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Global Issue 15

Arena Arts Dutch renaissance It’s overdue and over budget, but the reborn Rijksmuseum leaves its admirers overjoyed Simon Calder ‘And about time too!’ – perhaps Queen Beatrix did not mutter these exact words under her breath as she re-opened the Rijksmuseum on 13 April 2013. Yet had she done so, no doubt a murmur of agreement would have rippled across the Netherlands. When the heartland of the nation’s heritage closed in 2003, the Dutch public (as well as guidebook writers like me) were assured the Rijksmuseum would re-open after three years of refurbishment. The people, as it turned out, were to be deprived of their national treasure-house for a full decade. Unbelievably, transit passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport got to see more than the average citizen, since a smattering of artistic “greatest hits” were on show adjacent to pier E at Schiphol airport – there is still a presence there that I recommend you check out next time you check in. Meanwhile, the crown jewels around which the Rijksmuseum was created – including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch – shivered for years in a cramped annexe, the Phillips Wing, adjacent to the most depressing building site in Europe. As a visitor with a great fondness for Amsterdam, I felt the absence sorely. Year after year, I peered plaintively beyond the scruffy hoardings at the sorry sight of a 19th-century architectural triumph sitting out the new millennium. Resuscitating the Rijksmuseum took three times as long as planned, and the original €45 million budget ballooned eight-fold to €375 million. Yet when the structure was fi nally unwrapped by Her Majesty, acclaim echoed the length of the Gallery of Honour and around the globe. “All is forgiven,” the world seemed to say. So how did that happen, when the typical overdue, over-budget mega-project attracts only derision? What is it about this particular collection that all the disruption to traffi c and tourism is so easily forgiven? Let’s start with the Netherlands perspective. The original architect, Pierre Cuypers, was the second choice to build a home for the state’s art collection on the fringe of the city; the winner of an open competition to design a new gallery was German, whose nationality was deemed to disqualify him. So the Dutchman triumphed. He took a sombre and formal Romanesque design and enlivened it with English and French gothic fl ourishes. The result: a chateau for the arts that bestowed the south of Amsterdam with gravitas and grace. Even more important than the grand structure was the inventory. The Rijksmuseum was the fi rst proper home for the national collection of Golden Age art. Until it opened in 1885, the Dutch people had no proper shrine to the Old Masters – the painters who transformed art as dramatically as Dutch mariners changed the world during the 17th century. The Rijksmuseum provided a palace for the proper appreciation of the artists’ exquisite interpretations of life. While the Louvre may boast the Venus de Milo, the French have no direct cultural connection with the fi gure; and the Parthenon Sculptures mean much more to the Greek people than to the British, in whose leading museum the “Elgin Marbles” hap- Rijksmuseum as seen from Singelgracht canal 54 l www.global -br ief ing.org thi rd quar ter 2013 global Iwan Baan/Rijksmuseum


Global Issue 15
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