CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann

Address at CODART TWEE

It is a pleasure to say a few words to introduce the lectures and the sessions of Codart Twee. I am grateful to Gary Schwartz to have invited me to do so.

Codart Twee brings together museum curators from different institutions with different experiences and different interests. It tries to foster discussions and exchange of information and ideas, so that professional colleagues have an opportunity to learn from each other, an opportunity they often lack. This time, Gary Schwartz has focused this gathering of minds from all over the world around a central group of curators from Russia. After the close of the sessions here in Amsterdam, many of the curators present will join their Russian colleagues when they return home and will visit their museums and special exhibitions. The participants in this excursion are greatly enjoying the prospect of seeing works of art they don’t know well under the expert guidance of the curators in charge of them.

Since Russia is the focus, I am reminded of the establishment of cultural ties between Russia – then the Soviet Union – and The Netherlands that had been disrupted by the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Now more than forty years ago, in 1956, for the first time curators could talk to each other and visit each other. It was a most welcome opportunity, inevitably restricted to very few people, but it was the beginning of a slowly growing trend that now has resulted in this large number of curators from the Netherlands and many other countries, gathered together here with their Russian colleagues. The catalyst to this process, not surprisingly because of the admiration he has enjoyed for centuries all over the world, was no one less than Rembrandt.

To celebrate his 350th birthday, Amsterdam and Rotterdam organized an international loan exhibition, or rather two exhibitions, one of paintings and one of drawings. (A third exhibition, of etchings, was based on the collection of the Amsterdam printroom). The paintings were shown first in Amsterdam, and the drawings, simultaneously, first in Rotterdam. Halfway through, the venues were alternated. (I should ask this curatorial audience, parenthetically, could this be a model for future large exhibitions?). It may not have been the very first time that the Hermitage or the Pushkin Museum lent a work of art to the West, but the mutual exchange of no less than six Rembrandt paintings between the Soviet Union and The Netherlands was the first of that magnitude between the two countries. What this opening in a wall of silence and inaccessibility meant at the time is difficult to imagine at the moment when exchanges of works of art are routine and one group of curators from Russia is in Amsterdam and another one is going to travel there next week.

For the 1956 exhibitions, the six Rembrandt paintings traveling each way had to be accompanied. The Dutchmen traveling to Leningrad to fetch the Dutch ones were Dr Mr F.J. Duparc, representing the Dutch Government as “Hoofd Bureau Musea en Archieven van het Ministerie van Onderwijs, Kunsten en Wetenschappen”, Dr. Arthur F.E. van Schendel, Curator of Paintings at the Rijksmuseum, and myself, Curator at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam. Since commercial flights between Leningrad and Amsterdam did not exist or were not suitable, the KLM arranged for a special plane to transport the paintings and us couriers. (Things were a little primitive, as it turned out when the plane starting the return flight had to turn back on account of some precaution or other). The ten days in Leningrad were an unforgettable experience. Seeing paintings and drawings in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum, and visiting other museums, the former czarist palaces, and some of the main architectural monuments in both cities at that time was a most exceptional and revealing experience. A new world was opening up for us. We were struck by the high quality of the art, by the excellent care the works of art received, and by the judicious reconstruction and restoration of so many of the palaces destroyed by the German army during the war. The trip was greatly facilitated by the hospitality and the excellent guidance of the curators, and became a very fruitful professional experience.

Their scholarship and professionality was most impressive. They were on top of their fields of specialisation. Frequently they knew the literature on particular issues much better than we did. They had new ideas for the interpretation of the art of the past. I personally was most impressed by the expertise of young colleagues in the Netherlandish field of paintings, like Yuri Ivanovich Kuznetsov and Irina Vladimirovna Linnik (then not yet married to each other). He planned to devote his scholarly life to Jan Steen, connecting him with Dutch literature and society in a way we were not yet prepared to adopt in the West. (He had to give it up because of a lack of travel opportunities). Irina Linnik has done and still is doing so much for Dutch art, for Caravaggists and others. Of the older generation I, of course, admired Mikhail Vasilievich Dobroklonski, who was one

of the very small group of European specialists in drawings active in the 1920s and 1930s, and G.G. Grim, who was the leading historian of architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Particularly impressive was Vladimir Franchevich Levinson-Lessing. He was a most remarkable, broadly knowledgeable art historian. He also was the authority on the history of the Hermitage and of collecting in Russia since the seventeenth century. A book on the subject by him was published posthumously. With his director, Dr. M.I. Artamonov, Levinson-Lessing came to Holland at that time, for the counter-transport of the Rembrandt paintings, and I accompanied him through the collections of the Boymans Museum. Never had I been so strongly impressed by an art historian’s broad professional knowledge. Whether the objects we saw were Spanish majolica, medieval glass, European prints, or paintings of any century, his unfailing ability to name time, place of origin, or artist, and to place the works in context was unparalleled. The idea that Russian scholarship did not count, caused by the political distance and cultural seclusion of the country, proved itself to be a total fallacy.

I have had many opportunities to visit our Russian colleagues since then, and I feel a certain familiarity with the country (also because family circumstances placed me there in my early youth). I can assure you that professional know-how, expertise, and scholarship are continuing in the remarkable tradition that was revealed to me and my companions in 1956 when we had the pleasure to participate in the first post-war cultural exchange between Russia and Holland. The non-Russian curators present here are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from their Russian colleagues and to be shown parts of the collections in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, John Langeloth Loeb Professor in the History of Art Emeritus, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

These words were spoken in Amsterdam on 15 March, 1999, in Felix Meritis, the building that, ironically, housed the editorial offices for De Waarheid for many decades.

Page last updated on 3 June 2002