At last. There they were, all my old friends, missed these past 10 years, propped up against the wall, waiting their turn to be back where they belonged: on the walls of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There were the dangling legs of Gabriël Metsu’s hollow-eyed sick child cradled in the arms of his mother; there was Adriaen Coorte’s bunch of white asparagus, ghostly against the blackness, filaments of its bundling twine pressing against the papery skin. There was another pair of legs, belonging to Jan Steen’s pretty slattern, curls escaping her soft cap, perched on the edge of a bed, garter-marked right leg slung over the left, the underside of her thigh scandalously visible, rolling her scarlet stockings. “What do you think?” asked Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director of collections and the hero, along with the museum’s general-director Wim Pijbes, of its exhilaratingly brilliant makeover, “Up or down?” “Down” I said. “Oh that’s settled then,” he said, wearing his knowledgeable smile.
The reunion was well under way. Earlier we’d watched as chubby-chinned Saskia, cow-eyes glittering, was hoisted back on to the wall of a room full of early Rembrandts. Already on station was the grieving Jeremiah in his dove-grey velvet coat, head slumped as the temple burns behind him; the young boho Rembrandt mugging with his unruly hair and knobbly nose half-masked by shadows to project depths of poetic melancholy.
Dibbits and Pijbes were thinking of borrowing the slogan “weerzien met de meesters” (meeting up again with the masters) from the reopening of the Rijksmuseum at the end of the second world war. The present moment can’t have quite that sense of national resurrection but it is still an emotively charged reunion of the public with works that are inseparable from the sense of who, collectively, the Dutch are. What has been done with the museum is less a restoration with some fancy contemporary design than the inauguration of a curatorial revolution. When you see those early Rembrandts or the great mannerist “Massacre of the Innocents” of Cornelis van Haarlem with its ballet of twisting rumps, you will also encounter, as would those who would first have seen them, the silver, weapons and cabinets that were the furniture of the culture that made those pictures possible. You will enter the historical world of the Netherlands at a particular moment. And, because the objects are housed in frameless, edgeless displays in which the glass is of a stunning invisibility, nothing in one’s field of vision separates images from artefacts.
The objects are not there amid the paintings in the service of ornamental atmospherics. They have been chosen by Dibbits and his colleagues from the vast Rijksmuseum holdings to create an active dialogue between pictures and artefacts, the material world and the cultural imagination. The idea is gently rather than dogmatically social, and it owes something to a scholarly tradition, best embodied in the work of the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), which believed that images, objects and texts were indivisibly related in the creation of a common culture. In keeping with recent art history’s emphasis on the creative force of a milieu in the making of a master (rather than the musings of solitary genius), the young(ish) Rembrandt is installed in the company of friends and patrons. One of those friends, the framemaker Herman Doomer, is represented by a spectacular ebony and mother-of-pearl cabinet. Another friend, the goldsmith Jan Lutma, is present in a stunning drinking bowl in the form of a slickly glistening opened oyster. Collaborations and relationships bounce from wall to wall. Rembrandt’s early self-portrait is complemented by the in-your-face self-image painted by his Leiden doppelgänger and rival Jan Lievens, who also supplies a head of their shared patron Constantijn Huygens, learned secretary of Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik.
If this all sounds daunting and distracting, it really isn’t. History and art have their natural companionship restored, for – although historians condescendingly suppose images to be “soft” evidence of the past, and art historians suspect historians of obtuse philistinism – the truth is, as Huizinga knew, they need each other to reconstruct the reality of lost worlds. History without the eloquence of images is blind; art without the testimony of texts is deaf.
The Rijksmuseum isn’t the first institution to bring together what should have never been separated into “fine” and “decorative” (by implication not-so-fine) art. But it has been museums rich in objects rather than paintings that have made a systematic effort at presenting cultures in the round. Thus in 2001 London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, reflecting the conviction of such 19th-century writers as John Ruskin and William Morris that textiles, ceramics and so on could have an aesthetic charge every bit as potent as paintings, brought together those arts in a chronological sequence of rooms from Tudors to Victorians.
