The Rijksmuseum
Reopening 13 April 2013, Amsterdam

At lunch time today, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands takes to the orange carpet to perform the official opening ceremony of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s been a long time coming. In 2003 the vast Victorian museum closed its doors for a three year refurbishment; 10 years later, the builders’ fences have finally come down.

It’s well worth the wait. At the press preview, I join hordes of international journalists and television crews to see the place stripped of its whitewashed labyrinth of ad-hoc extensions, and restored to its former exuberant glory. The architects, whose journey was not an easy one, relax at last. Antonio Ortiz anticipates an “empty nest feeling” in the days to come, 13 years after he and fellow Spaniard Antonio Cruz first entered the architectural competition.

Cruz y Ortiz won because they came up with a solution to the Rijksmuseum’s long-standing problem, that a cycle-path linking two parts of the city cuts right through the centre of the building. Cyclists have fought fiercely to preserve their right of way, so to pull the building together, the architects have dug down under the passageway, into the water-logged foundations, to create a brand new basement floor. As the building now extends nearly nine meters below sea-level, this process, I’m told, involved builders in boats.

When the building first opened in 1885, it was not well received. Architect  Pierre Cuypers had made it something of a sumptuous Catholic cathedral in a land dominated by Protestantism. King Willem III refused to attend the opening, calling it an “archbishop’s palace”.

As the years passed, Cuypers’ lavish creation went even more out of fashion, and modernist curators painted over the colourful wall decorations with what the Rijksmuseum likes to call “Protestant” white paint. Over the years, Cuypers’ two airy central courtyards became clogged with extra rooms, several floors high, as the gallery struggled to cram everything in. Now, with these additions ripped out (it’s said that the building, made lighter, immediately sprung up a few inches), and much-needed extra space found deep in the ground, the museum finally has its lungs back.

The new courtyard, with its clean, flat blocks of Portuguese limestone, might have been a clumsy intervention in a neoGothic red brick cathedral of art, but it works. The effect is airy and inspired, and the restaurant feels like a continental pavement café. The spectacular lighting rigs are awe-inspiring, and the hi-tech “chandeliers” throughout the building are a constant delight.

The most dramatic transformation is the return of Cuypers’ original opulent decorations, some uncovered intact, and others reproduced from his original designs. Think of the Main Hall in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, with its historical murals and gold-starred ceiling. Think of the esoteric flights of fantasy decorating every nook and cranny of Mount Stuart in Bute. Now add some of the best-loved paintings in the world, and you’ve got the heart of the Rijksmuseum, the Gallery of Honour.

This long, lofty hall runs the length of the building, from a jaw-dropping lobby of stained glass, mosaic and mural at one end, to the gallery’s main “altarpiece” at the other. Gallery spaces lining both sides of the hall echo private altars, where you can spend time in quiet devotion with Rembrandt, Vermeer, or Ruisdael.

The Golden Age of the 17th century in the Netherlands saw a flowering of art in response to the country’s commercial success. The grand, biblical masterpieces of history made way for more intimate, down to earth paintings designed for ordinary homes. Dutch painting of the Golden Age is loved the world over, and the cream of the crop hangs right here.

On top of the 10 early Rembrandts elsewhere on the second floor, and The Night Watch in its own special room, there are five of the artist’s best works hanging here in the Gallery of Honour. A late self-portrait looks at you sideways with that gentle sense of time, age and humour which no other artist can match. It hangs with a tender portrait of his son Titus, and one of my favourite Rembrandt paintings, The Jewish Bride, where with a simple gesture, two people quietly announce themselves as one.

Another niche contains the even quieter work of Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. Given that there are only 35 known paintings by Vermeer in the world, it’s pretty mind-blowing to sit in front of four of them at once. His Milkmaid pours milk in the pearly white light of a window, and The Little Street is a perfect little section of life on a quiet day in Delft.

