Through the wavy glass walls of Antwerp’s new Museum aan de Stroom (Museum by the River), the city has a dreamy quality, as if you’re viewing it from under water. Blurry sailboats bob in the neighbouring harbour. From the outside, the building resembles a slightly askew stack of shipping containers separated by facades of corrugated glass. Touring the inside is as much a visual experience as viewing the 400 years of art tucked within its walls. I follow a stream of visitors onto an escalator, starting the trip up 10 storeys to the rooftop lookout. Rising, I see Antwerp’s industrial heart to the north. On another floor, I face the city’s cultural centre to the south – the grand buildings and church spires of the Old Town. On either side are the city’s oldest docks, Willemdok and Bonapartedok, the latter’s construction ordered in 1811 by Napoleon during his tenure in Belgium. Emerging at the top of the building, I see the lights of a Ferris wheel glowing in the dusk. Suburbs stretch across the lowlands beyond the river. To one side, three statuesque cranes sit near the port like outdoor sculptures.
Here, near the still-bustling dockyards of Europe’s second-largest port, it’s easy to see how the city’s artistic heritage and marine history are interwoven. In the 16th century, Antwerp’s location on the River Scheldt, whose waters originate in France and pass through Belgium on their way to the North Sea, made the city a European centre of commerce and culture. Over the years, Antwerp’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed, but the cultural touchstones have remained. The city’s curious creative microclimate has produced a remarkable number of artists, from genre-defining baroque painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck to 20th-century heavyweights such as provocative multimedia artist Jan Fabre, figurative painter Luc Tuymans, installation artist Guillaume Bijl and the legendary fashion designers of the Antwerp Six. And, as I will soon discover, Antwerp’s artistic past is very much alive – right alongside its avant-garde present.
Located just north of Brussels, Antwerp resides in the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders. To the south is the smaller, French-speaking region of Wallonia. Coming by Eurostar train from London for a long weekend (under the English Channel and across the tip of northern France), I arrive on a Friday afternoon at Centraal Station. The airy stone building with its iron-and-glass train shed has earned the nickname Railway Cathedral for its grandeur. The smell of chocolate wafts from a nearby kiosk.
In the domed waiting area, I come across a spiegeltent (mirror tent) – a travelling dance hall constructed from wood and canvas. The inside, now empty, boasts an enormous disco ball and clubby intimacy only a few shades from kitsch. In a couple of weeks, the spiegeltent will be replaced by another temporary attraction (tango dancers once put on a show here, and, another time, 200 people performed a flash-mob dance to the song “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music).
Outside, in front of the city’s only Starbucks (Belgians excel at chocolate but haven’t quite mastered coffee, I learn), a woman dressed in black balances two large bags and a bouquet of flowers against her retro-style omafiets, or “granny’s bike.” She pauses, staring at her haul as if to determine how she’ll carry it.
The day is mild and clear. My guide for the day, Vera, who is pleasant and direct, meets me nearby. She seems to know every corner of the city and leads me through the diamond-trading district – the world’s largest, deserted for the weekend – toward the Old City. Soon we are on the Meir, a wide street lined with European clothing shops and small boutiques. Trash bins sport paintings by local artists. A sheet-like ghost sculpture by the late Polish-Belgian artist Albert Szukalski peers down from a building top on busy Komedieplaats. Outside a restaurant on Huidevettersstraat, a man in a long white apron shucks oysters.
We turn down Wapperstraat and come upon Rubenshuis, a striking house that looks as if it was transplanted from Renaissance-era Italy. It once belonged to Peter Paul Rubens, the famed 17th-century Flemish painter, sometime diplomat, businessman, intellectual and man-about-Antwerp who returned here in 1609 after almost a decade in Italy. Attached to the house is a studio where his apprentices helped him turn out his lush, sensuous paintings. Rubens, one of the most popular and influential baroque-period artists, was fond of religious and mythological stories, as evidenced by some of his most famous works: The Three Graces, Venus at the Mirror, The Adoration of the Christ and Venus and Adonis, among others. The Massacre of the Innocents, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was sold to late Canadian businessman and art collector Ken Thomson for £49.5 million in 2002 – the highest price ever paid at auction for a painting by an Old Master.
Rubenshuis has the cloistered feel of a monastery. Here hangs Rubens’s The Annunciation, a rich and ethereal work that portrays the Archangel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary, who is resplendent in her lapis lazuli robe. On another wall hangs Two Dogs in a Pantry, a vicious, disturbingly realistic painting of dogs baring their teeth, by Rubens’s contemporary Frans Snijders.
