Interview Friso Lammertse Interviewed

March, 2020

He starts off by emphasizing how much he loves Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, where he had worked since 1992 as curator of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, and says he would have been very happy to stay there. However, the museum is closing for several years and he received an offer that he simply couldn’t refuse. After almost 28 years, curator Friso Lammertse is leaving Rotterdam for the capital and becoming curator of seventeenth-century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum.

“At 57 years of age, I’m delighted to have the prospect of spending the next ten years working at the Rijksmuseum. And it’s also good for Boijmans to have a different person in charge of the collection for a change. I’m familiar with the Rijksmuseum’s collection. The Jewish Bride is one of the few paintings that has actually made me cry – well, that brought tears to my eyes. And those Vermeers! And Caesar van Everdingen, who made the painting with which I posed in the photo for the press release. That’s another artist with whom I have a special relationship.”

Friso Lammertse with Caesar van Everdingen's <em>Allegory of Winter</em> in the Rijksmuseum

Friso Lammertse with Caesar van Everdingen’s Allegory of Winter in the Rijksmuseum

Lammertse was surrounded by art from infancy: hardly strange, considering his father is an architect and his mother was an art teacher. Friso became enchanted by the art collection at Boijmans as a young boy. He recalls an occasion on which he accompanied his mother to Rotterdam. He had told her he was only willing to go if she promised to take him to Boijmans. The Glorification of the Virgin by Geertgen tot Sint Jans had a magical effect on him. While all his classmates were listening to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, fourteen-year-old Friso was poring over the volumes of Friedländer’s Early Netherlandish Painting. The real, decisive turning point was on a visit to London, where he saw the Arnolfini portrait. Suddenly, everything fell into place. “That you can be spirited away to the past in an instant: some masterpieces can actually achieve that. Suddenly you find yourself in the fifteenth century. Art can transport you to a different age and conceptual universe. I was captivated by that combination of art and history.”

In 1980 he embarked on his first course in  art history at the University of Amsterdam. It was an era in which it was forbidden to refer to “beauty,” when Marxism ruled supreme, and written documents were considered the only reliable sources. “Hessel Miedema was always driving home the importance of researching sources, of going back to the historical ‘truth.’ Rudi Fuchs, at that time director of the Van Abbe Museum, said precisely the opposite: he said it’s unavoidable when you’re looking at a Saenredam that you will have a Mondriaan at the back of your mind. Miedema dismissed that as a ridiculous idea. And as a young student, you think ‘Absolutely, Miedema!’ – but now I’m quite sure that Fuchs was right. You can never step entirely outside your own time and we can never view art in the same way as someone from the seventeenth century.”

Did you also study early art during this undergraduate course?

“No, hardly anyone was interested in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the time. Anyway, we have incredibly little information about it, which makes writing about it so difficult. Quite often we’re not even sure about the artists’ real names: we have to call them ‘the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines’ etc. When it comes to the seventeenth century, we have far more sources. And artists like Van Dyck and Rubens, were such larger-than-life characters, which makes it easier to write about them. You have more material to help you figure out why someone made certain choices. Explaining things in terms of history, why art looked a certain way at a certain point in time: those are historical questions, and those are what I find the most interesting to explore as an art historian.”

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (ca. 1455/1465-ca. 1485/1495), The Glorification of the Virgin, ca. 1490-1495 Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (ca. 1455/1465-ca. 1485/1495), The Glorification of the Virgin, ca. 1490-1495
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

“The great exhibition Gods, Saints and Heroes (God en de goden, in Dutch), curated by Albert Blankert in 1980 was truly an eye opener for a great many people of my generation. It recognized that Dutch history painting had also been an important part of seventeenth century painting, in addition to the traditionally Dutch genres, such as landscape, genre and still life. I was particularly impressed by Salomon de Braij and Caesar van Everdingen. That was the origin of my love of painters of that kind, a love that has remained undiminished.”

