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Different Strokes: How To Tell A True Masterpiece Nowadays?

Vermeer-WwJugToday’s Wall Street Journal carried a review of the renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which reopens to the public on Saturday. It’s pretty much a rave, and I recommend it. But I found one passage extremely interesting and worthy of singling out and commenting on.

First, here’s the setup passage:

The museum’s director of collections, Taco Dibbits, and his curatorial staff have completely restructured the installation of the museum’s holdings for the renovated building, arranging 8,000 objects from the museum’s permanent collection (an increase of about 40% in the total number of objects displayed) across 80 galleries, 30 of which are devoted to 17th-century Dutch art—the so-called Golden Age. …

…Prior to the renovations, exhibits were organized according to department, with paintings, sculptures and applied arts completely segregated. But now, as is increasingly common in museums, a more chronological approach prevails, so that varied objects from a given era can be shown in tandem to give a sense of the period—fine art, for instance, may be seen alongside furniture, craft items or even machinery—beginning with the Middle Ages on the lower floors and culminating with the 20th century under the eaves of the tower galleries…

And now the important part:

Traditionalists will feel perfectly at home in the Gallery of Honor, where the greatest masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum’s 17th-century Dutch paintings collection—many of which, including Vermeer’s famed “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (1663-64) [at left], have recently been cleaned or restored—can be enjoyed in perfect tranquility, blissfully free from the video screens and iPad displays that have become the bane of modern museum-going. Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” (c. 1660) [above right] is not shown beside an earthenware jug, nor is Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride” (1667) hung beneath a wedding canopy. But elsewhere in the museum, an eclectic and at times whimsical approach does help to enliven the display by providing a rich context for less familiar works.

VermeerNow that says something to me. It signifies that some works of art — the very best — need no technology, no bells and whistles, to serve as explication. The Journal’s reviewer, Jonathan Lopez, endorses the museum’s bells and whistles, saying:

…For instance, a formidable military portrait of the Dutch naval hero Adm. Michiel de Ruyter hangs alongside plundered treasure—gold coins, mighty cannons, a carved bowsprit— that he wrested from Spanish ships in battle. Exhibits of this type not only help to fulfill the Rijksmuseum’s dual art and history mandate, but based on my own observations of how things worked in the Philips wing, they seem to be particularly effective in engaging the interest of children—a shrewd strategy.

But to me, the lack of helping aids in the Gallery of Honor speaks volumes — which is that the greatest works of art, works by the true masters, speak for themselves. The rest need help. Whether or not the curators intended it, they have tipped their hand on this question.



  1. Josh Reynolds says:

    So long as the Dutch don’t have an equivolent of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ to illustrate de Ruyter’s occupation as a military sea captain, – and who was his portrait by? – all of the accessories illustrate his place in the world for the Dutch public, and particularly their children. The treasures of the Rijks have no more need of bells and whistles than does the Rembrandt gallery at the Met or the Fragonard Room at the Frick. They speak for themselves. One is a work of art while the other is an illustration of history.

  2. I always appreciate approaching any work of art entirely without bells, whistles, or iAnythings. The work of art must speak for itself.

  3. Tom Brand says:

    On the policies of the Rijksmuseum…..
    My approach to many problems of identification is basically semantic. Words like “masterpiece”, “,superlative”, “the most”, are terms that speak of hiearchic thinking. I do not feel at all dimished in stature if my painting doesn’t get the accolades of a Rembrandt or Vermeer (both of which I admire greatly). I can enjoy a large painting by Titian in a gallery and the a visit to a neighboring gallery with a small watercolor, enjoy it with the similar pleasure. Of course I am an artist and as such, look at art with more discernment and impatiallity than the average museum goer. Lucky me.
    Tom Brand

    • Exactly my feelings,Its sad that art is subject to crude competitive judgements.After all is not beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder- one persons great art is anothers load of old toss.

  4. I had only skimmed the Journal review and had completely missed the significance of the passage you justly critique. Thanks for that. As a “traditionalist” (to quote the reviewer’s term), I would only add that works of art—even not-so-great ones—also have no need of explication via interpretive labels or audio guides (whose real purpose is to produce income for museums).

