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Sunday 24 February 2019

Rijksmuseum | Catching the 397 bus to Rembrandt

See some art, meet some nice people at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum

By Giles Smith

It’s 350 years since Rembrandt died and, as you would expect, there’s a choice of party venues for anyone keen to mark the occasion. You can head to New York for In Praise of Painting – Dutch Masterpieces at the Met, which has 67 pictures from the relevant era, including Rembrandt’s portrait of the painter Gerard de Lairesse. Or (and this, surely, is the smarter step) you can fly to Amsterdam, where the 397 bus from Schiphol Airport will drop you practically on the doorstep of the Rijksmuseum within half an hour. This is where I found myself on a recent Wednesday morning, working my way slowly through All the Rembrandts, which sounds like a bingo call but is, in fact, the gallery’s latest, and rather wonderful, tribute show to the biggest act on its books.

This is the first time the Rijksmuseum has staged a Rembrandt blockbuster since… well, only since 2015, in fact, when the museum broke its own attendance records, and attracted many complaints about overcrowding, by drawing 500,000 visitors to Late Rembrandt. Still, this one is bigger – 60 drawings, 300 prints, 22 paintings… They’re literally throwing everything they’ve got at it. And why not? You’re only 350 years dead once.

Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

As for overcrowding, the place was busy when I went, but not prohibitively so, and it offered, in a series of small, low-lit rooms, uncommonly intimate access to the theatrical self-portraits, to the deeply shadowed drama of The Denial of St Peter and to the touching mysteries of The Jewish Bride. Simon Schama, in Rembrandt’s Eyes, notes how the feel and texture of that latter painting alters wildly “from zone to zone”, the paint having “a fibrous, stringily matted feel” in some parts, but being “muddily coagulate, puddled, dropped and caked” in others, and then “more granular and abraded” in certain parts, except where “clayey and bricklike, as though kiln-roasted.” You need to get close to observe that. And at the Rijksmuseum right now, you can.

And you can also get close to the Rijksmuseum, a place broadly reimagined in recent times. The museum’s extensive refurbishment process was troubled to say the least, but then when did alterations to a major national art institution ever happen quietly? One thinks of the addition of the Sainsbury Wing to the National Gallery and how, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the tendering process for that project seemed to induce a kind of national nervous breakdown, as traumatic as it was unlikely, ushering in an open season for architecture-inspired rage during which even the Prince of Wales was able to insert the phrase “monstrous carbuncle” into the glossary of standard critical terms. But the hysteria, clearly, is a product of what is at stake in these cultural institutions – the sense that what trembles in the balance at these moments of update and rethink is not just the fate of a few pictures but the fate of a country’s whole picture of itself.

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Workers handle the painting ‘The Jewish Bride’ by Rembrandt van Rijn as it is hung in The Rijksmuseum four days before the opening of the exhibition All Rembrandts

Holland was certainly worried for a while. The Rijksmuseum refurb ended up shredding its own schedule and costing an eye-watering €375m. There were unexpected dramas involving asbestos. Cyclists rebelled against plans to close the cycle path that runs through the archway in the centre of the building, separating the east wing from the west – and rebelled successfully, this being Amsterdam. (As the Rijksmuseum’s director of collections told The Guardian in 2013: “The bicycle is folkloric in the Netherlands. Touch the bicycle and you touch freedom”.) As the problems multiplied and the delays accrued, the director resigned and walked away with his head in his hands.

The refurbishment was intended to be completed between 2003 and 2006 but the building ended up being under wraps for a decade. Just 400 of the usual 8,000 objects on display remained sheepishly available for viewing in the Philips Wing during this time. I visited the museum in that period and the sense of being on a building site could not have been more profound if the pictures had been hung in stacked-up Portakabins. Amsterdam was essentially without its major art gallery during this period – and Holland, you could argue, was without a core component of what makes it Holland.

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Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands sets the fireworks and smoke bombs to for the Rijksmuseum Official Opening on April 13, 2013 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Anyway, they got there in the end. In 2013, in a scene that combined regal grandeur and elements of the old children’s television series Trumpton, Queen Beatrix opened the museum by turning a giant bronze key in an improvised lock. It was one of the last things the queen did before abdicating, although there is no particular connection between these two facts. However the sense was strong that, with attitudes altering and funding shrinking, this was last big, bold, government-funded public arts project that Holland would stage for some time – that it would probably be many years before orange fireworks plumed over a lavishly replanned cultural monument, and perhaps they never would again.

