Questionnaire: Wim Pijbes

The General Director of Rijksmuseum on the art that inspires him and why he would have loved to have listened to jazz with Piet Mondrian

Which was the first art gallery you ever visited?

Funnily enough, it was the Rijksmuseum. I lived in the north of Holland and, one day, my entire class went on a school trip. I remember that the journey took three hours: at the age of 12, that seemed like ages. We disembarked in front of the largest building I had ever seen; it had monumental, seemingly endless staircases and everything was overwhelming. Finally, we stood in front of Rembrandt van Rijn’s De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch, 1642). Our teacher spoke softly: ‘Boys and girls … this is the most important painting in the whole world!’

What’s your favourite title of a work of art?

The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, where I live, has an intriguing collection of surrealist artworks. One of the many highlights is René Magritte’s La reproduction interdite (Not To Be Reproduced, 1937): it’s an image of a man looking in the mirror, looking at his own back — something that is only possible in the realm of art. Is there a work of art in the Rijksmuseum that you return to time and again? Of course, I cherish many darlings, but I change and I learn, so every day I feel different. Although all paintings stay the same, the longer you know them and observe them, the more they give back. I have some ‘friends’ in the galleries to whom I say: ‘Good morning,’ and they, in turn, greet me back, unveiling — to borrow a phrase from Bruce Nauman — their mystic truths.

What is the most mysterious painting in the Rijksmuseum?

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer are a complete mystery. We know almost nothing about this so-called ‘Sphinx of Delft’: there are no drawings, no early works and only 30 or so paintings, every one a masterpiece. Silence and order are dominant in all Vermeer’s work, which must have been in great contrast to the one fact we do know about him: he had 15 children!

What, if anything, do you feel is missing from the collection of the Rijksmuseum?

With over one million objects in the collection, it might sound strange to have a wish list. However, without describing a particular work, I would definitely like to see a strong Hieronymus Bosch and a Willem de Kooning painting of a woman on a bicycle.

Do you like looking at contemporary art?

I intensely love contemporary art but, to me, that category also includes Rembrandt. In the Rijksmuseum we regard the so-called old masters as contemporary artists, born in another period. Rembrandt, too, was once a young rebel, pushing the artistic boundaries, as we can see in his self-portrait from c.1628. When he painted it, he had just settled in Amsterdam and was only 22 years old. No less than a defiant statement, Rembrandt looks at the world and declares: ‘Here I am!’

Of the artists whose works hang in the Rijksmuseum, is there one you would have especially liked to have met?

Not especially any of the old masters or Vincent van Gogh: he seems far too self-obsessed. I would pick Piet Mondrian: I’m intrigued by his lifestyle. He must have had fun, loudly playing his favourite jazz albums in his studio and dancing the night away in the nightclubs of ‘roaring twenties’ Paris. To me, Mondrian is on the crossroads between the importance of being earnest and the unbearable lightness of being.

Which art historians and critics have inspired your own writing?

I quote, absorb, mirror and rethink many great writers, from the past and the present. To mention a few who are on my mind at the moment: John Berger, Alain de Botton, Kenneth Clark, Rudi Fuchs, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ernst Gombrich, Frans Haks, Johan Huizinga, H.W. Janson, Ronald de Leeuw, Neil MacGregor, Simon Schama, Susan Sontag, Henk van Os, Giorgio Vasari and Joost Zwagerman. Truly, I’m a sponge.

Issue 4

First published in Issue 4

October 2015

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