Grandness re-revealed as Belgian museum ‘for giants’ is restored

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Karin Borghouts’ photograph reflects a scale beyond human measure at the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts

Credit: Karin Borghouts

Restoration of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Karin Borghouts remembers her many visits to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts as a painting student at Antwerp’s Academy in the early 1980s – in particular, artist James Ensor’s 1889 ‘Entry of Christ into Brussels’; a great, riotous canvas in which a diminutive Lord is lost; sandwiched between a baying melee of capitalists and socialists. A key example of early expressionism, its crowds were a far cry from the museum’s, whose huge galleries were silent and mostly deserted. ‘The place felt like a mortuary for art,’ she recalls. 

Four decades later she’s back wandering the halls, but this time capturing the restoration and expansion of the museum by Dutch firm KAAN Architecten – a process that started in 2011 and will complete next year. A huge neoclassical pile, it was only in recording the works that she reacquainted herself with its sheer scale. ‘It’s grandness writ large, as if it were made for giants,’ she tells me. ‘Of no human measure – I love that aspect of it.’ 

Much altered over its life, the area Borghouts chose to show was ‘interstitial in both space and time’; a large niche off a main gallery, later sealed off and used as a painting store, and now being re-revealed and returned to its original purpose. She merged two 70mm tilt and shift lens exposures to ensure the trueness of those tall 19th century columns – an optical sleight of hand that the ancient Greeks would have taken into account in their original columns’ entasis.

By contrast, Borghout had a recent commission to record Belgium’s oldest prison at Merksplas on the Dutch border. First built as a workhouse, it’s noted less for its 18th century main block than the contemporaneous penitential landscape it sits in; a 60ha gridded plan of ‘Great Farm’, school house, chapel, fields, woods, peat bogs and access roads, all bounded by an octagonal canal, and now a heritage site. But still 750 inmates and 150 detained immigrants are crammed into its cells, creating a riot of their own; the din gradually lost across the grass and marshes. 

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