Beyond the dark, restrained rooms we find a quiet, formal garden. I can almost picture the painter, hundreds of years ago, entertaining diplomats, artists, scientists and public figures here. We stare over the walls at the modern buildings crowding in. To the left, a large, modern condo with a picture window steals views of the courtyard. “If I won the lottery,” Vera says, gazing up at the condo, “I would buy that apartment.”
I don’t have to look far for more signs that Antwerp is an artistic incubator. I’m staying in a small guesthouse run by Olga Dengo, a 30-something painter from Mozambique, and her Belgian husband, Wouter. Olga’s large, colourful paintings hang on the walls of the guesthouse and fill her ground-level studio and gallery.
The guesthouse is in a neighbourhood known as Het Eilandje (The Island), which bears all the marks of gentrification in progress. Cute espresso bar? Check. Intriguing restaurants? Check. Pop-up concept stores? Ja. I instantly feel at home.
Borrowing Olga’s bicycle, I detour around construction equipment that developers are using to convert old warehouses into apartments. Nearby, a young man coasts toward a row of bicycles stamped with Velo Antwerpen logos. (In 2010, Antwerp started a bike-sharing program, joining cities such as Paris, Montreal and London.) He swings his leg over his seat, skids to a stop and returns the bike to the stand.
A riverside path takes me toward the Old City, where I arrive at Grote Markt, the wide, pretty, 16th-century town square presided over by the regal Our Lady’s Cathedral, a gothic gem, and Antwerp’s imposing staduis, or city hall (torched during the 1576 Spanish Fury, just a decade after its construction, but later rebuilt). Pedestrians wander in from narrow side streets and crisscross the square, pausing in the midday sun.
Not far away is Kloosterstraat, a street full of cafés, antique stores and shops selling bric-a-brac. A quartet of musicians entertains a small crowd, while diners in a nearby bistro listen on the terrace. It brings to mind a coloured gravure of an Antwerp street scene I saw at the museum. The image showed the Old City as it had been in the 16th century. Now, almost 500 years later, I watch a man with a black top hat and matching suit sing merrily in Dutch and English while guitarists and a banjo player accompany him. The music sounds vaguely Cajun – a sonic discord amid the old buildings and monuments with their patina of age.
I have an appointment to meet Ria Van Landeghem, teacher by trade and “gallerist” by night, so I head toward trendy Zuid (South), a neighbourhood of wide streets and pretty row houses and restaurants. I pass by tailors’ and designers’ ateliers and the grand Royal Museum of Fine Arts (under renovation until 2017). This neighbourhood is home to several notable galleries, including the well-regarded Fotomuseum and the M_HKA, the city’s museum of contemporary art. But I’ve come for something more unorthodox.
In 2006, Van Landeghem created Error One, a transient art project that exhibits work by local and international artists in spaces throughout Antwerp, such as a vacant office building, Middelheim Castle and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Over the past five years, it has held 18 shows. The latest is here, in Zuid.
The cobblestones are damp from a light rain. I find myself on Leuvenstraat, facing a large screen that looks like a mini version of a drive-in theatre. Viewers are intended to pass on foot and stop for a few moments to watch Loopool, an abstract video by German artist Max Sudhues of a hose in a swimming pool. Soft electronic music wafts from unseen speakers. A few steps farther, I look to the broad white side of M_HKA and see a projection of Moroccan-born artist Mounir Fatmi’s ornate animated illustration of turning gears, some inscribed with Arabic calligraphy.
“We use words too much to explain art,” Van Landeghem says when I find her inside one of the borrowed buildings. A video plays across two large walls. “You just have to look at it. Complex things can be made visible in one image.” We walk through the space as flickering lights from screens peek around corners. She calls Error One “a nomadic art experiment.” “We bring art to people instead of people going to the art,” she says. It’s part of what has become a sustaining contemporary art scene in the city. Later she tells me, “Antwerp has an international open-mindedness, like most harbour cities.”
I head back outside. Across from the museum, in a grassy patch surrounded by a chain-link fence, I discover another art piece: a white camper van. The van faces the River Scheldt, which is just a short distance away, invisible in the night. A film by Belgian artist Line Boogaerts plays on the outside of the back window, depicting a family at the beach. It’s a clever trompe-l’œil illusion that makes it seem as if I’m staring through the windows of the van out to the sea. It’s a bit like the city itself, I realize – always looking outward. Toward the river, toward the sea.