For the first time some of the world’s most recognised and masterful paintings will come to the Middle East. Rachel Morris speaks exclusively to the Qatar Museums Authority’s executive director, Roger Mandle, about the Dutch Masters exhibition opening in Doha this month
Imagine, if you will, a small but wealthy country, positioned at the crossroads of a tumultuous and ever-changing region. Its people are traders and merchants who bring riches to their country; its leaders are people of great vision with a passion for supporting the arts, who scour the world bringing great works and events to their people, as well as supporting artistic endeavours.
This country is Holland (now The Netherlands) in the 17th century: but it could very well be Qatar in the 21st century. Both are small countries with big statures that punched – in Qatar’s case, now punch – above their weight internationally, whose rulers saw the benefit in supporting the arts. ‘There are great similarities between Holland of the 17th century and Qatar today,’ says Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) executive director Roger Mandle. ‘Both have an enormous amount of energy.
‘This was an enormously powerful country,’ he adds, referring not just to the House of Orange, the royal family and leaders of Holland in the 17th century, but to the “middle class of traders, merchant and explorers”.
‘They were also highly entrepreneurial,’ Mandle says, continuing the analogy with Qatar, which is gaining a reputation internationally for its drive and commitment to doing things differently. ‘They were a crossroads for culture and art just as Qatar is a crossroads for culture today.’
According to Mandle, the Dutch of the 17th century also benefited from their “enlightened leadership”, who encouraged the arts and the spirit of adventure, much like Qatar today. It is this parallel that brings the Dutch Masters exhibition to Doha from March 11. On loan from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, The Golden Age of Dutch Painting, Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum collection includes some of the world’s best known works of art, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and others.
But the Dutch masters hold special significance for Mandle, who has been spearheading Qatar’s arts renaissance since 2008. Having completed his PhD on Dutch art and history, he is today considered one of the world’s leading experts in the field.
‘This is the first time a collection of this kind has come to the GCC, let alone the Middle East,’ Mandle says of the exhibition, which he was able to hand-pick. ‘I was fortunate to able to go through their catalogue online and pick the pieces we were interested in. And, thankfully, all of them were approved.’
Forty-four paintings, among the best in the Rijksmuseum’s extensive and extraordinary collection, are being loaned to QMA for the exhibition, which will run until June. Mandle says the touring collection gives a wide-ranging view of the artists, lifestyle and landscape of Holland in the 17th century. But he singles out two pieces from the exhibition as interesting and perhaps recognisable to art lovers.
One of the most famous pieces is Johannes Vermeer’s representation of a domestic scene, ‘The Love Letter’. ‘Vermeer painted only 35 paintings in his life,’ says Mandle. Another standout, Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul’, from 1661, is considered one of the great pictures in western art and one of the most complex.
The QMA will run a series of lectures, workshops and film screenings to coincide with the exhibition. In a treat for film lovers, there will be a screening of the much-loved film Girl with a Pearl Earring, about Johannes Vermeer and his friendship with a young peasant girl who became the model for his most famous painting. In a major coup, the QMA has secured the presence of the film’s director, Peter Webber, who will attend the screening. There will also be children’s classes and workshops, and lectures by both Mandle and the director of the Rijksmuseum.
It isn’t just sports that Qatar is gaining a reputation for. According to Mandle, Qatar is ready to host exhibitions of this size and importance. ‘There is an appetite for these kinds of exhibitions, not just here in Qatar, but in the region. You will find people travelling to see this exhibition,’ he says.
The QMA is growing in stature, with four exhibition spaces now open – the Museum of Islamic Art, Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art, the QMA Gallery at Katara and Al Riwaq (the structure next to the Museum of Islamic Art).
The next great opening is scheduled for 2014 when the stunning Qatar National Museum, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, will open to the public. ‘Qatar is easily up to hosting shows of this calibre,’ Mandle says, suggesting there is more to look forward to. The Golden Age of Dutch Painting: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum opens at the temporary exhibition space in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha on March 11. For more info, go to www.qma.com.qa