Visual Arts Feature: Museum Hopping Through Europe
By Gary Schwartz
The Fuse’s man in Europe is a museum junkie. During the second half of 2011, he got to lots of new destinations, and he found new museums almost everywhere he went. This installment is about Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Belgium.
Living in the Netherlands, I have gotten used to the idea that the leading museums in the country are in permanent renovation, with reopening dates that leapfrog over each other year by year. The main building of the Rijksmuseum went into major renewal in December 2003, in a project that was to be completed in 2008 and is now rescheduled for 2013.
The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, now known as Temporary Stedelijk 3, closed the very same month in 2003. In February 2006, the final plan for the restoration was approved, with reopening announced for 2008. As of February 2012, the building has been opened partially in fits and starts, but a new opening date for the entire building has yet to be released. On the reasons behind these planning perversions, I will not go into here. They deserve to be the subject of a muckraking book.
Let us hope that the vicarious trauma that these events generated have disquieted the directors and staff of the Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis sufficiently so that they will not promise more than they can deliver after their museums close in May 2012 for adding a new, underground entrance, to be completed in mid-2014 (Mauritshuis) and October 2012, for a six-month, asbestos-removal campaign (Van Gogh Museum; announced last year but not yet mentioned on the museum website). If all goes as announced, as of two months from now, three of these four top museums will be completely closed, and the fourth not quite open.
It therefore gave an extra kick on recent trips to Tallinn, Riga, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing, to find new museums everywhere I went. (In Helsinki, Hangzhou, Paris, and Versailles, I didn’t get around to looking for new museums.) All of this city-name dropping is intended as well as an excuse for having been remiss in writing new columns in 2011.
Helsinki (August 14–16): I nonetheless open with Helsinki, for two new museum experiences. Arriving there on a Sunday afternoon, Loekie and I discovered that the only museum open on Monday was the Amos Anderson Art Museum. This turned out to be a fortunate circumstance, since we might otherwise not have been introduced to twentieth-century Finnish art. Amos Anderson (1878–1961) was a wealthy industrialist with a phenomenally wide range of cultural interests. A childless bachelor, he bequeathed his fortune to the Föreningen Konstsamfundet Foundation, which runs a museum in Helsinki and a house museum in Söderlångvik on the island of Kemiö.
The exhibition that we saw was Constructors of light, on Finnish painting of the 1940s and ‘50s. The title and the period labels were a bit heavy-handed. Not every artist in the country painted depressed pictures in the Depression or reflected the light of postwar relief. The artists were less oppressed by historical determinism than the curators. What was new about the exhibition is that all the displays belonged to foundations rather than individuals or governments. In 2006 a group of these foundations got together to form the Association of Finnish Fine Arts Foundations, which struck us as an excellent initiative deserving of being replicated elsewhere. Loekie thought I should do the job in the Netherlands, but so far I have politely declined.
The Sinebrychoff Art Museum, too, was founded as a private project, but it is now part of the Finnish National Museum. We were shown around by CODART member Minerva Keltanen, who is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on an iconographically puzzling Dutch painting about which I was unfortunately unable to tell her anything she did not already know. The museum has one painting that has always been considered to be a Rembrandt, an attribution that is now a bit shaky. Before I could examine, it I had to wait for longer than half an hour, while a couple stood stock-still and silent before it. When they finally moved on, I asked them whether they were art historians. The man answered. “No,” he said, “I am an artist. Rembrandt is my favorite painter, and I did not know that this museum had one of his works.” I was in awe of the two of them as well as of Rembrandt. I advised Minerva not to change the label. (On March 8, 2012, the new catalog of paintings in the Sinebrychoff, edited by Minerva, won the Most Beautiful Book of the Year Award for 2011 at the National Library of Finland.)
The evening service of the catamaran Karolin took us in an hour and a half from Helsinki to Tallinn, on what Wikipedia calls the busiest ferry route in the Baltic.
Tallinn (August 17–19): The entire old city is one overcrowded, open-air museum. The only locals there work for the township and the tourist trade. We loved it anyway.
On our first walk, at the Orthodox church in the upper town, we ran into one of the four people—CODART members, of course—we know in Tallinn. Helena Risthein is one of the most enthusiastic and cooperative colleagues in the museum world. She had been waiting for the 13 years of our acquaintance for us to come to her city, and now that we had, there she was. She works at the Kumu (an acronym for Kunst Museum) Art Museum, the new pride and joy of the Estonian world of culture. To my pleasant astonishment, I found that one of the running exhibitions came from Ghent: a large, ambitious show on the drawings of James Ensor and Jules de Bruycker. I was impressed. The architecture is adventurous without sacrificing functionality, with large spaces reminiscent of the Tate Modern and the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago; the facilities, including those behind the scenes, looked up to date.
We took far too little time for the collection and for the featured exhibition, on the too little-known, Russian, avant-garde artist Pawel Filonov (1882/83–1941). We had a light, early dinner with Helena and the director, Anu Liivak, while the restaurant was filling with visitors who had signed up for a meal and an intensive, hours-long study visit to the exhibition with the curator. It did not surprise me that the Estonian government uses Kumu as a premier reception venue for foreign dignitaries. What did surprise me, most pleasantly, was that the museum was able to attract an audience for important but little-known artists from abroad.
Kadriorg Palace, built in the eighteenth and rebuilt in the early nineteenth century: garden and facade, reception hall.
