Standing for 800 years of Dutch art and history, the Rijksmuseum, Netherlands’ national museum, opted to take down its long-standing bigoted descriptions of the art in its collection. For instance, “Young Negro Girl by Simon Maris” has been changed to “Girl Holding a Fan.” Also re-written is the wall plaque for “Bathsheba at her Toilet” by Cornelisz van Haarlem, which had said, “Because Bathsheba’s maidservant is black, the subtly erotic painting takes on an exotic tinge.”
Reportedly, most of the collection was entered into the museum records without titles and museum employees labeled them with words like “negro” and “Mohamadden” (said to be a Victorian word for Muslims). Now some 220,000 titles and descriptions have been replaced with neutral wording. As museum curator Eveline Sint Nicolaas told the press, “We no longer want to make use of terms that reflect a Eurocentric way of looking at people or historic moments.“ To that end, the re-wording project goes under the name “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology,”
Not everyone agrees with the Rijksmuseum’s new policy, including Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate art museums in London, who was quoted saying that re-labeling is “throwing away historical information that belongs to the object.” Not at all, says curator Nicolaas. “Nothing is erased.” All titles and descriptions that are removed will be archived as an historical record, he said.
This column thinks the Rijksmuseum is doing a good thing and wonders if the idea could also be applied to those who write art history books out of their biased view of, say, women. Consider Cezanne’s thick, dark, crude-stroked paintings of bloody stabbings, stranglings, rape and other cruelties. Describing the tortured scenes, Art historian Robert Simon used words like “idiosyncratic commingling” and “esthetic density.” And he excused scenes of cannibalism and decapitation by painter Theodore Gericault, by blaming the “virulent social anxieties of the Second Empire.” (In short, the devil made him do it).
In a similar way, art critic Edwin Mullins excused Hieronymus Bosch’s violent depictions in “The Hay Wagon,” which shows a woman, her arms tied behind her back, lying on her back nude except for a black toad perched on her genitals. Mullins said Bosch painted it at a time when Roman Catholic misogyny was at its most hysterical. (Feel better?) Apparently it’s OK to be goatish and foul, as long as you call it art.
None of this is to say that horrific images seen in museums would necessarily prompt horrific acts. Neither is this column asking for censorship of such imagery. But talking about it without sensitivity to the subject matter could send the wrong message—provided anyone is reading this stuff, of course. If the crazies of our world ever get wind of high art and the words that go with it, clear the streets.