Flanders Tourism has begun Flemish Masters 2018-2020, a three-year programme centred around the region’s most famous artists to encourage art-lovers to visit some of the beautiful cities where the masters lived and worked, including Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen.
Until January 2019 the focus is on Antwerp’s favourite son, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and his Baroque cultural legacy. Next year attention shifts to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525/1530-1569), the foremost Flemish Renaissance painter famous for his landscapes and peasant scenes, before the programme culminates with Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), one of the founders of Early Netherlandish painting.
What Mozart is to Salzburg or The Beatles are to Liverpool, so Rubens is to Antwerp. It’s his town. There are more than 50 Rubens masterpieces on permanent display in Antwerp and he quite literally left his mark on the city, including the architecture of the St. Charles Borromeo Church and the Rubens House, where he lived with his family for 25 years and produced the bulk of his work.
The festival currently underway, Antwerp Baroque 2018: Rubens Inspires, pays tribute to his influences and via a series of special exhibitions and cultural activities ties the historic Baroque of Rubens’ time to contemporary visual artists such as Jan Fabre, Luc Tuymans and Tony Le Duc.
The Baroque is a highly ornate style of architecture, art and music which flourished in Europe from the early 17th until the late 18th century. It followed the Renaissance style and preceded the Neoclassical style. This often extravagant style can be seen at ‘ground zero’ of the festival, the Rubens House.
Designed by the master himself, Rubens’ palazzo-style house is one of the best known artist’s homes in the world and where you can literally step back into his era and come closest to his living environment. Rubens spent almost a decade living and working in Italy, and its influences can be clearly seen in the recently restored portico, which is clearly based on a Roman triumphal arch, and the central passageway, borrowed directly from a gate designed by Michelangelo.
The Rubens House contribution to the festival is Rubens Returns (until Mar 15, 2019), which will see the permanent collection of mythological scenes, landscapes, religious tableaux and portraits gradually expanded through a series of loans. These include several masterpieces by Italian masters who inspired Rubens, works by some of his most talented apprentices (notably his ‘best pupil’, Anthony Van Dyck) as well as masterpieces by Rubens himself, which will return to the place for which they were originally created for the first time since their departure. The star attraction is a recently restored self-portrait, one of only four in existence.
The Rubens House is also collaborating with the Museum aan de Stroom (literally, ‘museum by the flow’, known as MAS), a reddish sandstone and glass monolith constructed from a series of giant boxes stacked one on top of the other and connected by a ramp encircling the interior. The exterior is adorned by 3,185 hand-shaped medallions, a nod to the myth of the origin of the city’s name, which has it that a giant demanded a toll from passing boatmen and would sever a hand of anyone who failed to pay and throw it in the river. Hence Antwerpen from the Dutch ‘hand werpen’: to throw a hand.
The museum’s permanent collection tells the story of Antwerp’s connections with the rest of the world based on five themes: power, food, metropolis, world port and life and death. There is also a fine collection of Pre-Columbian art. While making your way up and down the building, look out for Luc Tuymans’ ‘Dead Skull’ mosaic in the museum square below (best viewed from the fifth floor), while on the eighth floor be sure to wave to Guillaume Bijl’s ‘The Saluting Admiral Couple’, a larger than life pair perched outside on a ledge and decked out in full naval regalia.
MAS has teamed up with the Rubens House to present Michaelina (until Sep 2), the first ever retrospective exhibition of the work of Michaelina Wautier (1604–1689), a contemporary of Rubens who worked in a period when female artists were rare. Very little is known about her. Her life is barely documented and she remained unmarried.
Wautier explored many different genres. Besides taking on portraits and genre paintings, she also turned her hand to large format historical pieces, a challenge that even many male painters resisted. She portrayed religious themes and mythological scenes, observed everyday reality and painted both poignant children’s portraits and interesting figures. Despite being a match for her fellow male artists, Michaelina’s work still passed into oblivion.
Wautier’s paintings demonstrated an untypical knowledge of the male anatomy in daring nudes and she also painted nude images of herself. Describing the exhibition’s centrepiece work, the monumental ‘The Triumph of Bacchus’ (c.1655), in which Michaelina reveals her knowledge of the male anatomy, curator Katlijne Van der Stighelen says: “Only at the end of the 19th century were women allowed at the Academy, in separate classes with a ‘nude’ model in a concealing maillot (tights). And this woman painted a work with mainly nude men in the 17th century. Incredible!”
Also showing at MAS is Baroque Burez (until Apr 21, 2019), for which photographer-artist Athos Burez, in his first solo exhibition in Antwerp, has created a series of photographs, sculptures and installations offering a contemporary view of different genres from the Baroque period such as still lifes, portraits, landscapes and interiors.
February this year saw the opening of the Rockox and Snyders House, two adjacent patrician houses which have now been merged to form Antwerp’s latest museum.
Nicolaas Rockox was a wealthy lawyer and collector and one of the most prominent figures in 17th century Antwerp. A close friend of Rubens, he was mayor of the city for nine terms. You can see the earliest known portrait of him, by Otto Van Veen, in the Rubens House. Until the two buildings were joined, his house was home to his collection.
