The New Rijks: Consecrating the Museum in the 21st Century
A range of factors explain the ebbs and flow of attendance at art museums. General interest exhibits or renowned artworks on display can generate enthusiasm,but perhaps one of the most exciting events is the unveiling of a new museum itself. On April 13, 2013, following 10 grueling years of unpredictable delays, the Rijksmuseum opened its doors to an anxious crowd of nearly 20,000 visitors. They came to pay homage to their beloved Dutch masters Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals,Bartholomeus van der Helst, and Johanne Vermeer. In March more than 100,000 people gathered at St. Peter’s Square for the installation of Pope Francis; in Amsterdam however, tribute was directed at painting and architecture. One painting in particular has been the source of great national pride for the Dutch; Wim Pijbes,the Rijksmuseum’s director, has gone so far as to call Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” (1642) the “altarpiece” of the museum. To understand the language that many people, especially Mr. Pijbes, have come to use for describing this secular institution is to understand the history of the Rijksmusem and how such language can serve larger political goals in the museum world.
Renovations were carried out under the motto “Continue with Cuypers” (the building’s original architect) with the aim that the new Rijksmuseum would be “restored to future glory.” Entering the Rijkmuseum through a neo-Gothic underpass, you look out from this historic wing to the pristine open spaces of the contemporary courtyards. Under the tall, ribbed ceiling, you have the sense you are standing in the threshold of both the old and the new Rijksmuseum. It becomes clear just how meticulous and painstaking the endeavor has been: the two courtyards that flank the entryway are illuminated by monstrous multi-tiered brass top-lights that extract the air from the public square below. Beneath these massive chandeliers,people usher into the ticket booths, information desks, bookstore, restaurant and other modern museum facilities.
Much of the chatter in the courtyard is over the standing of the Rijksmuseum in relation to other international museums. Those fortunate enough to have visited some of these world-renowned institutions will note the contrast of the Rijksmuseum to the palatial feel of the Louvre or the Neoclassical splendor of other
national galleries. The brickwork and Neo-Renaissance towers of the Rijksmuseum more resemble the largely abandoned churches of the north—where bell towers protrude from every passing townscape. It is often suggested that art museums have replaced the church as vessels for conveying the values of a society. The church was
once the greatest source of pride for towns. Cities would compete for the highest tower, prized relics, and commission the most elusive artists and architects, occasionally resulting in the colossal shattering of architectural egos—quite literally.The christening of the new Rijksmuseum by Queen Beatrix illustrates how the
museum has become one of greatest forms of patriotism today.
After 10 years, the newly-restored museum is certainly an inspiring architectural feat, much of it very close to the original design of Pierre Cuypers. Walls have been peeled back to reveal warm, saturated colors, flooring restored, and wall murals rehung. To appreciate the level of achievement is to recognize its artisticharmony. Cuypers was a devout Catholic who devoted every waking moment to its construction. The Grand Hall, which has been almost completely restored to Cuypers’s plan, consists of terrazzo floors, stained glass and wall paintings depicting allegorical scenes of civic virtue. Cuypers had knowledge of many religious texts
which informed his process for erecting churches, and integrated these elements into the ornamentation and interior design of the Grand Hall. The architectural framework, with features like terrazzo floors that signify the physical aspect, the murals and windows, the social aspect, and the arched zone of the hall representing the intellectual aspect, draws on the construction of sacred space within a church.
The unfortunate history of the Rijksmuseum came soon after its completion, in what was ultimately the style’s struggle against the forces of modernism. Incidentally, the pattern echoes from further back in history. Like the desecration of cathedrals, including the nearby Oude Kerk during the Iconoclastic fury, the beautifully painted imagery in the Grand Hall and bright blue hues of the Night Watch gallery were removed and painted white 30 years following the building’s completion in 1885. The walls of the Gallery of Honor, an arcade of galleries delicately painted in golds, reds and greens, leading into the Night Watch gallery,were marred in whitewash by new directors with a modern vision.
In the early 20th century, when the directors decided to move the “Night Watch,” they altered the museum’s layout, splicing up rooms and losing the northern and southern symmetry Cuypers had designed, now reinstated. The 20th-century shift is not unlike the modification of cathedrals for Protestant worship, which entailed the destruction of images, moving the baptistery, and shattering of stained glass windows. It was not until the 18th century, after the formation of the Dutch Republic, that Catholics in the North were granted religious freedom to conduct services in public rather than in the clandestine spaces of private attics (an incident
again repeated with regard to one posthumous girl). When the brushes came out in the Rijksmuseum and the colors washed away, viewers were left with an aestheticized atmosphere critics and curators deemed “neutral,”a trend depicted several times over in works hanging in the museum, though created centuries earlier at a time when church architecture was a popular genre in painting.
The sterilization of churches during the Reformation left in its wake a new whitewashed, minimalist space, replacing the ornate sacred space of the past with a new aestheticized vision of itself. It is of no surprise therefore, that in the competition for expressing a state’s cultural heritage, the original call for beautifully decorated interiors would do better than a more fundamentally grounded style. The new Rijksmuseum dubbed a “temple of nationalistic art” has the monumentality, the vibrant interior, and the latest in LED lighting, magnificently highlighting the artworks of the Dutch Golden Age. The collection is displayed chronologically, intermingling sculpture, painting and curiosity galore. The return to the original style blended with contemporary features, including a new Asian wing and a fresco of black stars by Richard Wright, signals a new way of seeing the Dutch past. Mr.Pijbes had hoped to transform the Vatican-like reputation of the museum. There is a cartoon from July 15, 1885 of Cuypers and his partners kneeling before the
Rijksmuseum during the investiture; it’s a reminder of the blood, sweat and tears Cuypers poured into the building. Mr. Pijbes may reject the religious tie of the building, but even as a secular space there is no denying the hold of Cuypers’s sacred formula. Buried beneath layers of white paint, was the key to the architect’s powerful past and the building’s future glory.