Friso completed his Master’s degree in five and a half years, which was thought quick at the time. “In truth I wanted to carry on studying much longer, but I was offered a job at the Royal Palace at Dam Square, where I had been working as a guide during my studies.” At the Palace he met Jacobine Huisken who would become his wife, and together they ran the Educational Service there for six years, putting on exhibitions featuring artists such as Jacob de Wit and the Vingboons family. They had started to ponder the idea of one of them doing something else when they saw an advertisement for the position at Boijmans. “That was really a big moment – a kind of shockwave. A ‘this was meant to be’ sensation. In retrospect you tend to exaggerate, but I am absolutely sure that this was a watershed moment. I already knew the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk off by heart: I lived nearby. But Boijmans, with those works by Geertgen and Hieronymus Bosch, really had a special significance for me.”

In 1999, nine years after his appointment, and nineteen years after Gods, Saints and Heroes, he collaborated with his close colleague Jeroen Giltaij and with Albert Blankert to produce the exhibition Dutch Classicism at Boijmans.

Who would you say most influenced the way you look at art?

“My parents. Also Hessel Miedema: partly in helping to clarify where we part company, but his critical faculties were also extremely important to me. Of course I don’t agree that you can’t talk about beauty, but it did help to sharpen my own position. Be extremely critical, always do your own research, and be very cautious with attributions. Someone else with whom I cooperated closely towards the end of my studies was Rob Ruurs, who wrote his doctoral thesis about Saenredam. He was a student of Albert Blankert’s and initiated me into the traditional art history of the seventeenth century.”

“In my time at Boijmans I worked together closely with Jeroen Giltaij. He said something completely different. Something is beautiful or it isn’t – period. The quality of the paintings was all that mattered. Jeroen focused exclusively on the individual object and challenged the ideas coming out of academia. Proposing attributions, that’s something else I learnt nothing about during my studies – I really learned that from Jeroen. And that looking is important and fundamental. You can’t make progress without making attributions. Some people have the ability to describe that marvelously, and that is at least as difficult as conducting good archival research.”

The ability to describe why something must be by Rembrandt’s hand? Some people can do that?

“Someone like Ernst van de Wetering can do it, for instance. He is a wonderful writer and opened up new ways of looking at Rembrandt. That’s a real gift. He focuses on the beauty of a specific brushstroke, or on the use of color. Few others can rise to that challenge. Friedländer is another example. In my museum time I came to appreciate people like that, who have the ability to write so exquisitely about style. As a student I had been taught that all that was rubbish, but it obviously isn’t.”

How important are international partnerships?

“The great thing about our profession is that you are always working with other people. Exhibitions often travel to several places. In the Netherlands, that will frequently mean collaborating with other countries. That cooperation is what interests me – I am less concerned about whether it’s international or not. Take From Bosch to Bruegel, for instance. I produced it together with Peter van der Coelen (Curator of Prints and Drawings at Boijmans). You need someone who has a different or comparable point of view that you can spar with, someone who doesn’t always agree with you. It’s incredible how much more enjoyable that makes the process. Together you can achieve so much more.

Let me add that it is also really important to cooperate with people who are not curators. That is an advantage of preparing exhibitions in project teams. Colleagues who ask different kinds of questions, sometimes really good ones, may suggest a new slant to the content. You have to ensure that you stay out of the ivory tower a bit. Speaking to your fellow curators is also enjoyable – alright, I admit it, it’s wonderful – and that is one of the fantastic things about CODART congresses. But you do need other points of view as well. They are essential, to sustain the validity and meaningfulness of the work. It is our job to preserve, but preservation must remain meaningful. You have to display the works of art to the public; otherwise there is no point.”

Did you learn that orientation to the public from your work at the Royal Palace? By conducting all those guided tours? Or is that a natural inclination?

“No, no, it’s certainly not a natural inclination! My brother and I were always the silent types at social gatherings, sitting in a corner somewhere. I remember the first time I had to give a guided tour at the Palace. I was thinking, ‘Why on earth did I sign up for this?’ I hated every minute of it. But eventually, after doing it ten or twenty times, you get to really enjoy it. You notice that you can communicate your enthusiasm to the group. In guided tours, people are always responding to what you say, and you notice the kinds of things that attract attention, that provoke reactions. It’s rewarding, illuminating work. Things that I took for granted turned out to be less obvious than I thought. These are things that you should really be learning as part of your course, besides research and writing.”

