395 Museum memories of 2020

Schwartz seems to have visited more museums during the covid lulls of 2020 than in comparable periods when everything was open and easily accessible. By creating rarity, the pandemic may have enhanced the value of museumgoing.

Faithful readers of the Schwartzlist were warned as long ago as 8 July 2006. In my column of that day, Schwartzlist 259, I wrote “It’s a buyer’s market in culture these days. Make the most of it while it lasts.” I hope you followed that good advice.

For the past fourteen months there has hardly been any market at all. In most of that time not only have the museums of Europe been closed, cross-border travel itself has been prohibited. Our museum visits of 2020 brought me and Loekie, during dips in the covid curve, to nearly empty galleries. But looking back, I am surprised at how frequent they were.

In the Rijksmuseum, on June 2nd, we re-enjoyed Caravaggio-Bernini: Baroque in Rome, after having seen it in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

In pre-pandemic Vienna, on 24 November 2019, we had to stand in line for tickets and then wait nervously for the fifteen-minute window of entrance opportunity in order to share a viewing with the masses. (The smartphone camera was new, and I did not realize that the ad for my Mi9 was being burnt into all my pictures.)

2 June: This is how the more spacious and stylish hanging in the Rijksmuseum, for which we booked tickets the day after the reopening, looked half a year later.

In the downstairs exhibition gallery of the Rijksmuseum was a choice collection of acquisitions for the print room by Huigen Leeflang, in honor of the Waller Fund, which made the purchases possible. Thanks to Waller, 2010-2020. Huigen is an adventurous curator who delights in breaking out of the classic mold of the artiste-graveurs  that guided the historical formation of print rooms. Looking through my photos from that day, I discovered that I had taken pictures of two competing visions by Italian artists of sleeping children.

In 1636 Alessandro Algardi carved in black marble Il sonno, an emblem of Sleep as a nude child in horizontal contrapposto. The figure is based on Hellenistic bronzes of the sleeping Eros. Algardi provided the child with symbols of sleep – poppies in his hair and hand, a somnolent dormouse at his side – and carved it in expensive black marble from the Low Countries, noire Belge, to place it in the nighttime. The sculpture was a commission from Prince Marcantonio Borghese, the nephew of Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Not to be undone, in 1698 Filippo Passarini had his own four sleeping babies comfortably tucked in by winged putti in the most extravagant beds ever. This is a plate from his album of 32 “new ornamental inventions for architecture and diverse prints for the use of silversmiths, printmakers, embroiderers and other practitioners of the fine arts.” Flip through it, even if you are not one such. The beds, which Passarini could not really have expected would ever be made, are built into a paddle boat pulled by sea horses; a heavenly harpy conveyance; a giant sea shell held afloat by a triton and dolphins; and in the simplest model a curled leaf. Far from being an aristocratic commission, this was a piece of sheer commercial showoffism.

How long museums were open before they were closed and reopened and closed again I no longer know. But Loekie and I did climb through these windows of opportunity.

16 June: Black in Rembrandt’s time (Rembrandt House Museum)

What stood out, as images of Blacks, were not the Rembrandts, but three portrait paintings from Copenhagen, whose sitters are known by name, a print by Jan Lievens, a drawing by Leendert van der Cooghen, and more than anything else, the etchings by Wenceslaus Hollar. Call me a sentimental fool, or even worse, call me insensitive to racism, but I see in Hollar’s portraits not only respect but tender lovingness.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Portrait of a young Black woman with a lace headdress and matching collar, 1645 (detail)
Etching, 7.8 x 5.9 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-11.591)

8 July: Charlotte Salomon in close-up (Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam). See Schwartzlist 384.

20-23 July: Without Loekie, in Weimar, where the Schlossmuseum was closed, but where I had enjoyable visits to the Museum Neues Weimar and research hours in the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, the Hauptstadtsarchiv Weimar and the Goethe Nationalmuseum and a less enjoyable one to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

More about this later, but here is the gallery in Museum Neues Weimar (formerly Grossherzogliche Museum) that I think is where the Rembrandt hung that was stolen on 9/10 April 1921. See Schwartzlist 394.

27 August: Twickel Castle.

An astonishing stately home from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, owned by a family foundation that prohibits the removal of any items once brought into the castle. This makes of the interior a living timeline. May be visited only in guided tours, which in 2020 were limited to ten days in August. In 2021 more opportunities are offered, which I recommend you book quickly.

11 September: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

We attended the re-opening of the museum of the University of Amsterdam, with small groups proceeding from department to department for presentations by the curators.

20 October: The reinstalled gallery on Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Adriaen Hanneman, Posthumous portrait of Mary Stuart (1631-60) with a servant, ca. 1664
Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 119.3 cm
The Hague, Mauritshuis (429)

Right: from the label

When Martine Gosselink, who I have known and admired for fifteen years, was appointed director of the Mauritshuis in April 2020, she inherited a thorny problem concerning the founder of the “huis” itself, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-79). Keeping the museum open under his name expressed respectful recognition of a colonial ruler who played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Dutch slave trade. Defenders of national pride and champions of racial justice had crossed swords on the op-ed pages when in 2018 the museum moved a bust of the hero from its former location. What Martine did was to devote a prominent gallery to Johan Maurits, his career and his dynastic ties, with critical commentary. I felt properly shamed for having looked at paintings like the above all my life without thinking about what it meant for Black people – here a child – to be taken away from their families and put into personal service, enslaved or not, of white people whose superiority was taken as a fact of life.

27 October: The Rijksmuseum, without an exhibition, leaving time for attention to details like Loekie’s sign of the ram in the floor of the upstairs hall. Having the gallery of honor to oneself is disorienting, without the impulse to avoid the paintings that the masses are crowding around.

