KMSKA Antwerp: Two Museums in One
While in Antwerp for the 50 best restaurant awards in 2021, Mark Bibby Jackson was given a behind the scenes look at the leading arts museum in Antwerp before it opened. Now he returns two years on to see what KMSKA looks fully dressed.
My keenly-awaited and somewhat delayed visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) Antwerp starts naturally enough with Reubens. After all Antwerp was the city where the artist lived, and on a previous visit I had received the Reubens Museum which is located in his former home.
Approaching the museum, you cannot but be impressed by its grandeur, a feeling which only intensifies when you enter the main hallway with its magnificent staircase. Ascending it, I find myself quickly surrounded by old masters, and one in particular.
Old Masters at the KMSKA
The vast room at the heart of the KMSA which bears his name was especially created to provide sufficient space to hang Ruben’s works created for churches. Although many of the works are immense, I feel a small self-portrait is the most striking.
Apart from Reubens, the rooms are thematic rather than chronological with themes such as Horizon, Image and Lessons for Life.
KMSKA is not afraid of taking risks, such as placing occasional contemporary sculptures such as Christopher Coopens’ massive rock like sculpture in Horizon. There is also a VR room where you can see imagined old masters at work. This provides them with a ghostly form as if their spirits still inhabit the building. Next to Reubens is a room devoted to a film projection which allows you to get up close to the works of old masters.
I really like the vibrant colours and action of Festival of the Archers by Master Of Frankfurt (1493). As well as Pieter Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance, which has a similar vibrancy and spectacular colours. Both paintings feature common man, rather than focusing on religious motifs or portraits of the rich and famous.
This pattern is continued across the rooms. For instance, The Salon resembles a traditional gallery in a stately home full of heroes in a classical sense. This is juxtaposed to the adjoining room entitled Heroes where paintings of working class people going about their normal routine in an industrialised society are hung. This is Belgian naturalism of the 19th century. Frans can Leemputten’s The Distribution of Bread in the Village (1892) depicts a young girl returning with her daily bread. Are these the real heroes of our past? The room asks.
Perhaps the most remarkable piece is by Salvador Dali in the room Evil. In Landscape with a Girl Skipping Rope (1936), the artist creates a dystopian dessert landscape in which there is a young woman skipping with a rope. Her shadow is skeletal as are two other figures in the picture, which the museum notes moot could be Adam and Eve. This alternative view of the Garden of Eden applies perhaps as much now in our world of climate change as it did in 1936 when the clouds of war were descending.
New Masters at the KMSKA
Whereas the old masters are hung in rooms with rich colours. The modern collection is housed in brilliant white rooms creating a futuristic appearance. The contrast between the two approaches is striking – really, these are two museums sharing one building.
On my previous visit, I was struck by how white everything was. Then the rooms were empty, now they look no less white even though the walls are now filled. An amazing untitled piece by Amish Kampot (2002) draws my attention. As I stare into its blue glass reflection, I see myself inverted.
Just like with the old masters collection, the building itself becomes part of the exhibition. Similarly, it adopts a thematic approach to the works.
At times I become confused, not sure which is room and which mirror. I stumble in the dark disorientated, before descended the most dazzling white staircase back down to earth. There I discover both old and modern masters unified under the theme of Light.
An anonymous 14th century painting of Christ nailed on the cross is hung above Gunther Uecker’s 1979 Dark Field constructed of nails that create an undulating effect. The play on ‘nail’ is evident.
Perhaps the whole museum is summed up best by Boy and Erik Stappaerts’ 2 Conflict Paintings + Color Method in 7 Layers (2002) which challenges not just your sense of perspective but also of art and reality. Is the woman sitting in the corner of the room a member of staff or an exhibit herself, I find myself questioning as I depart?
KMSKA reopened on 24 September 2022 having closed in 2011. Its rebirth was much anticipated and does not disappoint on its journey from Flemish Primitives to Expressionists. My visit took two hours, but you could easily take longer.
Dining at Fiera Antwerp
After my visit to KMSKA I was fortunate enough to dine at Fiera restaurant in the magical Schippersbeurs and Handelsbeurs building that used to be the stock exchange; it still has the green board where prices were marked.
The building makes a grand statement; almost one to compete with the KMSKA. Once, I have acquainted myself with the wondrous building, I settle down to examining the imaginative menu while enjoying an excellent glass of the house Champagne.
I start with the scallop ceviche, which has an Asian flavour, coming with hijiki and ponzu. This provides a slightly sour flavour to the dish which appeals to my palate. Normally, I find carpaccio a bit meh but this is anything but. Instead of being sliced wafer thin, the scallops have a chewiness which adds substance to the dish.
This I follow with plaice served in a tomato pigment powder, with samphire, patatas bravas and southern pearl greens. The sauce has sufficient spice to enliven the fish which I tend to find bland, but not so much as to render the fish irrelevant. I can still detect the plaice. Very delicate while infused with different flavours, the fish is as big a success as the place is itself.
NH Collection Antwerp
During my visit to Antwerp, I stayed at the NH Collection Antwerp Centre. The following morning, I enjoyed an excellent breakfast with really fresh pastries and still warm bread, cheese that was not dry and a good selection of fresh fruit.
The bathroom had a shower that you did not need a degree in engineering to comprehend, with symbols to indicate which was the overhead shower and which the handheld one, as well as blue and red to indicate how to regulate the temperature. Even, the toiletries were clearly labelled as shower gel, shampoo and conditioner for someone with declining eyesight – it is somewhat degrading to stumble around in the shower with my reading glasses on. The bed was excellent.
Located just across the road from the magnificent Antwerp Central railway station, this allowed me plenty of time to laze around in the morning before taking the train to Brussels Midi from where I took the Eurostar back to London St Pancras.
For more information on KMSKA Antwerp, visit here. All images unless stated by Mark Bibby Jackson.