But it is another thing entirely for a place associated in the public’s mind with a great procession of masterpieces and artists – Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Vermeer – to remake their house as the “Museum of the Netherlands” as the Rijksmuseum now calls itself. Nor is it accidental that this exhilarating breakthrough has happened here: it was in the Netherlands that resistance was strongest to making the invidious distinctions between “high” and “low” adopted in Renaissance Italy. According to the Portuguese humanist Francisco de Holanda, Michelangelo condescended to praise the ability of the artists of the Low Countries as they specialised in such low matters as landscape. But this was exactly why, while art in Italy became, primarily, the possession of the church and the aristocracy, in the Netherlands it became the possession of the people. It was here that an art arose that was unembarrassed to take as its subjects not just devotional and historical matter but the earthy entirety of human existence, from the most vulgar to the most exquisite.
When we look at Vermeer’s servant girl pouring a jug of milk, or a goblet of wine and a herring by Pieter Claesz, we now take for granted that ordinary acts and objects may be intensely charged with sublimity. But it was in the Netherlands that this translation of the sacred from the religious to the worldly realm was most dramatically realised.
The Calvinism that frowned on images in churches as a species of idolatry was, however, content for the picturing impulse to transfer itself on to every other conceivable subject. The Rijksmuseum is full of images that retain a charge of spiritual self-interrogation even as they seem to be full of worldly relish. A Pieter Claesz still-life gathers emblems of all the arts that are supposed to deliver worldly pleasure – among them painting itself – at the same time as it displays transcendent artistic skill. “Spotting the Sermon”, a heroic Jacob van Ruisdael windmill prompting meditations on the cross, can be deadeningly beside the point. Such visual finger-wagging may have had little more effect on the original viewers than it does on us. They may well have nodded, sighed and got on with enjoying the shimmer on the satin of a ter Borch gown or the perfectly rendered creamy surface of a Floris van Dijck cheese.
There is another reason why the popular appeal of the Rijksmuseum is rooted in national memory. For this was not just an art that mirrored the life of the ordinary people of the Netherlands; it was, to an astonishing degree, owned by them too. Valuations of household goods made for purposes of taxation and bequests tell us that while grandiose portraits and history paintings may have been beyond the reach of the average miller or merchant, a huge range of modest paintings that flooded the market – low-life scenes, little landscapes, still-lifes, “merry companies” of boozers, flirters and the like – were not. Many of them could be bought for not much more than the weekly wage of a skilled artisan. There was an additional sense, too, in which painting was a civic patrimony. In Italy portrait groups were dynastic; in the Netherlands they were civic and thus part of a popular patrimony, at least among the middle classes. Every town in the country had its publicly displayed groups of militiamen, wardens of orphanages and old people’s homes, syndics of the men of the clothiers guild ... “The Night Watch” might be seen now as a “masterpiece” but of what? The answer is of an idea or, rather, a civic myth: that of the undying vitality of the citizen in arms. Its form: the propulsive dynamism that throws Banninck Cocq’s company forward through the picture frame and into the space of the goggling beholders, the unsettling sense of commotion of noise and chaos barely contained by the orders of officers – is perfectly fitted to its ideology. That ideology was the polar opposite of aristocratic and church painting, which are, above all, ordered through hierarchy and authority. So while Rembrandt’s picture may exist in some rarefied realm of the canon as one of the world’s masterpieces, the point and, therefore, the enjoyment, of it is incomprehensible without its specific, Amsterdam history.
In the spirit of giving back their history to the Dutch, a history inseparable from its art, Dibbits and Pijbes and Ronald de Leeuw, the original visionary of a historical narrative and the Rijksmuseum’s previous director, have been unapologetic about this “Museum of the Netherlands”. In an age of interchangeable international art fairs, all flogging indistinguishable contemporary art, there is something deeply stirring about a great art institution being unafraid to reassert the distinctiveness of its national culture and history, and to make it a cause for popular rejoicing rather than uncool embarrassment.
