A New Light On Old Masters
Photography Rene Van Der Hulst
The Rijksmuseum stands like a Renaissance/Gothic giant overlooking Amsterdam’s grass court of culture, Museum Square. To the south, the museum faces 19th-century Amsterdam. To the north, it borders the canal belt of the 17th-century Golden Age.
Its collection spans eight centuries of Dutch art and many paintings and drawings focus on Amsterdam. Back in the 1600s, the city was the centre of the world for an entire generation. A short walk away, you find yourself in the heart of the city where artists like Rembrandt lived and worked.
The museum is generally recognised as one of the top ten major museums in the world. It houses 1.1 million objects and is renowned for the best work from painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen and Frans Hals. Next to the immaculately restored Grand Hall, they hang timelessly in the Gallery of Honour, which has Rembrandt’s Nightwatch mounted like an altar at the far end.
But art and history have taken on new meaning in the Rijksmuseum. After a renovation that took an unexpected ten years, what was once a somewhat stuffy space has been given new life. It is now a state-of-the-art museum with 80 exhibition rooms and novel presentations for an expected two million visitors a year (compared to 200,000 when it opened in 1885). An expanded 20th century collection has pieces as diverse as a Rietveld chair and a 1918 biplane.
Wim Pijbes is the dynamic director of the Rijksmuseum and the man responsible for taking new directions. Writer of a children’s book about painting (Het Kleine Schilderboek), he is visually led, a lateral thinker, communicative and an experienced museum manager. Born in Veendam, Groningen, half a century ago, he studied art history, specialising in modern architecture, and was director of Rotterdam’s Kunsthal before taking over at the Rijksmuseum.
When he became Rijksmuseum director in 2008, Pijbes says that his priorities were development and education. "I set up a new department of eight people focussed on much-needed funding from sponsors and private sources, particularly people with Dutch links in New York and California," he says. "I am not busy with buying a lot of new art. We already have treasure here. My challenge is how to stimulate people and match the spirit of the times."
He explains: "In the past, you had conventional categories in the museum, like applied art, painting or foreign history. These elements are no longer displayed in separate rooms but now form a single chronological circuit, built around a central atrium. Visitors walk through the history of The Netherlands from the Middle Ages to Mondrian in the 20th century. During the journey, you will see a display of painting, furniture, tapestry, ceramics, glass, costumes, tableware and other objects that relate to a specific period in history and ending about a generation ago. A sense of time combines with a sense of beauty. A century comes to life on every floor. It is an art journey through time. No other major museum has taken this approach. We are a museum where art and history merge."
The renovation dates back to 1999, when the Dutch government awarded the Rijksmuseum a millenium gift of €100 million. The Seville architects Cruz and Ortiz won the competition for the Rijksmuseum project which, after many setbacks, finally cost €375 million.
"The architects respected the original exterior design of Pierre Cuypers’ symmetrical building that combined Renaissance and Gothic styles in the 1870s. But the interior was completely transformed. Floors have been taken away to create a magnificent entrance hall with grand cafe and shop," says Pijbes.
Entering the voluminous atrium today is an uplifting experience. It extends from below ground level to a glass roof that lets natural light flood in. Entrance to the museum is via the pillared passage that runs through the building, north to south. "The passage was once a tunnel and is now an open area. I plan to hold events in the passage, like a concert during the Holland Festival this summer," says the director. "All offices and storage have been moved out of the museum. We have created new visitor-friendly space. People will no longer have to queue in the street to get in."
The total time for construction, ten years, was grossly underestimated. It began in 2003 and was planned to finish in 2008. "The whole building project was more complex than anticipated," says Pijbes, who followed Ronald de Leeuw as director in 2008. "National, municipal and European building and tendering rules and regulations intensified during the last decade. The construction time and permits required for such a vast project were initially also underestimated. Remember that restoration of the Prado in Madrid and the Uffici in Florence also took ten years."
Pijbes suggests that the delay, though undesirable, had positive implications. "We have made use of the latest technology developed in recent years," he says. "We take advantage of smartphones and WiFi, and we are the first museum to install 3,500 of Philips latest third-generation LED lamps. In addition, we have a new pavilion for Asian art, the largest art library in The Netherlands, and a restoration studio, all with state-of-the-art facilities."
"We are more than a museum," says Pijbes. "At every moment of the day and night around the world, someone is looking at a Rembrandt or another Old Master – in reality, in a book or online. With this in mind, we developed the Rijks Studio. Everyone who has a mobile phone has a camera today. And at the Rijks everyone is free to take photographs and make videos. Only no flash is permitted. So iconic images are more and more available worldwide. Accepting that, we think it logical that people should therefore be free to put the images on websites and share them via new media. So they become more and more iconic".
Some 133,000 images have been digitized and are available, free, on the Rijks Studio website, with no copyright restrictions. "You simply type in a subject, say ‘children’, ‘flowers’, ‘hair’, ‘blue’ or ‘dresses’, whatever theme you like, and you get images to choose from. This is revolutionary in the museum world. In fact, I have started something that the museum world has been traditionally against. But I believe it is the way forward. It is radical. The New York Times calls it ‘stunning’." Perhaps most remarkable is that these images are free to print. Simply take your favourite Rembrandt or Vermeer, and print it on anything from a T-shirt to a car.
While the Rijksmuseum leads in some ways, Pijbes has also drawn inspiration from other museums. Art ‘events’ like those held at the Tate Modern in London and MoMA in New York will be on the Rijksmuseum agenda soon, he predicts.
"Gardens can also be important parts of museums," he says. "Until now the garden of the Rijksmuseum was given no function. We are now cultivating it into a unique outdoor, child-friendly sculpture garden, blending with Dutch history. In the green house we will be growing slow food, vegetables, fruit and herbs. You find a lot of them in paintings and on your plate in the Rijksmuseum restaurant."
Then there is Rijksmuseum Drawing School: "The best way to learn to draw is simply to look at how great artists drew and then draw yourself. First see, then do. The Drawing School is a multidisciplinary education centre where creative talents can develop in a variety of media, inspired by the Rijksmuseum collection."
Pijbes maintains that he has no personal favourite works in the Rijksmuseum collection. "Installing exhibitions, I see new things every day," he says. "For instance, we have just uncovered an enormous collection of very old keys. You may think this laughable but, believe me, they are beautiful in their own right. You may have seen 20 Rembrandts. But together with keys? I doubt it."
Pijbes is now working on a book, The Golden Age and You. As in his earlier children’s book, it is image-led. "My first book was an attempt to bring art closer to children," he says. "I also want to do that with the new Rijksmuseum. Bring the art closer to everyone in a fresh and friendly way. And now is the time."
The man has a broad vision of what constitutes collecting. "In fact everything is collectable," he feels. By mixing and matching the Rijksmuseum collection, Pijbes is crossing borders that have not been explored by major museums.
The new Rijksmuseum is the first major national museum in the world to be open to the public 365 days a year. And it is opening doors not only to a unique collection, but to ways that art and history can be perceived and communicated to all ages. In the director’s words: "Old Masters for modern times."