How do you go about presenting a great work of art? Mount it in a gilded hall, with velvet sofas, or hang it in a plain room among its contemporary works, as an equal? If we look to the iconic museums of the world for an answer, we find there is no consensus. While the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia has dedicated an entire hall to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, the Mauritshuis Museum has positioned the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ in a corner room, among twelve other paintings and 2 sculptures, with only a subtle green backboard to hint at its elevated status.
In Amsterdam, The Rijksmuseum – which houses Holland’s greatest collection of masterpieces – subscribes heavily to the canonisation of art. Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, target for a school teacher’s bread knife in 1975, an acid spray can in 1990, and KLM’s advertising campaign (in which it was referred to as ‘Rembrandt’s spectacular failure’), now stands tall and dignified in the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Hall of Honour’, as the only painting to be left in situ during the recent €375m renovation of the museum. ‘The Night Watch’ forms the ‘altarpiece’ of the magnificent cathedral-like hall, a hall which accommodates, as its name suggests, only the greatest paintings by the most celebrated and distinguished artists of the 17th century.
But my immediate reaction to its gawking crowd was cynicism. Isn’t there a risk that the grandeur of such a space and the celebrity of the work, will make it difficult for viewers to use their independent judgement? While this central space was teeming with people, the newly-opened Philips Wing at the extremities of the building, housing a fascinating temporary exhibit on the developments of photography in the 20th-century, had no audience. If the ‘Mary, Egg and Croissant’, William Klein’s photograph (which changed the face of fashion photography with its use of an innovative lens that pressed together the foreground and background of an image), had been positioned in the ‘Hall of Honour’, I’m sure it would have merited much more attention from the eager crowd.
The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton seems to have reacted in a similar way to me. In his summer installation, he covered the museum with yellow post-it notes, each with written suggestions of what he imagines is on the viewers’ minds as they observe the paintings. The sticky note positioned beside ‘The Night Watch’ challenged the apparent reverence of the crowd of viewers: “I can’t bear busy places – I wish this room was emptier” was his provocative line.
But as I drew closer to the jewel of the collection, my cynicism subsided. This painting commanded an independent authority; it had been “born great”, and needed no greatness “thrust upon it”. Whether it was the work’s extraordinary dynamism, which stood out among the surrounding militia paintings, its in-built spotlight, achieved by Rembrandt’s unprecedented experimentation with light, or the mesmerising expression of the leading officer, I’m not sure. It was clear to me however, that the painting was honouring the hall and the visitors’ gaze, not vice versa.
As I considered it further, I then realised I was wrong to treat the painting as so separable from its environment. The idea of looking at the masterpiece in a quiet studio, rather than between multiple phone screens, may seem more attractive, but the experience would not have been the same. When you see a painting in a gallery, you are seeing more than a canvas; you see its historical, social, and political dimensions, and by doing so, implicate yourself in the contextual structure. No painting is an island, independent from time and space. After all, it wouldn’t have been given the name ‘The Night Watch’ in the 19th century, if the dirtying effect of time hadn’t given the scene a nocturnal appearance. Once it was cleaned, it became clear that daylight was in fact pouring into a dark room. But by this point, the name had stuck, and it was branded by its dialogue with the outside world. The crowds may be annoying, as de Botton suggests, but they are a part of the power of the painting, and the phenomenon that surrounds it.