212 The international identity of the Netherlands

The Rijksmuseum is consulting an array of outsiders in formulating its program for the New Rijksmuseum, which is to open in 2008. As a participant in the round-table discussion on “The Rijksmuseum and Dutch national identity,” Schwartz advised the museum to focus instead on Dutch international identity. He attached to it a very concrete proposal for the presentation of Dutch and foreign art in the rebuilt museum art and an interpretation of the philosophy behind the Old Rijksmuseum.

As the Rijksmuseum is rebuilding its physical plant, it is also rethinking its mission. In order to benefit from the ideas of outsiders, the museum is holding a series of what it calls round-table discussions with non-Rijksmuseum people. Each discussion is devoted to an important issue in the restructuring of the museum. On May 26th I took part in the session on “The Rijksmuseum and Dutch national identity.” This, in short, is what I said:

Last month a new exhibition opened in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków. Treasures from the Netherlands puts on display all the Dutch and Flemish drawings in the museum collection, including rare and precious sheets by Gerard David and Pieter Bruegel. It also shows a selection of 60 prints of Polish subjects by Netherlandish artists. They depict military engagements, historical events, monuments, glorifications of Polish royalty, allegories of the Polish nation, images of Polish saints and portraits of prominent Polish contemporaries. Because there were no Polish artists at the time capable of creating high-quality prints of this kind, Poland hired Dutchmen and Flemings to give form in art to the Polish national identity.

One of the prints, by the Hague engraver Willem Hondius, shows Queen Cecilia Renata, the wife of King Ladislas IV Vasa, on horseback. It was engraved after a painting by the Amsterdam painter Pieter Danckerts de Rij. Because of later developments in the fortunes of the Vasas, the painting now hangs in Frederiksborg Castle outside Copenhagen, near a quite similar portrait of the daughter of the Danish King Christian IV. The painter was Karel van Mander III, the grandson of the famous Dutch-Flemish artist and art historian of that name. The role of Netherlandish artists in creating a Danish national identity went even further than in Poland. In the catalogue of a 1988 Council of Europe exhibition on Christian IV, we read: “In 1637, Christian IV … directed his engraver, Simon de Pas of Utrecht, to procure 80 drawings of heroic events in Danish history, to be executed by ‘the best Dutch artists,’ so that large paintings could be made from them afterwards for the Great Hall at Kronborg. Copperplate engravings were to be made of the 80 drawings and they were to be printed with historical explanations… The Danes’ glorious past was depicted here for the first time in a series of such canonical episodes as were later to form the basis of popular national identity.”

The styles and modes employed by these Netherlandish masters were not invented by them. They were coined mainly at the courts of Italy, France and Central Europe during the 16th century by artists from all over Europe. The portrait modes were further refined in the 17th century by Anthonie van Dyck in Italy, England and Flanders. The same devices that Dutch and Flemish artists employed to give shape to the national identity of Poland and Denmark were also applied, sometimes by the same artist, as in the case of Romein de Hooghe in his work for Stadhouder Willem III, to the new national identities of England – and of the Netherlands.

This small sampling of the intertwined artistic and national identities of Poland, Denmark, England, the Netherlands and Italy can easily be extended to cover most of the 25 countries of the European Union and, if one takes into consideration the export market for religious art from the Southern Netherlands, to most of Latin America as well. We are not speaking of one-way traffic. The participation of the Netherlands in the emerging national identities of so many other countries became part of Dutch identity as well. Compared with the vast extent of internationally oriented art, the few niche products that we think of as Typically Dutch are marginal and in their time insignificant.

A New Rijksmuseum that wishes to do justice to the Dutch identity in the 17th century should therefore concentrate in the first place not on the national but on the international identity of the Netherlands. Rather than playing “foreign schools” off against Dutch art in order to highlight differences, it should also display the works of Flemish, French, Italian, German, English and Spanish artists that are closest to the production of Dutch contemporaries. In some collecting areas, such as the applied arts that are to be given enhanced prominence in the New Rijksmuseum, the differences are so small that only an expert can see them. As far as the visitor is concerned, only the label will tell the nationality of the silversmith or goldsmith or gunsmith, fields in which Dutch craftsman-artists were the most successful in Europe.

This proposal, I am convinced, fits perfectly into one of the underlying principles of the New Rijksmuseum, to restore to the building something of the spirit of its 19th-century architect, Pierre Cuypers. To Cuypers, the Rijksmuseum was certainly a monument to the Dutch nation and its art, but that was not its ultimate aim. The larger systems into which he fit Dutch art were the Christian culture of Europe and a universal cosmology. The museum is not so much a building as an architectural fantasy comprising a French chateau, a Gothic chapel, a town hall and palace of undetermined European nationality. The Catholic Middle Ages, during which the Netherlands formed one province of the world-encompassing church and its pan-European architectural styles, were closer and dearer to Cuypers than the mercantile Golden Age. Cuypers’s Rijksmuseum is devoted not to Dutch art as such, but to Dutch art as an expression of all human creativity.

