The Rijksmuseum: Seeing Dutch art with fresh eyes

After a painful 10-year closure, one of the world's great museums, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, reopens today after a triumphant revamp, says Andrew Graham-Dixon.
 A few days ago, Holland’s most famous painting, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, was processed through the streets of Amsterdam in a vast, reinforced steel box: a sealed carnival float for a carnival occasion, namely the grand reopening of the Rijksmuseum after a painful 10-year closure.
Local burghers clapped and cheered, bathed in the first rays of sunshine of a cold, cold year. Schoolchildren laughed. Dogs barked. Naked cyclists, male and female, paraded their immunity to the cold, and other attributes. The city behaved as if possessed.
Rembrandt’s painting was subsequently winched through the roof of Cuypers’s 19th-century architectural masterpiece: Amsterdam’s answer to the National Gallery, British Museum and V&A rolled into one. It was then hung in pride of place in the newly-restored Gallery of Honour.
The selfsame group of art handlers who had removed the painting more than a decade ago, when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation, had been rehired for the occasion – all of them working for different companies, some now in different jobs.
Their chests swelled with pride as the painting was lifted into place; they took photographs of each other on their mobile devices. Only in Holland. Can anyone imagine frostbitten Londoners clapping Stubbs’s Whistlejacket from Newmarket to Trafalgar Square? Or the greyly complacent Parisian bourgeoisie saluting the Mona Lisa along the Rue de Rivoli? Unlikely.
Yet there they were, the Dutch, clapping their most famous painting as it re-entered their pantheon of art from an unlikely airborne angle – applauding as enthusiastically as if Rembrandt were Nigel de Jong, scissor-kicking a Spanish footballer in the 78th minute of a game.
The world’s media gathered. Doughty habitués of such events pierced the cold air with their choice observations – none more so than Simon Schama, who declared Dutch history to be encapsulated, no less, by the story of Dutch art (he said it more eloquently than paraphrase can convey). Many of the world’s museum directors wept. Never has a national museum reopened to such scenes of fervency.
The tortuous story of the revamping of the Rijksmuseum is too long and tedious to revisit here, involving unbelievably mad negotiations with the Dutch cycling lobby (who have preserved their right to freewheel across the main atrium of the building, at least until – as the local black joke goes – the first Japanese tourist is mown down); several million euros spent diverting tracts of the sea, not to mention moving a couple of canals to enable below-sea-level expansion; and protracted arguments with the architects from Spain. So protracted, indeed, that at certain times in the past decade some have feared a second outbreak of Dutch-Hispanic animosity: another Eighty Years’ War.
Anyone wishing to know the full story, or something like it, may care to tune into BBC Four this coming Thursday, when I reveal all in a documentary which distils the story into a single thrilling hour, the climax to a landmark series about Dutch and Belgian art, The High Art of the Low Countries.
Suffice it to say here that the restored, extended and rejigged Rijksmuseum is a triumph of curatorial intelligence and sensitivity. Once again – at last – the world can experience the richness of the greatest art tradition ever produced by a tiny, sea-hemmed nation: from Vermeer to Van Gogh, Rembrandt to Mondrian. Book your tickets to Amsterdam now.