Magazine article The Spectator

Going Dutch

Magazine article The Spectator

Going Dutch

Article excerpt

Harry Mount on the reopenning of the Rijksmuseum

Hallelujah! The minimalist fashion for dreary acres of white walls is coming to an end. During the long decade that the Rijksmuseum has been closed - it was only supposed to be shut for three years - the taste for colourless voids has come and, please God, is going.

Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the designer behind the museum's new interior decoration, is obsessively anti-white. It kills anything on show, he says - that's why he's gone for a series of hangings of bluegrey shades as the background for objects and paintings. Occasionally, the fine gauze over the windows gives the place a touch of sepulchral gloom, but that's a minor gripe.

The sombre colours work, lingering backstage, not swamping the pictures. And so does a massive new rehang, which has two main elements to it.

First, there has been a cull: now only 8,000 objects, out of a total of nearly a million in the collection, can be seen. Second, the floors have been reconfigured as an easy-to-understand, chronological route:

medieval on the ground floor, 18th and 19th centuries on the first, 20th on the third, and the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age on the second floor.

Only the most energetic aesthete could claim that 8,000 works of art aren't enough to keep them going. And no one could claim the new arrangement is worse than the old cluttered dingy Rijksmuseum. The redesign is a palate-cleaner, an invigorating renaissance, rather than a revolution. The one unabashed modernist addition is the freestanding pale-stone-and-glass Asian Pavilion in the gardens - its small scale means it takes little away from the exterior of the original French Gothic Revival museum, built by Pierre Cuypers in 1885.

A vast new light-flooded atrium has been excavated by the Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz under the most expensive bicycle path on earth. The whole restoration has cost £320 million and a lot of that has been spent on appeasing the Fiestsersbond, the Dutch Cyclists' Union, who insisted they should continue whizzing along the road that bisects the museum. That meant digging down to the waterlogged piles on which much of Amsterdam rests - the lowest point of the museum is nearly 30 feet below sea level. The new concrete floors had to be cast at lightning speed, because the piles can only be exposed for two days before they start to rot.

In all the chopping and changing, only one picture has remained in the same spot as before: Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch', pleasingly drenched in natural light, in pride of place at the end of the Eregalerij, the Gallery of Honour. The room was purpose-built for 'The Night Watch' in 1906 - here there was no need to improve on its setting.

If you had only half an hour to see some of the best pictures in the world, you could do worse than walk the Eregalerij, with its Rembrandts, Vermeers, Steens and Halses.

Among the Rembrandts is his 1654 portrait of Jan Six, still owned by the Six family of Amsterdam, and only occasionally on public view. The familiar thickly layered complexion of a Rembrandt face gives way to some astonishingly free light detail on Six's cloak, dashed off, even, but dashed off with genius. The blockish grey of his tunic is altogether different, an extremely avant-garde Manetesque chunk of colour. …

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