Interview in {Kunstschrift}

Preserved in the Memory of Ger Luijten

September 2019

Which exhibitions made an indelible impression on the memories of well-known exhibition makers? Which of them were groundbreaking or memorable, and why? Museum directors and curators give their views. How do these exhibitions compare with their own projects?

This time: Ger Luijten

‘In 1977 I trained as a drawing teacher in Breda. I was twenty-one and I went to see anything that had to do with art—old and new, performances in the Gallery De Appel in Amsterdam. That summer we drove in a Volkswagen Beetle to Documenta 6 in Kassel. There we saw Beuys’s Honey Pump, video art by Bill Viola and Nam June Paik, and also an exhibition of drawings that made an unforgettable impression on me. What you can do with a pencil. In those days there was Pop Art, Conceptual, Minimal and Narrative Realism—Hanne Darboven, Valerio Adami, Chuck Close and Werner Tübke, all under one roof. At that time, I also read David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon. Personal recollections by artists about their own work are still my favourite.

My decision to read art history was inspired by a fantastic teacher at art college, Henny Engbersen, who died in April. Henny really knew how to look. He discussed Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, Millet and Van Gogh, Saul Steinberg and Ralph Steadman, always in the form of a comparison using two projectors. He gave us a vocabulary to use when talking about art. An open mind with a keen eye.

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1498-1500
Oil on panel, 34.2 × 27.9 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

I’ve always loved well-presented monographic exhibitions. I thought the one of Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits I saw last summer in Madrid was tremendous. In 1983 I went to Paris twice to see the great Manet exhibition. It was the sort of experience that can never actually be repeated—the freshness, the directness of those first impressions. I was receptive, I looked with great eagerness.

Edgar Degas, A Visit to the Museum, c. 1885
Oil on canvas, 81.3 × 75 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The exhibition in this field that made the deepest impression on me was of works by Degas in the Grand Palais in 1988. At that time, I was working for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. I went to the exhibition as a courier, bringing drawings from the collection that had been requested as loans. There was a preview the evening before the official opening. Between seven and eleven o’clock a small group of us looked at four hundred works by Degas. His output was at such a spectacularly high level, all the techniques and genres he worked in. The event was organized by Henri Loyrette and Jean Sutherland Boggs, who in 1991 staged a phenomenal exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture titled Picasso and Things: The Still Lifes of Picasso. I saw that exhibition in Cleveland. The clever thing about it was that it enveloped the visitor in the pleasure of Picasso creating art. Sharing inventiveness with the viewer. That’s almost an art in itself.

In 1990 in Siena I visited the exhibition Domenico Beccafumi e il suo tempo. It was in early autumn, a beautiful time of year. Eating porcini mushrooms. I had just become a father and I had only two days to see the exhibition. It was an existential experience. In Beccafumi I made the acquaintance of a Renaissance artist with a completely unique signature, immediately recognizable. The exhibition was spread all over the city, from the stone mosaics and sculpture in the Duomo to frescos in private residences and paintings in churches and the Pinacoteca. Oil sketches, drawings, etchings, woodcuts. The whole town was given over to Beccafumi. I’ve been a great admirer of his drawings and chiaroscuro woodcuts ever since, and I’ve also published about him.

During the nineteen-eighties and -nineties there was not so much pressure on museums to concentrate on marketing—the museum as a publicity machine did not exist to the degree it does now. Preparations for exhibitions were lengthy and based on sound foundations. My finest memories are of the major Rijksmuseum project Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620 (1993-1994), which I worked on intensively alongside many colleagues, and of Mirror of Everyday Life: Genre Prints in the Netherlands 1550-1700 (with Eddy de Jongh in 1997). The key aspect of the exhibitions I’m now organizing in the Fondation Custodia in Paris is to provide an exceptional viewing experience.

Barthélemy Prieur, Acrobat, second half of the sixteenth century
Bronze, height 29.3 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin

I’m particularly keen on well-staged exhibitions about a material or technique that demonstrate how a particular medium has produced something amazing. Bronze in the Royal Academy in London (2012) was a very fine example. In 1989 in Boston I saw the exhibition Italian Etchers of the Renaissance and Baroque, which showed how etching was used early on in an imaginative way and resulted in artworks of a completely timeless quality. In 1995 I gave a lecture in Berlin at a conference about Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929), whom I greatly admire as an art historian and museum director. He was a major sculpture specialist and the exhibition Von allen Seiten schön sought to underline his contributions in that field. The catalogue is a standard work. An exhibition should be a surprise. Its makers should take you by the hand and guide you through a terrain that you did not previously know, even though you thought you did.’


© Yannick Pyanee

Since 2010 Ger Luijten (born 1956) has been director of the Fondation Custodia in Paris, which is home to the Frits Lugt Collection. Between 1987 and 1990 he was curator of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Print Room. After that he became curator and head of the Rijksmuseum Print Room. His specialism is art on paper, including oil sketches, an impressive collection of which he has built up for the Fondation Custodia.

Source: Kunstschrift 4|2019