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), <em>The Wrath of Achilles</em>, ca. 1630-1635 Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Photo: Studio TrompPurchase with support of Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Mondriaan Fonds, Vereniging Rembrandt / Photo: Studio Tromp

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Wrath of Achilles, ca. 1630-1635
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Photo: Studio Tromp

To come back to the subject of international cooperation. Two examples in particular come to mind. For instance, you organized The Road to Van Eyck with Stephan Kemperdick from Berlin and you worked on two separate occasions with Alejandro Vergara, for the shows Young Van Dyck and later Pure Rubens in 2018.

The Road to Van Eyck and Young Van Dyck are still two of my favorite exhibitions. The Road to Van Eyck was my first major exhibition without Jeroen, and I was pleased with the content. It posed an essential question within the history of art, which had never been profiled in an exhibition before. I should add, however, that the design of that exhibition was flawed. There was a lack of balance. It would have been even better if that design had been better. With later shows, I paid more attention to the design. That was a learning experience.”

“Van Dyck is so different from Van Eyck, but both exhibitions grew out of a profound love of art and a fantastic cooperation with respectively Alejandro and Stephan. We looked at the paintings together, traveled together to arrange loans. Young Van Dyck was only shown at the Prado and coincided with The Road to Van Eyck. That was a very intense year – I barely survived it. But both shows were really great. I still think it was a pity that Young Van Dyck was not shown at Boijmans, but it simply wasn’t feasible in terms of timing and funding.”

You started at Boijmans in 1992. Has the curator’s profession changed a lot since then?

“The number of people working at the museum has grown enormously. In the old days you had a wider range of responsibilities – there were fewer people. It’s more specialized now, but I think I had more time for research than I do today. Looking back at the exhibition Praise of Ships and the Sea in 1996: we had a single sponsors’ meeting, with just one sponsor. That has really changed, just as the costs have changed. Transport, design and PR take up a far greater share of the budget nowadays. We used to think it was better to secure one marvelous painting from a distant country; if that meant less publicity, so be it. That idea has now been completely reversed. The emphasis now is all on whether we can sell the exhibition to the public. Too much so, perhaps. Perhaps artists who are regarded as lesser stars on the firmament receive less attention because of it, although they are not neglected altogether. After all, we are living in something of a golden age of exhibitions: shows on Caesar van Everdingen and Pieter de Hooch. In small museums, but  of incredibly high caliber.”

What did you think when you read that the Lakenhal had decided to stop putting on blockbusters?

“In itself I think it’s a good reaction. It has all gone a bit too far. It does mean, however, that public authorities are going to have to accept that fewer people will go. They will have to be less concerned with visitor numbers.”

Shouldn’t there be a – more generous – guarantee fund?

“Yes, that would be fantastic. Increase the amount of indemnity. But having rather fewer exhibitions doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to me. Museums are obviously there for the benefit of the public, but their role in conserving cultural heritage is at least as important. Those aims sometimes clash. Not every museum needs to have a million visitors and not every exhibition needs a hundred thousand. We could focus more on our conservation task. That would also be better for the environment. Do you really have to have paintings shipped from all parts of the world? It is sometimes necessary, but you do need to consider it carefully. It also depends on the subject. Some small exhibitions might have been better if they had been a little larger, or vice versa. Such things require a lot of thought.”

Master of the Holy Veronica, <em>Triptych of the Madonna with Saints</em>, ca. 1410 Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Master of the Holy Veronica, Triptych of the Madonna with Saints, ca. 1410
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

What was your most special acquisition? Is that something to which you attach a lot of importance?

“My acquisitions have been very diverse. A tapestry, a drawing. If I have to choose, that last little triptych, by the Master of Saint Veronica, was the most remarkable. It had become clear from The Road to Van Eyck that pre-Eyckian artworks could sometimes be purchased for a reasonable sum. I also bought a small painting by Johan Christian Dahl, a nineteenth-century Norwegian artist. That’s a special feature of Boijmans: you can buy items that are in a category of their own, if they are beautiful. Boijmans is not a survey of the history of art but a connoisseurs’ museum, which has gaps, but also a number of very strong clusters. It belongs in the tradition of Bremmer, Hannema, and Schmidt Degener. Its mission is to display beautiful art, regardless of its origins in place or time. And it is in that tradition that you have to make purchases there, I think. I ought to add that my last acquisition there was a painting by Salomon de Braij. Talk about the wheel coming full circle!”

