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There’s a venerable old warhorse that’s had its bit and stirrups changed, its saddle sponged and polished, and its mane brushed and plaited. For 10 years Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has been put out to pasture, missing from that stable – Tate, Met, Mori – on the international parade ground of refreshed national museums. The team behind this spruced-up neo-gothic cathedral to Dutch, colonial and international treasures is ready to reopen, to show what they’ve done, how they’ve done it and why it took so damn long.

Our guide is Taco Dibbits, a dynamo in a nice navy suit and with neat Bowie hair who is the director of collections (he walks fast and he talks fast; do try to keep up). The first stop is the main hall, now an open courtyard that’s been redone, reroofed and rethought by Cruz and Ortiz, architects from Seville. The firm must know a bit about light because a decent Dutch winter’s day has been transubstantiated into something, in painterly terms, like an Annunciation, such is the shower of radiance with which we’re greeted. And yes, it is a kind of rebirth.

“There’s so much light now, it’s a whole different mentality,” says Dibbits, looking heavenward toward the glass ceiling and the two huge architectural chandeliers that recall Sol LeWitt sculptures and stop this mega-atrium from feeling like it might float away altogether. “Yes,” says Dibbits, “they stop us feeling like ants.” We would have felt less like ants 10 years ago in these courtyards, when they were merely at ground level. The team dug down beneath sea level to find more space and height, leading Dibbits to a Dutch aphorism on the trouble with building on reclaimed land (chances were there had to be one): “In the Netherlands, as soon as you put a spade in the ground you need a sailor, not a builder.” (There was a lot of water: there are pictures of divers with drills sorting out the floor.)

Now, though, we’re in a serene concave tier of Portuguese stone overseen by a pair of towering new minimalist porticos nudging up stagily to the walls of Pierre Cuyper’s outspoken neo-gothic original. This is a contemporary and grand central space where people will meet, muster and hang out in the largest covered courtyard in Amsterdam, fulfilling what many surmise to be a key sell for museums in the age of screens and earbuds and inward-facing entertainment. “Museums thrive because they’re great social spaces,” says Dibbits, standing beside a bronze nude trussed semi-kinkily in the movers’ fluoro restraints. “You look at people, people look at you, you look at the art. It’s a perfect triangle.”

What art will these people-watching people see? Oh, you know: sculpture from the Middle Ages; 17th-century paintings; 18th-century decorative arts; a bit of everything from the 19th century; 20th-century minimalism and modernism; the zero movement; Romanesques; the baroque; mannerism; gothic; the Renaissance; rococo; classicism; the Italianate; art nouveau; impressionism; romanticism; bronzes; still lifes; Asian art; artefacts from 11th-century churches; Chinese jade burial decorations from the 3rd century BC; Vermeer; Van Gogh; Rembrandt; silverware; Samurai helmets; ceremonial swords; Meissen porcelain; Delft pottery; a tiny potty; a lead-booted diving suit; models of ships; lighthouses; and shoes. “Yes, well, less is more,” says Dibbits. Less? Yes, because despite all that there will be fewer items on display than there were 10 years ago. On opening there will be 8,000 objects in 80 galleries chosen from the one million pieces in the collection. “It was really a case of ‘kill your darlings’,” says Dibbits. Luckily, the director of collections still has 992,000 darlings left to play with.

The rhythm and theatre with which a museum displays its collection, the familiar faces and surprise additions, the thematic displays and the juxtapositions are, in this case, the work of Dibbits and his crew of curators who each oversee a century for the main galleries, grouped chronologically. (Dibbits got the 17th century; the best one, surely? All that Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Dutch golden age… “Well, it was my specialism,” he says with a smile.) The entire collection has been reorganised and will be hung differently; the only painting in the same place – pride of place – is the icon of the Rijksmuseum: Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”. “The whole building is a church to this painting and ‘The Night Watch’ is on the high altar,” says Dibbits as we come to rest in front of the expectant gap where it will hang.

“The Night Watch” is a painting about the Dutch, loved by the world. It’s a painting of burghers taking up arms and riding out to protect their town. The civic militia, in their finery, might be pharmacists, lawyers, merchants; the class that commission artists. Despite the Netherlands being a monarchy, the painting is a bourgeois celebration and the huge canvas is hung in this handsome museum 10 minutes away from where merchants lived and paid for art to be made – and where it was originally bought and displayed during that golden age. It’s a small world, the Netherlands.

