David and I had tickets for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and every intention of spending Saturday afternoon exploring its significant collection, particularly of art from the Netherlands. But it was an unpredictable day, and we ended up not getting to the museum until 4:30, just before it’s 5:00 closing time. We quickly made our way upstairs so David could see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. As we went through the main gallery, I noticed posted signs on the walls.
The signs are part of an Art is Therapy exhibit at the museum. From 25 April, British writers and philosophers Alain de Botton & John Armstrong will be showing in the Rijksmuseum what art can mean to visitors. And not so much from an (art-)historical point of view, but focusing rather on the therapeutic effect that art can have and the big questions in life that art can answer.
Here is what they had to say about the painting above, by Pieter Saenredam, Interior of the Church of St. Odulphus, Assendelft, painted in 1649.
The architects of the building depicted here, and the artist himself, were convinced about a challenging idea: if you want to get close to the important things, you will need a lot of calm, of whiteness, of emptiness, of peace. Serenity, concentration and order aren’t luxuries, they aren’t a superficial concern for a particular style of interior decoration; they are preconditions for a thoughtful, balanced life. The picture sends a slightly stern, but welcome message: you have to flight off distraction, it can ruin your life; you have to prioritize ruthlessly; entertainment is the enemy; simplify, get rid of what you don’t really need, don’t check your email all the time; focus is an achievement. Saenredam didn’t just paint a church, he painted an attitude to life.
A stern but welcome message indeed.