CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rik Vos

Address at CODART TWEE

Last year it was my pleasure to welcome you to CODART EEN in The Hague. This year I greet you with equal pleasure to CODART TWEE in Amsterdam. With your permission, I would like to dwell for a moment on these simple facts since they have bearing on the idea of an international council for Dutch and Flemish art.

We are used to thinking of the Netherlands as a very homogeneous country, with a unified culture. In many ways it no doubt is. Although our population is now enriched with a healthy admixture of people born in other countries and raised in other cultures, the Netherlands and Flanders form a settled and age-old cultural-linguistic unit that has been reasonably stable for half a millennium now.

When people live so close together and have so much in common, a fascinating development can take place which Sigmund Freud has called “the narcissism of small differences.” Out of sheer annoyance at resembling their neighbors so much, people began to exaggerate the importance of whatever small differences might exist between them. Even differences which are obviously due to the merest chance – a river here, a hill there, a railroad line in a third place – are seized on to explain why one’s own people, one’s own city, is so unique and irreplaceable and totally incomparable to the people who live on the far bank, the other slope, the wrong side of the tracks. The virtues of which each group is most proud – no matter if they are universal qualities spread evenly among humanity – are claimed exclusively for one’s own nation or culture. These groups can be very small indeed. At soccer matches the fans in every section of the stadium claim to be in possession of an identity of their own.

Well, a competition of this kind developed long ago between The Hague and Amsterdam. In cultural terms those two cities are undoubtedly the most important in our country. To visitors from abroad, they must be nearly identical, certainly no more different than say Chelsea from Soho to a visitor to London. Today the tensions between The Hague and Amsterdam are mostly kept within decent bounds, but not that long ago they were quite virulent. When a movement got under way in our country in the mid-19th century to erect a statue to Rembrandt, two different committees were formed, one in Amsterdam and one in The Hague. The Amsterdamers felt that they had the right to the monument, since the artist had chosen to live in the commercial atmosphere of their city. King Willem II and his allies in The Hague would have none of this. The Hague was the main city of the province of South Holland where Rembrandt was born. Besides, it was so much more respectable than Amsterdam. What would they say in Paris if we set up our Rembrandt statue in a vulgar place like Amsterdam? Not until after the death of Willem II in 1849 could the plans be carried out, and could the statue be erected – in Amsterdam.

I recall this story this evening to remind ourselves that art does not always unite people. People are capable of fighting over cultural territory and cultural identity the same way as they can fight over ground and over religion. It takes an effort to share art and to grant to others equal rights in claiming it.

I like to think of CODART as an effort of this kind. All of you are here because you devote much of your working lives and I am sure much of your love for art to the art of the Netherlands and Flanders. This similarity between us could easily lead to unconstructive competition, to the vanity of small differences. Indeed, something of this kind can be seen in the battles between interpreters of Dutch art, especially genre painting. Competing schools have emerged which barely speak to each other any more.

In some ways curators are in even more direct competition with each other than university art historians. The danger of acting on this feeling is always there. I’m sure we all know stories about beating a colleague to an acquisition or to a gift, and I hope to hear some juicy anecdotes of this kind from you over the drinks that are so kindly being poured for us by the Rijksmuseum. But your willingness to join CODART, to come to our meetings, to share information about your specialties and interests, to provide material for our website, proves to me that you are willing to choose an identity that accentuates what binds us rather than what divides us.

The theme of CODART TWEE is an especially appropriate demonstration of this. Having grown up during the Cold War, the Dutch and Flemish art in Russia, which of course I knew about by reputation, was always behind the Iron Curtain for me. Although I was acquainted with some of my museum colleagues in Russia, they did not travel as easily as I did and they were not in a position to share information as readily as they may have wanted to. I could not relate to them with the same naturalness as to colleagues in the west. Since the democratization of Russia this has improved immensely. Still, there is nearly a century of unwanted competition and mistrust to be conquered. This is important work. It is not only an aid to art-historical knowledge and to improved personal and professional relations between us. It is also a means of giving the art in our care a new chance to do its magic on its worldwide audience. Everything we do to stimulate the free flow of information and to heighten the enjoyment of each other’s artistic treasures is a contribution to the triumph over national, local and art-historical small-mindedness.

CODART TWEE is not just a congress and an excursion, as important as these may be. It is also a key moment in the emergence of a network joining the curators of the splendid Russian collections of Dutch and Flemish art with nearly 200 colleagues in 36 other countries. The Instituut Collectie Nederland is proud to play a role in this development. We congratulate CODART on this initiative, and we look forward to the future manifestations of international cooperation that we expect to come out of this meeting.

Page last updated on 3 June 2002