Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs. They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants. The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.
Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry. They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs.
For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo. Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021.
There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown. I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague. The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.
As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport. The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education. There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?
I’m reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters at the moment. It is set in Britain during the Victorian era. It’s an atmospheric and descriptive read that conjures images in the mind of the reader of life in the back streets of London, life in a country house and at points also a lunatic asylum. Waters’ writing is excellent at pulling you into these worlds, the people, the struggles of life and in the case of Fingersmith, the deceptions that could play out in these places.
I travelled to The Drendtsmuseum in the northern Dutch town of Assen to catch the last day of the Sprezzatura – fifty years of Italian painting 1860-1910 exhibition, wondering whether my insights from Waters’ book may be relevant in the way I viewed the exhibition. The seventy or so paintings from various Italian museums cover very much the Victorian period. In the end though, I have to conclude that I found only limited parallels and overlaps. Britain in the second half of the of the nineteenth century was of course a very different place in comparison to the newly established and unified country of Italy. Equally, northern Europe and southern Europe were in terms of landscape, traditions and politics also very different places.
The exhibition pitches in on trying to catch the diversity of artistic focuses in this period, but ultimately seems to get a little stranded in the middle ground between thematic approaches that artists took in their choice of content in the their work and technical and painterly innovations and developments.
We move from history painting to travel paintings, from gritty realism to luscious handling in idealized figure painting and from innovative painterly technical experiments to gushing symbolism. There is also space for sentimentality and tragedy. All in all, although I really quite enjoyed looking at the displayed work, it left me feeling a little confused by the switch from one sub-group of paintings to the next.
Italy must have been a country searching for an identity in this turbulent period, and in this sense the curating of the exhibition may well be an appropriate and fitting approach. But in terms of a clear direction or theme that helps the viewer work their way through an exhibition it was a difficult path to find.
In the train on the way home I’ll be returning to my book. Fingersmith certainly has an easier narrative to follow.