MASTERLY! 4 Centuries of Drawing and Painting at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam

Camille Pissarro, Les Coteaux d’Auvers, 1882

It was with amazement and disbelief that we learned last year that the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, the jewel in Rotterdam’s artistic crown, was to close for seven years. Seven years? How can it take seven years to refurbish and renovate a museum? Hmmm. But the good news is that The Depot, the Boijmans shiny (literally) annex next door has already taken shape and is looking magnificent with just a year or so to go before it opens.

The one thing about the museum closing is that it concentrates the minds of the curators – no chance of complacency there. Some clever planning and original ideas were needed so the collection would not languish unseen in some dusty vault until The Depot opens. It was an opportunity to take a step back and look at things afresh – an opportunity not to be missed.

So, an extensive reach-out programme has been initiated – paintings are being lent to other museums,  art is being taken taken round schools and other institutions and exhibitions are being organized. One such is Masterley! just a few hundred meters across the Museumspark in the Kunsthal. Lovingly put together by Friso Lammertsa, Boijmans’ curator of Old Paintings and Sculptures, this exhibition falls into the category of “must see”. Not only for the quality and variety of work on display but also for the original and innovative premise on which it is based.

Billed as a grand retrospective of four centuries of painting and drawing, it compares and contrasts, mixes and matches artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Basquiat and Rubens and Westerlik. Presented in several smallish spaces defined by themes such as Golden Light, Graceful Living, Landscapes, Satire, Straight Lines and lots more, including the intriguing Legendary Wild Men of Painting, we are able to see, side by side, the works of artists separated not only by the centuries but in style and content as well.

A few months ago the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam mounted a show pairing Vincent with David Hockney. I like Hockney but for my money this was a no contest, with the British artist coming in a very poor second. In the Kunsthal show the Dutch genius is pitted against another artist who died young and also promoted as a genius, Jean-Michel Basquiat. But this was a bit unfair, putting Van Gogh’s early drab and dreary depressing dirges of dull brown and darkness up against Basquiat’s vibrant canvases, two versions of The King of Egypt. Even the New York based American’s four large drawing outshone Vincent’s finely drawn works in charcoal. There has been a lot made of the similarity between the two artists, with Basquiat even being labelled Van Gogh II, based on the fact that they were both thought of wild men, both died young and both considered emotion more important than technique.

There are those who claim that for a true insight and assessment of any artist’s work one should study the sketch books, for it is there that one can see the man’s soul (sorry, it is men as there are no women in this show) and inspiration unfettered and not inhibited by the technical constraints and process of painting. There are many artists whose preliminary work I prefer to their painting. Rubens is a prime example as the recent exhibition at Boijmans demonstrated, but there are lots more, evidenced in Masterley! I know Co Westerlik is Dutch, very highly rated and only died last year, but personally I can’t see him at all – until today. The few drawings on show by him are brilliant and to me are as different from the paintings as chalk and Edam and more than held their own against those by Max Beckmann hanging on an adjacent wall. But there are other revelations as well – some excellent Watteau drawings next to one of his not so good paintings.

Other opportunities to contrast and compare are Degas and Wim Wouters, Rembrandt, Rubens and Breitner, Delacroix and so on.

Not surprisingly, there is an emphasis on Dutch art, so besides Van Gogh and the others already mentioned, there are some fine pictures from Cuyp, Mondrian, Schoonhoven, Cornelis Saftleven and many more.

This is a beautifully curated exhibition, presented in a sophisticated and tranquil milieu, the walls a tasteful symphony of, not quite, fifty shades of grey and a million miles from the brash Thierry Mugler show pulling in the crowds downstairs. Now there’s something with which to compare and contrast.   Michael Hasted   18th December 2019

The exhibition continues until 29th March