Pa­laz­zo For­tu­ny – The Axel Ver­voordt Sa­ga

The Ver­voordt sa­ga

L'officiel Art - - Sommaire - Text & in­ter­view by Ya­mi­na Be­naï

His fa­mi­ly’s name is as­so­cia­ted with an im­pres­sive list of ac­ti­vi­ties: an­tiques dea­ler, art dea­ler, in­te­rior de­si­gner, col­lec­tor, gal­le­rist, real es­tate pro­mo­ter and cu­ra­tor of some no­table and no­ted ex­hi­bi­tions… Axel Ver­voordt will try his hand at any num­ber of ac­ti­vi­ties, while al­ways bea­ring in mind his love of art, wha­te­ver form it takes. We spoke to this man of ma­ny ta­lents in his châ­teau near Ant­werp just be­fore “Pro­por­tio”, the ex­hi­bi­tion that will be inau­gu­ra­ted on May 9 at the Pa­laz­zo For­tu­ny in Ve­nice.

Hard­ly have you come out of the train sta­tion in Ant­werp than fi­gures dres­sed in black, with long over­coats and wide-brim­med hats, re­mind you that this town is the ca­pi­tal of the dia­mond bu­si­ness. Lit­tle by lit­tle the hec­tic in­ner ci­ty gives way to a quiet coun­try road, dot­ted here and there by staid, silent man­sions. As you walk past these fa­çades, you can­not but feel an at­mos­phere of so­phis­ti­ca­ted calm. Then, when you turn in­to a nar­row track you en­ter ano­ther di­men­sion. Straight in front of you: the Kas­teel van's Gra­ven­we­zel. You need to have a full view of it to ap­pre­ciate what seems to be a mi­rage. A squat buil­ding with slen­der to­wers, sur­roun­ded by a moat. Im­pre­gnable, at first sight. A ci­ta­del far re­mo­ved from the hustle and bustle of mo­dern life. Yet so filled with ani­ma. A life in­fu­sed by Axel Ver­voordt and his wife May, who in 1984 ac­qui­red this ram­sha­ckle man­sion and made it their home, and their re­treat. Al­so the home of their art col­lec­tion.

Then, you go on across the bridge over the dark wa­ters of the moat, ink black in places contras­ting with the vi­vid green of the ram­pant cree­pers. There is a chill in the air but the rays of the sun be­gin to ti­ckle the stone fa­çade. Out of time. In the li­ving room, whil­st wai­ting for Axel Ver­voordt, your gaze tra­vels from an 18th cen­tu­ry table to an an­tique Chi­nese wri­ting set, lin­gers on a de­li­cate en­gra­ving and then swoons in front of a can­vas by a mas­ter of Gu­tai, a Ja­pa­nese avant-garde mo­ve­ment. The ar­tist will turn out to be Ka­zuo Shi­ra­ga. Al­ways one to tra­vel through time and styles, Ver­voordt was the man be­hind the recent re­vi­val of Gu­tai with a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion in 2013 at the Gug­gen­heim, New York: “Gu­tai: Splen­did Play­ground”. In 2007 he had al­rea­dy put that mo­ve­ment back on the map by fea­tu­ring some works by Shi­ra­ga in the “Ar­tem­po” ex­hi­bi­tion at Pa­laz­zo For­tu­ny du­ring the Ve­nice Bien­nale. Last De­cem­ber a can­vas by Shi­ra­ga went un­der the ham­mer for €3.25 mil­lion. Ac­com­pa­nied by a lea­ping bar­king La­bra­dor re­trie­ver with an ivo­ry coat, Axel Ver­voordt wel­comes the vi­si­tor with that relaxed re­strai­ned warmth of a man who no lon­ger has any­thing to prove. He starts the mor­ning with a horse ride, then he has lit­tle re­spite for the rest of the day. He is an ac­com­pli­shed horseman – a le­ga­cy in­he­ri­ted from his fa­ther, a horse bree­der – Ver­voordt on­ly fo­re­goes this ri­tual when du­ty calls him abroad. In the li­bra­ry tight­ly packed shelves of lea­ther-bound books which co­ver the vast his­to­ry of li­te­ra­ture. Above the fi­re­place a splen­did Con­cet­to Spa­ziale by Lu­cio Fon­ta­na holds the eye. He is the first ar­tist whose works Ver­voordt ac­qui­red. That was in 1969, he was just 21 years old. “This third di­men­sion, his way of filling the void fas­ci­na­ted me. It cau­sed me to de­ve­lop a pro­noun­ced taste for contem­po­ra­ry art, the spi­rit of the mes­sage of his works. Great ar­tists are se­ve­ral de­cades ahead of so­cie­ty. Just like an an­cient Greek sculp­ture or a 16th cen­tu­ry mas­ter­piece, they are a source of ins­pi­ra­tion to make you a buil­der of the fu­ture.”

