LEAP | Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
APPEALS FOR WHEELS | Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, The Opening of Openings: the long-awaited relaunch of the Rijksmuseum, newly remodeled by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz. After a decade-long renovation, a lousy 375 million euro, and tons of asbestos, the home of the Dutch Masters was finally to welcome the public again. And with this, Amsterdam re-clinched her “Big Three”: The Stedelijk Museum for modern art opened last year after being closed for 8 years, and the ever-popular Van Gogh museum, in the beginning of this year after smaller renovations.
Together with 20,000 visitors, the abdicating Queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix, came to commemorate the crowning highlight: The reunion of the famous “daily life” paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, and Mondriaan. Wandering through the museum and reunited with the old masters again, it became obvious what the past decade had missed. It was the typical Dutch phenomenon of portraying people in their everyday life. From the eighteenth-century Renaissance untill now, the debate about “high” and “low” culture never really obtained a foothold in the tiny sea-hemmed nation. It was the “vulgar” scenes that the Dutch did—and still do—best. While the rest of Europe was celebrating a high-culture Renaissance rebirth, the Golden Age Dutchmen kept on painting their tawdry domestic scenes. In the legendary Dutch light there were servants peeling potatoes, girls of easy virtue, poor families working the fields, and pigs playing in mud. It was the start of the Dutch democracy. The freedom of speech. Art became the possession of the people and not of the aristocracy. The people were worth portraying. Giving the ordinary man a face and a voice.
And maybe that’s why the most debated subject in town right after the opening wasn’t Rembrandt’s Nachtwacht, nor was it the beautiful new ceilings by Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright. It was the so-called fietstunnel. The famous bike passage in the middle of the Rijksmuseum, separating its east and west wings. To keep the center connected with the south part of the city, architect Pierre Cuypers designed the heavily debated passage in 1885. Since then, several museum directors have tried to close and integrate the passage into the museum. Cruz y Ortiz won the re-building contest in 2001, even, proposing to eliminate the passage to make way for a new entrance.
Yet the directors and architects didn’t reckon on the Dutch bicyclists. In Amsterdam there are more bikes than people. Universally accessible for all ages, from the poorest to the richest (including the royal family), the bike is as Dutch as windmills, freedom, and marijuana. The Rijksmuseum itself is full of paintings and pictures from proud Dutchies posing with their two wheels. The photoportraits of Henry Pauw van Wieldrecht in the 1880s, Raimond Wouda’s portrayal modern everyday life in the Netherlands…in these, one finds an image-based history of this ubiquitous, everyday workhorse of the nation. If you touch the right to cycle, you touch the Dutch soul.
Understandably, then, Amsterdammers were enraged that the passage was going to be shut. What followed was a dirty ten-year dispute between The Fietsersbond (Dutch Cyclists’ Union), the director of the museum and its architects, and the government of Amsterdam. There were popular Facebook pages with poetic names as “The Rijksmuseum, oh how I would love to bike through it again!” Eventually, two weeks ago, the small Fietsersbond conquered the heavyweights, and won.
Conclusion? The Rijksmuseum is as central to Dutch life as are bicycles and democracy. The museum is both a conservator of historical objects and visions, and an object of history itself. By keeping the glazed cycle passage open, the Rijksmuseum showed how it is as shaped by the fashions of the day as it is the traditions of their past. If you stand in front of the Rijksmuseum now, you will see the most beautiful frame possible for a moving picture. Filled with bikes, right through the heart of Dutch life today.
This article was first published in LEAP #20 , spring 2013