Not just the art of the past century, but also the art of today. And not only art that is beautiful, but work by artists which make the viewer think. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum will finally re-open its doors to the public on Sunday after a 9-year renovation. The museum’s extensive collection includes works dating back to the end of the 19th century. Many of those works that we now consider beautiful were highly controversial then. And that’s a tradition the Stedelijk intends to continue.
The Stedelijk Museum has always faced away from Museum Square – the largest open space in the centre of the Dutch capital – which is also home to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. That stand-offishness is something architect Mels Crouwel has put an end too. The entrance is now via a large extension facing the Square. With glass walls topped with an arching white shape the extension has quickly become known as “the bathtub”.
The Stedelijk closed for renovation at the end of 2003. It found a temporary home until 2008 in the old headquarters of the Dutch postal service, and after that staged exhibitions in various locations around the capital. But from Sunday, modern art lovers can once again enjoy the glories of the Stedelijk Museum in a building which has space for many more works than previously.
Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondriaan, Pablo Picasso. They all turned the art world upside-down in their day. And the Museum purchased their work right from the start. That early 20th century collection alone makes a visit worthwhile.
The museum continued with an acquisitions policy of work that both fascinated and provoked the public. Karel Appel, Willem de Kooning, Carel Willink and other great Dutch artists of the post-WWII period hang alongside work from all around the world. In the 70’s the museum purchased conceptual art works. Design, photography and graphic design, both current and older, are also all well-represented in the collection.
The main hall in the new extension is dedicated to the art of today. The opening exhibition there shows work by 20 artists currently active in the Netherlands – both Dutch nationals and others born elsewhere.
Paintings made of rubber hang on the wall. The rubber used in each piece is the amount a worker in Laos can produce in a day. There are videos showing transgender youngsters in the middle of India’s chaotic traffic. Another video shows a gourmet meal being lovingly prepared – and reminds us that such a dinner is just food, something many people in the world are short of.
In all of the works, the artists are commenting on their society, either explicitly or implicitly, just like their artistic forebears whose work hangs in the Stedelijk’s permanent collection. The museum sees it as its responsibility to continue purchasing contemporary art.
“Art has a platform here. We offer artists the freedom to express new ideas, to deal with things that are often concealed in a society”, says curator Bart Rutten. He points out a series of surprising drawings and collages by Erik van Lieshout: “Pim Fortuyn’s Diary”. Made in 2002, it’s a reference to the murdered Dutch politician. And then there’s Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Osama bin Laden purchased just last week. He looks so gentle and kind…
‘Art shows us that reality is more complicated than commerce and politics make out. That’s what we want to show,” adds Rutten. His colleague Hendrik Folkerts agrees: ‘This has to be a refuge for art. A portrait like that by Dumas of Osama, that’s exactly what should be on show in the Stedelijk, on show in Amsterdam. Now of all times we have to hold on to that.”