Closed for a decade, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam‘s national jewel, finally reopened in mid-2013. The extensive restoration returned the massive building’s interior to its original 1885 charm. We started our visit with the “Gallery of Honour,” which is where you will find all of the paintings you might think would be in the Rijksmuseum. This is my favorite gallery, not because of the Vermeers and Rembrandts, but because it contains many lush Dutch still lifes that I am startled to find I’ve come to love after decades of thinking, “So what?” Pheasants, rabbits, random game, all dead. Dogs, both hunting and companion types, all living. Fruits and vegetables, featuring most spectacularly white asparagus. Fruit, much of which I cannot recognize. No surprise here, but tulips. And I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the lemons. Really, it’s like no one had ever painted a lemon before the Dutch.
We returned to the Rijksmuseum the next day to see the exhibit Art is Therapy by practical philosopher Alain de Botton and philosopher art historian John Armstrong. Really, this is best described as a meta-exhibit, essentially a contemporary show overlaying selected works from the permanent collection. The Post-Its start as soon as you enter the museum. At first, I didn’t even identify them as the exhibit I was there to see–that is, until I started reading. As you walk through the museum, you’ll occasionally see large Post-It notes next to an artwork. They are jarring, especially in contrast to the old masters. For me, this incongruity of oversized office products in the midst of a museum drew me to them, but I noticed that many other people simply ignored them.
These yellow notes provide, not factual information, but instead philosophical insights into the nature of art itself. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising considering de Botton might be best known for his book How Proust Can Save Your Life. Still, it was an odd experience to read commentary on the purpose of art as well the experience of viewing art right there next in the museum. For example next to Vermeer‘s View of Houses in Delft (1658) the Post-It reads:
“In one of the side galleries of the Rijksmueusm’s Gallery of Honour, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.
“This is bad news. The extreme fame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response–and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This painting is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes–and doing these things faithfully and without despair–is life’s real duty…”
It is a great gift to be yanked from the malay of Vermeer fans right into the work itself. I suppose the painting alone should do that, but it didn’t. For me, it took these words to place me in the picture. For that alone, I am impressed.
The Rijksmuseum offered up all the Dutch Masters I anticipated and I wasn’t disappointed. What I wasn’t expecting was an historic museum to be so thoroughly modern. Art is Therapy prods the museum-goer into engaging with the works in a more authentic way. This contemporary way of thinking about art does not end with the physical museum and its works. More than 120,000 images from the collection are available at the Rijksmuseum website with the ultimate goal of eventually having the complete collection online. These high-resolution images can be downloaded to do with what you will. Also available are many guided tours that you can load onto your phone through the Rijksmuseum app to help you navigate the, quite honestly, intimidatingly large collection. They offer free wi-fi throughout the building, which makes it easy to use your phone for the tours. We took the tour for Art is Therapy, narrated by Alain de Botton himself. I’m glad I took advantage of this offering because it brought me to sections of the museum I likely would have forgone, like the room of Asian ceramics, the suit of armor, or the room of nautical miniatures. As I finished the tour, I realized that with the tour app and the high-res images, it was possible to take this tour from ones home computer. Of course, it isn’t the same, but I think it would be worthwhile anyway. Besides, you’ll probably get a better up-close view of that Vermeer from your livingroom than packed behind three rows of people.