KMSKA: The Finest Museum
Patrick De Rynck (ed.), KMSKA, 2022, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., €45
KMSKA: The Finest Hundred
Patrick De Rynck (ed.),KMSKA,2022, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., €45
Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800
Daan van Heesch, Sarah Van Ooteghem, Joris Van Grieken (eds.), Hannibal/KBR, 2022, hardback, 392pp, fully illus., €64.50
ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in the Low Countries
When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.
KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints.
Claus en Kaan Architecten initially expected the work on the museum would take place in stages that would allow the museum to stay open. That changed once a thorough inspection was undertaken. The building was in a much worse condition than had been expected, with large amounts of asbestos to be disposed of, and the climate-control system needing to be replaced completely. In order to provide new gallery space under the old building, a nuclear fallout shelter was dismantled. Care was taken to use as much natural light as possible, even on the new lower-floor galleries. The architects recognised the brilliant perfection of the original design, which had fine sightlines and so much natural light that electric lights were not added until 1976. The later addition of divisions for offices, depot and conservation studio complicated the layout and reduced space for art, so were removed.
The façade was repaired, using stone more frost-resistant than originally used. All the time, the new architects consulted the archives. A major alteration to the museum in the renovation was the use of internal courtyard patios for new galleries. These are starkly contemporary, with the old galleries restored to their 1890 state. Pompeiian-red and olive-green walls with gilded stucco detailing in ceilings and cornices. The minimalist settings for Modernist art are very sterile.
Of more concern is the thematic hanging of art. This new trend places pieces of art of ostensibly similar topics and themes beside one another so that they can permit cross-era comparison. This (initially) seems well meaning and stimulating; actually, it displays indirect hostility. The idea of curatorship as the placing of items of similar periods, places and makers in proximity is one where comparison of closely related items build a cohesive depiction of the attitudes, practices and mediums of the time. It is the bedrock of connoisseurship. That is why modern curators hate it. They seek to disrupt expertise by suggesting such a quality is merely the air of fusty museum denizens and narrowly focused specialists. It is allied to the trend of political programming, globalisation and cross-disciplinary studies – those justifications for disrupting networks of established knowledge and values.
KMSKA Curators here note that the museum cannot display an encyclopaedic story of European art because of the limited range of the collection. This seems insufficient grounds for breaking up a canonical presentation in terms of period, style and geography. In one photograph, a Rubens Holy Family is juxtaposed with a recent painting by Luc Tuymans. The large, richly coloured, emotionally inflected masterpiece next to the tiny painting of a face, drained of emotion, depth and colour, rather points out the futility of the experiment – unless it was done to demonstrate the weakness of today’s art.
I concede I could be wrong about the KMSKA hang but all previous such displays I have encountered have had an air of a curator intrusive buttonholing the visitor to comment ‘Have you noticed?’, in comparisons that are either obtuse or superficial. KMSKA curators seem to have been let off the leash in limited circumstances. Let us hope thematic foolishness – which does a disservice to a specialist and anyone seeking to understand an art work from context – is reversed promptly.
To find out what is in the KMSKA permanent collection, one can consult The Finest Hundred, which offers a selection of highlights, starting in the late Gothic period, with Simone Martini, through the Renaissance and the Golden Age of Low Countries art. Masterpieces of this period include an unfinished Jan Van Eyck panel (that somehow evaded a common tendency to finish or tidy up incomplete paintings), Jean Fouquet’s famed Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (c. 1452-8) (that chilly classic, part maternity, part erotica), a Cranach nude and a handsome early Titian. Other South Netherlandish paintings are by Van Eyck (again), Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Quinten Massys. The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1554) by Frans Floris shows Archangel St Michael slaying nightmarish monsters. Naturally, the home city of Rubens houses a fine collection – mainly of large religious works. There are Dutch still-lifes and Flemish religious paintings. Portraits record important figures in Antwerp’s history, including the period under Hapsburg rule.
There is a historical revival painting by Henri de Braekeleer (1840-1888) of a man seated in a seventeenth-century interior, with a fabulously ornate wall hanging behind him, as richly foliated as a forest. The KMSKA’s great collection of 39 paintings and over 600 drawings by the brilliant individualist James Ensor (1860-1949) is represented by six examples, including two of his ground-breaking and influential mask paintings. The museum’s policy of buying good examples of contemporary art from local exhibitions has paid off in the form of a strong collection from the inter-war period of Flemish Expressionism, Fauvism and Post-Cubism. There is a scattering of more foreign art by Ingres, Modigliani, Fontana and others.
The Finest Hundred contains a chapter explaining the renovation project, including some of the same photographs illustrated in the previous book. The book contains full works and some details, with a page of commentary and details for each painting or sculpture. For the average reader wanting to know about KMSKA’s art, The Finest Hundred is the best book; for architects, designers and those in the museum field, The Finest Museum is the best choice.
Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800 presents 98 drawings by Dutch and Flemish artists born before 1800, now in the collection of the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels (KBR). (The term ‘Netherlandish’ in art history usually means from the Low Countries, before 1500; after that point, a distinction is usually drawn between Dutch, Flemish, Luxembourgish and Walloon, except when they are referred to as ‘Low Countries’.) Although the catalogue has 98 entries (each with a full-page illustration, facing commentary and data, sometimes with details and comparative figures), it contains many illustrations of related graphics and paintings. Bruegel and Beyond is more of a thorough academic catalogue than The Finest Hundred, with an emphasis on scholarship and detailed description and discussion.
The period opens in 1520, when Bosch was working. One drawing is after (or perhaps even by) Bosch. It is a collection of figure studies of fantastic cripples, beggars and rogues. There are two very detailed ink drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526-1569); one is of a Boschian landscape relating to the sin of lust, another depicts an allegory of the virtue of justice. Some of the early drawings are unattributed; a dearth of comparative material and documentation means that authorship, locations and dates are all provisional. Rubens, Jordaens, Adriaen van Ostade, Hans Bols and other major artists are also represented.
The selection provides a great span of techniques: metalpoint (metal stylus on prepared paper), ink, pencil, line and wash, chalk and watercolour. There are not just pieces of artistic interest; the topographical watercolours of Adrien de Montigny border on the artistically naïve, but are good examples of a type of art we do not see much discussed by art historians; such depictions are more the province of historians. There are drawings for anatomy treatises, decoration for book title pages, book illustrations and mural designs. Overall, the high standard of the scholarship, attention to detail, large reproductions and clear production design make Bruegel and Beyond a very suitable book for any extensive library on Old Master drawings and history of art in the Low Countries.
ALEXANDER ADAMS is an artist, art critic, novelist and poet. His most recent book is Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism (Societas/Imprint Academic, 2022)