Sometime after the tsunami swept into Japan, destroying everything in its path, Vermeer’s painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter was loaned to the Sendai City Museum. The authorities at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam felt it was important to make the gesture — to show that art can bring solace in the most painful times. In a journey around the world which began in October of last year, the still, enigmatic figure — what is the message in the letter she holds? — went to the new China Art Museum, on to the heady extrovert world of Brazil and the Museu de Arte Sao Paulo before completing her journey at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
It was a trip that combined altruism with a hard sell — that her home, the Rijksmuseum, was due to reopen after ten years of renovation on April 13. Everything about the place has changed since she last hung on the walls in 2003 when the museum was closed for the work. Optimistically, it was planned to be back in business by 2006 and, more optimistically, the original budget was many million euros less than the eventual €375 million (Dh1,797 million).
Perhaps that is hardly surprising. Building in Amsterdam, with its canals, has been a mighty engineering feat for millennia — astonishingly the lowest point of the museum is 8.65 metres below sea level. Nevertheless, the project cannot be faulted for its ambition. A huge atrium has been created to link together two courtyards and the 19th-century decorations conceived by the architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) have been restored. The atrium, which covers 24,000 square metres, is the design of the Spanish architectural practice of Cruz y Ortiz, which won the project in a competition in 2001. They have done away with what Antonio Ortiz described as “the dark, dim, labyrinthine galleries”, with their partition walls and false ceilings that had that clogged the two courtyards, and replaced them with a space which is clear, bright and white. It connects the two courtyards by going underneath the cycle track.
The cycle track! When the museum was built in 1885 it was decreed that a gate should be incorporated in it to allow a direct route out of the city to the fields beyond. Ever since, walkers, cyclists, Vespa riders and, for a while, trams have made their way under the arches and right slap bang through the middle of the building. The latest plan had been to use the space as the main entrance but the cycling lobby in Amsterdam is as ferocious in the councils of power as it is on the streets. The cycle track stayed.
The decision has clearly peeved Museum Director Wim Pijbes, who told the United Kingdom’s premier art magazine Apollo: “Cyclists are a kind of holy cow in the Netherlands and cycling is a very emotional subject that shows the Dutch character at its optimum. There is no traffic need for the cycleway — it doesn’t get you anywhere faster. It is being kept open for sentimental reasons, because it is nice.” The museum has won a reprieve for the first four months of its new incarnation with an agreement that the track be used by pedestrians only. Maybe when the expected two million visitors a year see the deleterious effect this has on the art on display the cyclists will see sense and surrender this admittedly elegant, definitely eccentric, shortcut.
Certainly there was huge interest in the Netherlands at the renovation. Queen Juliana opened the museum as one of the last acts of her reign before she abdicates later this month. Quite a contrast to her predecessor King Willem II, who snubbed the opening, calling the museum an “archbishop’s palace”. The queen did not have the time to visit all 80 galleries with its 8,000 works of art gathered over 800 years, but she did see what Cuypers envisaged. His dream was a cathedral to the arts, with mosaic floors, stained-glass windows and murals celebrating famous artists and philosophers, the sturdy virtues of hard work and achievement.
But even when it was opened, the building, a red-brick fantasy of spires with touches of neo-Renaissance here and neo-Gothic there was out of kilter with the spartan attitudes of the people of the day with their uncluttered Protestant ethic. In fact, it was already dated for the time — the Eiffel Tower in Paris, that symbol of architectural minimalism was built only one year later. By the 1950s, when modernist sensibilities held sway, the murals and decorations were considered altogether too florid, too intrusive on the art they framed, and were covered with white paint.
But now the mosaic floors are back, the murals repainted, albeit in slightly subdued tones, the stained-glass windows sparkling. Technology of the 21st-century plays a part. The lighting which beams evenly through the skylights is electric and spotlights pick out the individual works. Each floor is colour-coded; light grey on the top floor where the 20th-century art is displayed darkening to a moody blue for the medieval artefacts and the collections on what is now the atrium level. Nowhere is the Cuypers concept more evident than in the Grand Hall, once a dingy ticket office, now a spectacular space which leads to the Gallery of Honour. This colonnaded “nave” presents the greats of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century: works by Frans Hals (1582-1666), such as the Portrait of a Couple (1622) and The Merry Drinker (1628); Van Dyck’s ravishing Still Life with Cheese (1615); Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1657), poised as if chary of wasting a drop; and a self-portrait of Rembrandt as the Apostle Paul (1661). Dramatic scenes by Willem van de Velde II remind us that the Netherlands was a mighty sea power.
Despite the grandeur of the gallery the number of paintings on the walls has been drastically reduced by rigorous curating — 5,000 works remain in storage. Instead of the salon-style display, with paintings reaching the ceiling as they did before, the works are shown in a simple, single row, all at eye level against a metalgrey backdrop. The display lets the paintings do the talking. Dominating all is Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642). Just as the Paris Louvre has the Mona Lisa and the Uffizi in Florence Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to whom the crowds gravitate, Rembrandt’s mighty work is at the end of the “nave” like an altar, director Pijbes says. It is the only work in the entire new museum which is in the same place as it was before.
The two wings that spread from Rembrandt’s swaggering watchmen contain the art of the 17th century, the time of the greatest military, commercial and artistic glory. The floor below is given over to the artists of 1700-1800 but these are split by the cycleway. It requires a lift or a climb of several flights of stairs to cross from, say, the enormous (5.8 by 7 metres) Waterloo (1824) by Jan Willem Pieneman to the subversive prints of Cornelis Troost, such as Pretended Virtue Exposed (1743) which portrays a woman shedding false tears as her husband departs while her lover hovers in the background.
Some Dutch TV reports reckoned there is not enough Dutch history on show — after all it is a museum of history — but in fact the galleries have been arranged chronologically rather than by genre to illustrate what was happening and being created at particular times. One room has a portrait of the young Rembrandt painted in 1628 by Jan van Lievens (1607-74). There is silverware by Johannes Lutman (1584-69), including a stupendous ewer and basin showing Ceres (Earth) triumphing over Neptune (sea) and a cupboard of oak, ebony and mother-of pearl by Herman Doomer. They both had their portraits painted by Rembrandt.
Bartholomeus van der Heist captures the big news of the time with Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Hall in Celebration at the signing of the Treaty of Munster (1648), which reminds us that the Netherlands and Spain had been at war for many years. The men pass around a drinking horn and they are happy and confident — a mood that is captured time and again in the paintings of the era. There are collections comprehensive enough to be small museums themselves, with rooms of Delft pottery and Meissen china, weaponry, models of ships through the ages, and Renaissance art.
Few tell the story of the permanent threat to the country from the sea better than two altar pieces from 1491—TheElizabeth Day Flood. One shows villagers fleeing a tsunami as it destroys their churches and floods their fields, killing many, while the other shows them on dry land, ready to build a new life. They are part of the Dutch story—along with Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer — and it is one the new museum tells with style and panache. Maybe that is the message The Woman in Blue took on her tour of the world.
Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.