Previous Posts: February 2008
Antwerp - 'Year of Baroque' in 2018
February 2 2008
Regular readers will know that Antwerp is one of my favourite cities; we even managed to get it into two out of three programmes for our BBC series, 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (for films on Jordaens and Brueghel the Younger). I was glad to hear, therefore, that 2018 was to be a special 'Year of the Baroque'. And particularly that one of the projects planned to celebrate this was an extraordinary recreation of three altarpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck (above) and Jordaens painted in 1628 for the masterpiece of baroque architecture, the Church of St Augustin. The three altarpieces are currently in storage at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (which is closed and undergoing restoration). The church is no longer used for religious practices, and is instead a music venue.
But now it seems that this laudable project is to be axed, according to the boss of Flanders' tourist office Peter de Wilde (more here, in French). And to make matters worse, it seems (according to Tweets by the Great Waldemar) that instead of the 1628 altarpieces, the church will be turned into a contemporary installation by the artist Jan Fabre. Waldemar has a particular dislike of Fabre's work, having had a trip to the Hermitage spoiled by Fabre's 'interventions' amongst the various baroque pictures there (see one of Waldemar's photos below, and for more on the 'dead animals' concept behind that exhibition, here).
Let us hope that this rumour is not true, and that the original plan to celebrate Antwerp's baroque heritage goes ahead. As anyone who has seen the magnificent Titians and Bellinis in the Frari church in Venice can tell you, there's something magical and powerful about seeing paintings like this in situ. You can read more about the history of the altarpiece here.
Update - a reader connected to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts writes:
I understand that the reason for reconsidering this project is not budgetary, but due to legitimate concerns of safety for the art works.
At the moment they are stored in the underground storage facility of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum is a huge and complex construction site at the moment, so the works are not readily accessible. They are also of an enormous size (especially the Rubens), so transporting them is a very difficult operation in itself.
In the St-Augustin church, the original altarpieces are currently replaced by rather excellent copies. So it would just be a matter of replacing the copies with the originals. Although I greatly prefer looking at originals compared to copies, the question can be asked if this risky operation would really significantly enhance the visual experience in the church. Especially when some of the copies are in a better condition than the originals, and the originals will be back on view in the museum in 2019, hardly a year after the event.
I do hope the St. Augustin church will play a significant role in the Year of the Baroque event, it is a baroque gem in itself and not enough known. The detailed program will be published at the end of this month.
One would hope that with a little imagination and ambition the museum could do better than just display copies. There is always a reason for not doing something...
Anyway, what this situation would appear to reflect is the fact that the museum has been shut since 2011 for a renovation, and won't re-open again until 2019. It's always a mistake when museums close entirely for renovations, rather than do it stage by stage. Inevitably the closure period grows and grows, as has happened in Antwerp, and pictures that are for whatever reason too complicated or expensive to take out of storage ust stay there.