Living next door was Frans Snijders, a celebrated Baroque artist famous for his hunting scenes, market scenes and still lifes. Rubens regularly relied on him to execute sections of his paintings on his behalf.
Imbued by the atmosphere of the period, the conjoined houses now present a wonderful display of works by Snijders and other artists who enjoyed Rockox’s patronage and including still lifes (especially of flowers, food and game), religious tableaux, hunting scenes, portraits, landscapes, furniture, household items and glassware.
For the special exhibition Cokeryen: Photo, Film, Food (Sep 28-Jan 13, 2019), culinary photographer Tony Le Duc takes inspiration from Baroque food still lifes, market scenes and art by Frans Snijders and his contemporaries and reinterprets them with his photo and video work using the recipes in Cokeryen, a well known cookbook from the 17th century. Le Duc selected some recipes and gave them to a number of Antwerp chefs, who created contemporary versions for Le Duc to photograph using the 17th century colour palette. In so doing, Le Duc elevates food to an art form – as did Snijders himself – and shows it in the artist’s very own house and studio.
A short tram ride from the city centre in the up and coming Zuid district are two museums which are both key components in the Antwerp art scene.
Housed in a former grain silo, the newly renovated Museum of Contemporary Art (the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, commonly known as MHKA, pronounced ‘Mooka’) holds a permanent collection of contemporary art from Belgian and international artists, an arthouse cinema and an extensive library of books on contemporary art.
Curated by Antwerp’s own Luc Tuymans, Sanguine/Blood Red: From Rubens to Wim Delvoye. From Caravaggio to Ed Kienholz (until Sep 16) contrasts works by Baroque and contemporary masters. A selection of Baroque pieces has been selected from the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (currently under renovation) with contemporary work chosen by Tuymans. Other featured artists include Jacob Jordaens, Takashi Murakami, Bruce Nauman and Anthony Van Dyck. The exhibition’s title echoes the energy flow of life and death.
The key work in the exhibition is Edward Kienholz’s ‘Five Car Stud’ (1969-1972), exhibited here for the first time since 1972, since which time it has been in storage. The life-size tableau shows the castration of a young African American by a group of men in the American South as punishment for being seen with a white girl. The grim scene is illuminated by car headlights.
A few hundred metres from MUHKA is the Foto Museum, or Fomu, where a former warehouse is home to an historical and contemporary collection of photography which is given a new presentation every year. There are also three special exhibitions a year, each lasting four months.
For the Rubens festival Paul Kookier (b. 1964, Netherlands), whose frame of reference is mostly aimed at the 20th and 21st century, makes a one-off detour to the Baroque of the 17th and 18th century, including the art of Rubens and Rembrandt, with Untitled (Nude), Jun 28-Oct 7. Starting from the position of the nude in art, Kookier has constructed his own, aberrant art history.
Do take the bus or tram ride to the city’s southern outskirts, where art and nature interact in the outdoor Middelheim Museum, covering 30 hectares (about 60 football fields) dotted with more than a century’s worth of sculpture from Rodin to the present. Over 500,000 visitors a year head out here to stroll around the wooded parkland or relax in its atmospheric cafe or on the summer terrace.
The permanent collection of over 400 works includes pieces by Henry Moore, Rik Wouters, Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder, Barbara Hepworth, the Dutch collective Atelier Van Lieshout, Tony Cragg, Ai Weiwei, Antony Gormley, Erwin Wurm and many others. Every year the museum invites renowned and promising artists to submit ideas to add to the collection.
Currently showing is Experience Traps (until Sep 30), for which British artists Marvin Gaye Chetwyn and Turner Prize-winning Jeremy Deller among other international artists have contributed new and recent works highlighting the contemporary legacy of the Baroque via architecture, sculpture and installation. Motifs such as the grotto, labyrinth, tableau vivant, folly, botany, fountain and trompe l’oeil echo the heyday of Baroque and Rococo aristocratic garden and landscape design. Work for the exhibition will also be displayed in public spaces in the city.
Barok in Situ: Antwerp Monumental Churches (until Oct 31) showcases Antwerp’s five monumental churches, which featured prominently in Rubens’ life. These churches were among the most important clients for the newest works by Rubens and his contemporaries and you can visit them all on a new tour.
Taking almost 170 years to complete, the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady is the largest Gothic structure in the Low Countries and contains four works by Rubens. St Paul’s Church boasts over 50 paintings by Antwerp masters, such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, as well as over 200 sculptures, Baroque altars and sculpted furnishings which are among the most beautiful in the world.
St Andrew’s Church contains many artworks by Antwerp’s leading painters, while its monuments include one erected in memory of Mary, Queen of Scots. Rubens worked as a painter, decorator and architect in the St Charles Borromeo Church and his final resting place is St James’s Church, where his ‘The Virgin Mary Surrounded by Saints’ decorates his specially built chapel. There are also paintings by Jordaens and Van Dyck and no fewer than 23 marble altars.
FURTHER INFO www.antwerpbaroque2018.be, www.flemishmasters.com