All of this, amazingly, plays second fiddle to the dramatic “altarpiece” at the end: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Every other painting has been moved, but this one reclaims the spot that Cuypers designed for it, flanked by marble pillars topped with the golden goddesses of day and night. The dynamic painting bustles with energy; the part-time soldiers of the civic guard picked out in dramatic golden light, a young girl weaving through them, a dog startled by a drum, the Captain giving the signal to advance.

On the day of the press view, the Captain might well advance. The massed ranks of the world’s press cameras are lined up in front of it, like an enemy army about to shoot. This painting is a superstar. It’s not the biggest in the collection; some might argue it’s not the best, but by designing the building as a temple for it, Cuypers has made The Night Watch a modern icon.

Make sure to look up in the rooms to either side of the masterpiece. There, unannounced, you will see brand new work by Glasgow artist Richard Wright. In a mischievous answer to Cuypers’ more regimented scheme, Wright’s 47,000 painted black stars undulate on the ceiling, strobing if you move while looking at them.

In all, there are 8000 objects in 80 galleries, spanning 800 years of Dutch history. Only the most hardcore gallery-goers will get round everything in one visit, on a circuit which measures a mile.

The curators are giddily excited about their innovative new idea of displaying the collection chronologically. It seems they hadn’t thought of this before, combining paintings, furniture and historical objects according to date, instead of separating them out by theme or category. But the Rijksmuseum is the world’s only national museum devoted both to art and to history, so this new approach does turn out to be more dramatic than it sounds.

Take, for instance, the largest painting in the museum, Jan Willem Pieneman’s Battle of Waterloo, which is so big that its original frame had to be removed to fit it on the wall. Some feet away sits a box of pistols which were taken by a Dutchman from Napoleon’s coach, after the battle. The painting was intended for the Duke of Wellington, but the Dutch king was so taken with its heroic portrayal of his son, that he outbid the Duke. Prince Willem is carried, injured, off the battlefield, on the folding bed which is itself on display downstairs.

The museum’s exhibition designer, Frenchman Jean-Michel Wilmotte, causes some uncomfortable shuffling in the press-conference when he asserts matter-of-factly that “It’s very boring to look at weapons and guns and so on, but here it’s a sort of installation, it’s really contemporary. Glass is boring, but you have 100 glasses together, it becomes fantastic.”

He’s not wrong; what he has done with the museum’s special collections is breathtaking. It occupies the basement level which, though painted a plain grey, continues Cuypers’ church-like theme, with the feel of a vaulted crypt. Moving through this darkened space is like a surreal dream; thousands of objects seem to float in space like holy relics, theatrical spot lighting bringing them eerily to life. A dozen ladies’ dresses stand bodiless by a classical pillar. Scores of pistols float as if ready to fire, like some menacing Dali-esque nightmare.

Outside, the museum’s gardens are still a work in progress. The 14,800 square metre “outdoor museum” is based on Cuypers’ design of 1901, and will contain statues, a fountain, a 19th century greenhouse with “forgotten” vegetables, and a children’s playground inspired by mid-20th century pioneer of playground design, Aldo van Eyck.

Another brand new addition to the Rijksmuseum is the Asian Pavilion: oddly stark, angular and white compared with its curvy parent. The newly acquired temple guards from 14th century Japan form a wonderfully aggressive counterpoint to the surrounding, more contemplative, Buddhist art.

But my favourite moment of discovery, as I explore the new Rijksmuseum, is the feeling I get when I push the heavy, creaking door to enter the library. What a Harry Potter fantasy: a four-tier booklover’s delight, with high, arched, stained-glass windows and a single, wobbling corkscrew staircase to link it all together. This is now open to the public for the first time in its history.

Were those 10 years worth it? Definitely. Cuypers’ magic, combined with modern-day technical wizardry, makes the Rijksmuseum a palace of dreams.

Catrìona Black, Saturday Magazine, Herald 13.04.2013