by Niala Maharaj and Floris Müller

From poses in historical paintings to children’s clothing and furniture: concepts of gender are everywhere. What we consider typically ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’ or ‘gender in general is constantly changing. This summer, Holland’s national museum in Amsterdam , the Rijksmuseum is shining a new, gendered perspective on its own collection in its Point of View exhibition. Numéro Netherlands spoke with curators Maria Holtrop and Charles Kang.

Do I understand correctly? Does art have a gender?

Art and objects are genderless. But all 150 objects that we show in the exhibition were made in a specific way. The explanation of whether something is gendered, is determined by the time, place, culture and the individual beliefs of users and spectators. In Point of View we do not only show paintings and photos, but also sculptures, clothing, accessories, and furniture.

Furniture? Is there such a thing as a male or female chair or couch?

Yes, sometimes gender ideas have influenced the design of certain objects. In the exhibition you see a eighteenth-century-century desk with a large tabletop on which books and maps could be placed and where men could sit and discuss for hours. Opposite this we place a smaller desk (a so-called Bonheur du Jour) that is made for women.

And that is less big and ‘manly’?

A lot less big. It’s meant to be positioned against the wall and was often placed in the bedroom. It is intended for quick writing or for storing small notes and pieces of paper. That fit the role that women had at the time, or at least – according to the male makers and society in general.

Are art and objects created by women different from pieces worked on by men?

Historically, women have often been depicted naked or sexualized in art. This changed when women were admitted to art schools from the nineteenth century onwards and started making art professionally on a larger scale. A new – female – perspective could then be added to the already existing images. A good example of this in the exhibition is a contemporary work of two breasts in which you as a viewer see your own reflection. Breasts are normally looked at, but now they are looking back. 

Rijksmuseum has one piece in the exhibition on loan: why did you want to show that painting so badly?

Chevalier / Chevalière is a representation of a person who lived as a man for the first fifty years and later revealed themself as a woman. Chevalier / Chevalière was a remarkable person, served as a spy, diplomat, and politician and, at one point, had to flee from France to England. Many women, who thought that Chevalier / Chevalière was a woman who once wore men’s clothes, saw them as an example – if you dressed and behaved in a masculine way, you had more opportunities in society.

Isn’t the debate about gender new?

Gender has been thought and talked about for centuries and has an important influence in how we dress, behave and see each other. In our exhibition, we do not take a position in the public discussion, but we want to show that gender is in any case not a fixed idea. For example, did you know that in the seventeenth century both boys and girls wore dresses? That was considered useful, and not seen as a gender marker.

And to think that until the 1960s there was discussion about women wearing pants…

Ideas about what is masculine and feminine are constantly changing. I think gender moulds are always a bit constricting; they never quite fit. Something interesting happens in that discomfort and that is what I hope to convey to visitors of the exhibition.

In Point of View do you want to take visitors into the story you tell?

This exhibition is also particularly associative; it makes spectators think.  How do you pose? What makes you look masculine? How much room are you allowed to take up? And what does gender mean to you? This last question we have asked as well to a group of students from all over the country. They give us their answer through self-made portraits. For example, in the last room of the exhibition we asked a group of students from all over the country to take photos of each other about what gender means to them. Their views are representative of our times and society.

Why is Rijksmuseum choosing to create an exhibition about gender now?

In our summer exhibitions we always provide a new perspective on our collection. This exhibition started from the Women of the Rijksmuseum research project in which we draw more attention to women in art, highlighting female makers, images of women, collectors and dealers. The Point of View exhibition can be seen as the contours of a broader view.

And will we take that view with us the next time we go to the Rijksmuseum?

Yes – a visit to the museum will never be the same again, that’s for sure. Next time you’re in the Gallery of Honour, take a look at the Standard Bearer by Rembrandt. Traditionally, he was the strongest and manliest man in a regiment. In the painting he stands with his hand on his hip – a pose that is now considered very feminine. It just shows how thoughts about gender are changing.

You will never forget that arm.

Haha, no. Or at least not the story about it. This exhibition is intended to broaden our views. For you to take that with you as a spectator when you visit Rijksmuseum again and and beyond.

Point of View can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from July 5 – September 1, 2024