Masters wing that contains the most provocative combinations.

In encyclopedic museums, Old Masters quarters are typically hallowed grounds, still and silent and dim, save for exuberance of the canvases. Here, the curator, Koen Bulckens, has done the equivalent of hollering in a church or a cemetery.

Take the room titled “Evil,” which contains a to-scale T. rex skull. Its didactic frames morality in the Christian binary: “The struggle between good and evil is still topical in art. But who or what is evil? Does evil come from outside, or are we inherently evil?” Frans Floris’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels, the cacophonous surviving panel of a 1554 triptych, says evil is an ugly, uproarious force—a writhing tangle of wings, arms, and beaks to beat down. It faces Salvador Dalí’s Landscape with a Girl Skipping Rope, which depicts a wasteland of sand populated by humanity’s stragglers: a girl jumping rope and two men, one half-skinned, leaning on one another. Biblically, evil is unnatural. A modern interpretation of evil, however, imagines it as an inevitability of existence, like depression, loneliness, or boredom. The two paintings speak to how ideas of individuality and the soul have evolved since the 16th century.

In the room about “impotence”—defined as the potential for art to memorialize the powerful and powerless—a painting by Basquiat hangs beside a portrait of the Dauphin François by French court painter Jean Clouet. The logic is there: Basquiat has a firecracker biography and jazzy hand that compliments the meticulous beats of court painting. Kings of Egypt II invokes Ramses II, one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most successful rulers, however Basquiat ruled downtown Manhattan, and his art is inextricable from the story of this land. He lived and worked within America’s social hierarchy, which is uniquely shaped by its racist legacy. The machinations of a European monarchy—and their relationship to art patronage—aren’t quite comparable. 

Flemish Old Master paintings are easy to enjoy with just a cursory knowledge of art history. They’re big and busy and golden. Saint George slaying the dragon appears frequently in the galleries because Rubens and his ilk knew the people want a spectacle. People still do, but the idea of spectacle—”the expectations of today’s museum goers”—has been supercharged, mechanized like the giant revolving red hand affixed to one of KMSKA’s walls or its new immersive room that projects animations of its choice properties. 

“A museum like ours needs to move with the times—and it does. Visitors’ expectations are also growing, partly due to competition from novel initiatives appearing in fields approximate to museums,” Willems said.

Visitor engagement via such strategies is inescapable and probably vital. A museum, especially one like this, without generational appeal is a dead thing. But when the hand begins its creaky rotations, cracking the gallery’s contemplative air, you might miss the silence.

The Rubens House—or Rubenhuis—is modernizing by other means. It will close on January 9 and reopen in June 2027, to celebrate the 450th of Rubens’ birth. This is the first major renovation to the famed studio since it opened to the public in 1946, and it includes a revamped garden and library, as well as improvements to its accessibility and sustainability. 

The first phase is the construction of a new “immersive experience center” adjacent to the gardens that will meet the “practical needs of a 21st century building without disturbing the historic studio,” Bert Watteeuw, the museum’s director said during a press conference over the weekend.

The museum will introduce virtual reality glasses that stimulate the studio at the height of its productivity. Most notably, visitors will be able to examine in detail the 24 majesties tapestries created by Rubens that are too monumental for display in any museum. It’s tempting to write off VR experiences at art institutions, but this is an argument to their value.

Later, the historic house will receive long-overdue improvement to its sustainability and accessibility. A lift will be built outside the house to accommodate wheelchair users who are unable to enter the premises. It’s a shame that visitors with mobility issues have been unintentionally excluded from these radiant artworks by Rubens and his students and peers, most of which are too large to travel outside the house.

Additionally, Rubens’s private workshop and library will be restored to their original appearance (or as close as possible to it) and opened for the first time to the public. The museum garden, which has fallen into slight decay, will also be replanted with period-appropriate flora. A new, state-of-the-art research center will be hidden behind the garden wall. 

Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1452.

There are merits to KMSKA’s multicultural integration and the Ruben House’s compartmentalization. The curation at KMSKA will trigger new conversations about works, such as devotional icons, which—even when encountered for the first time—still have familiar contours. Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, a startlingly sensual depiction of Mary baring her breast that was modeled after France’s first official royal mistress, Agnès Sorel, now keeps the company of a full-body nude by Marlene Dumas. It has the effect of returning Mary to the Earth: this is a woman’s body, fleshy and desiring.

The Rubens House has no room (literally) for visual preludes or epilogues (and there’d probably be a revolt if the curators tried to stick a goopy Dalí above Rubens’s bed). The needs of that museum align with the needs of art-making: a certain quiet. 

“The whole splendid museum machine that has been constructed in Antwerp could never work without the art created in this workshop,” Watteeuw said. “Our story is different from the royal museum and all others.”

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