The architects – Cruz and Ortiz, from Spain – cleaned out the atrium and opened up the exhibition spaces, removing all the new floors that had been added for offices and storage spaces and, with them, the higgle and piggle that had characterised trips around Pierre Cuypers’ always slightly frustrating 1885 palace. (Cuypers also gave Amsterdam the decidedly un-Euston-like frontage of its Central Station.)

The reorganisation was so extensive that, when it reopened in 2013, only Rembrandt’s The Night Watch remained in the place it had previously occupied. Its forced move in 2003 was the first time this Dutch lodestone had been shifted since the Nazi invasion in the war, when the picture was rolled up and smuggled out of a trap door into the museum’s garden before being taken to the south of the country on a boat. It’s interesting how much of a grip on the imagination these tales of art’s wartime evacuation exert – the Prado’s collection ferried north across the Spain border on a night-train bound for Geneva, the treasures of the National Gallery loaded on to lorries and driven to the safety of an abandoned slate mine in Wales. At these moments the paintings come off the walls and come alive as things in history, survivors. In a sense, art is rarely more alive to us than when it’s being swaddled in sheets and ferried from harm.


Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Just as alluringly, the return of The Night Watch in 2013 involved a climate-controlled crate, cranes and the presence of dozens of policemen, and it now stands as the still point in a collection organised chronologically and in which all the genres must rub along together – painting and sculpture and pewter ware and furniture and the woollen caps worn by 18th-century Dutch whalers, all sharing the same rooms. The idea is to contextualise the art, to give a sense of the lived-in world of objects from which it arose, returning the images to the life that yielded them. It’s a clear-minded concept – logical, even – though it carries the manifest risk of tiring people who, say, like Rembrandt a lot, but have a limited amount of fascination for silver mustard pots, however ornate.

There will be visitors (I number myself among them) who have come pretty determinedly for the paintings and for whom nothing quickens the pace through a room more efficiently than a selection of glass cabinets containing silverware. There will be others for whom the presence of an actual ship’s cannon in all its brassy certainty, in a room containing paintings of ships, will add a layer of fascination and some vital proof. These are matters for personal taste and interest, of course. All I can report from my own hours in the Rijksmuseum is that there will be painted images that live in my memory far longer than that of the small mountain goat made out of jasper which I found myself abstractly contemplating at one point before I came to, and moved on.

Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Satyr and Nymph by Gerard van Honthorst

Also, at one point, I happened upon Gerard van Honthorst’s Satyr and Nymph, which is from 1603 and yet in which the flushed cheeks and aroused smile of the reclining woman could almost, in their shine, be from a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, except that she is topless and happily tugging the satyr’s beard, which is not the kind of thing Rockwell much went in for. Anyway, in accordance with the Rijksmuseum’s mix-and-match philosophy, this uncompromisingly charged image hangs directly next to a cupboard. It’s an ebony veneered cupboard, it’s true. But it’s still a cupboard.

However, these are quibbles and, it’s only fair to note, not widely shared. When the museum reopened, The Daily Telegraph called it “a triumph of curatorial intelligence and sensitivity”. The Wall Street Journal suggested that its approaches were “likely to serve as models for other museums around the world in years to come”. The Herald in Scotland called it “a Harry Potter fantasy”, which they seemed to mean positively. And The Independent contended that the museum “will reach places that other art collections will not. Such as your heart.”

The director of the museum at the time of its revamp was Wim Pijbes, who in an earlier role in Rotterdam had earned a certain amount of notoriety by curating an exhibition of photographs from Dutch Playboy, and who clearly now saw himself on a fearless mission to blow the doors off an institution which he declared had been “almost the Vatican of the Dutch art world”. Pijbes’ instincts were non-institutional – anti-aspic, anti-amber. He can rarely have sounded more Dutch than when he contended: “A museum today is where you can go and see some art, meet some nice people, have a good time, get inspired; this is a place where things happen.”

He then made one of the first acquisitions of the new Rijksmuseum era a buttock-revealing dress by the Dutch lingerie designer, Marlies Dekkers, a leading light in the underwear-as-outerwear movement whose clothes have been worn by Lady Gaga. This attempt to fuse high and, literally, low culture provoked scorn in more conservative quarters of the Dutch art world, but elsewhere only burnished Pijbes’ reputation for, as one supporter put it, “opening the art world to everyone, taking away the silly mystique”.

Does the Rijksmuseum succeed in this ambition of opening art to everyone? Could that be said of any major collection that charges for entry (currently €19 for dual admission to the main collection and the special Rembrandt show)? Also, is mystique only ever silly, or does it sometimes have a value to the viewer of paintings that might be worth protecting? These were questions to mull over as one descended to the floor of its airy new atrium, crossed the marble floor to the stairs and then ascended to the main collection.

