It's not easy being Queen. It's not easy being a guest curator, either. And it's even harder still trying to be both at once -- as Holland's Queen Beatrix recently discovered. This winter she organized an overview of Dutch art since 1945 for the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Describing the entire curatorial experience, the Queen noted in an interview accompanying the catalogue to the exhibition, "At times, the expressions on [the museum curators'] faces told me that they were thinking 'what is she doing!?"
Thing was, though, there wasn't much the museum staff could say about it. And in the end, it's just as well. The Queen's exhibition, which includes 370 works by 130 artists, eclipses just about everything any Stedelijk Museum curator has produced since Director Rudi Fuchs stopped creating his signature "Couplet" exhibitions in 1996.
Describing her curatorial method (which other curators would be well advised to study), Her Majesty explains in the interview, "I have tried to concentrate only on my views of one painting hanging next to another. I was fascinated by considerations which will probably be quite irresponsible from an art historical point of view." It's an approach that would have made old Clem Greenberg proud (though it should be noted, perhaps, that this is Fuchs' own hallmark style, and one can't help but wonder how much influence he may have had here).
Hence, Queen Beatrix placed Ad Dekkers' poetic white geometries (such as Relief with Three Circles, 1967) alongside Jan Dibbets' stark minimalist photographs (Big Amsterdam, 1997) while a white relief of marching squares by Jan Schoonhoven articulates, not the fact of the brushstrokes but their form, in a thickly impastoed white canvas by Edgar Fernhout opposite, making them appear less like brushstrokes and more like rectangles instead. Have these works anything to do with one another in art historical terms? Not really. But oh, how they capture the eye and the imagination when seen together!
The project itself was in fact neither the Queen's idea nor Fuchs', but that of the Queen's husband, Prince Claus. Where most people attending a modern art exhibition will look at the art and mutter "Hey, my kid could do this," the more enlightened Prince, on viewing a previous guest-curator's exhibition at the Stedelijk, looked at the curation and said, "Hey, my wife could do this."
The Queen herself, reportedly, was less convinced; it was only when Fuchs pointed out that this would be a notable way for her to mark her 20th year on the Dutch throne that she agreed, thinking, she says, "What if I curated this exhibition to celebrate my anniversary in a manner which might benefit Dutch art and Dutch artists -- wouldn't this be a marvelous chance to make this art stand in the spotlights again? That is why I finally consented."
Can anyone imagine George W saying any such thing in support of abstract art in America?
That the Dutch Queen is a fan of contemporary art is well known, as is the fact that she is something of an accomplished sculptress herself. Her expertise, however, is limited to classical forms of visual art -- painting and sculpture -- and therefore she chose not to include time-based works, feeling that she was unqualified to do so.
On the other hand, while, many of the works in "The Presentation" are, if viewed out of context, in fact barely mediocre -- most post-war Dutch art is, for while the country has produced more than its share of national art heroes over the past 50 years, a pale few of them actually produce work of international quality -- the Queen in most cases selected fine examples of the works of each artist represented, with the result that the overall exhibition stands strong.
It should, however, be noted that, because of her position as Queen, Her Majesty felt it inappropriate that she select the artists to be included. A pre-selection was therefore made for her by the museum, and she herself, with Fuchs, ransacked the museum depots in search of specific works. The Queen then arranged the individual works herself, hanging them throughout the museum as if she were furnishing an empty palace -- a theme she selected on the basis of an article by Fuchs that she happened to read at the time preparations for the exhibition were being made, in which he imagines filling an empty palace with art. (Says Beatrix in the catalogue: "When I read [this], it was immediately clear to me: This is an inspiring challenge. Suppose that you are in front of an empty palace and the entire Stedelijk Museum collection is at your disposal. What would you do?")
Hence the exhibition is comprised of various themed rooms: the Yellow Room (with de Kooning's 1963 Rosy Fingered Dawn At Louise Point juxtaposed with Constant's 1992 La Belle Noiseuse); the Red Room (with Karel Appel's 1995 Red Kangaroo in Tuscany alongside Corneille's 1947 CoBrA-period Composition and Avery Preesman's 1999 Untitled); the Dining Hall (entirely bedecked in floral paintings by Marc Mulders, Erik Andriesse, Ger van Elk and Rob Briza, among others); the Smoking Room (where Kees Verwey's Doll Room of 1948 meets Hendrik Werkman's Chassidische Legenden I of 1941 and Marc Mulders' Gronden in Christus, 1987), and so on.
"The idea," the Queen said, "is to guide the visitors through a fantasy palace, through the rooms and galleries open to the public and appealing to the imagination. I hope that this somewhat unusual presentation will help people to look at art with an open mind ... If this exhibition brings in visitors who would normally hardly ever or never visit a museum, I would be very satisfied."
The world could use more leaders like this. Beatrix in 2004, anyone?
ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is an art journalist and critic based in New York and Amsterdam.