“And that discovery and purchase of a drawing by Van Eyck, in the run-up to the exhibition, that was also of course a high point. The Rubens tapestry was the first acquisition I made myself. If you have a collection of sketches like that, you also need to have a tapestry. It is very important for a museum to make acquisitions. With those two early triptychs (besides the triptych by the Master of Saint Veronica, there was also the triptych of the Anointing of Christ’s Body by an anonymous Bruges master), you give the collection a slightly different emphasis. And the next person who comes along will need to place emphases of their own.”

Salomon de Bray (1597-1664), <em>A Shepherd</em>, 1638 <br / >Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Photo: Studio Tromp

Salomon de Braij (1597-1664), A Shepherd, 1638
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Photo: Studio Tromp

Is your mind at ease at leaving Boijmans?

“Oh yes, institutions like that will always do just fine. Certainly one like Boijmans, with its unparalleled collection. I am sorry I won’t be there for the next exhibition (of Late Medieval Dutch sculptures, opening in the depot in 2023), but I’m leaving it in very capable hands.”

The exhibition Masterly! with drawings and paintings from the Boijmans collection that you assembled in the Kunsthal (still on view until 29 March 2020), seems like the perfect show with which to bow out.

“It’s true, in retrospect I couldn’t have thought of a better departure. It gave me great pleasure. I had plenty of freedom, partly because it’s in the Kunsthal. My expertise is all about paintings, of course. I know what the museum possesses in terms of drawings, but those can’t easily be placed on view. I’m thinking of artists like Watteau, and of Knip, by whom Boijmans has more than 50 drawings. Westerik alongside Beckmann. Normally speaking, you’d put a show like that together in partnership with other curators, but on this occasion I had an enormous amount of freedom. I hope that you see how incredibly wide-ranging the collection is and that it is ultimately all about gifted artists and about beautiful art – that those are ultimately the most important things. And how you look at art – how that works. How you hang works together and how these arrangements influence how you look. So, yes: we’ve got a Mondriaan hanging right beside a Saenredam. We want to get across that there are many different ways of displaying things, and there are no hard-and-fast rules.”

You are going to the Rijksmuseum. What are you most looking forward to?

“That extraordinary collection of seventeenth-century art, of course, the most magnificent one in the world, with one dazzling painting after another. Also: the knowledge that when something comes onto the market, there’s a good chance that we will be able to purchase it. Then there is the superb quality of the Atelier Building, the researchers, restorers, the many curators. It’s marvelous. If you want to discuss matters of content, there are many colleagues to debate with. The museum has everything you might want, and it is full of ambition.”

“I do have mixed feelings. It’s wonderful to be embarking on something different, but there’s also a sense of leaving a familiar home behind. You never know, maybe I’ll find myself regretting the move. But I don’t think so. One of the wonderful things about working in a museum is that the collection itself is always there to buoy up your spirits. What is more, I already know most of the curators, of course, and they are extremely nice people. So I’m not going to an entirely unknown destination.”

A few words of wisdom to conclude with?

“Learning the profession by making a collection catalogue, which was in part what I did myself, is a good idea for trainee curators. The emphasis may now be more on making exhibitions, but you should not forget the professionalism, the craftsmanship. Making pointed descriptions, explaining all the things you can glean from a painting. And for heaven’s sake do ensure that you keep people who are not modern – like me. I like to delve into the past and perhaps I live more in the past. I enjoy the feeling it gives me. I don’t understand people who can only live completely in the present, although I’m sometimes a bit envious of them. But you do have to be able to reach out to people, from within your bubble. That’s what makes art so beautiful. It is a bubble that looks out on the world.”

Friso Lammertse is curator of  seventeenth century Dutch paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam since March 2020. He has been a member of CODART since 1998.