Amsterdam Phoenix

The Rijksmuseum used to be the dullest of the major European collections. It looked as though Ursula Hoff had painted all the pictures. An air of dowdiness hung over the massive building and crowded collections where the good and the great indiscriminately mixed in with the mediocre in warren-like galleries with an over-supply of the decorative arts.

After years of ‘recuperation’, as the Spanish architects Cruz and Cortiz call their work, the ‘new’ Rijks has risen phoenix-like to give the most compelling account of its national school. The transformation came neither easily nor cheaply at 375 million euros and a shuttered museum for a decade.

The building has triumphantly regained its masterpiece status and restores Amsterdam to its rightful place at the centre of the northern European narrative. The Rijks has reclaimed its crucial urban presence. When Pierre Josef Cuypers’ building opened in 1885, it was the largest structure to be built in the city since 1648, when Jacob van Campen’s Town Hall/Royal Palace on the Dam reshaped the Gothic port city. The Rijks forms the southern bookend to Cuypers’ equally spectacular Centraal Station on the northern edge, a neo-Gothic massif, functioning perfectly in the twenty-first century.

When the city authorities granted the land for the new museum in 1876, they stipulated that the Rijks form a gateway to the old city from the burgeoning nineteenth-century suburbs beyond. It forced on Cuypers one of the most distinctive elements of his design: a roadway known as The Passage runs right through the street level of the building, now open only to pedestrians, the legion of bicyclists, and the ubiquitous moped. The Passage divided the museum into two wings, each surrounding a courtyard with a glazed canopy. Inevitably over time, these courtyards were requisitioned for additional gallery space, offices, storage, and other institutional clutter. They squandered the building’s magnificence.

PassagewayRijksmuseum Passageway (photograph by Pedro Pegenaute).
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum

As they undertook their rehabilitation of the Rijks, Cruz and Cortiz took as their rallying cry ‘forward with Cuypers’. They cleaned out the courtyards and linked them for the first time by excavating a space under The Passage. At last the Rijks has an entrance worthy of its grandeur. Under the glass canopy, the Spanish architects suspended a large and extraordinary ‘chandelier’, a gigantic Sol Le Witt-like structure, augmenting the daylight and shaping the acoustic. Northern light now beckons the pilgrim into this high palace of art.

‘The museum was conceived as a work of art to house works of art. (How often has that aspiration in museum design fallen pitiably short?)’

Two massive stone staircases lead you to the richly decorated Entrance Way, now restored to its primal glory. Cuypers, together with an enlightened minister for the arts, Victor de Stuers, planned an elaborate program of decoration in stained glass, murals, sculpture, and inscriptions which commemorate the liberal arts and the history of the Netherlands. The museum was conceived as a work of art to house works of art. (How often has that aspiration in museum design fallen pitiably short?)

An amusing wrinkle to this ambitious program showed up early. Both Cuypers and de Stuers were Catholics from the south. Their painted histories of the Netherlands stopped before the Reformation. That and the prominence of the stained glass in Gothic traceries, the external towers and spires earned the Rijks the reputation of being a Catholic Building. Willem III, the reigning sovereign, refused to enter the museum because it was ‘too Catholic looking’.

True to a well-nigh universal reaction, much of these nineteenth-century decorations were painted over, whitewashed and even chipped away in the wake of modernism. The recuperated Entrance Hall once again forms a flamboyant prologue to the Gallery of Honour housing the masterpieces of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. For there is no mistaking that this too is part of the recuperation. The Rijks was built to contain the national collection of that age, and to that clear focus they have returned.

‘Such an emphasis on pictorial quality is as brave as it is refreshing in a captious age, when considerations of gender, race, and class can trump the steeliest of aesthetes.’

Rembrandt is the unquestioned hero of the building. As you enter the Gallery of Honour, The Nightwatch tantalises the eye fifty metres away. The six broad bays, once screened off with heavy curtains, thankfully discarded, are impeccably hung on slate blue walls. Monographic rooms for Hals and Vermeer/de Hooch give way to thematic ensembles, Ruisdael and Landscape, Steen and Genre. Only the major work makes it to this Pantheon of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Such an emphasis on pictorial quality is as brave as it is refreshing in a captious age, when considerations of gender, race, and class can trump the steeliest of aesthetes.