The decision was to keep the golden age on the walls, the gilt in the details, the fancy on the frames. The interior has been rethought by a Frenchman called Jean-Michel Willmotte, who did the interior design, the paint job, the lighting and the staging of the works. Here again, 10 years have begotten a fresh approach. There’s not a strip of red velvet wallpaper in the place, not a swag nor a pelmet. The emphasis is on a clean, clear aesthetic that Dibbits jokes about as the “50-shades-of-grey rule”. The forgotten colours of old masters pop against their gunmetal surroundings and sculptures are displayed as if they are a gift (in grey wrapping paper) rather than something being protected. Vitrines are made of an ultra-clear Italian glass and the special collections of more decorative arts and objects are displayed to satisfy Willmotte’s wish that this part of the gallery look like “a jewellery store, a bijouterie”. Of course, a lot of effort goes into making things look so effortless. The smell of paint, the buzz of saws and the burble from labourers’ radios attests to the work among all these works; the foundations beneath the finery.

Irma Boom is a Dutch graphic designer best known for books: design books and artist’s monographs, all beautiful and unusual things. Boom did the signage for the Rothschild Bank in London but other than that she’s new to the game of making an entire visual identity for one of the world’s most famous museums.

“The Rijks have a lot of courage,” she says in her studio on Koninginneweg as she fiddles with some of her more prized items that will soon sell in the Rijksmuseum gift shop – a Bic Biro, notebooks, an extendable umbrella – and that all bear her new Rijksmueum logo with its dedicated typeface and logo realised only in black and white.

Or should that be Rijks Museum? Boom’s logo has a space. You wouldn’t think a space could make people angry but in the Netherlands it did. The Dutch media was full of claim and counter claim about Boom’s awfulness and wonderfulness. “I thought everybody would kill me because of the ‘Ayee’ [the amalgamation of the letters I and J in the logo] but instead everyone went crazy about the space – horrible!” It’s possibly the mark of a civilised society that a change in the way a word is displayed can excite so much passion, but it served as a reminder for Boom that she and all those charged with refiring the old Rijksmuseum had a challenge on their hands.

Best of all are Boom’s deconstructions of the better-known Rijks works as simple stripes of colour for application across the museum’s communications and merchandise. Taking the key palette of Jan Asselijn’s swan, for example: a stripe of white for the bird and the grey of the eggs she protects. Vermeer’s milkmaid has her custard-coloured tunic and blue apron broken down to stripes of colours for gift shop stationery. These more contemporary ways of looking at the colour of the museum’s art for commercial purposes rather than just the figurative reproduction so commonly whacked on brollies and bags led to “battles all the time” but Boom’s victory shows that the old building has new minds within.

Back at the old building, a new one has sprouted in its grounds. The Asian pavilion, says its curator Menno Fitski, is a “quite small building in a corner of the museum garden”. It’s also a wonderful white-walled departure from the main Rijksmuseum but also designed by Cruz and Ortiz.

The Asian collection in itself is worth a trip to Amsterdam. Fitski admits that these are the highlights from a relatively small collection of 365 pieces but they are curated with such humanity, wit and serendipity, and paced in such a natural rather than emphatic way, that you’ll want to walk around the huge and terrifying Japanese temple guardians, slightly spooky buddhas and collection of ravishing kimonos all day. Fitski is a highly educated, softly spoken kid in a candy store with a wonderful turn of phrase on the artefacts and the architecture. “Look at the generous staircase,” he says. “It’s like a white glove leading you off the coach.”

So 10 years on the old warhorse is far too proud to pull a coach, and rightly so. In its new livery with its refreshed collection of masterpieces, lit beautifully and curated with an eye on surprise and, perhaps, an eyebrow slightly arched, it’s a thoroughbred reborn. The Rijksmuseum is intoxicating, clear and considered. It is somehow an unshowy show of quite wonderful work. It is Dutch.

Rijks in numbers

8,000 works of art and objects on display
800 years of Dutch art history
80 galleries

Space invaders

The designer that the Rijksmuseum commissioned to rebrand and refresh them had a bit of a public dust-up over her new logo for that venerable palace of Dutch art and history. Why? Due to a space that some in the media felt was in the wrong place or shouldn’t even be there at all. “The space police said it was wrong,” says Irma Boom of the media maelstrom that greeted her Rijks Museum (the fuddy-duddies thought it should read as the space-free Rijksmuseum). The newspapers and TV news interviewed philologists, etymologists, the man on the Amsterdam omnibus – and many were prepared to be suitably outraged for the reporters. To Boom’s aid rode an unlikely knight: the editor of Van Dale, the Dutch dictionary. The editor said that despite the fact Boom might not know it, she’d stumbled on the correct old-fashioned construction of the name. “I’m not changing the word, I’m not changing the language, I’m just making a logo,” says Boom.

Key works

ca.1640 The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn
1642 The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn
1697 Still life with asparagus, Adraein Coorte
ca.1660 The Milkmaid, Johan Vermeer
ca.1758 Bureau, Abraham Roentgen
1887 Self-portrait, Vincent Van Gogh
1951 L’homme Carré, Karel Appel

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