Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts celebrates 350 years


The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp celebrates its 350th year with a bonanza of exhibitions and activities.

Academy counts many famous alumni, and drop-outs

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, one of the world’s first art schools, is celebrating its 350th year with Happy Birthday Dear Academie, a bonanza of exhibitions and activities. Its world famous Fashion Department, itself turning 50 this year, takes centre stage.

Though the word “academy” had been floating through history – from Plato to Da Vinci – for centuries, the first academy in the sense of “art school” was established in Florence in 1563. Exactly 100 years later, Antwerp was just the fourth city in the world to create an academy.

It was meant to give a boost the city’s slackening arts scene: Rubens had died in 1640, Anthony Van Dyck in 1641, and the output of Jacob Jordaens’ studio was mainly mass production.

In the beginning, the academy was mainly a drawing school and only open in the evening. “If you wanted to paint, you still needed to become an apprentice in a master’s studio,” explains Katharina Van Cauteren, co-curator of the exhibition Happy Birthday Dear Academie at the MAS Museum, “because drawing was seen as an art – the expression of a person’s mind – while painting was seen as a handicraft: You needed to mix pigments, add oil and so on. Moreover, colours were seen as sensual and, therefore, as something shady that tempts the eye but not the mind”.

It was only in the 18th – but especially the 19th – century that the curriculum expanded. Aside from Jordaens, there are no teachers from those first centuries whose names are familiar to anyone outside of specialised art historians. To find famous students, too, we have to wait until the 19th century, like Charles Verlat or romanticist Gustave Wappers. In their time, they were well-respected painters.

Staid institution

“For a very long time, the academy promoted an ideal of beauty. To do so, art was made following distinct conventions,” says Van Cauteren. “This left almost no room for progressive impulses. I exaggerate a bit, but that has been the tragedy of the academy: For too long, it remained a very staid institution. Only at the end of the 19th century, with the avant-garde arriving in Antwerp, did things start to change.”

Only after finishing your studies, could you really do what you wanted

- Katharina Van Cauteren

Still, conservatism haunted the corridors. Van Cauteren: “Generally, only after finishing your studies at the academy, could you really do what you wanted.” She gives the example of contemporary painter Fred Bervoets, who attended the school in the 1960s. “He has said that during class he did what he was expected to do as quickly as possible, and afterwards made work that was close to his heart.”

The famous Art Nouveau architect Henry Van de Velde also slogged his way through the conventions of the late 19th century, “neatly finishing his studies at the academy,” she continues. “He would turn in his grave if he knew that he is now described as one of the important former students.”

Other famous alumni are painter Emile Claus (class of 1874), English painter Ford Maddox Brown (circa 1840), sculptor Panamarenko (1960), comic artist Willy Vandersteen (1935), painter Georges Vantongerloo (1909) and pop musician Daan Stuyven, who studied graphic design.

The list of now-reputed artists who started at the academy but didn’t finish is as long. Luc Tuymans and Jan Fabre are probably the most famous among the Flemish alumni, but, long before them, Vincent Van Gogh stopped over at the academy for a few months, before continuing his way to France.

Art theory vs. art practice

As part of the reform of higher education in Flanders in the mid-1990s, the academy became part of the Artesis University College (which this year will merge with another school to create the Artesis Plantijn University College). The academy offers a Master’s degree and PhD studies.

Making art is an intellectual, mental process

- Katharina Van Cauteren

Students of course receive plenty of practical courses and hands-on training, but an often heard criticism of this reform is that aspiring artists also have to be art theorists. “That’s the academisation of the training,” says Van Cauteren, “an appropriate word since, in a sense, it’s the ultimate realisation of the 16th and 17th century idea behind an academy: Making art is an intellectual, mental process.”

Rather than a tedious chronological series of highlights from former students, the big exhibition in the MAS is built in four sections, each focussing on one question (“Is art a science?”, “Does Antwerp art exist?”, “Does art have to be beautiful?” and “Can art be learned?”).

The third section contains the Golden Wall: a huge wall coated with gold foil. Hung there, side by side, are more than 100 paintings by former students, mimicking a 17th-century art room. “It’s a subjective choice,” says Van Cauteren. “The wall becomes an artwork in itself, a reinterpretation of 350 years of the academy.”

