The only Dutch art you need ever see

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is marking its bicentenary with a blockbuster exhibition. But is bigger really better?
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The Independent Online

The Netherlands were once the scene of iconoclastic fury. It was in the winter of 1566 that the churches and their idolatrous images were attacked. You can still see the traces. In one of the early rooms of the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, there's a group of devotional pictures representing the Seven Works of Charity. But look at the faces (iconoclasts often go for faces): the painted wood is criss-crossed with scratches and gouges, with quite large pieces taken out. And these pictures got off lightly. Of course, there can never be any excuse for violence. But sometimes those old iconoclasts seem to have had a point.

The Netherlands were once the scene of iconoclastic fury. It was in the winter of 1566 that the churches and their idolatrous images were attacked. You can still see the traces. In one of the early rooms of the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, there's a group of devotional pictures representing the Seven Works of Charity. But look at the faces (iconoclasts often go for faces): the painted wood is criss-crossed with scratches and gouges, with quite large pieces taken out. And these pictures got off lightly. Of course, there can never be any excuse for violence. But sometimes those old iconoclasts seem to have had a point.

This year 2000 is the 200th anniversary of the Rijksmuseum; roughly speaking, anyway. A national gallery of Dutch art was first set up in The Hague in 1800, moving later to Amsterdam. But Dutch art of the 17th century, the so-called Golden Age - Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer and their contemporaries - was always at the heart of its collection. (Rembrandt's Night Watch was in it almost from the beginning, and remains its star attraction). So it's no big surprise that, for its bicentenary celebrations, the Rijksmuseum should present "The Glory of the Golden Age: Dutch Art of the 17th Century".

I'm not sure that "glory", with its godly, monarchic and war-like connotations, is quite the word. Dutch art of this period is typically secular, peaceable and bourgeois. Portable, tradeable easel-painting came into its own, with a worldly art, affirming contemporary worldly values across a great range of genres: portraiture, group-portraiture, self-portraiture, animal pictures, still-life, home life, low life, townscape, landscape, seascape. The Dutch enormously extended the repertoire of European painting. There's a lot to show.

The exhibition is certainly ambitious, in true blockbuster manner. It occupies most of the museum. It has 200 items in the category "painting, sculpture and decorative arts", another 100 in the category "prints and drawings". Every Dutch artist of note, supposedly, is represented by a single work. The major get a handful. And while half the works are already in the Rijksmuseum, half aren't. Unique masterpieces have been procured from near and far.

The roll-call is impressive. From The Hague, Carel Fabritius's exquisite Goldfinch. From Berlin, Vermeer's Wine Glass. From Dublin, Gabriel Metsu's Lady Reading a Letter. From Stockholm, Judith Leyster's Young Flute Player. From Ohio, Ter Brugghen's St Sebastian. From Detroit, Ruisdael's Jewish Cemetery. And from the British Museum, Rembrandt's magical brown-wash drawing, Young Woman Asleep (travelling - it is emphasised - for the first time in an aeroplane).

Now there is a kind of commodity-farce in these uninsurably expensive objects being transported about the world in humidity-sensitive and all but nuclear attack-proof containers. And there's a strange hubris in the way that those who might praise Rembrandt's steady facing of mortality are so determined that a swift drawing of his shall absolutely not be mortal.

Blockbusters are idolatrous occasions. Glories, treasures, splendours: they're spectacles of pure value, accumulations of pricelessness, rites in which the gods of quality and quantity vie for our worship.

That's particularly how the present show feels. Having got all this glory together, it just basks. Of course it was great to see some of the loaned works - and in fact the more recondite, the better. The real perk of such shows is not that they manage to borrow things from big museums in Washington, Vienna or St Petersburg, places you could visit yourself. It's the way they turn up really inaccessible things.

I mean, in the normal way, there'd be almost no chance of seeing the Brazilian Landscape by Frans Post, borrowed from a private collection in Caracas. He's a really good and mysterious artist, who worked out in Dutch-colonised Brazil, and did quasi-primitivist views, which can't but make you think of Douanier Rousseau, and this is a beautiful example. I'm sorry there's nothing here by another colonial artist, Albert Eeckhout; for instance, his portrait of a cannibal, posing formally with a sack of severed limbs on her back.

But this is not the show to pursue interesting lines of thought. It really has very little to say about its subject. What you get, basically, is a spread. The works are displayed in small thematic groupings, each with a cheerful heading: Extravagantly Decked Out; Deceptively Realistic; Clarity and Harmony; Seemingly Everyday; In the Lap of Luxury; Elegance and Refinement. It's a phraseology you might meet in an inflight magazine.

And no doubt the show is looking to a large international audience - offering it even more of the very best of Dutch art than the Rijksmuseum usually offers the tourist. No doubt it's also aimed at the Dutch themselves. I don't know if they have any equivalent to English "heritage" sentiment. (There's a Night Watch re-enactment club, who gather each year to dress, pose and be photographed as the figures in the famous picture). But this is surely a heritage-pride event. It's a show about a home-coming, about the diaspora of Dutch art returning to its native land, making the Rijksmuseum temporarily into an ideally complete version of itself.

Or perhaps sheer completism is the key. After all, you can buy CDs called things like The Only Opera Collection You Need Ever Own. On that model, this may be "the only 17th-century Dutch art exhibition you need ever see". Of course, the irony of blockbusters - and this is no exception - is that they draw crowds by offering many more pictures than any visitor can realistically expect to look at within the time they're likely to spend in the gallery. So the completeness is rather notional.

I think it's connected to something else: reproduction. Where do you normally find the top masterpieces of 17th-century Dutch art - or of the Renaissance, impressionism, or any other of art's big packages - all together in the same place? In illustrated books, of course. That's where this completeness normally exists. But sometimes an exhibition comes along which illustrates the illustrations with their originals. That's what this show is: the show of the picture book.

But that needn't always be a bad thing; quite the contrary. A few minutes down the road at the Van Gogh Museum, you can see some interesting public behaviour. The museum has many visitors, and almost every one of them is a sort of expert. They know the pictures they've come to see pretty well already from reproduction. And they know lots of them, because with Van Gogh it's not just one or two works but a sizeable chunk of his oeuvre that's repro-famous.

Yet this repro-familiarity isn't a barrier to looking. No, it seems to make people see better, gets them noticing the things that didn't show in the copy, and attending closely also to those paintings in the museum that aren't known from copies. The visitors here aren't looking in vacant fascination at things that cost phenomenal amounts of money. They're looking at art on something like equal terms: that is, non-idolatrously. Sure, most of the credit here must go to Vincent himself. I'm certain there'll be nothing of that atmosphere in the Rijksmuseum's glory-show (it is precisely what's being discouraged). But if art-viewing generally went more like this - well, it's the only decent argument against iconoclasm.

 

The Glory of the Golden Age, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Every day, to 17 Sept. Booking: Global Tickets, 020-7734 4555

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