3 November: A grab-bag of exhibitions (Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden)

Including, in a display of aboriginal paintings, one by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, a tingari (left) related to one that we bought in Alice Springs in 1997 (right). The colors are closer than they look in these photos.

20 November: Sotheby’s Amsterdam

We gladly accepted the invitation of Sotheby’s for a private view of Rembrandt’s small panel of Abraham receiving the three angels. In this detail we see Sarah, who had just heard God say that, “old and stricken with age” as she was, she was going to bear a child, laughing at God. Sotheby’s was good enough to show us stuff from the back room as well, like this weird Willem van Nieuwland.

20 November: Your loving Vincent: van Gogh’s greatest letters (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

This could have been done better. The museum has a fabulous website of van Gogh’s letters, which it inexplicably did not link to the letters and works on display; nor did it provide an app, only inadequate and annoying QR blocks here and there, and an audio feature that didn’t seem to work. Too much of the time was spent trying to figure out what was what. But we relished it anyway, and also luxuriated in a visit to the permanent collection without tourists.

23 November: Body language: the body in medieval art (Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht)

Perhaps because it was our last museum visit as of now, 25 May 2021, Body language has left the deepest impression. The design was powerfully immersive. Above are the galleries on Blood and Hair. By taking a distinct approach to the material, the museum was able to mount an excitingly novel event using its own holdings for more than one in four displays. With the collaboration of some major partners, especially the National Library in The Hague, this came close to half, without sacrificing a look of freshness and unexpectedness.

In the opening section, “From wound to wonder,” three media (actually four – the screen is displaying a page from the books in the case below) are juxtaposed in unforced, inviting mutual illumination.

It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that between June and November 2020 Loekie and I visited museums more often than we had in non-pandemic half-years. The restrictions activated our sense that something rare was being made available. In a seller’s market, a buyer doesn’t hesitate to jump. We were now grateful for something we had taken for granted.

All of the above venues took great pains to protect visitors from infection. Admittance was only by advance notice for non-coughers and -sneezers. Visitors were let in in small doses, so that you never had to stand near one another. Museums and other cultural institutions, including the podium arts, having proven themselves in 2020 capable of taking such effective measures, even at their own cost, it is criminally irresponsible of the Dutch government to have kept them closed for all of 2021 to date. A new, tentative opening date is 9 June. I will not repeat the inane reasons given by the cabinet for this philistine behavior, which should be punishable by indefinite exclusion from museums, concerts, theaters and cinema.

© 2021 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 May 2021.

As founder of CODART, I have been awarded two honors of which I am too proud to keep from you. CODART, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a network organization of museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art. Have a look at the website: www.codart.nl. A valuable feature that it offers to everyone is a free news service announcing exhibitions and other events concerning Dutch and Flemish art around the world.

Harvard Art Museums let me know in a letter of 26 March 2021 that George Abrams, the premier collector of Dutch drawings of our time, has donated a precious drawing by Pieter Saenredam to the museum in my honor.

Pieter Saenredam,  Nave and choir of St. Odulphuskerk, Assendelft
Inscribed Pr: Saenredam dese gedaen / inde Assendelver kerck / Den 9. augustij. 1630. (Pieter Saenredam made this in the Assendelft church on 9 August 1630.)
Pencil on paper, 15.2 x 28.9 cm
Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums (2020.294)

The museum director, Martha Tedeschi, told me that the drawing is to bear this credit line:

The Maida and George Abrams Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George Abrams in honor of Gary Schwartz, Founding Director of CODART

“As Bill Robinson has demonstrated,” she wrote, “this preparatory drawing represents the earliest stage of Saenredam’s elaborate and laborious working process.” Bill Robinson is the eminent long-time, now retired curator of drawings at the Fogg, who I have known and admired forever.

Then, earlier this month, CODART itself came out with its first publication for the general public, CODART canon: 100 masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish art, 1350-1750. It is a beautifully designed and produced volume, with entries on outstanding objects in more artistic forms than you would expect, written by 100 different curators – not the curators in charge of that work. It is dedicated by the present director, Maartje Beekman, to her two predecessors, myself and Gerdien Verschoor. This honor comes above the rewards I enjoy day by day, seeing CODART flourish, linking more than 600 colleagues from 300 museums in nearly 30 countries. My fond hope at the beginning, in 1998, was that CODART would also make palpable the bond between the people of those countries who visit museums and respond to the art of the low countries, in all its accessibility and humaneness. The Canon, in English and Dutch editions, helps further that aim.

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4 thoughts on “395 Museum memories of 2020”

  1. Dear Gary: I remember the days when CODART was just a gleam in your eye. Kudos to you for the unique and indispensable organization it has become! And kudos to all the museums that have mounted such creative exhibitions amid the challenges of this horrible year. Empty galleries (like the empty streets of Amsterdam) have been a treat for those who could take advantage of them — sadly, not for those of us marooned across the ocean. I hope museums will continue to exercise some limits on admissions so we do not return to the stifling crowds of the past. Looking forward to reading about your next adventure! All the best — Stephanie

    1. Thanks so much, dear Stephanie. I am SO looking forward to seeing your Rembrandt exhibition. If Frankfurt is having you over to lecture, be sure to let me know.

  2. Dear Gary, I can only echo Stephanie’s comments, which are so well put. My recent visits to the Frick on Madison (Breuer edifice) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were all too memorable, not only because of the new hangings, but also because they were my first visits to any museums this past year — and I look forward to more!
    All best wishes, Amy

    1. Thanks, Amy. Loekie and I have started on a new round of museum visits. Last week the beautiful, very upsetting Slavery exhibition in the Rijksmuseum.

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