05/26/2011 09:23 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

In Belgium. High on Art.


It's 6 o'clock in the morning. I am in the L.A. International Terminal, waiting for a plane and staring in disbelief at the bold, colorful posters of Kandinsky, Sam Francis and Howard Hodgkin -- of all places -- on the walls of McDonald's, where I'm having my coffee. I take it as a good omen for my mad dash to six cities in three countries -- Belgium, Holland and Spain -- all in eleven days. Crazy.


It's the second time that I've been invited to Belgium this year. In January, I reported about my trip to Brussels; this time, I am going to Antwerp for the press opening of the new, ambitious museum known as MAS, which stands for Museum aan de Stroom or Museum on the River. Strikingly attractive photos of this nine-story building clad in red stone were sent in advance, and they seemed too good to be true.


Standing at the edge of the old city of Antwerp and reflecting in the water of the surrounding canals and docks of its port, the building, upon close inspection, proves to be everything the photographs promised it would. And even more. Stone walls on each of the floors are dissected by glass-walled terraces, but instead of traditional flat panels, these glass walls have the melodic, undulating shape of waves.


With a small group of journalists, I flew in a helicopter above Antwerp, looking down on the old buildings with their roof tiles of red clay and the narrow canals dissecting the city blocks. I wonder if the Dutch architects, Neutelings Riedijk, who designed the museum, wanted to reflect in their building this interaction between the solid geometry of the city blocks and the flowing water of its canals.


There are different temporary exhibitions on each of the museum's floors. Altogether, they're telling a compelling story of the city of Antwerp from various angles: historical, ethnographic, and, of course, artistic. After all, this is the city of Rubens, where he worked and lived and where one can visit his house. What surprised me about these inaugural exhibitions is their very non-traditional, rather daring display of material. Forget about proper white walls. In a few galleries, the dry wall is missing and paintings are hung instead on the vertical wood slats of the purposefully exposed framework.


In other galleries, a cluster of Old Master paintings hangs on bright colored walls in a surprising juxtaposition with works by 20th century artists. The exhibition of Five Centuries of Masterpieces from the museum collection ends up with a startling and unnerving group of drawings of nude figures by Marlene Dumas, famous South African artist now living in Amsterdam.

In other breaks with traditions, the museum allows a unique look behind the scenes. A whole floor is turned into the "Visible Storage," where visitors can stroll through and marvel at the richness of diverse collections usually hidden away.


If you ask me, what was the biggest surprise of my visit to the Museum aan de Stroom, I would have to say it would be the exquisite collection of 350 Pre-Colombian artworks recently acquired by the museum from a private Belgian collector. Made of gold, jade, bronze, terracotta and feathers, these objects are of exceptional beauty and, in spite of their ancient history, all are in near perfect condition.

Somehow, I have a feeling that Peter Paul Rubens, the most famous citizen of Antwerp, is looking down upon this museum with a big smile on his face.

Banner image: (L) installation view of the Masterpieces in the MAS exhibition, image courtesy of MAS; (R) MAS Museum © Sarah Blee

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Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM.

To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, visit Art Talk on KCRW.