I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times before, mainly to see the art (and the cycling provision), and I rather assumed that this visit would be similar – and yes, I did visit the main museums and galleries, but I was also sidetracked a bit by architecture and design. But first – continuing the theme of my recent visits to Oxford and Leiden – Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum. One of the world’s greatest art collections, the Rijksmuseum was famously closed for a whole decade (2003-13), twice as long as planned, to modernise the building and reorganise the displays to give more historical perspective (as at the Lakenhal) – only Rembrandt’s The Night Watch still hangs in its historic position at one end of the Gallery of Honour, the grand top-floor space where the finest works of the Golden Age hang, including more Rembrandts, and three of the world’s 34 Vermeers. One of the Rembrandts is of the Syndics of the Amsterdam Draper’s Guild, who were responsible for checking the standards of dyed cloth, just as in the Lakenhal in Leiden. The Night Watch, incidentally, was cut down on three sides (mainly the left) in 1715 when it was moved from Kloveniersdoelen (the civic guard’s shooting range) to the City Hall – the original is known from a copy by Gerrit Lundens (c1642-55), currently on loan from the National Gallery in London.
They’ve also produced excellent audioguides and apps – there’s an infuriating photo that pops up on Facebook from time to time, of a school group looking at phones instead of The Night Watch, posted by people who don’t actually have any understanding of how smartphones are used – they’re not texting their friends, you idiots, they’re using the Rijksmuseum educational app. And of course I like the cycleway that cuts right through the building too.
I also came across quite a few more painters from Haarlem that I didn’t mention in my previous post (Gaertgen tot Sint-Jans, Jan Jansz Mostaert, Jan van Scorel, Floris van Dyck, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck), as well as maritime paintings, Italian drawings, dolls houses and model ships (with good coverage of Dutch colonialism and slavery). Finally, from the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, there are largely realist paintings from the Den Haag School (notably Hendrik Mesdag), Dutch Impressionists such as Johan Jongkind, George Breitner and Isaac Israels, as well as Jan Toorop, who started as an Impressionist but moved on to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, a couple of Van Goghs and an early Mondrian (and early Mondrian is /very/ different from the famous abstract Mondrian). There’s also some French art, by Courbet, Monet, Emile Bernard and Monticelli, and a Whistler.
Of course, there’s also the Rembrandt House, where he lived from 1639 to 1656, which features a recreation of a period interior and paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries – there are etchings by the man himself, but no paintings.
Just south of the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein, the Stedelijk Museum continues the story with modern and contemporary art – it was also closed for the best part of a decade (2004-12), having failed a fire inspection, and an extension like a huge white bathtub was added in front of the original 1895 building. The extension houses a superb display of the permanent collection – where the Lakenhal and the Rijksmuseum integrate art with history, here it’s art and design that are integrated, with furniture and in particular chairs displayed alongside contemporaneous paintings and sculpture. When I got to Copenhagen a couple of weeks later, I was amused to read about the Design Museum’s gallery on ‘The Danish Chair’ – yes, of course, Danish design is iconic, but the concept of the minimalist chair made of modern materials originated in the Netherlands in 1917 with Gerrit Rietveld and De Stijl, followed by Marcel Breuer and Mies van de Rohe at the Bauhaus in Germany. In fact the technology to make bentwood chairs was developed in Vienna as early as 1842 and adopted by the Wiener Werkstätte group, who were inspired by Ruskin, Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement.
The art starts with Cézanne, Matisse, Braque and Chagall, as well as photography by Paul Strand, and both early (figurative) and mature (abstract) paintings by Mondrian. Charley Toorop, a friend of Mondrian’s, was every bit as good and interesting as her father, but was not attached to any particular school or movement. The Russian avant-garde is well represented, especially Malevich, as well as a Dutch version of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and the COBRA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) group. Postwar art is mainly American (Elsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, George Segal, Richard Serra), as well as de Kooning, who moved from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam, sorry, New York. There are appearances from non-Americans such as Yves Klein, Tinguely, Bacon, Agnes Martin, Christo, Gordon Matta-Clark (Land of Milk & Honey – made of… you guessed it), and a very atypical Nikki de St-Phalle (and Gilbert and George famously spent a day on the stairs here as living sculptures in 1969). Upstairs the art is more contemporary and less familiar to me (but for once I don’t feel that this is contemporary art with the stress on ‘con’) – Nan Goldin and Grayson Perry are names I know, and Nam June Paik, whose TV Buddha, created back in 1974, was the first item in the Stedelijk’s ‘time-based video’ collection (which apparently now accounts for no less than half of the museum’s holdings); Dara Birnbaum was new to me but is another interesting video artist. The original building now houses temporary shows of generally high quality.
Next door, the Van Gogh Museum also has a modern addition, with a ticket hall and shop added in 2015 from which you pass through a tunnel and up into the older building. In a fairly short career, van Gogh really did produce a lot of great work, including, of course, searching self-portraits, which provide another link to Rembrandt. It struck me that, although loosely categorised as a Postimpressionist, Vincent was one of those figures who always sticks out – rather like Baudelaire, I thought – and doesn’t fit tidily into any group. In addition to masterpieces such as Sunflowers, The Yellow House, Wheatfield with Crows, and Almond Blossom, the museum holds half of his almost 1100 drawings, and you’ll also see paintings by Monet (Tulip Fields near Den Haag), Denis and Vlaminck, as well as Vuillard, Van Dongen, Munch and Gabriele Münter, all influenced by van Gogh.
