Palazzo Fortuny – The Axel Vervoordt Saga
The Vervoordt saga
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
ELLSWORTH KELLY, RED, YELLOW, BLUE, 1963, OIL ON CANVAS, 231 X 231 CM, FONDATION MARGUERITE AND AIMé MAEGHT, SANT PAUL-DE-VENCE.
ANTONIO CANOVA, PARIDE, 1807, PLASTER, 201 X 105 CM, FONDAZIONE MUSEI CIVICI DI VENEZIA.
MARCO TIRELLI, UNTITLED, 2012, MIXED MEDIA ON CANVAS, 300 X 300 CM.
SANDRO BOTTICCELI, PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN 1485, TEMPERA ON WOOD, 61,3 X 40,5 CM.
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.
WORK BY EL ANATSUI ON THE OUTSIDE (EXTERIOR OF THE PALAZZO FORTUNY) FOR “ARTEMPO”, 2007.
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.