The Royal Museum with a White-Cube gallery in it

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ANTWERP, Belgium — From the outside, it’s hard to see the impact of the 11-year renovation and expansion of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, one of Belgium’s most prestigious and important museums, worth $105 million.

Not a glass pyramid sticking out of the sidewalk or a new modernist curl that calls itself a new wing. The limestone facade of the 19th-century museum with its tall neoclassical columns, carved busts and winged horses appears to have just had a good cleaning.

When the building finally reopens on Saturday, the public will discover that the interior has changed drastically. Where once there was one museum, visitors now find two.

In addition to the original museum, which includes a large hall with altarpieces by Peter Paul Rubens and galleries filled with works by Flemish masters, KAAN Architects, a Dutch firm, has added a modern art wing that curators here refer to as “the new museum.” The galleries, with bright white walls and white resin floors, fit seamlessly into areas of the Royal Museum that had not previously been used as exhibition space.

“We have two different worlds, each with its own identity,” said Koen Bulckens, curator of the museum’s old masters, during a tour last week. “On the one hand, we have classical art in the classical building with the grandeur of 19th-century public space. And on the other side this slick, modernist, white-cube museum.”

For a relatively small European city, Antwerp and the surrounding region, known as Flanders, have had an inordinate influence on art history, beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries with Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Rubens and Anthony van Dyck later made Antwerp the focal point of the Flemish Baroque. Modernist artists such as the early expressionist James Ensor from Ostend, another Flemish city, and the contemporary artist Luc Tuymans of Antwerp, continued to build on the Flemish tradition of mastering oil paint.

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These artists are represented in the Royal Museum’s exhibition, along with a handful of major works by foreign artists, such as ‘Seated Nude’ by Amedeo Modigliani (1917) and ‘The Sixteenth of September’ (1956) by René Magritte.

Carmen Willems, the museum’s general manager, said the new design was intended to highlight the institution’s assets. Nearly 70 percent of the 8,400-piece collection is made up of modern works of art, she said, while only about 30 percent are old masters.

“If you asked people in this region, surely most would think it’s the other way around, or maybe even all the old masters,” she said. “Everyone in Antwerp knows that the old masters are very present in this museum, but what they don’t know enough is that the collection of modern masters is also very impressive.”

Built from 1884 to 1890, the Royal Museum was commissioned to exhibit the collection of Flemish works of art that had been collected by an Antwerp art guild since the 14th century.

The Royal Museum’s original interior, conceived as a ‘temple to the arts’ with nods to Greek and Roman architecture, featured vaulted ceilings, oak moldings and walls painted in lush, dark tones. Designed to illuminate works with daylight, the building also featured four open courtyards and skylights.

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Willems said this open plan didn’t last long, though. In the early 20th century, windows and roofs were covered and the courtyards were converted into interior rooms, which were used as offices and restoration workshops.

Dikkie Scipio, the architect of the renovation, suggested converting these former courtyards into contemporary art exhibition spaces and also added two exhibition halls on the roof. Her design brings back the skylights to let in natural light.

“Daylight in a museum is so rare these days,” says Scipio. “In daylight, God determines whether nature is more gray or more yellow, and the slope of the light shifts slightly during the day. You have more connection with the outside world, and I like this principle.”

The museum’s famous Rubens Gallery, with the Flemish master’s monumental church paintings, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, ‘The Baptism of Christ’ and ‘Madonna on the Throne Surrounded by Saints’, has remained largely unchanged.

But the ‘old museum’ has been polished up and reorganized to emphasize its relevance to contemporary visitors. Previously, the exhibition followed a strict chronology, explains Bulcken, the curator, starting in the early Middle Ages. Now it works according to themes such as ‘Prayer’, ‘Suffering’ and ‘Redemption’.

The exhibition revolves around the works of Ensor at the end of the 19th century. The museum has one of the world’s largest treasuries of his macabre, surrealist masterpieces, which also served as a turning point for Belgian contemporary art.

In the ‘new museum’, usually downstairs, works are also organized by themes, such as ‘Light’ and ‘Form’, and displayed against bright white walls, where daylight streams down through glass atriums. Within these spaces, a few paintings are often clustered together to clarify a particular artistic concept.

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For example, an early 20th-century countryside scene with a clear sky painted with thick impasto, “Heaven Weeping upon the Rubble”, by Belgian artist Jakob Smits, hangs next to an abstract artwork made of thousands of nails hammered into a wooden panel, ‘Dark Field’, by Günther Uecker, member of Zero, a 1950s avant-garde group. These two are represented with “Calvary of Hendrik van Rijn” a gilded 14th-century crucifixion scene.

Each of these three works emphasizes the artist’s methods of making light appear material, Bulckens explains. “They were all concerned with the spiritual quality of light,” he said. “One comes from heaven, one represents a biblical story, and the Zero movement was interested in cosmic light, the vastness of the universe.”

Although the works are largely divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’, the curators have occasionally incorporated an anachronistic artwork to playfully defy visitor expectations. A little Fra Angelico appears in a cluster of abstract modern paintings. A portrait of Tuymans, from 1992, is featured in the ‘Suffering’ section of the old masters, with a pieta.

“We have these two different worlds, but we occasionally bring individual works together and let them communicate,” says Bulckens. “So basically our museum is one universe, which has these two worlds, which not only circle around each other, but also sometimes enter into dialogue.”

The post The Royal Museum With a White-Cube Gallery Inside appeared first on New York Times.

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