I also visited, for the first time I think, the Amsterdam Museum, which gives a great overview of the city’s history but also includes more art – no Rembrandts, and only a copy of Hals’s famous portrait of Descartes, but others by Rachel Ruysch (the city’s leading female artist in the seventeenth century, who I wasn’t aware of but came across again in Bremen and Hamburg), van der Helst, Flinck, Bol and Van Honthorst, and from more recent times George Hendrik Breitner and (early) Mondrian. Their estimate is that three million paintings were produced in Amsterdam during the Golden Age (essentially, the seventeenth century).
There was also a temporary exhibition on beer and brewing in Amsterdam, which (as in Leiden) had been very important back in the days when the cloth industry was polluting the waterways, and plenty of brewers were also mayors of Amsterdam. From the late nineteenth century, however, nothing but mass-produced pilsner was available, and the Dutch seemed pretty happy with this until very recently, despite the totally different and far more interesting beer culture just south in Belgium. The first speciality beer bar, Gollem, opened in 1974, and the first microbrewery, Brouwerij ‘t IJ, in 1985 – both now have a couple of branches. There are now at least forty breweries and almost 800 beer cafés in Amsterdam, producing a fantastic range of both Belgian-style and British/American beers; personally I enjoyed the local IPAs, which were sharpish but not too floral or citrusy. With roots in the 1980s squatting scene (which was and is very influential), many of them are socially and environmentally committed, employing the disadvantaged and, in the case of De Prael, making beer from rainwater (1200 litres of water produces 1000 litres of Code Blond). Troost uses their spent grain to make bread, while all other waste gets transformed into energy. The ‘ginaissance’ is, naturally, occurring here too, and bars that specialise in jenever, the ancestor of gin, are doing well.
The museum also pointed me towards various interesting housing developments and other urban design projects which were world-leading at the time and are still visually striking. The population of Amsterdam doubled between 1870 and 1900 and there was an urgent need for affordable and hygienic housing – grandiose plans were drawn up for Haussmannesque boulevards, but meanwhile slumlords started throwing up cheap overcrowded tenements. The one exception (until the Housing Act of 1902) was the De Pijp district (The Pipe, perhaps named after a ditch that was drained in 1891), which has been the city’s hippest district since the ’60s. Its southern extension, the Nieuwe Pijp (1921-29), was part of the Plan Zuid urban expansion plan drawn up in 1917 by Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934), known as ‘the father of modern Dutch architecture’. In the 1890s he designed the Beurs van Berlage (Commodities Exchange) and what is now the Swissôtel, both on Damrak, but later moved to broader urban planning, inspiring the younger architects of the Amsterdam School (roughly 1910-30) to fill in the details. Their style is hard to pin down but it draws on Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), the English Arts and Crafts movement (along with Charles Rennie Macintosh from Scotland) and Art Deco to produce a kind of brick expressionism, using sculptural brick and stonework to decorate inside and out, creating something like a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), including designing furniture and lighting. It’s linked to the Chilehaus and similar buildings in Hamburg, which I saw a few days later.
I started by viewing the Scheepvaarthuis or Shipping House (1913-6,
built as headquarters for six shipping companies and now the Grand Hotel Amrâth), which is renowned as the first major building produced by the Amsterdam School; then I cycled east to the Indische Buurt, so called because the streets are named after places in Indonesia. This area was built on a former polder between 1900 and 1930, with five apartment blocks on the south side of Javaplein designed by Berlage in 1915-6; also on Javaplein is a striking public bathhouse built in 1941 and now a restaurant. There was a citywide programme to build bathhouses from 1919 to 1931, but in fact this one was not built until 1941. For me the most attractive social housing was on the other side of the city, to the west on Spaarndammerplantsoen, where a museum in Het Schip (known as The Workers’ Palace, built in 1919), gives insights into the Amsterdam School’s work. Similar movements occurred in Vienna and Berlin (and of course London), where industrialisation brought huge numbers of people to the city, but the Amsterdam version does have its own charm.
Nowadays industry has given way to a process of regeneration, partly of course in the docklands, as in every similar city around the world, but also the Western Gasworks, via which I arrived in the city, and various sites across the IJ river in Amsterdam-Noord, such as the NDSM shipyard – here there are an abandoned submarine, a lightship and trams, all adapted to new uses (vegan street-food cafés, craft ale bars and spaces for music and theatre), and a hotel in a giant crane. Using shipping containers for cafés or accommodation is of course a given.
And naturally there’s graffiti, or street art as we should call it – in October, just after my visit, the STRAAT museum opened in one of the NDSM hangars – but surely if street art is displayed indoors in a gallery it ceases to be street art?
I should finish by stressing that there are frequent free ferries from Amsterdam Centraal station and elsewhere to NDSM – at busy times these are swamped by cyclists, along with vehicles for the disabled and a few mopeds, and there’s now talk of a tunnel under the IJ, with spiral ramps and pedestrian escalators.