Visual Arts: Cleaning the Eighth Wonder of the World
Before we hit the ground, I reversed my attitude and became a fan of the restoration of the Dutch royal palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam. I could not fault the decisions that had been taken.
By Gary Schwartz
The eighth wonder of the world – the Dutch royal palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam, of course – is being restored and cleaned. The building indeed looked rather smudgy, an effect that is commonly blamed on pollution. Any such campaign will call forth strong opinions by the public, and the Amsterdam public, few of whom have ever set foot in the palace, did not let the restorers and cleaners down. When the plan was announced, the most unlikely Amsterdamers turned out to be dedicated defenders of historical patina on old monuments. The Amsterdam daily Het Parool published a demagogic image pretending to represent the aims of the project:
“The Palace on Dam Square will be white again. [The use of] power spray and paint, the Jan des Bouvrie option, as projected on the left of this photo, meets objections from experts.” (Jan des Bouvrie is a Dutch interior designer famous for his Richard Meier-like love of the non-color white.)
In a counter-offensive intended to capture the hearts and minds of those experts, in July 2009 the perpetrators organized a study day on the restoration at the University of Amsterdam. The mood was indeed fairly hostile. One speaker who made a great impression took the trouble to visit the quarries where the sandstone for the facade of the palace – built in 1648-67 as the town hall of Amsterdam – came from. He showed photos of blocks that had been carved out recently and left at the remote and unpolluted site, and compared them to photos of the same kind of stone on the palace. They looked so similar that the assumption that the grimy look of the palace was due to pollution evaporated before your eyes. And if that were the case, it was fair to expect that following an expensive and potentially dangerous cleaning, the facade would like as grimy as ever in a short time, so why bother?
My own objection at the time was more theoretical. The restorers told us that the worst damage to the building was due not to pollution or weathering but to the interventions of previous restorers. Following which, they uttered the usual sincere but nonetheless questionable statement of faith: Our predecessors conscientiously applied the best knowledge available to them, but they were unaware of certain disadvantages in their treatment that we now understand much better. We are certain that our techniques are not bad for the building. To which I objected that it is as good as certain that the same credo will be repeated by their future successors, and that therefore the less one does to the building the better. This recommendation was not followed; the campaign went on as planned.
A year later, I was invited by the project leader, Hein van Rossum, and the restoration architect, Krijn van den Ende, for a personal visit to the project. They showed me a spectacular array of photographs on the four walls of their HQ, covering the four sides of the palace. Each of the more than 25,000 blocks of stone was marked and graded. The first aim of the campaign was to repair serious damage, in order to prevent stones, sculptures, tiles, gutters or pieces of architectural articulation from crumbling or falling.
The second aim was not to whiten the facade but to equalize its color effects. Blocks that were strikingly dark or light were either replaced or subjected to treatment that would bring them more into line with the rest. Only about one in ten of the blocks required treatment. Van den Ende was out to restore not just the stone but also the artistic vision of Jacob van Campen, who designed the town hall in the 1640s. They appealed to the neologism belevingswaarde (experience value) to allow the public to share in their ontstoring (de-disturbance) of the visual impression of the building.
Before and after photos by Wim Ruigrok (Rijksgebouwendienst) of a festoon on the facade of the royal palace in Amsterdam. On the photo to the left, the old pointing has been removed, showing a gap of more than a centimeter between blocks. The photo to the right shows how the points have been filled in with a fine paste close to the color of the stone. The cleaning of the festoon and the surrounding areas can only be called a dramatic improvement.
We then climbed onto the scaffolding to inspect the work at close quarters. It was a stunning experience to stand face-to-face with the monumental sculptures that tower fifty meters high over the square, and impressive to see how carefully the work was being carried out. Not power blasting, but lots of hand scraping, dry micro spraying for brightening, silicate chalking for darkening.
Before we hit the ground, I reversed my attitude and became a fan of the restoration. I could not fault the decisions that had been taken. What convinced me the most was the repointing (voegen) of the blocks. Originally, they were set in nearly dry masonry, with no more than two or three millimeters between stones. In the 1930s, during a major restoration, the disastrous decision was taken to cut out the upper and lower edges of the blocks with electric drills and fill in the gaps with Portland cement. The structural damage was considerable and the aesthetic damage even worse. In the current campaign, the cement between each and every block is being removed and replaced by fine, color-coordinated pointing that fills out the blocks and that from the ground should contribute toward the equalization that the team is after.
At a repeat performance at the University of Amsterdam, organized by Marten Jan Bok, on 19 January 2011, I took back my former critique and praised the project for its integrity.
In the meanwhile, however, another burning question had started to bother me. When the scaffolding was removed from part of the west facade, a striking difference in color between the upper and lower stories became visible. Beneath the broad cornice some twenty meters above the ground the flat stones are many times whiter than those above, while the projecting capitals are still blackish.
This effect was referred to in a talk at the colloquium by Timo Nijland of the Technical University in Delft, who provided technical expertise for the project. In the published report, his remarks are paraphrased approximately thus: “The hygric features of sandstone are also significant; the degree to which a given part of the facade is sensitive to the effects of water is affected by its position. That explains why the upper sections of the palace facade are somewhat darker than the lower sections.” However, nothing was said about measures taken to correct this effect. If the project was out to diminish the contrast between light and dark not just for today but for the future, surely the organizers should have been more interested in the cause and possible cure of this disparity.
At home, I rushed to Google for photos of other old monuments, and found example after example of the same thing.
Here, for example, are the cathedrals of Angouleme and Exideul. Of all the buildings I looked at – and I now look at all of them this way – the post-restoration royal palace on Dam Square has one of the sharpest and most pronounced color differences of all.
