As the audience of international VIPs discovered at the pre-opening party for Luc Tuymans’ Glasses exhibition, the Musuem Aan Stroom, better known as the MAS, wanted something special to mark their fifth anniversary (“Has it already been that long?” etc.)
And they certainly got it. In a curatorial curve that differs from the way that he ordinarily works, Glasses is a special kind of retrospective. Put together by Luc Tuymans himself, the basis couldn’t be more simple and came about serendipitously. As Tuymans himself explains, “At a certain moment I went through all the portraits I had painted up until now, and I was amazed by the fact that three-quarters of the portraits include glasses. That was not at all a conscious choice.”
Tuymans usually offers exhibitions of where the precise narrative relationship between the included paintings is enigmatic and less easily connected by a commonality as the specific leitmotiv of a pair of spectacles. But the result in Glasses is surprisingly congruent in delivering that very particular frisson that we expect from any of his solo exhibitions. The conjunction of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated Congolese independence leader, and the face of an Nazi SS officer masked behind frames; a pair of discarded shocking pink sunglasses or the impressionistic, barely recogniseable face of Tuymans himself painted from a picture taken on an iPhone all add up to a powerful whole where so many narratives that couldn’t have possibly been intended to work together when the individual paintings were made do exactly that.
The impact is further heightened by a very specific installation within the neo-Brutalist interior of the gallery spaces. Perfectly finished false white walls are imposed over the concrete and precise recesses ensure that the surfaces of the canvases are exactly aligned with the surface of the wall itself giving an astounding sense of the cavernous space being continuous, uninterrupted by the objects of the canvas and frames and existing only as pure images.
Designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects, responsible for some of the most distinctive contemporary architecture in their native Netherlands, the MAS was intended as a landmark building when it opened five years ago, a bold new gesture signalling the city’s extensive development plans for this area around the docks north of the city centre. It immediately delivered on that brief.
Although based on the 19th-centruy stone warehouses once common in this area of historic dockland, many prefer to see it rather as referring to the more recent dockside sight of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. The design features a series of gigantic cubes in red stone that rise some eleven stories, each one at an angle to the one below it. As with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, here the intention is that the visitor can proceed directly to the top level and descend to each exhibition level by way of aerial ‘boulevards’ that afford stunning views of the city through undulating glass curtains at various levels of the building.
Technically a museum to the city of Antwerp and its stories, many questioned exactly what the programme of this museum was supposed to be about in the early years. With a vast collection that takes in everything from objets d’art and historic paintings to antique weaponry and even ethnographic artefacts, its mission seemed rather nebulous, especially given that if also offered temporary exhibitions of art, both contemporary and historic.
But, in the five years since its opening, with significant exhibitions such as Tuymans’ Glasses under its belt, a Michelin-starred restaurant and bar with an amazing rooftop terrace and the perennial impact of its landmark architecture, the MAS has proven that is could live up to its intended function. It has indeed become a central point for a rapidly regenerating neighbourhood that now sees new college campuses, chic apartment blocks and one of the most attractive city parks on the site of a former shunting yard attracting the locals in droves.
Luc Tuymans’ Glasses remains at the MAS until September. It will open at London’s National Portrait Gallery in October 2016 and travel to Houston’s Menil Collection in 2017.