Museum puts Belgium’s Antwerp on cultural map

Posted May 14, 2011, at 7:51 p.m.
Last modified May 14, 2011, at 8:06 p.m.

ANTWERP, Belgium — One of the world’s great port cities has long been known for its heady mix of grit, refinement and bravado. On Friday, it opened a museum to match.

Built on the docks of a once-derelict neighborhood, the MAS museum hosts homegrown treasures and those that tall ships brought in from around the globe for centuries. And the audacious, sandstone-and-glass tower already turned into a 65-meter-tall exclamation mark shows Antwerp has lost none of its swagger.

“We are in a beautiful shrine,” said MAS museum director Carl Depauw. “It has turned into an absolute icon for the city.”

Looking at the tower, seemingly made of three layers of rusty-red boxes floating on airy voids in between, it’s difficult to disagree. Willem Jan Neutelings of the Neutelings Riedijk Architecten firm that designed the MAS calls it his “stone sculpture.”

Antwerp hopes the MAS museum, in the ‘t Eilandje district, will become an international attraction, much like the shiny titanium-sheeted Guggenheim Museum has become for Bilbao, in northern Spain.

“It is a beautiful icon that will anchor that whole part of Antwerp,” said Aaron Betsky, a former curator of the prestigious Venice Biennale of Architecture. “The sensuality of that stone and the waving glass in what I take as a hard city — it creates a softening and suppleness to the urban fabric.”

Of Neutelings Riedijk, he said the firm has the capability of creating “an iconic quality … almost, like, gentle monsters that stand out in the city.”

The museum pulls together some of the finest art assembled by the city through its history. The best of 470,000 pieces culled from Antwerp museums and private collections are on display and should provide enough to satisfy any art craving. There’s everything from Flemish painting to Pre-Colombian art and Maori pieces.

The museum opened Friday with a three-day festival of music and fireworks for the 500,000 “sinjoren,” as the locals are known, who have witnessed its birth throes for the past decade.

The museum takes its name from the Dutch abbreviation for Museum on the River — and water lies at the heart of Antwerp’s identity.

The city sits at the estuary of the Scheldt river, and drew all of its power from the sea. After the medieval port of Bruges, in western Belgium, silted at the end of the Middle Ages, Antwerp took over and became one of Europe’s major trading posts.

Even now, despite its awkward location some 80 kilometers (50 miles) inland, it remains Europe’s second-biggest port and the world’s 10th-largest for shipping freight.

The wealth it produced was turned into high culture in the Baroque era: the great Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck were both painters from Antwerp. More recently the city has produced international art’s current Belgian star — Luc Tuymans.

Rubens’ opulent paintings are part of an opening exhibit at the MAS juxtaposing old with new. Tuymans will be there for good.

Tuymans is known for his outsized yet understated and pensive paintings; he has produced something extraordinary for the MAS. Out front, he laid down a mosaic about half the size of a football field. At street level, the shades of 11 types of gray and black stone make no impression whatsoever.

Once inside the museum, as one rises from floor to floor, the image becomes clear with elevation. From the top floor Tuymans’ “Dead Skull” becomes unmistakable. Macabre at first sight, it is a reference to a commemorative plate for Quinten Massys, a 16th century painter and one of Antwerp’s greatest.

The walkway and escalators to the top will be free of charge, running alongside the exhibition spaces at the heart of the tower. “The tower is created like a spiral. You follow a route of escalators and get all the way up to the top,” said Neutelings.

On the top floor, the MAS boasts a fine-dining restaurant run by Michelin two-star chef Viki Geunes.

The building has set off the imagination of viewers. Looking at the undulating sheets of glass, many thought it symbolized the choppiness of the river. Not so, said Neutelings.

The technical reason was that it is stronger than flat sheets of glass, making for a lighter structure that gives the building its airiness. And he wanted to make the whimsical lines of glass stand out against the sternness of the hand-hewn, red Rajasthan sandstone.

But he said good buildings inspire flights of fancy.

“It is good to hear it that it pushes people to become poetic. Everybody has his own explanation,” Depauw said. “The real secret though is in the brain of the architect.”

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