Think of it as a Dutch version of the British Jubilympic self-celebration, complete with the last major public appearance of the abdicating Queen Beatrix. The reopening of the Rijksmuseum has become an occasion rich with the possibilities of a gentle but unapologetic act of national reaffirmation.
None of this has been done in any spirit of narrow chauvinism. Honouring the vision of the Rijksmuseum’s original architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) meant taking an expansive view of the Netherlands past and present. Cuypers was a Catholic from the south and he chose a vernacular that was meant, in its brick gable-towers, to echo the late medieval and Renaissance Netherlands as yet undivided between a Catholic south and a Calvinist north. Cuypers’ liberal historicism, enshrined in history paintings by George Sturm and stained glass from formative episodes in Netherlandish history that decorate the museum’s interiors, was thought absurd if not abhorrently parochial by subsequent generations of modernist-minded directors of the museum, who ripped up the terrazzo floor, rolled up the canvases and whitewashed the walls. But the museum was never meant to be some sort of white cube, and now it has been fully restored to Cuypers’ beautiful vision. That this should have been accomplished by Spanish architects, Cruz y Ortiz, coming from the kingdom against which the Dutch fought a bloody 80 years long war for their freedom, is an irony not lost on anyone. For this reconstitution of a nation’s history has been achieved as a pan-European collaboration, in keeping with the internationalist humanism of Erasmus and the philosopher-statesman Hugo Grotius whose portrait, by Jan van Ravesteyn, at the age of 16, face lit by mercurial intellectual mischief, is one of the most winning rediscoveries of the new installation. The brilliant interior design including those dazzlingly formless display cabinets is the work of the Frenchman Jean-Michel Wilmotte; the glass and metalwork were made in Brescia, Italy; and the optically undulating star-spangled decoration of ceilings above two staircase wells has been painted by the British Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright.
Not all Dutch artists were stay-at-homes like Vermeer or Rembrandt. Painters such as the phenomenal Hendrick ter Brugghen, who went to Italy and then returned to Dutchify Caravaggio’s drama of light and darkness with meaty bodies bulking up against the picture frame like Dutch football fans: going abroad for the action but always bringing the energy back home. In the medieval and Renaissance galleries, it’s possible to see a truly Netherlandish style: raw and naturalistically expressive emerging from the matrix of international Christian sculpture.
Perhaps even more wonderfully, although the Rijksmuseum is about to be the greatest history-teaching institution anywhere in the world, it’s not all homework. Around every corner is eye-popping merriment and pleasure. The “special collections” galleries are a stupendous open treasury, a gorgeously lit Dutch Aladdin’s cave in which kids of all ages can boggle at the geegaws: jewels, muskets, pikes, miniature tea services in silver; a whole fleet of model ships going back to the 17th and 18th centuries, magic lanterns, costumes, glasses, those tiles, marvel piled on marvel; wonder on wonder, a fabulous, unending inebriation of stuff.
The people who wore, used and possessed all this stuff also haunt the place, often turning up in the simplest guises. One case houses a small collection of woolly hats, many striped in vivid colours. The only other place I know where you can see anything like them are in paintings of fishermen and, perhaps, Dutch boers. But these are the hats worn by whaling crews in Spitsbergen in the 17th century, preserved beneath the ice, in such perfect condition that you’d expect to see them in a tray of beanies at your outerware shop of choice. So you look at the hats, you hear the sailors’ shouts, the creak of ice-trapped timber, you smell the blubber vats and you commune with your ancestry. Which may not be Fine Art but which is all the more enthrallingly potent for it.
The Rijksmuseum’s main building opens on April 13, www.rijksmuseum.nl/en
To read Edwin Heathcote on the architecture of the restored Rijksmuseum, go to www.ft.com/rijksmuseum
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor