236 A question to my predecessor

Bob Haak (1923-2005) was an exceptionally inspiring art historian and museum man. His books on Rembrandt and the Dutch painters of the Golden Age are classics, and his work on the Amsterdam Historical Museum set new international standards for an enriched museum experience. Schwartz’s question to him concerns the Rembrandt Research Project, which was his brainchild. Why hasn’t it worked as he conceived it, as an instrument for deciding which paintings are by Rembrandt and which are not?

Long-time readers of Het Financieele Dagblad will know that the present crew of art historians who write for the paper had a distinguished predecessor in Bob Haak, who died last month at the age of 79. Haak wrote reviews for the paper in the early 1990s. When I began writing for the Financieele Dagblad in 1997, I asked him whether I was marching into his territory. He assured me that I wasn’t, adding that he could never meet deadlines anyway and was always handing in his reviews after the exhibitions had closed.

In fact, whether they write for the FD or not, all art historians working on the Dutch 17th-century find themselves marching into Haak’s territory. In 1969 he claimed Rembrandt, with a magnificent volume, designed by Wim Crouwel, that brings Rembrandt closer to the reader than any other book I know. In 1984 all of Dutch 17th-century painting became Haak territory, with the best general survey of the field ever written. Haak’s knowledge is so encyclopedic, his judgment so balanced, his taste so good, his interests so broad and his writing so clear that I always feel a certain trepidation in picking up a book of his on a subject on which I am writing. After all, if what I have to say has already been said well by him, why bother? (Tribute as well to the publisher who got him to write these books, which also went over deadline: Andreas Landshoff.)

Bob Haak left behind a masterpiece of another kind as well. He led the gifted team, including the late Dedalo Carasso, that created the Amsterdams Historisch Museum as we know it. The combination in that museum of high and low art, documents, texts and demonstrations to bring the local past to life for a broad audience made international museum history. It continues to enrich the lives of Amsterdamers and tourists, 30 years on.

Only one of Haak’s grand projects failed in its aims. In 1956 he was an assistant curator at the Rijksmuseum when a large Rembrandt exhibition was being installed. The difficulty he had in hanging beside each other paintings of such diverse quality inspired a plan. If only, he thought, a team of top experts could examine systematically all the paintings ascribed to Rembrandt, the annoying uncertainties about what is or is not by the master could finally be resolved. That inspiration became the Rembrandt Research Project. Half a century on, the Project has not yet reached the halfway mark in its publications. In the coming volumes, Haak’s categorical question – Is this painting by Rembrandt or not?, a problem that has proved more intractable than he thought – is going to be toned down.

How could one and the same intelligence, one and the same strong personality, get things so right in his books and in his museum and so wrong in the Rembrandt Research Project? This is an important question not only for art history but for the study of complex projects in general. Whatever answers may be offered, none do discredit to the young Bob Haak in 1956. His love of the truth and his genius for cooperation were exemplary then and remain so.


P.S. on the referendum. The objections to the European constitution that I expressed four weeks ago in this column had nothing to do with the level of the Dutch financial contribution to the European Union. The way the government attempted to use my vote and millions of others to negotiate a reduction of the contribution only widens the perilous gap separating it from the people.


© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 18 June 2005

It is not a bad thing that the European Union has run into a hitch at this point in its development. If it is going to assume more political responsibilities, it must subject itself to control by the electorate. Had all 25 countries ratified the constitution the first time around, there would probably never have been another vote held on the prerogatives of the Union. My own preference would be for a truly European election, with all citizens of countries in the Union voting on the same question on the same day. The document that should be submitted to them should be a glowing political manifesto, written to be read with appreciation.

The Israeli writer Dan Tsalka was the kind of friend who lit up your life. Whenever we met, in the 25 years of our friendship, it was time for a party of personalities. With a bright smile and shining eyes, he would pour a glass of wine and say the nicest things about me he thought he could get away with without being suspected of insincerity. This would set the tone for wonderfully personal conversations. With Dan I could – I had to, he made me – put deep feelings into words. I knew he would never ridicule me and I knew that I would get honestly critical reactions. Only afterwards would I realize that the conversations were largely asymmetrical, more about me than him. He was not that good in talking about his feelings about himself. I am sorry that I have not yet been able to read the autobiographical memoir he published last year. His rich, literary Hebrew is beyond my grasp without a dictionary; I can’t read him in bed. I will read it now, but too late to discuss it with him. He died last Wednesday, at the age of 69, of a lung cancer he didn’t know he had when Loekie and I visited him and his wife Aviva in Tel Aviv last November. Our last memories of him are as of old.

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