Cuypers’s Catholicism and metaphysical exaltation cannot well be re-installed in a museum for the 21st century. What can be done is to situate the Dutch art in the New Rijksmuseum in the most relevant cultural system of our own times, the European system. In this way, the museum can do justice not only to Cuypers but also to the present-day international and multi-cultural aspirations of the Netherlands.

© Gary Schwartz 2004. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 19 June 2004, p. 25.

Saturday, 6 June: Dinner with old friends: Petra Chu-ten Doeschate, Loekie’s schoolmate from the Utrecht Stedelijk Gymnasium and an art-historical colleague of mine, is a fellow at NIAS, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies. She and her husband, the engineer Fen-Dao Chu, had us over to the house in Wassenaar NIAS put them up in. Petra gave us the lavish gift of her new survey of 19th-century art, which looks like it will be the standard text from now on. Also present were Willem Albert and Margreet Wagenaar, from the same high school, and one of the Chu offspring, a smart young man named Wei.

Saturday. 6 June: From their place in Wassenaar Loekie and I drove to Hilversum, where I was a guest on the late-night radio news program Met het oog op morgen. With James Kennedy of the Vrije Universiteit, another American in the Netherlands, I ruminated on the late Ronald Reagan and on the meaning of D-Day. Trying not to be cruel, I nonetheless pointed out that during my year in America during Reagan’s presidency, 1986-87, the man was so far from being a Great Communicator that he was not communicating at all during the Iran-Contra hearings. And what with Bush palming the Second World War for America, it has been forgotten that America did not enter the war until two-and-a-quarter years after the German invasion of Poland, and only after it had been attacked. It is not as if the US hastened on its own to liberate Europe, which has become the New Standard Version of Events.

Tuesday, 8 June: For the first time, took the staff of CODART on a company outing. Picked up my wonderful young associates, Wietske Donkersloot and Navany Almazan at the Utrecht train station and drove them to Antwerp for a day on the town. We saw the outstanding exhibition in the Rubenshuis of Rubens as an art collector, had a leisurely lunch on the terrace of a very good restaurant around the corner from the Rubenshuis, the Varkenspoot, walked to the Plantijn-Moretus Museum for a look at their Rubens display but especially at the phenomenal place itself, which Navany had never seen. My dual background as publisher and art historian came into play. Ended off the visit at the Jacobskerk and Rubens’s grave. The pace was far more relaxed than when I put together CODART study trips, but that was the idea.

Wednesday, 9 June: Boekverkooperscollegie Eendragt (est. 1 July 1853) met in our garden. The mystery guest was an old friend, Jaco Groot, publisher of De Harmonie. For the first and last time in his life, as he insisted, he spoke to a group. It was touching to see that he was visibly nervous. He did very well. Eendragt found him just as interesting on the early years of De Harmonie as on his latter-day fame as the Dutch publisher of Harry Potter and the most successful publisher in the country.

Saturday, 12 June: Had my birthday off, as Loekie had to do her duty as president of Sappho Mentor, a combined female-male successor to the single-gender secret societies of those names at the above-mentioned Utrecht Stedelijk Gymnasium. They had agreed some time ago to meet on the second Saturday of June, without taking account of the calendrical inevitability that once in seven years this would fall on my birthday. I had a wonderful day working on Rembrandt.

Sunday, 13 June: The children and my father-in-law came over for dinner in the garden. A wonderful evening. For once I let the children know what I wanted for my birthday – CDs of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell from around 1950. They came through with splendid albums that I cannot get enough of.

Monday, 14 June: The garden, and Loekie, were once more at their best for a meeting and dinner of the CODART Program Committee, an indispensible supporting body for CODART. Most of the meeting was on the plans for CODART ACHT next year: Dutch and Flemish art in Sweden. The occasion is an exhibition in September 2005 of Dutch and Flemish paintings and drawings in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

Wednesday, 16 June: Everything changed. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Bob Cahn, during a relatively minor operation, was thrown into coma. He is not yet out. From the moment I opened the mail from his wife Irene that morning, I have been distraught and unable to concentrate properly. Went through with the joint birthday celebration, with Hensley Woodriffe of the Financial Administration, for our colleagues at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, where CODART is housed.

Two articles of mine, in addition to this column, came out in the past two weeks. Both were connected with the coming Dutch chairmanship of the European Union. The Flemish-Dutch quarterly Ons Erfdeel brought out a Dutch translation of the article I wrote for their English-language sister publication The Low Countries, on the Central and Eastern European collections of Dutch and Flemish art. I gave it the programmatic title “The icon curtain,” suggesting that the deep differences between two European traditions – the Western image as representation and the Eastern as a presence – may be responsible for the lack of interest in Dutch and Flemish painting in countries with a strong Orthodox faith. Most of the article is however about the very important collections of our art in Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania. “Nederlandse en Vlaamse kunst in Oost-Europa” (Dutch and Flemish art in eastern Europe), Ons Erfdeel 47/3 (June 2004), pp. 324-40.

The venerable Dutch monthly De Gids has brought out a Europe special in four languages. The idea behind it is to dismiss clichés about Holland. The title of my piece is “Johannes Vermeer was not a typical Dutch artist.”

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl.

Other columns on the Schwartzlist