Should Het Parool republish its mock-up with a horizontal instead of a vertical divide? Is Jacob van Campen turning over in his grave after all?
Left: East facade, northern section, before restoration. Left: West facade, southern section, after restoration. The treatment or replacing of disturbingly discolored blocks is in itself a great improvement, but it may have sharpened the contrast between parts above and below the cornice. Notice that the window stiles, which were white, have been repainted in dark colors. This change, which helped unify the total effect of the facades, was criticized at the colloquium by Pieter Vlaardingerbroek as historically unjustified.
© Gary Schwartz 2011. Published on the Schwartzlist on 9 May 2011.
After the brief visit to Jerusalem in February I have unglued myself from my desk only twice; well, thrice. As nearly every year since it opened in 1988, we overcame our inborn aversion to display and luxury to attend the private view of The European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht on Thursday, 17 March. For hours on end, we suffered ourselves to be poured full of champagne, fed with class A finger and buffet food, and entertained with the best works on the art market and talks with lots of interesting people and old friends.
We returned on the first and second regular days of the fair, when you have to pay for your own food and drink, to do some more serious looking, including a visit to TEFAF on paper, with drawings, photographs and books. Thursday and Friday ended at the Bonnefantenmuseum, for the Afterparty following the private view, and a reception offered by the museum on the Friday to members of CODART, an international network of museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art. We once more curbed our enthusiasm and did not buy anything.
Why are we, like more than a hundred other impoverished colleague art historians and curators, invited year after year to this expensive event? My guess is that the art dealers who send us those gilded cards expect us to mingle with their wealthy clients and provide, through our informed interest, confirmation of the worthwhileness of the offerings. Indeed, it seems to work that way.
Our lodgings in Maastricht for the past five years have been at the home of an old friend, the artist, art teacher and collector of African artifacts Hans van Drumpt. Over the past decades he has visited sub-Sahara Africa 22 times and brought back a treasure of objects acquired in the places where they were made. His house in one of the most picturesque locations in the city is a fair unto itself.
Usually we travel directly from the TEFAF to the congress of CODART, of which Loekie and I are honorary members. This time we cut loose on Saturday morning for a visit to the Joos van Cleve exhibition in Aachen, returned to the TEFAF for a few hours and drove at the end of the day to Antwerp for dinner with friends from Amsterdam and then home for the night.
Joos van Cleve’s workshop practice was amazing. He would get a hold of an attractive Italian painting of a popular subject – the examples in the show were a Madonna and child and a painting of Jesus and John the Baptist as babies – and produce a stream of variations on the composition. For other paintings he would repeat motifs from one painting to the next, in industrial fashion. The director of the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Peter van den Brink, is in the vanguard of a generation of historians who study serial production with proper attention rather than relegating it to the cellars of their museums and crevices in their minds.
CODART met this year in Enschede, where we saw the exhibition of the eighteenth-century Dutch master Nicolaas Verkolje. Like the Joos van Cleve exhibition, this one too is an outstanding example of museums reconnoitering corners of art history that have been neglected. Both of these artists happen to be baby-lovers.
They go in for the chubby variety. (Left: Joos van Cleve, Jesus and John the Baptist, Madrid, Prado; right: Nicolaas Verkolje, Portrait of Sara Gallis. Hoorn, Westvries Museum)
At TEFAF, in the stand of Simon Dickinson, there was a rare example of a diminutive, premature-looking Baby Jesus in an Adoration of the Shepherds by the Monogrammist CVR. (My spelling checker wanted to correct this to Monogamist CVR, but until we identify the artist we can know nothing about his or her love life.)
In Brussels on the 28th and 29th of April I participated in a workshop on the art market organized by the department of economics of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. (I committed a Belgian faux-pas in my opening slide, identifying the university as the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the Flemish version of Université Libre, unaware that in 1969 the Walloons and Flemings had split the university into two separate institutions.) As it happens, on 20-21 May I have been invited to speak on the same subject at the European University of St. Petersburg. Loekie and I are looking forward to our first visit of the new century to a city we love. Between times I am editing English-language manuscripts written by non-native speakers for the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies and Amsterdam University Press.
All of this underwent a rude interruption when a dear friend died ten days ago. Willem Albert Wagenaar, a schoolmate of my wife’s since 1953, was one of the most exceptional people I have ever met, not only in his professional achievements but also in the warm personal bonds he maintained with hundreds of friends and colleagues. He was buried on Saturday, May 7th.
Another dear departed friend, Bob Cahn, used to tell me that Europeans were attached to law, Americans to justice. Whatever truth there may be in this, and however satisfied I am that Osama bin Laden was found and punished, I am nonetheless having a hard time understanding the choices made by the law professor Barack Obama and his repeated insistence that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a triumph of justice.
Gary Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940. In 1965 he came to the Netherlands with a graduate fellowship in art history and stayed. He has been active as a translator, editor, and publisher; teacher, lecturer, and writer; and as the founder of CODART, an international network organization for curators of Dutch and Flemish art.
As an art historian, he is best known for his books on Rembrandt: Rembrandt: all the etchings in true size (1977), Rembrandt, his life, his paintings: a new biography (1984) and The Rembrandt Book (2006). His Internet column, now called the Schwartzlist, appeared every other week from September 1996 to April 2007 and has been appearing since then irregularly. His most recent book on Rembrandt is one of the six titles nominated for the Banister Fletcher Award for the most deserving book on art or architecture of that year.
In November 2009 Schwartz was awarded the coveted tri-annual Prize for the Humanities by the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation of Amsterdam.
Please address reactions to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl
Very interesting and a nice read. I used to live in Amsterdam, so this is particularly close to my heart.