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  5. I essentially agree about not needing explanatory texts. Artworks do speak for themselves. But artworks speak a language, and if you haven’t learned the language, you may not hear what they are saying. Given what we know about how little arts education goes on in our public schools (art and music, both), I can understand that museum visitors may feel either intimidated or unequipped to appreciate a work of art on its own. The idea of just looking at something–really seeing it–is quite foreign to many museum goers (and underlies the frequent incomprehension of any form of abstract art). They need a hook–something representational or a narrative. Many viewers also seem completely ahistorical–anything from the past seems quaint or irrelevant. (It’s not a surprise that fashion exhibits by current big-name designers bring in crowds. Everyone can relate to that.)

    Well-chosen bells and whistles really can enhance a visitor’s experience, by being welcoming, reassuring, and informative. No one is forced to rent a guided tour or click on a screen, but if that helps some people get closer to the art, it seems to me that’s a good thing. I don’t mean it is OK to substitute for the art; just that helpful illumination is not bad. That said, it is disheartening to see people glance at picture for a second or two and then spend a minute or more reading the label.

  6. Mary Bosnick says:

    Interesting how many folks feel art should have no interpretation. Of course, if all great works actually did “speak for themselves” with the clarity some choose to believe, museums wouldn’t be in so much trouble now: people would be beating down the doors to see these works. The reality is that people need to be exposed to great works to enjoy them, and need some education and training to fully understand them, just as we need some help with great works of music, literature, philosophy, or any other intellectual undertaking. And if historical purpose genuinely serves no purpose in this endeavor, then why does every art school worth its salt in the world require art history courses? Context can enhance our understanding of everything, and it’s really only late 20th (and early 21st) century American arrogance that makes us believe we can’t learn anything from studying the people and works that came before us.

    • Thanks for your comment, but perhaps my post has been miscontrued. I certainly did not mean to imply that people should not study art history! The post was, rather, more about the growing prevalence, in some museums, of devices in the galleries. Going way beyond wall labels, which I certainly believe are necessary. The Rijksmuseum has answered the question of what is appropriate for its best masterpieces by letting them speak without aids, even while it adds aids for other works.

  7. I understand the feeling behind statements like ‘[great] works of art have no need of interpretive material’ and ‘[great] art speaks for itself’, but I think the answer depends on two things: firstly, the VIEWER’S art-appreciation experience, and secondly, the TYPE of interpretive material. Every day, many thousands of people stand in front of masterpieces like Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” and think, “Well, what now? I know this is a famous work of art and it’s supposed to be a ‘masterpiece’… but I wonder why?” What people like this really need is NOT biographical information about the artist, or related objects from the period, or anecdotes about the subject matter (although these things may make them FEEL that they’ve had a ‘richer’ experience of the work of art). What they do need are things that might help them build connections between the art they see in front of them and their own ‘world’. They may also benefit from some carefully chosen commentary that suggests WHY this particular work of art might be special, why it’s regarded as standing above so many others like it. But if the interpretive commentary makes assumptions, particularly about the viewer’s art experience, and uses unsupported superlatives, it will probably have the opposite effect: confirming the viewer’s self-assessment as someone ‘who doesn’t know much about art’.

  8. Rick van der Weide says:

    I don’t really understand the point here. As a Dutchman I can tell you the Rijksmuseum is not just seen as a museum, but a part of Dutch identity. I think the idea for exposing the art has a lot to do with Dutch education. Just like in every country Dutch children have to learn the history of their own country. This includes the Dutch Golden Age. One of the stories is of course that of Admiral de Ruyter, who managed to destroy the Britis royal fleet near Chatham. Although a lot of history books include pictures, these stories are often joined by different pictures. Either a portrait of De Ruyter, his grave in the New Church in Amsterdam, or a painting of the Dutch fleet: what matters is the story, not the picture. However, just like Spanish children learn to recite all their great writers and poets, the Dutch also learn to recite and recognize their most famous painters and artworks. The reason why the portrait of De Ruyter needs support is for it’s story. Vermeer’s Milkmaid doensn’t need that because for the Dutchmen “The Milkmaid” as such IS the story. In the case of “the Jewish Bride”, although experts do know who the people on the painting are, historically they’re not so important. We don’t learn who they are. If the couple of “the Jewish Bride” represented the Dutch stadtholder and his wife, it would have probably been supported with other objects.
    The question you should be asking is not whether the “Jewish Bride” is better than De Ruyter’s portrait. There are a lot of paintings in the Gallery of Honor of an equally quality as that portrait. The question is whether the backgroundstory of the painting is worth mentioning as well. Not in the case of the “Jewish Bride” or “The Merry Drinker” or “The Windmill of Wijk Bij Duurstede”, but it is in the case of De Ruyter’s portrait.

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