In the midst of the thoroughgoing and decade-spanning renovation that has transformed Amsterdam’s recently reopened Rijksmuseum, one notable masterpiece remains in its original spot: Rembrandt’s Night Watch still has pride of place at the center of architect Pierre Cuypers’ 1885 magnum opus. Now, the pair of adjacent antechambers that flank the Night Watch gallery are home to a stunning installation by Richard Wright, who (with a little help) has hand-painted 47,000 black stars on the ceiling.
The Glasgow-based artist is known for his incredibly detailed, site-specific works, often applied directly to the architecture of the space: no canvases, no frames. Some, like the constellations at the Rijksmuseum, and a similarly situated stairwell project at the Scottish National Gallery, were designed to remain in place. Others last only as long as the exhibition itself. Wright’s Turner Prize-winning gold leaf fresco at London’s Tate Britain, for example, was duly covered up with white emulsion and lost to the ages.
In the Rijksmuseum project, the patterns of the celestial bodies give the flat surface the illusion of depth; the ceiling appears to curve and bend above the heads of visitors. If the thought of craning your neck to contemplate the mesmerizing display seems like a strain, imagine the steady touch and unbelievable patience it takes to spend hours on your back, painting the same tiny design over and over. Still, Wright and his helpers do get, for their efforts, conceptual and practical rewards. First, the composition will exist alongside Rembrandt’s masterpiece forever–no minor achievement. Second, the artists will, at least for a while, sport some pretty stellar arm muscles.