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Visitors viewing painting by Johannes Vermeer ‘The Milkmaid’ at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The great pictures of the Dutch golden age now hang on olive-coloured walls along a broad boulevard, attracting a thick and vocal throng. (Unlike the Prado, the Rijksmuseum does not insist on, or even recommend, a meditative hush.) Under maximum pressure was the alcove containing Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, not much bigger than an album cover inside the swelling of its wooden frame. It is hung alongside equally small and detailed interiors by De Hooch and De Witts, which seem almost too tiny to withstand the weight of the scrutiny they are receiving but which, of course, have been toughing it out for years, so will be probably be all right. The museum is generous with its explanatory labelling and the description beside Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter begins: “Enjoying a quiet, private moment…” She is the only person in that alcove who is.

It was even busier around The Night Watch, which has not joined the other Rembrandts in the basement in this anniversary year, but stays where it is, behind two crowd-control barriers, permanently besieged by school parties and photo-hungry tourists, and no wonder. Simon Schama definitively called this picture “a repudiation of flatness” and, in the seemingly bottomless fascination of its drama, it benefits from the company of other artists (Hals, Flinck, Van Der Helst) whose similar commissions, hung alongside, are practically school photography by comparison with the entire play going on in the dark and light of Rembrandt’s group portrait.

Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1648

Away from the boulevard, the mixed-medium approach kicks in, the crowds thin and the intensity dies down altogether. Indeed, the museum seems to peter out in resignation on the top floor with the lightest of chronological rakes through the 20th century, where the effect of the juxtapositions (an early Mondrian, a complete First World War Bantam fighter plane, the jacket worn by a Dutch Jewish woman in a concentration camp in Austria) seems unhelpfully random, to say the least. But a trip dedicated exclusively to the Golden Age boulevard (and all those Rembrandts, while they’re in one place) would be amply worth it.

Back in the atrium, in the airy boutique, which is tastefully semi-obscured below the restaurant, I refreshed my memory at the postcard stand and browsed among the Rembrandt socks, the Rembrandt umbrellas and the Rembrandt sleep masks. It was also possible to buy The Milkmaid redone as a boxed Playmobil set, complete with tiny jug, little plastic loaves, a table and a basket, but perhaps, when assembled, ultimately lacking the minutely realised distinctions between textures and the refined play of light that make Vermeer’s original so expressive.

And then I went for lunch in the Rijks restaurant, where the vibe is airport oyster bar, and where I was shown to my stool at a long, high table by a waitress in a dark uniform designed by Alexander van Slobbe and inspired, according to an explanatory note on the menu, by “the great cafés of yesteryear” (probably not Starbucks). The Rijks restaurant apparently has an emphasis on “slow food” and organic locally sourced product. Vogue in 2016 numbered it among the seven best art gallery restaurants in the world, commending its North Sea gurnard and its “swede cabbage steak”, which, if nothing else, seemed to form a robust contrast with the “chocolate grand cru with caramel fondant and salted butter” on offer at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which Vogue also hymned.

A further, and slightly defensive, explanatory note on the Rijks menu said: “Honest and pure, Dutch cuisine is certainly not dull and boring, on the contrary, it is exciting.” I ordered a coffee, which, when it came, was honest and pure, and (not especially being in the mood that lunchtime for gurnard or cabbage) a pastrami sandwich on sourdough multigrain bread which, being Dutch cuisine, was certainly not dull and boring but, on the contrary, was exciting. It was also excitingly priced at €11, although one doesn’t imagine the chocolate grand cru with caramel fondant and salted butter at the Fondation Louis Vuitton comes in at much less.

Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Still, it’s a nice place to sit and watch the bikes go by, pedalling silently between the two atriums in the glass-encased cycleway – an exhibit in itself, the essence of Amsterdam behind glass. They were bikes of all kinds, too, ridden by people of all ages. No helmets, no Lycra. It was all a long way from the the mildly depressing homogeneity and permanent competitive hum of London’s cycling culture – haunted commuters with GoPros and £1,000 road bikes. You could, one realised, insert a cycle path through the middle of the National Gallery but it would quickly become a racetrack for office workers bearing FitBits and anger issues. Some things are probably best left to Amsterdam.

It was also a nice place to sit and think again about Wim Pijbes’ casual proposition: see some art, meet some nice people, have a good time, get inspired. Perhaps that is the model proposition for a visit to a major museum in the 21st century – as much as one could hope for. Or is it, in fact, the least we should be demanding? See some art, meet some nice people, have a good time, get inspired. Is that so much to ask? At the Rijksmuseum it may even be possible.