Drs Kees Kaldenbach, art historian, 29 March 29 2013
After a prolonged period of closing and restoration, nearly 10 years that felt like an eternity, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum will be reopened on Saturday morning 13 April 2013 by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. That same afternoon the building will be open to all visitors. Exceptionally, even for important international art museums, in future it will be open to visitors all year-round, even on Christmas and New Years Day.
Fans are holding their breath. Sneak previews are possible only for the happy few. One week beforehand the Friends and Patrons of the Rijksmuseum will be allowed in (the latter paying a whopping 1000 euros annually). Obviously, the international press also gets full and privileged access to roam, say ooh and ah, and to take notes and some photographs.
Professional TV footage with heavy cameras will be finished by then – because of rules about electric fire and security measures involving microphone boom poles, extra professional minders and firemen have to be present. I was one of those lucky few allowed access to the unfinished museum on 28 March 2013 because the BBC was shooting a TV programme to be broadcast on Monday night, 15 April, in the BBC4 TV series “Openings”.
As I am knowledgeable about Dutch fine arts and Vermeer in particular, I was invited there on-camera to say something expressive and worthwhile about the experience of just being there – back in the main Rijksmuseum building – taking in the scenery for the first time in 10 years. The crew, with interviewer art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon also wanted to probe my feelings on seeing the four Vermeer pictures back in their final space in the Gallery of Honour or “Eregalerij” in the upper central axis of the Rijksmuseum. It boasts distinguished neighbours; Rembrandt’s Night Watch beckons visitors at the far end. A special role was also played by my daughter Suzanne, now aged 25, who has only faint memories of the museum as it was. In 2002 it was a maze of ill-lit corridors in which one could all too easily lose one’s way.
As you can see in these fairly poor photographs (click here to access photographs), the cubicles on either side of this Gallery of Honour are now painted grey, with plain wooden floors. Each cubicle has its own dividing wall. As there is no daylight, the lighting is electric here, with advanced LED lights (of the correct colour temperature), beaming from above.
What forms the real and unexpected WOW-effect is the dazzling set of patterns and colours in the front part of the dividing walls and the neo-gothic church-like upper arched structures. These patterns are especially abundant in the front grand hall with the bright leaded glass with stained glass panels inserted. The colours, murals and patterns all around in that hall, painstakingly slow and meticulously restored, form a dazzling riot. It reminds one of Roman Catholic church interiors from France and the Netherlands in the 1880s. (One can visit a beautifully restored, notable example in the Dutch city of Delft: the Maria van Jesse church.) Garish colours; what Italian art lovers would dismissingly label as a “north of the Alps kind of art, produced for women and children”. The original Rijksmuseum architect, Pierre Cuypers was a proud and fierce Roman Catholic. His daring stylistic choice of Neo-Gothic as the style, led to a public outcry in 1885, well before the opening months of the museum, because the edifice looked much like a “Roman Catholic Archbishop’s palace”. There was a deep feeling of betrayal; old school, nationalist Calvinists and politicians abhorred this stylistic choice, as did the royal House of Orange. For them the core of the Dutch state was essentially Protestant-Calvinist, born out of a struggle against the local ruler (victorious over the King of Spain, in 1648). Therefore, Calvinists became solidly anti-Roman Catholic. As a result of this politicized situation, the Dutch king decided not to be present when the Rijksmuseum building opened in 1885.
We now go fast forward. From 2001 on, the building was gutted, and many paintings have been in storage for as long as 10 years. The best works were still presented here as The Masterworks during that time in the small wing at the south end of the Rijksmuseum building. Superfluous paintings and objects were put in permanent storage or wisely lent out, distributed in many other museums and galleries such as the large Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. Some museums abroad received valuable temporary loans of great masterworks, for instance by Vermeer. Loans form a game played on a high level among museum directors. Loaning a very good painting is useful when new exhibitions are in their preparation phase, and other specific loans are requested.
During my sneak preview I have only seen about 20% of the new building. And what I saw bowled me over. Everything in the Rijksmuseum is now spacious, clean and shiny and brilliant and exciting. One of the amazing architectural design decisions is re-creating the two central voids on the left and right of the building, positioned to the side of the central Gallery of Honour axis. They are now again completely empty and covered by glass in order to let a flood of daylight into many galleries, even down to the basement bookstore level. Thus these bright, light-filled halls are akin to the bright sculpture hall in the Louvre.
Back in the 1950s, these spaces were completely filled with a maze of rooms, clogging the visitor’s natural orientation and hindering obvious pathways.
All the way on top at the front of the building below slanted rooflines, a series of completely new galleries have been opened. I saw only the 20th century gallery containing a 20th century Dutch airplane and a section about De Stijl including Mondrian, WW2 objects and 1930s style rooms.
Basements, formerly unused except for by staff and the heating plant, have also been revamped and are now also filled with art objects.
The stated revolution in the Rijksmuseum presentation policy and style is that furniture as well as art and design objects have now been placed side by side with paintings from the same period. They form each other’s context, backdrop and sphere of influence.
I also saw a throng of trainees, the future new, official museum guides who were being instructed by the museum staff.
Yes, yes, yes, I can hardly wait to see the other 80% of the Rijksmuseum. To revisit my long-lost friends and personal favourites.