Hendrick Avercamp’s “On the ice” would be the artist’s cover photo if he had a social media page or that of Holland if the country ever needed to promote its relaxing winter attractions. It could also be presented as historical counterbalance to the threat of global warming, the story of the Little Ice Age; it happened in Holland, in the Low Lands; then, between 1550 and 1850. This year it didn’t happen; and though it is only February, the weather has somehow shown its pattern for the year; that is to say that it is rather unlikely to snow or freeze this Dutch winter of 2014. We have to depend on art to get the feel of Dutch winter-joy, the “winterpret”.
In search of winter-joy
And while the camera’s are turned to more sporty winter joys with a strong element of competition, I am contemplating on this painting that tells so much in such a small space. But where is this painting? Its natural home, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, is under renovation, closed since 2012. The museum, a 17th century building located next to the prime minister’s offices, is practically being re-built as well as extended, an underground foyer connecting it with the art deco building opposite to it included; all this, in order to become a modern museum that can host the number of visitors that it deserves; because that’s where Rembrandt’s “Anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” belongs to and Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring” as well. For the duration of the renovation the collection has been split up in sets which travelled apart to destinations as far as Japan and the US. The point was to keep the works alive, so not in storage (because we all know by now what artworks do when we’re not looking; if not, I refer you to the relevant filmography), but also to collect funds to finance the renovation budget. The thought of the Dutch State that such a manoeuvre does not need its financial support, was surely meant in a positive way. And judging from the results, it was a rightly drafted idea. The Mauritshuis announced a few days ago that the revenues of its masterpieces’ world tour did cover a big part of the 22 million Euro renovation budget. Not only that; the executed plan falls in the budget and in the time schedule; that is an accomplishment, no doubt. But where is Avercamp’s ice scene; that, most famous one, and the only one belonging to The Hague’s collection?
I know, there are a few more of these winter scenes, most of them kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Avercamp had set off to paint this one theme in several versions, or different episodes with quite many anecdotal details, an entertaining narration of the life in the 17th century. Just in the line of Bruegel, the Flemish master, who first painted such scenes, Avecamp seem to have made a kind of enterprise producing the “white” landscapes. They were actually painted indoors, based on sketches and memory. I would not think he would sit outside to work on them in this cold, and anyways it is hard to think where he would be sitting to have this view like looking down from the top of a hill! This little “lie” is the convention of these works, literally said the “artist’s point of view”. And yet, so curiously adorable, if we should ever use this word for a work of art, that I always imagined these happy people really strolling on the ice; something that nowadays can be realized in the terms of entertainment thanks to the new technology; see these guys here explaining their “living art”.
Waiting for the new home
The painting “On the ice”, a poster of it, was hanging at the preparatory atelier for the School of Fine Arts, in Athens; my teacher considered it a masterpiece. So do I; a thrill to have seen it in real, so let’s see where it can be seen now and until its home is ready again. Next to the sets of works that went on world tour there is one set of hundred works that stayed in The Hague. It has been hosted by the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag ever since they left home offering an unmissable exhibition containing Paulus Potter’s “The Bull”, a massive portrait of an equally massive bull painted in serious detail and Vermeer’s “View of Delft”, where you can almost smell the humidity in the air; of course with dark Rembrandt and light-hearted Frans Hals as big names of the show. The “Girl with the pearl earring” joined the set for the first few months and then went on tour abroad, so don’t expect to see her here. But the works exhibited are all jewels; a precious overview of Dutch painting. The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag is hosting the exhibition under title “Highlights Mauritshuis” until the end of April. Then the works will be returned to their home to prepare for the opening of the new Mauritshuis building. Avercamp’s “On the ice”, or better in Dutch “Ijsvermaak”, is a very small painting in a big black frame; you will see it, it is part of this show, but maybe now it’s time to hold our breath until it hangs again in its home. I mark the date of the opening: 27 June 2014, something to look forward to.