Just Like Heaven

A new lease on life for Belgium’s Royal Museum of Fine Art

A work by Berlinde de Bruyckere installed opposite Antonello da Messina’s Calvarieberg, 1475. Photo by author.

IT WAS DURING THE PRESS PREVIEW of Antwerp’s newly reopened Royal Museum of Fine Art, and we were in front of one of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s almost-human lumps, poignantly placed in front of Antonello Da Messina’s 1475 picture of Jesus and his fellow convicts similarly twisting in agony. “Flesh on pole! How very Flemish!” remarked the man next to me, and, as I would find out at lunch, he was right. For fashion in Flanders is for small servings of raw animal: thinly sliced scallops, ceviche, carpaccio, and steak tartar, one after the next, presented as the set menu to parties of thirty and more. No one here is a vegetarian, or no one is asked. How audacious, I thought; I love it!

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) begins in Antwerp, not as the eponymous no-place but its venal opposite: a cramped and carnal port city full of money, rats, and thieves. Many a sixteenth-century Tower of Babel, like Jan Brueghel the Elder’s in the Royal Museum’s collection, is based on the city for the same reason, and it still looks like an outcome of botched communication: a delightfully dynamic combobulation of every style possible and no style at all. What the Flemish are known for, deputy mayor Koen Kennis told us, is their chauvinism, and for good reason, he said, since they simply are superior in all aspects—ranging, evidently, from diamonds to visions of doom. What I learnt was they have a taste for sharp contrasts, which they exert with the flagrancy of uncooked meat—and the new museum is no exception.

A rendering showing how the museum’s new gallery for modern art slots into its old building.

For eleven years, the nineteenth-century building that houses the largest art collection in Flanders has been closed for renovation and expansion by the Rotterdam-based KAAN Architects. The repeated mention in the press materials that the $105 million price tag is peanuts compared to similar projects abroad (Switzerland is cited) suggests there’s been some local nagging about costs and time delays. A large chunk of the budget has gone to transforming a wartime bunker into a subterranean safe space for a suite of Rubens altarpieces too enormous to ever leave the museum; the old masters galleries have also been restored to former red wine velvet glory. But the makeover’s showpiece is the new annex for its twentieth-century collection: a fanatically white cube slotted into the existing structure’s interior courtyard.

Its success rests on the energy generated by the unmediated transition from the classical layout of the old building to the self-consciously eccentric new one. The extension can be accessed from only one point on the ground floor the museum, and once inside everything is suddenly bright and windowless, the ceilings in each gallery shifting in height, the floors correspondingly irregular. The experience is one akin to driving in a snowstorm, or meeting God in a Hollywood movie. In a Flemishly boss move, an excessively long and harshly lit staircase, dubbed the “stairway to heaven,” skips the middle floor and leads panting visitors straight to the top, where the whiteout is broken by details of black marble. (It’s all very Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent; a true patriot would have gone for local heroine Ann Demeulemeester, whose ultrachic shop is just across the street). Another staircase is entirely yellow, and the bathroom doors are upholstered in tufted midnight blue. Clearly Dikkie Scipio, who speared the project for KAAN, likes a bold gesture.

A view of KMSKA’s new gallery for modern art. Photo by author.

Part of me welcomes this assault on the senses. It wants something in the world, and at least seems to believe in the future. By way of comparison, Oslo’s recently inaugurated National Museum, designed by Kleihues + Schuwerk, reads, following Adorno, like a mausoleum. As does the Weimar Bauhaus Museum, which opened in 2019 and should have been a monument to innovation in architecture. About Berlin’s dreadful Humboldt Forum, I’ve said enough. On the more tasteful end of the spectrum, David Chipperfield’s addition to Kunsthaus Zurich is at least looking pretty in beige while we wait for an answer to the end of postmodernism that isn’t gilded riffs on neo-classicism. We can’t all wear COS forever, and (Antwerp alumnus) Demna’s Balenciaga is simply too facetious to offer any real alternative. Meanwhile, the museum’s new lightbox is cut through with a dark floor for small sculptures and special exhibits, a drama that feels generous and creative; not new, exactly, but a happy throwback to millennial optimism.

But once that energy wears off, the brightness of the extension’s main galleries becomes strenuous, and any extras—those marble details as well as clunky furniture with screens for “accessing” the paintings, as if they aren’t right there—overbearing amid the aggressive spotlessness of everything else. Even the artworks—for which, after all, the rooms were built—only seem to clutter them, and, what more, strangely elude your memory, suspended as they were in that blinding light of the afterlife. Who was it that thought the white cube was such a good idea to begin with? I am always thinking of New York’s cave-like Breuer building, or Lisbon’s shadowy Gulbenkian Museum, or Carlo Scarpa’s inventive exhibition designs in Italy—actually, modernism had other ideas, but they seem always to be abandoned for this paper-shade lucidity.

The marked contrast between the two parts of the museum emphasizes the art-historical shift of modernism almost to a breaking point. The new galleries begin with this turn, placed precisely in 1880 and vanguarded by another local favorite, James Ensor, whose famous carnival paintings function as rich illustrations of modern alienation by allowing us to trace the mask-like faces of German expressionism, Picasso, and even the postwar CoBrA group back to his depictions of actual masks. Of course, Ensor may just as easily be read into the past as heir to the Rabelaisian pictures of the Northern Renaissance, thus tugging at the authority of this architectural manifestation of before-and-after. And so what starts as a pedagogical simplification becomes a challenge to the viewer to subvert it, a challenge aided by the occasional, exciting breaks with chronology in the collection display itself.

Perhaps because the architecture is simply less abrasive, the best examples of this are in the nineteenth-century building, with De Bruyckere’s meeting with the Italian Calvary picture as case in point. Other highlights include a small 1846 Eugène Delacroix poetically tucked away in the corner of the majestic Rubens room; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Kings of Egypt II, 1982, hung next to one of Auguste Rodin’s heroic citizens of Calais (1886), fronting a row of monarchs in marble in a showdown between rebels and lawmakers; and finally—a moment on which so much of the city’s chauvinism hinges—Antwerp icon Luc Tuymans’s painting of a disconcertingly blank male face issuing the titular “Diagnostic Gaze” and Marlene Dumas’s wonderfully crass female nude Give the people what they want, both from 1992 and looking at what is perhaps the collection’s most extraordinary painting of all: Jean Fouquet’s chalk-white Madonna, c. 1450, renowned for her transgressive sexiness and freaky backdrop of red and blue cherubs. We see in the prematurely aged baby on her lap the cold eyes of Tuymans’s figure, and in her exposed breast Dumas’s sardonic invitation to voyeurism.

That such a disturbing picture can make it onto the museum’s tote bag, to me, is true testimony to art’s capacities as Trojan Horse—and also to how robust it is, across time and in the face of any and every over-lit room and fashionable detail. When Antwerp chooses tartar over oat milk and strong spaces over safe taste it is because it knows of art’s durability and trusts its audience to meet it. When paired with a collection of this tremendous quality, such an approach is easy to get behind.

The exterior of the renovated Royal Museum of Fine Art. Photo: Wouter Bollaerts.