To celebrate CODART’s 25th anniversary, this year the Curator in the Spotlight section will feature members that have been involved with CODART since the very beginning.
I feel truly honored to have been selected for the latest edition of Curator in the Spotlight just when CODART is celebrating its splendid twenty-fifth anniversary. I do not aim to indulge in lengthy reflections, but rather to celebrate this landmark anniversary.
My path to art – and Netherlandish art in particular – was a long one. For many years, from early childhood, I accompanied my mother to the theater, to galleries and museums. We often went with friends who had similar interests or who worked in the cultural sector. It was on one of those visits – I was sixteen by this time – that I discovered that the Department of Regional Galleries at the National Gallery Prague, which then focused primarily on art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, needed to reorganize its index card system. It struck me as an ideal opportunity to gain work experience and to earn a little money. The museum environment fascinated me, and I enjoyed the work so much that I dropped my plans to study biology: instead, two years later, I applied for a place to study art history at the Charles University Faculty of Arts.
Initially I thought I should focus on contemporary art, given my experience at the Department of Regional Galleries. However, my interests started to shift, I took courses in medieval art, and at the end of my second year, my training was to include an internship at the National Gallery in Prague’s Collection of Old Masters. I was preparing to work in the Medieval Bohemian art section in St. George’s Convent – today, this fantastic collection is found in the Convent of St. Agnes in the Old Town – when I heard that the collection of Old Master European Art, in Sternberg Palace in the Hradčany district, needed its index card system to be reorganized. That was a familiar task, so I applied for the position and completed my internship there.
It was that internship that determined my future career. One year after I completed it – and based on the work I had done there – Hana Seifertová, Head of the Collection of Old Master European Art, offered me a job. It was not my only offer but it was the one I accepted, and I have worked at Sternberg Palace ever since. I have walked past that index card system every day for over thirty years.
In the early years, I helped Hana Seifertová manage the large collection of seventeenth-century Dutch masters. I conducted research projects, handled correspondence, and searched for relevant literature – in short, I was an assistant curator. I was very lucky that Hana took me under her wing. When we had time after our work, she took pleasure in passing on her knowledge: I learned how to examine paintings, and how to recognize the structure of old canvas. Hana also taught me restoration methods and a range of practical skills and everyday tasks that every museum worker needs to know but which cannot be taught at university. Hana was also the first person to read my youthful texts on art history, giving generous praise as well as constructive criticism. At that stage I had trouble accepting her criticism, but with the passage of time I realized how much she had helped me.
Today, I consider myself very lucky to have a teaching job in addition to my work at the National Gallery – I lecture on Netherlandish and German painting at the Charles University Catholic Theological Faculty. This gives me a welcome opportunity to pass on to the younger generation everything that I learned during those years. It delights me to see how interested our students are in the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Rembrandt, and many other Flemish and Dutch artists. They also know that they cannot learn about them from books and lectures alone – it is also essential to study the artworks themselves.
Quite soon after starting work at the National Gallery, I had the task of curating an exhibition of late Gothic art from the Diocesan Museum in Litoměřice in North Bohemia, which had been prepared by Jarmila Vacková. The main display consisted of the small picture of The Madonna in an Enclosed Garden (1494), painted by a follower of Dirk Bouts – the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl. I was enchanted by its beauty, delicacy, and sophistication. It was then that I realized that I was so passionate about Old Master Netherlandish art that I wanted to devote my professional development to it. It is no exaggeration to say that Netherlandish art found me through that little painting of The Madonna in an Enclosed Garden.
I started to focus in detail on the works of Netherlandish art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the National Gallery’s collections. After a while, I expanded my interest to include German paintings and sculptures of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Flemish paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, icons, and later also Italian paintings and sculptures from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. When my other work commitments allowed, I tried to systematically catalogue the gallery’s holdings of Old Master art. I wrote the first volume in the series Summary Catalogues of the Collection of Old Masters of the National Gallery in Prague (publ. 1999), which dealt with Netherlandish painting from 1480 to 1600. I prepared a significant part of this book while staying at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, which was then in Wassenaar. I later compiled a catalogue of German and Austrian painting from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, and then a volume on Western European sculpture from 1200 to 1550, with contributions by my colleagues, which was published in 2014. I have always considered the publication of this series in English to be of great importance: it is part of making our collections more accessible, which I see as my main priority. I am very pleased that Lubomír Slavíček published a volume devoted to seventeenth and eighteenth-century Flemish painting in 2000, followed by Anja Ševčík, Stefan Bartilla, and Hana Seifertová, who published a volume focused on seventeenth and eighteenth-century Dutch painting in 2012.
During my time at the National Gallery, I have organized about twenty exhibitions, several of which focused on Netherlandish and Dutch painting from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries and German art from the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. They included Roelandt Savery, curated in partnership with the Broelmuseum in Kortrijk, two traveling exhibitions for Japan: Seventeenth-Century Flemish Painting from the National Gallery in Prague and The Empire of Imagination and Science of Rudolf II. My most recent exhibition was also associated with Dutch and Flemish artists – in 2021, the National Gallery organized the exhibition Forgeries? Forgeries! Fake versions of paintings by Memling, Hals, and Vermeer have played an important role – in a negative sense. I should add that this exhibition, which was accompanied by a detailed account of the art historical context, archival research, restorations, and laboratory surveys, was supported by several loans of works by the most famous art forger of all time – Han van Meegeren.
And how has CODART helped me over the past decades? I can answer that easily – in everything I do. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday when we received our invitation to the CODART EEN Congress, which was held in The Hague in 1998. And I also remember Hana Seifertová’s response: without hesitation she said, “We’re going.” We immediately knew how fantastic it would be to meet with colleagues, exchange experiences, arrange collaborations, and – on top of all that, to visit famous and lesser-known collections, depositories, and significant historical sites. I continue to value the wonderful privilege of being a part of the special community of curators and experts who are linked through our professional interest in Dutch and Flemish art. And perhaps the lockdown during the pandemic has heightened that feeling. It has brought home to us so forcefully the irreplaceable nature of personal contact between people, and reminded us that looking at virtual 3D collections, studying online, and other high-tech aids can never take the place of personal visits to museums, depositories, and libraries. CODART deserves enormous thanks for everything it does. But it is not enough to look back and to give thanks. We must continue to care for and develop this exceptional platform, especially through intensive activities, preserving the spirit of generosity and willingness to help one another, cooperation between museums and other institutions, the ongoing quest for funding, our daily curatorial work, and the personal engagement of each and every one of us. By marshalling our resources in this way, we can guarantee that in twenty-five years’ time, we will be celebrating an even more important anniversary – CODART VIJFTIG!
Olga Kotková is Director of the Collection of Old Masters at the National Gallery Prague. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.