Born in­to the Ant­werp up­per-class, Ver­voordt grew up in a com­for­ting world of luxu­ry, and de­light. He was sti­mu­la­ted by the crea­tive in­fluence and so­brie­ty of his mo­ther .“She was both clas­si­cal and ec­cen­tric. So when she was of­fe­red magnificent bac­ca­ra roses which were sup­po­sed to be put on show with their long stalks, she would cut back their stalks and ar­range them in lit­tle bowls. She taught me how to look at things and ap­pre­ciate them sim­ply for what they are.” Ver­voordt has de­fi­ni­te­ly put this cre­do in­to prac­tice. A stri­king example of this mi­ni­ma­lism is an old farm­house table with its rough, knot­ted sur­face.“I like the marks of time. I ne­ver res­tore the fur­ni­ture around me more than is ne­ces­sa­ry. A piece of an­tique fur­ni­ture is for me si­mi­lar to a contem­po­ra­ry work of art, as long as you leave it in its ori­gi­nal state.” Stan­ding on the console is a full-size work Le Vil­lage de mon père by Laziz Hamani. “I am ve­ry sen­si­tive to the at­mos­phere which he ma­nages to re­create in his photographs. Laziz takes the pho­tos of the in­te­riors which I de­si­gn. As a si­gn of friend­ship he of­fe­red me this book of black and white pho­tos of his fa­ther's vil­lage in Ka­by­lia.” A flight of stairs gives ac­cess to a maze of cor­ri­dors and an­te­cham­bers which lead to a room sym­bo­lic of Ver­voordt's idea of aes­the­tics: a wa­bi-sa­bi type in­te­rior, spar­se­ly yet har­mo­nious­ly de­co­ra­ted with rough­ly­hewn ele­ments out of wood and stone. On the wall of yet ano­ther room, rea­ching down to the floor, there is a giant can­vas by An­to­ni Ta­pies. On a low table lies the

“When I be­gin to dream of a project, I do my ut­most to make it come true, ca­re­ful­ly choo­sing the people I work with, so that I’m sure to be in charge of things. I fol­low my in­tui­tion and af­ter, I think. So far I’ve ne­ver been mis­ta­ken.” AV





1. Work by Lu­cio Fon­ta­na at Kas­teel van's-Gra­ven­we­zel. 2. From left to right : Axel, May, Bo­ris and Dick Ver­voordt. 3. In­side Ka­naal. 4. Sa­lon wa­bi-sa­bi at Kas­teel van's-Gra­ven­we­zel. 5. and 7. Ex­te­rior of Ka­naal. 6. Ins­tal­la­tion of Anish Ka­poor com­mis­sio­ned in 2000 for Ka­naal. 8. Pain­tings by Ka­zuo Shi­ra­ga dis­played in the gal­le­ry of Axel Ver­voordt in Hong Kong.