The transit from the ebullience of Frans Hals bay, with his confidence in the world of fact and appearance, to the room of late Rembrandt – The Syndics, The Jewish Bride, Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul – is to undergo a deep sea voyage of the mind. Hals lets Isaac Abramhamsz Massa lean back and makes his wife, Beatrix van der Laen lean forward, her hand loosely draped on his shoulder, thus forming a balance of equality and a bond of intimacy. A Garden of Love with temple and fountain extends behind their bower of bliss. Here courtly love transforms to bourgeois marriage with the viewer taken into their confidence and confident view of the world.

Rembrandt, disconcertingly, makes the spectator part of the subject of his Syndics. All of them save the chairman of the Stahlmeesters turn to confront the viewer as though you had blundered into their room in the Staalhof where they were adjudicating the quality of cloth samples. With Hals you look delightedly at a work of art; with Rembrandt, the work of art scrutinises you.

Night-Watch-GalleryThe Night Watch Gallery (photograph by Iwan Baan).
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum

And then you pass into the Rembrandtzaal and the crowding glory of The Nightwatch. We all know so much about this painting: that its present title was given to it in the eighteenth century, and that the Militia Company of District II are not really active city guards but a gentlemen’s association who liked dressing up, drinking, and parading in one another’s company: that the bearded man in the red sash who advances towards us is Captain Frans Banning Cocq and that he is ordering Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh ‘to move the company out’. Whereas Rembrandt’s predecessors and contemporaries had depicted such companies like the First XI at Haileybury, he gives Banning Cocq’s militia the noise and animation of a military manoeuvre. We know that these are gentlemen soldiers and that sixteen of them paid Rembrandt to be included. The polite view remains that The Nightwatch pays tribute to the civic virtues where citizens voluntarily marshal and protect the city. Maybe. The Nightwatch makes more sense as an opera buffa, replete with its noisy drummer, waving standard bearer and wild child running through the group. The Nightwatch is closer to Dogberry’s watch than the Coldstream Guards. The comic ripples through the work. All those shaking halberds and meddling with muskets suggest that this Nightwatch is more of a menace to itself than the foes of Amsterdam. Captain Banning Cocq is a preposterous military figure. As Christopher White drily remarked, he was ‘a wealthy and ambitious man without occupation who lived in an unusually grand house on the Singel …’

The smaller satellite galleries are no less satisfying. The decorative arts are marvellously interwoven into the pictorial collection, spectacularly in the case of the maritime gallery. Nor can I recall ever seeing early Rembrandt so tellingly shown as he is here with that unnerving mix of insight and virtuosity. The eighteenth-century galleries mimic Amsterdam in that century: polite, provincial, inconsequential, and without customers.

The crowds pick up sharply in the nineteenth-century galleries. The Dutch love their Hague School as Melbourne loves the Heidelberg School. The big discovery was George Breitner, a direct contemporary of Van Gogh’s; they sketched together before the inevitable falling out and mutual denunciation. Breitner’s gritty take on Amsterdam circa 1900 deserves to be much better known beyond his native grounds.

The disappointment of the nineteenth-century rooms is the token representation of Van Gogh with one of those irritating pieces of japonaiserie, a taut, Paris period self-portrait and a late Auvers landscape where he is clearly stumbling over his brush. It is no excuse to point to the Van Gogh Museum 300 metres from the Rijks’s back door. Van Gogh was at their feet and they could have bought a prime collection, as the Kroller-Muller did in Otterlo or the Folkwang in Essen. It is the one dark spot in the glow of the Rijks account of the Golden Age of Dutch painting.

Published in March 2014 no. 359
Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey, formerly Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, and the Yale Center for British Art, is the author of Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs (2006) and edited Bert & Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan (2006). He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review. He lives and works on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in New Haven.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.