London, Paris, Milan and New York are usually the first cities that come to mind as the breeding grounds of art and culture. Yet it's in Antwerp, Belgium (with a population of around 500,000), where the Royal Academy of Fine Arts has been producing artists who shook up the art world—from Vincent van Gogh to Luc Tuymans.
Founded in 1663, it's the fourth-oldest art academy in the world and is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. Its famous Fashion Department is also reaching a significant moment, as it turns 50. Over the last five decades, the Fashion Department has continually raised the bar for experimentation and creativity, and its alumni—which boasts the Antwerp Six (Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee) and the enigmatic Martin Margiela—are transforming the old European city into an incubator for avant-garde fashion and attracting young designers from all over the world.
CH spoke with the curator of the main exhibitions for the Happy Birthday Dear Academie project Walter Van Beirendonck—one of the Antwerp Six who returned to become a professor at the Academy and has been teaching for 30 years—about how the special exhibitions, activities and large-scale outdoor installations are literally taking over the city of Antwerp.
The first stop is at Mode Museum (MoMu), Antwerp's fashion museum which shares the building with the Fashion Department. "Originally, we were based in the Academy but because of the growth of the Fashion Department we moved to a new school about 10 years ago," says Van Beirendonck. Upon entering the museum, a 3D timeline from 1963-2013 winds around the stairs. Using a combination of videos, photographs and graphic material, the story of the school's evolution is told by professors and students who have passed through the Fashion Department's doors, under the vision of Mary Prijot to Linda Loppa to Van Beirendonck himself today.
The names of students as well as their original fashion drawings adorn the walls. The actual designs themselves—the realization of these illustrated concepts—are on display organized by leitmotivs. "The main part of the exhibition at MoMu is the work from the graduates. We brought together almost 60 looks from the original graduates. You can see a graduate look from Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela, but also from Kris Van Assche, Peter Pilotto, Bernhard Willhelm, etc. So all the work—the complete looks they did originally at the end of their studies—is brought together, which is very special to see," explains Van Beirendonck. The collected pieces are snapshots of time and also a symbol of creative metamorphosis: The Academy defines itself as an "artistic cocoon" and it's these end-of-year works that show how students have developed their skills and their vision.
The process of collecting all these works was no easy feat. "There has never been an exhibition about the Academy and nothing was ever written about it. There were no books. It was huge research. There is no archive of student work so we had to contact all these people, search all over the world, and ask them if they still have pieces that we could borrow. Sometimes we got them, sometimes they were lost, sometimes they were broken or eaten by moths—it was a long story to get it all together," describes Van Beirendonck.
One of the rooms, however, was sure to have been much easier for Van Beirendonck to organize, considering his personal ties. "There is a room which is dedicated to the Six plus Martin Margiela called 'ANTWERP 6 + 1'—but I call it 'Friends Forever.' Because it's not only about what we made in our careers but it's also about the period we were studying at the school. It was really that kind of atmosphere of friendship. We were approximately in the same years there. We were close friends. We traveled together. We visited things together and went to exhibitions. We did parties together. We dressed up together. We went to see rock concerts—it's really that spirit I wanted to give in that room." Accompanying the looks from that famous Class of '80-82 are also images and videos from the period.
Van Beirendonck continues, "Why that generation was so important—it was the moment that the school totally changed. The years after we graduated, we attracted a lot of attention from the media and from buyers, and suddenly the school attracted people from all over the world who wanted to study here and that really changed the whole evolution of the school." Today the Fashion Department hosts around 40-45 different nationalities every year, and around 80% of the student population is international, with the remaining 20% being Belgian.
Inside the Museum aan de Stroom is another stunning exhibition co-curated by Van Beirendonck and Dr Paul Huvenne, director of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. Van Beirendonck's avant-garde vision combined with Dr Huvenne's art history background have created a unique way to depict and represent almost four centuries of the Academy. The designer describes, "This is really about the history of the school, which was founded in 1663. I'm telling the story of the history of the school in a few reconstructions. There is a huge "Golden Wall" full of paintings from these 350 years, from all graduates who were people who studied here from Luc Tuymans to Van Gogh to Teniers the Younger—who founded the Academy. There are 130 paintings on the wall; they're all brought together and it's like a patchwork of paintings." Historical geniuses share the same space with contemporary work from recent alumni, creating a very interesting artistic array.
Outside of the city's museums, Antwerp is a historical and still active European port, with a beautiful view of the Scheldt River. Taking the birthday celebrations into the open-air, "Antwerp Icons" is an environmental installation where 10-meter-tall towers made from containers have been constructed all over the city; by monuments, churches and residential apartments. Three contemporaries—photographer Ronald Stoops, make-up artist Inge Grognard and fashion designer Dirk Van Saene—have translated archetypal textiles and patterns from 12 iconic Antwerp designers into present-day mammoth totems. These aren't typical fashion spread images. Stoops plays with the gigantic size of the structures by photographing the models from atypical angles, drastically manipulating their proportions and creating goliath figures.
"21st Century Outdoors!" is another outdoor art installation that motivates visitors to take a walk and discover lesser-known public areas, creating a two kilometer long (approximately 1.25 miles) route. Eight young artists, who all have graduated from the Academy after 2000, were commissioned to create new site-specific work for these spaces, which have resulted in transient fighter planes, water sculptures and more.
In a stroke of impeccable timing, Opening Ceremony announced in August that after a successful year of celebrating all things Korean, their new country of focus for 2013-14 is Belgium. Van Beirendonck says, "We are collaborating with Opening Ceremony and in the upcoming months they will have books, selected graduates will be presenting their works, and selling a lot of Belgian designers. OC is dynamic and rather exceptional because there aren't so many shops in the world who are doing something different."
Festivities and exhibitions will run through 16 February 2014. For more information, visit the Happy Birthday Dear Academie website, solely dedicated to the unique anniversary project.
Portrait courtesy of Willy Vanderperre, MoMu images courtesy of Boy Kortekaas, MAS image courtesy of Cédric Raskin, Antwerp Icon images courtesy of Ronald Stoops