It Happened at the Rijksmuseum


I love Rembrandt.  I don’t know why.  Something about the way he paints eyes that seem to look directly inside me.  I especially love this self portrait he painted at a later age.  It was a time in his life where things were not going too well for him.  His beloved first wife had died and his career as an artist was stagnating.  He had been in favour and now he was not.  The expression on his face seems to convey both weariness and defiance.  Although life is not great you can see his internal sense of self is undiminished.  Battered but not beaten.

Last June we were in Amsterdam and I was excited to visit the newly renovated Rijksmuseum.  This would combine a trip to an architecturally interesting renovation with the ability to see many of the Rembrandt’s that had been unavailable to the last time we were there.  It turns out there was a third treat in store for me.  One of my favourite authors, Alain de Botton was the Curator of a show at the Museum called, Art is Therapy, based on a book he had written with Co-Curator John Armstrong called Art as Therapy.

Alain di Botton

I had not heard of his book and I was intrigued by his presence at such a venerable  institution as the Rijksmuseum. The premise of both the book and the show was that Art should have a point and that point should be to improve the lives of its viewers.  The authors take exception to the way art is portrayed and viewed in the modern world and feel that Art Galleries and Museums totally miss the point.  This has not made them very popular with the art world. But, as I know from my wife Dita, the Dutch are very open to new ideas and concepts.  Alain happened to be at a cocktail party with Wim Pijbes the General Director of the Rijksmuseum.  After reading his book, Wim immediately invited de Botton to curate a show encouraging a more accessible approach to the viewing of art, even down to a neon sign on the front of the historical museum declaring Art is Therapy.


Throughout the museum squares of yellow paper posed an alternative view of certain important works.  Rather than describing an historical period or style, the curators create  an emotional context such as tenderness, love, anxiety or sorrow.  Talking about what the works might invoke inside the viewer rather than their status in the art world was intended to make art, even and especially the great masters, more accessible to the human experience now.De Joodse bruid, Rijksmuseum

In one very exciting moment for me, Dita and I were sitting and looking at this painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride, The accompanying note talked about the tenderness displayed and how hard it is to maintain that newly wed tenderness in our relationships over time. I was reflecting on that in terms of my own relationship, (Dita and I had just gotten married after twenty five years together), when I happened to glance behind me and saw Alain de Botton and John Cameron watching the public reaction to their show.  So now I can say I truly have been a part of the curatorial experience. A living example of Art is Therapy!

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