Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts reopens with crooked painting and green cat

Curators introduce playful touches to confound expectations about how art should be displayed

From the outside the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp looks like the epitome of convention. The grand neo-classical monument, modelled on a Greek temple, first opened in 1890 and bears all the pomp and circumstance of its age. Yet behind the imposing facade are some playful and surprising touches.

In one room, a painting hangs at a crooked angle. In another, a luminous green cat sits menacingly in a cage with the door ajar. Elsewhere, a wall “comes to life” as an eerie curtain of rustling leaves. It is all part of a visit to the Royal Museum, known as KMSKA, which reopened in September after being closed for 11 years following a €100m (£87m) renovation.

The entrance hall to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp
The entrance hall to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Photograph: Karin Borghouts/KMSA

The museum now wants to entertain and amuse, as much as inform visitors about a rich collection that spans the Flemish Primitives, the Antwerp baroque and the largest number of works by the Belgian modernist James Ensor, who pioneered cubism, expressionism, futurism and surrealism.

It aims to turn a traditional museum into something less intimidating, more playful. “To pay a visit to this museum is a challenge,” said Carmen Willems, the director of KMSKA, citing the 2.4km of galleries where more than 600 works are on display. Academic research, she said, showed the average museum-goer looks quickly at a painting, for perhaps as little as seven seconds. One 2016 study found that viewers spent 28.6 seconds looking at a great work of art. Instead of visitors feeling obliged to tick off every painting, “we try to slow the tempo of looking at art,” said Willems.

A female nude in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
The museum has more than 600 works on display. Photograph: Karin Borghouts/KMSKA

One way to slow down comes through 10 art installations by the Belgian artist and opera director Christophe Coppens scattered throughout the museum, each taking a detail from a painting in the same room. The menacing cat comes from Ensor’s Still Life with Chinoiseries, while a plush, ruby-red camel that children are free to clamber over can be found by Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi. The museum hopes the search to match details in the paintings to the installation will make a visit more engaging for children and their parents.

Curators also hope to confound expectations about how art should be displayed. Paintings are grouped by themes – light, colour or form in the modern gallery, suffering, redemption and power in the old. Rembrandt’s portrait of a clergyman in an austere black gown is displayed next to a wild, colourful painting of a mandril by the 20th-century expressionist Oskar Kokoschka – a joke at the expense of the upstanding Dutch burgher.

Another quirk is found in the slanted hanging of a tavern scene by the Dutch golden age painter Adriaen van Ostade that shows a drunken man falling off his stool. “By presenting the painting crooked, we stress the comic and dynamic aspect of the painting, which was also van Ostade’s intention,” said Nico Van Hout, head of collections at KMSKA. “Nevertheless, we hope the visitor understands such jokes without explanation. Having to explain a joke means that it is a bad joke, isn’t it?”

In the modern gallery, a 14th-century gold-leaf image of Christ on the cross appears alongside Günther Uecker’s Dark Field, a 1979 work where hundreds of nails hammered at different angles into a wooden panel catch the light, creating an illusion of movement. Both artists – the unknown 14th-century master and the modern German sculptor – were playing with light, suggests Van Hout. “For me personally it is important to look through artists’ eyes. We don’t realise enough that these paintings are objects in the first place. You should look at paintings as paintings and not just as images.”

A luminous green cat sits menacingly in a cage with the door ajar.
A luminous green cat sits menacingly in a cage with the door ajar. Photograph: Jennifer Rankin/The Guardian

As part of the “slow looking” philosophy, visitors can also stand in a 21-metre long gallery, where tiny details of paintings are projected on four walls 10 metres high. Brought to life as video, museum-goers can be immersed in an eerie rustling curtain of leaves, or see amber jewels rolling off the walls.

Not everyone is a fan of the new approach. One local paper described the crooked hanging as a gimmick. Some art historians, too, have been a bit sniffy, suggests Van Hout. “They think it is not suitable for a museum of this importance to do these things. To them, I say, well I couldn’t care less, because I am not only working for art historians,” he said. He added, however, that he hoped specialists would visit and appreciate the restoration of more than 200 works of art.

The reopening in September was the culmination of a 19-year project to restore the building, which was leaky and falling into disrepair. Fake walls were knocked down, the rich, olive green and Pompeii red colours repainted, and fixtures that had lost their shine re-gilded. The facade was given a facelift, rescuing its original pink, orange, grey and blue from 120 years of grime.

Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts
The museum first opened in 1890, its grand neo-classical style modelled on a Greek temple. Photograph: Karin Borghouts/KMSA

At the same time, a second museum to better showcase the modern collection was built, adding 40% more space. But instead of tacking on an annexe, the Rotterdam-based KAAN Architecten proposed a modern wing inside internal courtyards – a sleek, glossy, white space with high ceilings and a dramatic 103-step flight of stairs.

Along the way, renovators also got rid of unwelcome features, including asbestos and a 1952 nuclear shelter – a three-month job for two mini-excavators bearing jackhammers.

While the building work was going on, the museum used the 11-year closure to investigate its links with colonialism. It found that 57 works from 18 donors, 3.3% of all donations, were “possibly or probably funded” by colonial money.

So far the renovation seems popular. More than 100,000 people visited in the first five weeks of the reopening, far exceeding expectations. “The most beautiful compliment that we get is that it is a surprising approach … and that it is not just for the art lovers, that it is a really a museum open to everyone,” Willems said.

And she is convinced people get the point of the crooked painting of the drunk: “Everyone who goes really looking at the painting, they understand the joke, they laugh.”


Jennifer Rankin in Antwerp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dutch museum row reopens uneasy debate about colonial legacy
Mauritshuis, home of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, removes bust of slave-trader founder

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

25, Jan, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Bruegel museum in Brussels blocked by Belgian bureaucracy
Celebrations to mark 450th anniversary of death of 16th-century painter put on hold

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

25, Aug, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Italian police reveal '€3m painting' stolen from church was a copy
Masterpiece by 17th-century artist Brueghel the Younger was swapped to foil heist

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

13, Mar, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Lalanne sculptures auction to pay for Paris museum extension
Proceeds of sale of rarely seen art works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne to go to Musée d’Orsay

Kim Willsher in Paris

27, Apr, 2022 @11:05 AM

Article image
'World's tallest work of public art' to land on Belgian motorway
A 250-tonne steel arc twice as high as the statue of Jesus in Rio will stand over busy E411

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

31, Jul, 2019 @1:07 PM

Article image
Fake pisstake? Scientists re-examine Belgium's celebrated Manneken Pis
Statue with long and colourful history was missing for years before being discovered broken in two pieces in a Brussels canal in 1966. Or was it?

Kim Willsher in Paris

06, Aug, 2015 @12:17 PM

Article image
Paris museum reopens with stories of frantic wartime exodus
Visitors may find echoes of early 1940s Europe in present-day fears and uncertainties

Jon Henley

13, Jun, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Florence museum urges Germany to return painting stolen by Nazis
Vase of Flowers by Jan van Huysum was stolen by Nazis during second world war

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

02, Jan, 2019 @11:41 AM

Article image
Fashion legend Martin Margiela to make comeback as artist
Reclusive Belgian who retired as designer in 2009 will stage Paris exhibition of his artwork in April

Priya Elan

04, Jan, 2021 @1:50 PM

Article image
Belgian police examine claims Russian art show was full of fakes
Homes raided after Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent cancels exhibition of avant garde works

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

20, Mar, 2018 @11:17 AM