Rebooting Rembrandt

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 54, Spring 2018

Page 63

On a journey through the Dutch Golden Age, Lucinda Bredin encounters life, death, and building works in an engrossing virtual world

There was a time, five years ago, when all the major museums of Amsterdam seemed to be in restauro, to use that frustrating Italian phrase. The Rijksmuseum was behind schedule due to difficulties caused by asbestos and the cycling lobby's refusal to accept that their pathway through the museum's archway was to be blocked. The early contractors rebuilding the Stedelijk went bust. Even the Van Gogh was closed for 'air-conditioning issues'. But scroll forward, and it transpires that while they were closed, these museums did more than just add another giftshop. They have been rebooted rather than repainted.

The Rijksmuseum, for example, has had a comprehensive rethink – not just in terms of display (labels are a maximum of 60 words long), but in curatorial ethos. Since its reopening in 2013, the splendid collection – with stellar works by Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer – has been set alongside sculpture and decorative arts so that the paintings are given a sense of time and place: one can see a glass goblet or tapestry on canvas and then the real thing beside it.

There are many plotlines that one can pursue on a trip to the Netherlands, but, at the moment, there are several special exhibitions that revolve around the country's USP: the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. The Rijksmuseum is, of course, the place to start. However, the pressing reason to go to Amsterdam in the next few months is that there is another dazzling collection in town – at the Hermitage Amsterdam. For the first time in 250 years, the Hermitage's mothership in St Petersburg has loaned 63 of its 17th-century Dutch paintings for the exhibition Dutch Masters from the Hermitage: Treasures of the Tsars. It may sound like coals to Newcastle, but seeing Willem Kalf's tour-de-force Still Life with Dessert and Rembrandt's Young Woman with Earrings from St Petersburg in the same town as The Jewish Bride and is an experience not to be missed.

The Hermitage collection began when Peter the Great arrived in the Netherlands in 1696 to learn how to build ships at the dockyards of Zaandam. Peter imported knowledge from the shipyards back to the motherland and, at the age of 25, bought his first Rembrandt, but lasted only eight days in Zaandam. Supposedly incognito, his 'provocative' behaviour and appearance (he was 6ft 6) soon led to his identity being rumbled. The paintings that Peter bought were augmented by Catherine the Great, and indeed by the 19th-century Tsars, who – despite speaking French at court – also commissioned vases to be painted with copies of Dutch paintings.

The other development in Dutch museums in the past few years has been their embrace of technology. In most museums, in the UK at least, technology comprises an entry-level audioguide narrated, if you are lucky, by a curator. The Dutch are one step ahead, looking to engage visitors who want multimedia experiences, while making sure that those who want to be left in peace to look at a picture aren't bothered by flashing graphics and hissing headphones.

Two museums, in particular, provide an immersion into the 17th century that works brilliantly alongside visits to see the works by the Dutch masters. One is the (rather clunkily named) Museum of the Canals. It is untroubled by many tourists, but it should have queues around the block. You put on a museum headset, which activates automatically a host of audiovisual experiences: in one room, holographic figures in 17th-century costume dance across the floor; in another, a canal house is built before your very eyes. And there is a ghostly frieze of canal houses that, as you approach each one, whispers secrets into your ear about who lived there. As you work around the room hearing about each house and its inhabitants, a composite narrative of 17th-century life is constructed.

The Westfries Museum in Hoorn goes one further. Hoorn is a glorious town with its glory days far, far behind it. As one of the bases for the Dutch East India Company, riches flowed into its coffers, as the town's small streets of elaborate – and untouched – 17th-century buildings indicate. The museum is a wonderful collection of nautical paintings, maps, self-aggrandising portraits of local dignitaries, porcelain and artefacts carried back from the Spice Islands. Despite this superb display, one of its most popular rooms has nothing hanging on the walls, only rows of comfortable chairs with large headsets – we are back in the world of virtual reality. The images and sounds in one's eyes and ears propel you back in time to the less palatable side of the 17th century. The starched white linen cuffs and collars of Rembrandt and Hals, the swept courtyards of Vermeer and de Hooch are not in evidence. Instead, as you walk through the streets of Hoorn, a scaffold is being built for an execution, slops are being emptied and the sheer din of building work assaults the senses. One can move at will through the streets – a tourist in a 17th-century world that was dangerous, dirty and often brutal. No less than those glorious paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, it is an artist's impression, but
it is also an extraordinary journey.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Where to stay

It is well known that Amsterdam does not have enough hotel rooms to cope with all its tourists at peak times. When the Vermeer exhibition opened, I found there wasn't a room to be had in the city, so I resorted to nearby Haarlem – just 15 minutes away on the train. But if you want to stay in the heart of the city, be sure to book early.

There are old favourites – such as the Ambassade and the Waldorf Astoria, both of which have been created by joining a series of splendidly appointed canal houses. The Ambassade – which overlooks the grandest canal of them all, Herengracht – is made up of a terrace of ten, and has a magnificent library. Not surprisingly, this is the No.1 choice for American academics. Grand Hotel Amrath, [pictured above] handily positioned by the station, is a landmark in its own right.

Built in 1912 as the headquarters of a shipping office, the hotel has a preservation order on the Art Nouveau decoration and furniture. It's like staying on the stage set for a costume drama – mind you, the service can be distinctly historic, too. For a more contemporary experience, there is the Andaz on Prinsengracht. Designed by Marcel Wanders in an 'eclectic' fashion, the hotel is pet-friendly – and has its own channel to stream the hotel's vast collection of video artworks.

Where to eat

If money is no object, rent the Museum Het Rembrandthuis and eat at the long oak table in what was once the artist's kitchen, before having a tour around the house.

The interior may be a reconstruction, but it is also one of the most atmospheric sights in Amsterdam. So, in its own way, is Jansz. Set in a side street off Keizersgracht, the antechamber of this restaurant is an old apothecary's shop, complete with original shelves bearing vast glass jars of exotic-looking potions. It opens out into an airy brasserie overlooking the canal and serving refined dishes such as miso-glazed cod, scallops and lobster risotto. For me, however, one of the most exciting revelations of Amsterdam is NDSM Wharf, [above] an old shipyard that has now been colonised by artists and food entrepreneurs. I'm obviously late to the party, but, even so, this area still has a decayed industrial rawness that hasn't been developed... yet. To get there, take a ferry from behind the Central station. Fifteen minutes later, you will be deposited in a derelict car park. This is not a place for signposts, but head for the pile
of shipping containers. These house Pllek, a restaurant with 1970s glitter balls hanging from the ceiling and a zinc bar that serves roasted artichokes, gloriously pink tuna and venison stew. There is also Noorderlicht Café, in a former greenhouse there, which offers
food – and entertainment – until late. Fortunately, the ferry goes
all night. L.B.

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