Antwerp’s Museum of Fine Arts [KMSKA] is open again after a major renovation and, to celebrate its new look and 40% bigger space, has put together a must-see autumn and winter exhibition until 21 January 2024. Turning Heads, a show in collaboration with the National Gallery of Ireland, unites nearly 80 works by internationally revered artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Bruegel and Vermeer, all with a focus on the face.
Out of the ordinary
We live in an age where images of ordinary people’s faces are everywhere. The advent of the camera phone and social media means that nearly everyone has the opportunity to capture their own face in a selfie, or take candid images of others, multiple times a day, and publish the images to the world, if they wish.
But prior to the 17th century, portraits were mainly something that only the wealthy could access and whole portions of society were seldom represented in an art world dominated by rich and powerful patrons, religion and crowded mythological scenes. That is, until the idea of the “tronie” (the old Dutch word for “face”), took hold.
Suddenly artists began painting the faces of ordinary folk. Challenging the grandeur and scale of what had gone before, these tronies were small – and playful. Tiny masterpieces, painted, drawn and etched, portrayed everyday people doing everyday things, often with absurd or exaggerated facial expressions that showed off the artists’ mastery.
Perhaps surprisingly intimate and diverse, and including outlier works from the 15th and 19th centuries, these tronies are the perfect showcase for the old Masters’ ability to play with light and capture skin tones, ages and emotions. In The Laughing Man by Rembrandt van Rijn, we see the redness and veins in a jolly drunk’s nose and the soft flesh of his cheeks. Meanwhile Study for Balthazar, by Peter Paul Rubens, would put many a modern filmmaker to shame with its expertly lit black skin.
Of course, no exhibition today is complete without interactivity and Turning Heads is no exception. Visitors can discover what it’s like to channel their inner Old Master by creating digital facial studies of their own, complete with unusual costumes, light and shadow effects, and the facial expressions of their choice. Perfect for a fall first date or a weekend’s fun with the family, Turning Heads is sure to get everyone giggling, thinking and talking.
The faces we meet in Turning Heads are anonymous yet speak to us down through the centuries. Unlike the rich who paid for portraits of themselves, ordinary people were sitting for the artists and relinquishing image rights, perhaps never to see the resulting artwork. Now brought together as a collection never seen before, these very human phantoms go through the whole gamut of experience and reach out to us from small frames, grimacing, laughing, angry, drunk, sad, pensive – nameless ambassadors for humanity, for their time and its revolutionary moment in art.
The exhibition opens on 20th October 2023 and tickets and timeslots can be booked ahead online. Standard adult entry to the exhibition costs 20 euros but discounts are available. KMSKA is open late (until 10:00 pm) on Thursdays, and from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on other weekdays, and until 6:00 pm on weekends and school holidays. The museum’s shop and coffee bar share those opening hours.
After its launch in Antwerp, the Turning Heads will move on to Dublin – from 24.02.2024 to 26.05.2024.