An exhibition should tell stories

Curator Pieter Roelofs on presenting the Dutch Golden Age

MúzeumCafé 45.

Pieter Roelofs, curator of the Rijksmuseum’s collection of 17th-century painting, had time only for a flying visit to Budapest. Roelofs is a highly regarded expert. The largest and most important collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age has been committed to his care. Although he was extremely busy in the autumn – a large-scale Rembrandt exhibition staged jointly with the Rijksmuseum opened in London’s National Gallery before the Budapest one, and he hurried to the opening of the new Philips Wing in the Rijksmuseum straight from the airport after returning from Budapest – he felt he could not miss the opening of the exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age … if only because the Rijksmuseum, apart from Stockholm’s National Gallery, was the most important partner of the Museum of Fine Arts in preparing the display. Roelofs agreed with Hungarian experts on the list of nearly 20 loaned artworks and wrote studies about several exhibited paintings for the catalogue. He confirmed that they had gladly loaned the works because the concept behind the Budapest exhibition and the well-grounded preparation were convincing. He wanted to know how the treasures of his museum ‘felt themselves’ in their temporary home and his words of appraisal did not seem to reflect merely politeness. Apart from the exhibition in Budapest, many themes were raised in the interview, including his experience about the reconstruction of the Rijksmuseum and its operation since reopening, the recently revived discussion about the attribution of Rembrandt’s works and how the painting of the Golden Age has contributed to today’s Dutch economy and tourism. Pieter Roelofs believes that the essence of an exhibition is that it should tell visitors stories. Besides staging several exhibitions in the Rijksmuseum, he contributed to preparing the recently opened large-scale exhibition Rembrandt – the Late Works at London’s National Gallery. After London it will be displayed in Amsterdam. He is currently involved in preparing the exhibition Asia in Amsterdam, which will present the treasures of early 17th-century trade between Holland and Asia and the influence it had in relation to the development of art. The reconstruction of the Rijksmuseum, which lasted for ten years, meant that a whole generation of school children were not able to visit its exhibitions. The project Every Child to the Night Watch, launched jointly with the National Lottery Fund, provides finance for school children to get to Amsterdam. Indeed, the public regards Rembrandt among the greatest of the nation. Among artists only Van Gogh and Mondrian enjoy a similar prestige in Holland. Dutch visual culture was extremely developed during its Golden Age. According to historical documents and inventory records, original paintings, prints and reproductions could be found not only in the homes of well-to-do families but even in distant farmhouses. The demand for art, which could be called extraordinary for those times, was satisfied by several thousand painters of whom only a small fraction painted ‘full-time’. The rest obtained other income from elsewhere, such as in the art trade. The number of artworks at the time in Holland has been estimated at somewhere between six and ten million. It is thus no wonder that painters emerged who are today considered among the greatest in universal art history. Needless to say, by today a larger number of the many works of art have been destroyed or scattered across the world. The Rijksmuseum’s collection of that era contains some four and a half thousand items, 10-15 per cent of which are displayed in the permanent exhibition. There are 25 works by Rembrandt and the museum has four paintings by Vermeer. At present, the 17th-century collection is increasing, yet only by one or two items on average annually. In order to acquire those the museum employs some of its own resources, but there are sponsors as well as the generous members of the international circle of the friends of the museum. The guiding principle is for the collection to move around. The museum has to reach out to people who cannot travel. Pieter Roelofs, is the curator of 17th-century Dutch Painting in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. After studying art history and archaeology at the University of Nijmegen and the Istituto Neerlandese in Rome, he worked as a curator of old masters at the Museum Het Valkhof of Nijmegen. He has been working at the Rijksmuseum since 2006. He has curated a variety of exhibitions including Hendrick Avercamp; the little ice age (2009), Gabriel Metsu (2010) and Rembrandt, Claudius Civilis (2014). During reconstruction of the museum Roelofs participated in refurbishing the new gallery of 17th-century painting. At present he is working on a Hercules Seghers exhibition to be staged jointly with the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His book on Rembrandt for children will be published this year.