High treasures of the Low Countries

KMSKA: The Finest Museum

The Holy Family by Rubens. KMSKA

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.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Photo: Ad Meskens. Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean Fouquet: Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1450s

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.

James Ensor at his easel. Self-portrait, 1890

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.

The decadence and darkness of Symbolism

Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff

Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism

Ralph Geis (ed.), Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 336pp, fully illus., €45/£42/$50

ALEXANDER ADAMS immerses himself in disquiet and dreamscapes

Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue1.

Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism.

Symbolism had two leading mediums: art and literature. The best Symbolism includes Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Rodenbach and Verlaine, all of which followed the example of the pre-eminent spirit of Symbolist literature: Baudelaire. For artists, there was a resistance to the domination of portraiture and the preoccupations of the picture-buying middle class, as evidenced in the Salon.

What are the themes of Symbolism? Eros and Thanatos: sex/love and death. These are frequently mingled in art which plays on the fear of venereal disease (the prostitute as Death) and death and the maiden. One also finds an attraction-repulsion complex regarding death, wherein artists fear death but seek the endless slumber of oblivion. Others? Vanitas and memento mori, the supernatural, primal fear of night, dreams, the grotesque, the outcast, criminal, flanêur. Deviant social, political and sexual behaviour – often in a context heroizing or celebrating it – becomes a key feature of the Decadent Movement, a sub-group of Symbolism. States of narcolepsy, hypnosis, hysteria and ecstasy, all beyond conscious control and revealing the darker urges and hitherto hidden truths. Unorthodox approaches to religion meant that Symbolists were involved (on levels superficial and profound) with occultism, Theosophy, Satanism and Paganism and fringe sects of Catholicism. Non-Western and non-Abrahamic religions are subjects of interest.

In other words, it was a hugely diffuse movement. One can spot it easily enough, even if one has trouble pinning down all its qualities, and finds it impossible to identify a unifying principle. 

Featured artists include Félicien Rops, Jean Delville, James Ensor, George Minne, Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery, Léon Spilliaert and Léon Frédéric. Prints were important (especially those of Ensor and Khnopff). Sculpture – especially polychrome stone carving and stone-metal busts – by Minne, Khnopff and Charles van der Stappen confirmed the breadth of Symbolism’s versatility. Symbolism found channels to intellectuals and public through exhibiting associations Les XX (1884-93) and La Libre Esthétique (1894-1914). Symbolist art frequently appeared in art journals and had wide currency through book illustrations, not least for Baudelaire’s books. Many public commissions required symbolism, even though the art that derived from such public schemes is a touch generic and has little to distinguish itself from standard academic and civic art.

Nocturnal interior by Xavier Mellery

William Degouve de Nuncques’s moonlit views of Venice and Bruges are atmospheric and less familiar than Spilliaert’s nocturnal street views of Ostend. Mellery’s dim nocturnal interiors of churches and house stairwells are masterful scenes of crepuscular tension. They have a dreamlike quality and beautiful finish – detailed enough to be immersive, but not so polished as to lose their liveliness of facture. The low-key disquiet of these scenes is very effective. Mellery’s public commissions include images featuring rather lumpen angels against gilded grounds, which are illustrated but excluded from the exhibition, happily.

Ensor is represented by works from his youthful and mature periods. His painterly approach marks him out from his compatriots. Ensor’s skeleton and mask pictures are very appropriate for this exhibition, even though Ensor as an artist is very mixed and individualistic. 

Khnopff is the dominant presence in this selection. His paintings and drawings are well known. Caresses (1896) is the classic oddity of Belgian Symbolism. A cheetah with a woman’s head nuzzles a male warrior, who has a female face. It is absolutely ridiculous, yet iconic. Two scenes of satanic manifestations by Rops, featuring female nudes, are complemented by prints from the suite Les Sataniques (1882). Rops’s imagination attains the perversity of a true libertine in the latter. Von Stuck’s women are generally types – with the exception of a portrait of actress Tilla Durieux in character – and perform the role of dangerous seducers. In Berlin, his work is usefully paired with that of Böcklin. Here we see him near Khnopff’s eternal woman, based on his sister. Art by peripheral artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites shows how Belgium (a geographical and intellectual hub) was connected to other countries’ art scenes. Spilliaert’s nocturnes, marines and figure pictures (as seen recently in London) are excellent and ambitious, as a whole.

Supplemented by classic Symbolist paintings by non-Belgian artists, including Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1883), Edvard Munch’s Jealousy (1913), Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus the Traveller (c. 1888), von Stuck’s Tilla Durieux as Circe (c. 1900), as well as paintings by Klimt and others. There are mistakes. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior Strandgade 30 (1901) is a nice painting but it does not carry the charge of Mellery’s interiors, which was clearly the comparison the curators were making. A mysterious atmosphere is not enough to make a piece of art Symbolist. Belgian Antoine Wiertz’s La Belle Rosine (1847) is a foundational work and perhaps the best proto-Symbolist paintings, as haunting as anything made later.

The art selected is excellent and a tour de force of Symbolism’s highlights, as well as including lesser known artists. The sculptures – principally busts of young women as enigmatic allegorical personages – remind us of the importance of that medium in 1900. The catalogue includes short essays and many comparative illustrations, as well as full-page illustrations. The biographies of more obscure artists are welcome; there is no bibliography.

  1. This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, and is reproduced with permission. []