Focus on the KBR Collection of Drawings
The drawings held in the KBR Print Room have long been overshadowed by the prints, and are therefore less well known to the general public. Since 2013, however, efforts have been made in making this important collection accessible, in particular via the digital library Belgica. Daan van Heesch, its curator, reveals how he and his team are working on the conservation and study of more than 700,000 works on paper.
Daan van Heesch obtained his PhD in the history of art in 2019 and continued as a postdoctoral researcher at the KU Leuven. His fascination with the art of drawing dates back to 2013, when he wrote his thesis entitled The Antwerp Sketchbook, a fascinating study into copying practices and the dissemination of images in the 16th century. Since September 2020, he is the curator of KBR's collection of Prints and Drawings.
The Royal Library houses the largest collection of drawings in Belgium. What does this unique collection contain?
The KBR Print Room holds around 25,000 drawings from the 16th century to the present day. The collection includes about 3,500 pieces drawn by old masters, but the majority are drawings by Belgian artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. The most prestigious pieces include works by great masters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Joris Hoefnagel, Hendrik Goltzius, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens. We are currently preparing a richly illustrated catalogue of the hundred most beautiful drawings by Flemish and Dutch masters.
In addition to the most famous names, the collection also contains drawings by lesser-known painters, sculptors, architects and designers. All types of drawings are represented, from architectural studies and theatre designs to sketchbooks, topographical works and even courtroom drawings.
What are the modern masterpieces in the collection?
We are proud of our collection of 19th-century Belgian drawings, with masterpieces by artists such as Félicien Rops, Fernand Khnopff, Léon Spilliaert and James Ensor. The provocative pastel The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1878) by Rops, in which a voluptuous woman appears to the saint as a crucified Christ, caused a real scandal in its time and is now one of the highlights of the collection.
What about contemporary drawings?
Contemporary Belgian drawing is only marginally represented in KBR. It would be a dream to develop a representative collection of contemporary drawings, but at the moment the resources available do not allow us to do so.
Does the collection also include foreign works?
KBR also holds small but beautiful collections of drawings from other geographical areas. For example, sheets by the Venetian artists Domenico Campagnola and Giambattista Tiepolo are fine examples of the Italian school.
Non-Western drawing is represented by an exceptional collection of African watercolours from the 1920s and 1930s. These pioneering drawings were made by Congolese artists such as Djilatendo and Antoinette and Albert Lubaki, whose work marked what is known as the beginning of modern Congolese art in European art history.
What is the acquisition policy of the Prints and Drawings Collection?
The acquisition policy of the Print Room is focused on collecting works on paper from the southern Netherlands and Belgium, from all periods. We follow the art market closely and focus mainly on existing gaps in specific collections such as the old master drawings and nineteenth-century Belgian art.
Given our relatively limited acquisition budget and the record prices currently being paid for art from the southern Netherlands and Belgium, we are increasingly dependent on external funding in order to acquire works from the upper echelons of the art market. Thanks to the Roi Baudouin Foundation, KBR has, for example, been enriched in recent years by superb print designs by Hans Bol and no fewer than 86 sheets by the Brussels artist Richard van Orley.
Can you give me an example of a recent acquisition?
In 2020 we were able to acquire a monumental drawing by the Belgian symbolist painter Jean Delville. The drawing in question is La Justice Moderne, a preliminary study for one of the large paintings the artist made between 1907 and 1914 for the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The original paintings illustrated the development of the administration of justice through the different historical periods. However, during the Second World War, this magnum opus was lost in a fire caused by German soldiers. Fortunately, Delville's descendants have preserved a series of large and very detailed drawings of the lost paintings. We have been able to acquire one last piece from the family's collection, which is an important addition to KBR's fin-de-siècle collection.
Are you also interested in contemporary drawing?
I try to yearly visit several exhibitions of contemporary works on paper. One of my latest discoveries is Stefan Serneels, whose masterly sketchbooks were recently exhibited in the Garage of the Hof van Busleyden Museum in Mechelen: distorted perspectives, bourgeois interiors and unrecognisable figures are recurring elements in his work. In recent years, I have also been fascinated by Philippe Vandenberg's drawings and I closely follow the activities of the foundation that manages the artist's estate.
Drawing has a special place in the history of art. What is your opinion on the importance of this practice throughout history?
Drawing is one of the oldest forms of human expression and communication. It has always been there and always will be. In the Renaissance, the art of drawing was considered the foundation of all artistic activity. The medium allowed artists to develop and refine their creative abilities. In the sixteenth century, the art of drawing also acquired a more intellectual dimension: the medium was no longer considered only as a professional skill, but also as the pre-eminent expression of human inventiveness.
After all, drawings are not only finished products, but also manifestations of the artists' creative process. The drawing equally fascinates as a material object: it is tactile and vulnerable and offers, like no other medium, an intimate insight into the artist's creative quest for new forms and meanings.
More info about the collection of Drawings of KBR:
Home - James Ensor, Masks, © KBR – Prints and Drawings, inv. S.IV 241
1. Daan van Heesch, KBR
2. Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Beggars and Cripples, ca. 1520-1540, © KBR – Estampes et dessins, inv. S.II 133708
3. Antoinette Lubaki, Européen transporté dans un hamac, ca. 1920-1930, © KBR – Prints and Drawings, inv. S.V 12795
4. Félicien Rops, La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1878, © KBR – Prints and Drawings, inv. S.V 86652
5. Hendrick Goltzius, Cruyck vis, 1569, © KBR – Prints and Drawings, inv. S.V 62409