Last night I attended the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery; “Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art Masterpieces from The Rijksmuseum.” I went with a friend who is also interested in art history so we tended to discuss details and techniques a lot. Though you could zip through the show in about 20 minutes, we took two hours. The show was bigger than I was expecting. In the past, some of the VAG shows were really lacking so it was a pleasant surprise.
The works included mostly paintings, some etchings, charcoal and brush sketches, drypoint work, watercolors of plants, blown glass goblets and containers, Delft ceramic tiles and vessels and silver items (and a few miniature chairs, 6 inches high). Although Vermeer and Rembrandt were featured as the main (or most famous) attractions, there was a myriad of works by other Dutch masters, many who had been trained by Rembrandt. A few of the names I remember from the show are: Gerard Ter Borch (quite a few pieces), Frans Hals, Karel du Jardin, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Aelbert Cuyp, Salomon van Ruysdael, Hobbema, Visscher, etc.
The pictures ranged in size from small etchings and sketches (4-5 inches) up to five foot paintings. Many were either in original or very old wooden frames. I wished there had been more detail on the frames but we realised that the makers were probably lost in antiquity as just nameless craftsmen. One frame was carved with leaves and berries, a blank shield at the top and an odd woodsy, gnome face at the bottom. It was a true work of art in itself and about three inches in depth.
The images themselves ranged from watercolors of plants and portraits. to pastoral images, cityscapes, mythical and iconic images, still lifes of fruit, flowers, vessels, dead animals, portraits of course and daily life scenes. Overall it was a very good cross section of the Golden Age of Dutch art. Not many of the paintings were ones that I am familiar with, and I have looked at a good many books of medieval and renaissance art, but many were recognizable as being by one person or the next.
Four glass vessels were in the show; three drinking glasses and a flask in blue with engraved swirls and words on it. The other three were blown glasses and the plainest was also very interesting. It was a small cylindrical beaker of about 4 inches in height, of very clear glass (harder to attain in those eras) and with a few decorations that looked like wriggly worms with hands at the end, in clear and teal blue glass. I found the decoration, which covered the lower quarter of the glass, almost modern in its design. The glass vessels were also included to compliment the paintings which had similar or exact goblets in the images.
The silver items were amazingly shiny and looked brand new. I believe that the museums must have cleaned and polished them at the point of acquiring them. There were platters, ewers, spice sets, candlesticks, containers and a Jewish menorah. Many were covered with flowers and chasework, and sometimes whimsical creatures or raised motifs and arms. It would have been nice to have had more of a write-up beside these pieces. I wanted to know if they were molded, hammered, chased, or other techniques but they were probably like the glass vessels, meant to compliment images in the paintings.
The paintings were all behind glass, put into the frames. All of the three-dimensional artifacts were in Plexiglas cases on graphite metal stands, very sturdy and no way they could be knocked over. VAG is notorious for being somewhat lower grade when it comes to museum security, a reason that the truly great pieces of art don’t always make it to Vancouver. There were the requisite guards/watchers in every room. Several guys had that CIA look with a cord wriggling into their ears and walkies in their hands, but were professional and inobtrusive. The rest were probably volunteers and not “real” security.
This caused its own problem near the end, after we had been walking around the exhibition for nearly two hours. My friend and I discussed pieces, looking closely at brushstrokes and details, or how a hand, a vessel or a building had been rendered. We talked about qualities of light, colors used, whether a piece was faded, the faces realistic, the towns real or fantasy, the landscapes, etc. as well as the difference from one master or one painting to another. I need reading glasses for up close and used them to see the fine detail of the paint, which brought me within a few inches of the painting.
I’m very well aware of museum protocols and would never touch a painting or drawing (though almost all were under glass anyways) because I know the damage these would cause. So as my friend and I talked about the works she or I would point out something in a painting, using a finger to point. At one point I leaned in to look at a small painting and put my hand on the edge of the metal stand of the display right next to the painting. In swooped a watcher and told me not to touch the stand. I was hardly jeopardizing the piece or the stand.
The next and last room had paintings ranging in size down to a smaller piece about eight-twelve inches long. As we discussed the image of the woman taking off her stockings (a painting I have seen before) in her bedroom, I pointed out the lines that her garters had left on her legs. In swooped the socially inept watcher to say, don’t touch the paintings. I pointed out that I wasn’t and she replied, your fingers don’t have eyes so they don’t need to be so close. ??? WTF? This did irritate me in the rudeness and inanity of it all. And we had done this throughout the full exhibition only to have this creature at the end get proprietary with her little ounce of power. I wrote a letter to the VAG, not that it will do much good (years ago I used to volunteer there until they started charging their volunteers–yep, pay to volunteer).
All in all, I thought it was a good show and a great chance to see the actual works of the Dutch masters that I had not seen before in person. The admission isn’t cheap at $20.50. (I believe Tuesday nights might be free but you’d have to check that.) If you’re used to museums in England and Scotland where they are now mostly free, it’s a lot. Luckily I had a pass, but it was worth it, except for the few troglodyte guard dogs.