Art & Education
The Allegory of Doubt | Jan de Zutter, art historian
Everyone in Antwerp knows the Royal Athenaeum on the Rooseveltplaats. It isn’t just a school but a monument, a cultural landmark, a symbol of social struggle and of the Flemish Emancipation. Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807, the school’s teachers have always had a reputation for technical excellence and progressive thinking.
My grandmother once told me, her voice trembling with unmistakable pride, that her grandfather had attended the school. In a conspiratorial tone, she explained how revolutionary that was in the late 19th Century; parents who sent their children to the Athenaeum had taken a brave decision to opt for a pluralistic education in the spirit of humanism and enlightenment. Those parents were pioneers, as were their children and the teaching staff. They took centre stage in societal developments and the challenges to come. The same is true today.
When, as a young journalist, I was reporting on an exchange programme between the Athenaeum and a school in Moscow in the late 1980s, the student body was 100% white. By the start of the 21st century, with Karin Heremans as its new principal, the school had taken on all colours of the city: 50 shades of diversity. The school had rediscovered its mission to be at the forefront of societal change, just as it had been as the birthplace of the Flemish Movement in Antwerp – the humanist, social and emancipatory ideology that championed tolerance and the cultural importance of the Dutch language.
Language, societal differences and beliefs still underpin the challenges for a school where few of the pupils speak Dutch at home. The migrations of the past few decades have given the city ethnic diversity, but they have also spawned religious and ideological tensions that reflect the same tensions that exist globally. This climate requires new solutions and insights for which there are no manuals. With every step the school takes to prepare its pupils for a life as independent and self-aware adults, the school is carefully exploring unknown terrain. This mission to bring light into the darkness has now been masterfully interpreted by artist Luc Tuymans in his 4m high painting München, which now hangs in the Athenaeum’s renovated Festivity Hall. The piece is based on a still frame from archive footage of Munich in 1933, at the dawn of the Third Reich.
Tuymans – the first living Belgian artist to have been given their own exhibition at the Tate Modern in London – sends a strong message by donating this piece to the Athenaeum. He is known to be a politically engaged artist who confronts his audience with historically-charged and disquieting themes, such as war, repression, nationalism and power. The language he uses transcends the Babylonian Confusion of Tongues that characterises modern cities. He speaks through images and uses culture as an instrument for his social critique.
The piece shows a monolithic figure wrapped in a blue cloak, concealing its face behind a blind mask. ‘München’ does not reveal any secrets. Although the viewer can easily suspect there’s a woman behind the mask, this isn’t entirely clear. Tuymans wants to confront the viewer with an enigma and deliberately distances himself from the allegorical representations that previously adorned the stately walls of the Festivity Hall. These allegories – referencing classical mythology – were didactic images with a clear message, reminding the students and staff of their responsibilities.
Tuymans’ work is a replacement for ‘The Virgin of Antwerp’, a canvas that portrayed the city maiden as the protector of education. The Virgin went up in flames during the fire of 2003, which reduced the Festivity Hall and a large part of the front building to ashes. Only one canvas survived the fire, ‘The Allegory of Fame’, which hangs like a counterpoint to Tuymans’s München on the other side of the hall. Two worlds: one an unambiguous message in an academic style, the other a provocation to the viewer to question things. The Allegory of Fame orientates, München disorientates. You could describe Tuymans’s work as an Allegory of Doubt, not just the Cartesian doubt that forms the basis of the educational project of GO!, but also the doubt in the minds of young people seeking identity, and of the teaching staff charged with guiding them. It’s the doubt of a society looking for sustainable harmony in diversity. The recognition of this doubt is the beginning of wisdom, as André Gide wrote: ‘L’erreur de Descartes est de meilleure qualité que la vérité d’un pédant’ – Descartes’ fallibility is worth more than a pedant’s certainty.
The fact that a school dares to give space to this doubt – and does so by commissioning a world-renowned artist – shows that the Athenaeum is again leading the way in societal debate. There are no hard-and-fast rules to the challenges of this era. What a school can do is confront students with different claims to ‘the truth’, teach them to think independently about the societal themes they encounter, and show them that self-respect, and respect for others, requires them to question dogma. By rejecting simple answers, Tuymans’s work invites us to begin this enquiry. The viewer does not know who that figure is, why it is masked, wrapped in a cape or wearing a turban; we are left looking for answers, but those who seek deserve more respect than those who are convinced that they have found the truth. This is the abiding message that Tuymans offers students of the Athenaeum.