Trai­té du vide par­fait by Lie Tseu: “One of the great thin­kers of Taoism, in vogue du­ring the 5th cen­tu­ry BC”. A si­gn of his in­ter­est for orien­tal phi­lo­so­phies. The French win­dows are wide open. In the fo­re­ground a pond full of wa­ter li­lies, a stretch of lush grass as far as the eye can see. This is on­ly a small part of the 170 acres which the do­main com­prises, along with farms and stables. On the wrought iron­work, a per­fect­ly for­med spi­der's web. Ver­voordt ad­mires its beau­ty, bright in the mid­day sun. Al­though he is hy­per­ac­tive, he no­ne­the­less in­dulges in dai­ly me­di­ta­tion, a ha­bit he has pas­sed on to his two sons, along with a taste for beau­ty and crea­ti­vi­ty. Bo­ris, the el­der, runs Axel Ver­voordt's art gal­le­ries. One in the heart of the Vlaey­kens­gang dis­trict in Ant­werp, sa­ved from de­mo­li­tion in 1967 by Ver­voordt's mo­ther. The other was inau­gu­ra­ted in May 2014 in Hong Kong for the se­cond edi­tion of Art Ba­sel. This 40 square-me­ter space which ope­ned with an ex­hi­bi­tion by El Anatsui. “The aim was to cla­ri­fy the mes­sage by dif­fe­ren­tia­ting the ac­ti­vi­ty of the Ver­voordt bu­si­ness of in­te­rior de­si­gn, an­tiques and art dea­ling from the gal­le­ry side, and to get that ac­ti­vi­ty bet­ter known to an Asian mar­ket.” A year la­ter, the re­sults are looking ve­ry po­si­tive: “this se­cond gal­le­ry has im­pro­ved the tur­no­ver of the group” he adds. All the same it's just one step in the de­ve­lop­ment and is plan­ned to last for se­ve­ral years, then per­haps we will head towards other in­ter­na­tio­nal des­ti­na­tions.” The youn­ger son, Dick, is in charge of the real es­tate bu­si­ness laun­ched by his fa­ther. The Ka­naal com­plex – ano­ther of the nu­me­rous ac­ti­vi­ties of the in­de­fa­ti­gable Axel Ver­voordt – has set up shop on the banks of the Meuse in a for­mer malt fac­to­ry, kee­ping three si­los and the sur­roun­ding land. The project will com­prise about 100 apart­ments – from 130 to 400 square me­ters – the first of which were de­li­ve­red to the ow­ners in De­cem­ber 2014, and shops, res­tau­rants, a kin­der­gar­ten, a town in its own right. “We wan­ted to have a ve­ry pure contem­po­ra­ry ar­chi­tec­ture in har­mo­ny with what al­rea­dy exis­ted”. Ka­naal will al­so host the Axel and May Ver­voordt Foun­da­tion, whose ope­ning in 2016 will af­ford a pri­vi­le­ged show­place for the thou­sands of art­works ac­qui­red over 40 years. It will be a sto­rage space for works of art but al­so a new mu­seum which will host tem­po­ra­ry ex­hi­bi­tions. For the time being, the fa­mi­ly is fo­cu­sed on “Pro­por­tio” whose aim is to re­flect on the om­ni­pre­sence of uni­ver­sal pro­por­tions in art, science, mu­sic and ar­chi­tec­ture (see fol­lo­wing pages in­ter­view with Da­nie­la Fer­ret­ti). True to his own style and flying in the face of cus­to­ma­ry mu­seum pro­ce­dure, Axel Ver­voordt constructs his ex­hi­bi­tions around the as­so­cia­tion of ideas and not per­iods of time, of cul­ture or ar­tis­tic style. He calls upon ex­perts in va­rious fields – scien­tist, mu­si­cians, his­to­rians, ar­chi­tects – to take part in work­shops where the concept is wor­ked out and then com­mu­ni­ca­ted to ar­tists. These com­mis­sio­ned works are then ex­hi­bi­ted along­side ar­chaeo­lo­gi­cal re­mains ei­ther on loan or from his per­so­nal col­lec­tion. These cros­sed dia­logues are the wi­de­ly ac­clai­med strong point of the ex­hi­bi­tions at Pa­laz­zo For­tu­ny, mo­ments long-awai­ted by cri­tics and the pu­blic. Hard work, in­sa­tiable cu­rio­si­ty, along with a touch of mad­ness à la belge, could help to sum up Axel Ver­voordt. “When I be­gin to dream of a project, I do my ut­most to make it come true, ca­re­ful­ly choo­sing the people I work with, so that I'm sure to be in charge of things. I fol­low my in­tui­tion and af­ter, I think. So far I've ne­ver been mis­ta­ken.”

“Axel Ver­voordt constructs his ex­hi­bi­tions around the as­so­cia­tion of ideas and not per­iods of time, of cul­ture or ar­tis­tic style. ”

Axel Vervoordt (right) with his son Bo­ris.

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