The city of Antwerp is celebrating the reopening at the end of September of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, shortened to KMSKA) after an eleven year closure for renovation. The museum welcomed 25,000 visitors during its opening weekend. These were able to view over 600 artworks from the collection of more than 8000 and step for the first time into a new wing, made up of contemporary white cubes filling in space that used to be inner patios (the museum has gained 40% more exhibition space as a result).
The original large neoclassical building was built in the late 19th century to house the growing collection of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The collection started off with works owned by the city’s disbanded guild of St. Luke and grew with the addition of 15th and 16th century Flemish works, a bequest from Florent van Ertborn, former mayor of the city.
Two small 19th century publications in the UL’s collection give us an insight into the contents of the collection then. Musée d’Anvers by W. Bürger (1862), a recent donation to the UL and an excerpt from a larger catalogue, includes a list of works arranged by painter and shows that the collection already contained 22 works by Rubens, Antwerp’s famous son. According to the museum’s website there are now 750 more. Anvers, Musée royal illustré (LE.13.142) from 1895, just after the new museum opened, is a small format book with black and white reproductions of 134 Dutch and Flemish works and 17 German, French and Italian works.
During the lengthy closure of the museum almost half the works in its collection were exhibited in museums worldwide. For instance the FeliXart Museum in Drogenbos, south of Brussels, put on a seven-year exhibition of less frequently displayed artworks from the period 1917-1956. More detail can be found in the accompanying catalogue, Modern art from the interbellum: collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (S950.a.201.5022). A substantial book telling the stories of donors and donations was also published while the museum was closed: 1818-2018, Schenkingen aan het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (S950.b.202.275). Artworks could also (and still can) be viewed online via the museum’s website.
Some works were too large to move out. One such was the vast Rubens masterpiece The Baptism of Christ which was safely stored in a basement depot. This was then the very first picture to be rehung as the museum prepared for reopening, being hoisted up from below. Rubens was also the subject of a major exhibition at the KMSKA in 2004: Rubens et l’art de la gravure (S950.a.200.539). Two other exhibitions from the years preceding the 2011 closure are also covered in accompanying catalogues held by the UL:
- 2005: ExtravagAnt!: a forgotten chapter of Antwerp painting, 1500-1538 (S950:01.a.12.1)
- 2009: Goya, Redon, Ensor: grotesque paintings and drawings (2015.10.2350)
The juxtaposition of James Ensor with two earlier artists here is interesting as in the new incarnation of the KMSKA he is treated as a pivotal connecting figure. Pre-1880 works are being displayed in the historic 19th century galleries while modern art is being showcased in the new wing. Ensor acts as the bridge between these two worlds, unsurprisingly, as his early work was in line with the Impressionist conventions of the time while he later moved from dark colours to a much brighter palette combined with more eccentric subjects, influencing later Expressionists.
The Belgian coastal city of Ostend is proud to claim Ensor as a native – he was born there, died there and spent most of his life there. An excellent museum devoted to him has been open in Ostend since 2020, incorporating the house in which he lived and worked (I visited it in summer 2022 and would thoroughly recommend it). However, the largest collection of Ensor works is not in Ostend but is in the KMSKA in Antwerp. It includes The intrigue, part of which was chosen for the front cover of the catalogue (2017.12.56) for a 2016 London Royal Academy of Arts exhibition. That Ensor was the subject of such a major exhibition shows that interest in him has recently been high.
A more recent publication, the 2020 James Ensor: chronicle of his life, 1860-1949 by Xavier Tricot (2020.10.295), is a detailed biography based on excerpts from unpublished letters and articles in the contemporary press. The author was also responsible for the 1992 two-volume catalogue raisonné (S405:45.a.9.115-116).
There have been other 21st century exhibitions of Ensor’s works across the globe and we have the relevant catalogues:
- James Ensor edited by Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein (S950.b.200.2128), a 2006 Frankfurt exhibition
- James Ensor by Anna Swinbourne (S950.b.200.3760), a 2009 New York exhibition