And take note: two days a week, current students of the academy will be drawing a live model as part of the exhibition. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a taste for doing it yourself.

8 September to 26 January

Happy Birthday Dear Academie

MAS and other venues across Antwerp

The Antwerp Six put the fashion department on the map

The 350th birthday of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp coincides with the 50th birthday of its fashion department – though students around the world don’t think of it as a department as much as an academy in itself. It’s commonly known, in fact, as the Antwerpse Modeacademie, or the Antwerp Fashion Academy.

Loads of visitors have the desire to touch the clothes

- Karen Van Godtsenhoven

Though it’s now also part of the Artesis Plantijn University College, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its international appeal, which has been growing for the past 25 years. The history of the fashion department is on view from 8 September in the city’s Fashion Museum (MoMu).

The establishment of the fashion department was a bumpy ride, says Karen Van Godtsenhoven, co-curator of 50 Years Antwerp Fashion Department. “After the Second World War, attention for the applied arts grew, and in 1963, the academy opened a fashion department. We show a video in which Mark Macken, the director of the academy at that point, says that his plan was met with a lot of resistance. Fashion was seen as commercial, so why incorporate it in an academy of the arts? He answered that fashion is always a sign of the times.”

Van Godtsenhoven is often asked if she considers fashion as art. “For me, it’s not a very relevant question.” The difference in the head of the general public, though, is very clear at MoMu. “Loads of visitors have the desire to touch the clothes, which they shouldn’t do since the fabrics are very precious. They would never do that in an art museum.”

The fashion department evolved from the department of fashion drawing, Van Godtsenhoven explains. “So the training has always been very graphic-oriented. That’s the influence of the first director of the department, Mary Prijot. In developing a collection, students have to document the process with drawings. These are more artistic than technical. That way students develop a graphic signature. They’re more an artist than someone who creates patterns.”

An overnight sensation

The so-called “Antwerp Six” mark a caesura in the history of the Fashion Department. Six now-famous designers – Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee – graduated at the beginning of the 1980s. They were spread out over two different classes, but they formed a tight group, trying to break away from the – in their opinion – too academic training.

The fashion school is one of the city's assets

- Karen Van Godtsenhoven

“Afterwards some of them claimed that it was a plus that the training was so conservative,” says Van Godtsenhoven. “It gave them a chance to rebel every single day.” (In 1982, Linda Loppa took over the department from Prijot and made room for a more avant-garde approach.)

The Six didn’t get high marks when they graduated, and Flanders – let alone the rest of Europe – took no notice of them. It was a few years later, in 1986, that they took their wares to the London Fashion Fair, showing as a group and winning favour from fashion critics and buyers alike. They became, quite literally, an overnight sensation.

And they made the school famous worldwide. “Together with institutes in London and Tokyo, this department is the highest-regarded fashion school in the world,” says Van Godtsenhoven. Twice a year, 1,000 aspiring fashion students from across the globe flock to Antwerp for the entrance exam. About 60 per year get in.

“In the exhibition you’ll see that a lot of the big international fashion companies have alumni from the Fashion Department on their payroll.” Even Antwerp’s tourist office uses the school in its literature. “It’s one of the city’s assets.”

A heart for fashion

The public is also invited to get involved – and it does – every summer at the big catwalk show, which features the final collections of many of the department’s students. (The photo on the cover is from last June’s Show2013.)

MoMu is hosting an overview of the designs created at the Fashion Department by the school’s alumni during their studies. You’ll also find 12 iconic designs by former students set atop towers of containers spread throughout the city.

It will be difficult not to notice that Antwerp has a heart for fashion. And it all germinated at the Fashion Department.

8 September to 16 February

Antwerp fashion department celebrates 50th anniversary.

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Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp

The academy is best known for its fashion department, considered one of the best in the world. Alumni routinely join major fashion houses or launch their own brands, and the fashion school is credited with putting Flemish designers on the map.
Antwerp Six - In the 1980s, six alumni made waves with their graduation collections at London Fashion Week. Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck and Marina Yee soon became known as the “Antwerp Six”.
Offshoots - Several institutions developed from the academy – the Henry Van de Velde Institute, the Higher Institute of Fine Arts and the Antwerp art secondary school.
Big names - Other famous graduates include Martin Margiela, Veronique Branquinho, Christian Wijnants and AF Vandevorst.

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