The museum is located in Kadriorg Park, a few kilometers out of town, which also houses the Kadriorg Art Museum. (Closed for renovation from July 1 to December 31, 2012.) This spectacular eighteenth-century palace, founded by Tsar Peter I, is home to the Old Master collection of the Art Museum of Estonia, which has four branches. The accusation often hurled at new museums—that the building is more important than the collection—certainly applies to the Kadriorg, though more with regard to the adornments than the architecture itself. Personally, I enjoy a high-class museum ambiance without feeling the need to judge it against the holdings. Higher-class than the reception hall of the Kadriorg they don’t come.
The display was recently revised by director Kadi Polli and curator Greta Koppel. We went through the galleries of Dutch and Flemish paintings, organized thematically and clarified with excellent wall texts that also comment on the rooms themselves and the provenance of the paintings.
The treatment in the Tallinn City Museum, in a medieval mansion, of Alfred Rosenberg, a native son who became one of the most vicious Nazis of the Third Reich, and of Joseph Stalin, who ruled the country in the postwar, Soviet occupation, is a sign that Estonia has not yet found a way to come to terms with the most extreme aspects of its twentieth-century history.
The recommended means of traveling from Tallinn to Riga is the bus. Apparently relations between post-Soviet Estonia and Latvia have not yet allowed for the restoration of the rail line that is plain to see on Google Earth and is undoubtedly in use for domestic travel on either side of the border. As the crow flies, the distance between the two cities is 280 kilometers, but train service takes you on a 930 kilometer-long detour requiring an overnight stay in St. Petersburg. The bus was comfortable, and the four-hour trip along the Baltic coast was fine, although the view is limited largely to a monoculture of same-size timber.
Riga Bourse Art Museum on Cathedral Square, Riga. “Built [as the Riga stock exchange] between 1852 and 1855, it was designed by the German-born St Petersburg architect Harald Julius von Bosse (1812–1894).”
The excuse for our three-Baltic-country trip was an invitation to the inauguration of a new fine arts museum in Riga. The Riga Bourse Art Museum is installed in the mid-nineteenth-century stock exchange building in a perfect location on Cathedral Square. The building has lots of glamour and lots of potential
The opening exhibition came from the Netherlands. Christian Jörg of the Groninger Museum brought a first-class choice of Chinese and Dutch porcelain from Groningen and Leeuwarden, which he arranged by form and painted motif. This enabled him to demonstrate with ease the fascinating east-west exchanges in the production of that unrivaled variety of ceramic.
Anu Liivak and Kadi Pollo also came in from Tallinn for the opening. Looking through their eyes at the results in Riga, after all the thought and innovation they had bestowed on the Kadriorg and Kumu, I had to admit that the Riga Bourse Art Museum did not make use of its potential to the same degree.
The furnishing of the Old Master galleries is inspired by the Hermitage, imposing a rather static stamp on the presentation, aggravated by the double-row hanging, which places some finely detailed paintings out of view. Although I did not get to talk about this with the director, my old friend Daiga Upeniece, I could imagine that the effort she bestowed on the building and its installation was as much as was humanly, museologically, financially, and politically possible.
This view of the matter was bolstered by what we learned about another recent contribution to Riga museology that was shown to us proudly by its founding father, Ojars Sparitis. In 2000 he succeeded, against all odds, in restoring one of the crown jewels of Riga architecture and social life, the headquarters of the Black Heads, a society of well-bred Latvians across from the town hall. He told us how close to impossible it was to bring the project to fruition—and how pleased the city and state governments were to take credit for it and overuse it once it was complete.
Another cultural monument that serves heavy government duty in Latvia is Rundale Palace, which should be an hour’s drive from Riga but which we reached only after two-and-a-half hours in traffic and road construction. In its way, Rundale, too, is a spin-off of Russian glory. It was built in the mid-eighteenth century by the Italian architect who built much of the Hermitage, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Much of the glory of Rundale was lost on me when some nerves in my back short-circuited, and the next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair for the first time in my life. (My back reconditioning sessions are now protecting me from relapses, as long as I keep going to them twice a week for an hour-and-a-half.)
CODART, the international network of curators for Dutch and Flemish art that I founded in 1998 with the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage and to which I thank my precious acquaintance with museum colleagues in 45 countries, organized a visit on October 10, 2011 to a new city museum in Antwerp, MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom). The visit took place, as CODART excursions often do, on a day when the museum was closed to the public. We were privileged guests of the city. MAS dominates a square in the old, rundown, seaman’s neighborhood, which it is beginning to endow with a small version of the Bilbao Guggenheim effect. It was an expensive, risky bet taken by the city that its reputation, history, and holdings in art and material history, housed in an exciting building, would draw the crowds.
To judge by the attendance figures, the bet paid off. In the first six months, the museum received 600,000 visitors. By way of comparison, the Amsterdam Museum (which changed its name from Amsterdam Historical Museum last year, to show how with it they are) welcomed 240,000 visitors during all 12 months of 2011. Antwerp is probably still losing money on the MAS, and the museum had to accept some disadvantages (overstrained glass and tile in the construction) and compromises (there is really not enough space for the core presentation on the history of Antwerp).
But the museum has a rare combination of openness and mystique, which combined with some exciting views of and from the building will keep attracting people. Not all of them will drench themselves in history and art, but some will.
The section of the six-story museum, whose navigation system can do with improvement, that according to museum statistics drew most visitors was the viewing depot, where you can walk along racks and open drawers to see objects for which there is no room in the permanent display. One can say that MAS—and I feel something of the same in Kumu—has succeeded in stimulating the curiosity of the public, which we all have, as well as its interest in history and culture, which is less widespread.
© Gary Schwartz 2012.
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.
Responses always welcome at Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl.