Mention Holland and the names Rembrandt and Van Gogh come instantly to mind; but the Netherlands has been famous as an art center for nearly as long as it has been populated. Dig a little deeper and find impressive collections of Medieval religious art, Golden Age masters such as Vermeer and Steen; the modernism of Mondrian and 20th-century Dutch designers plus a dynamic contemporary art seen as represented by artists like the innovative photographer and video artist Rineke Dijkstra. And now, with the initiative Holland Art Cities, underway through 2010, it’s an especially rewarding time to explore not only art in Amsterdam, but museums in the nearby cities of Den Haag, Utrecht and Rotterdam—all easily accessible in this compact nation with excellent and train and tram connections.
Amsterdam: Extreme Makeover—Museum Edition.
The coming year promises to be especially significant for art lovers as two major museums open and reopen in Amsterdam. Come late spring, St. Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Museum will open a major annex in the Dutch capitol, in a sprawling, historic and magnificently renovated 17th century home for the elderly on the Herengracht. With changing exhibitions drawn from the vast Hermitage collection of Old Master and early modernist works, this museum will add additional depth and significant breadth to Amsterdam’s already impressive art collections.
Then, at the end of 2009, the Stedelijk, the country’s major museum for modern and contemporary art, re-opens on the Amsterdam Museumplien. The permanent collection, encompassing 20th century masterpieces representing artists from Moscow to Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles will again be on display. The museums 19th century building is being completely renovated and restored, and new wing (already dubbed by locals as “the bathtub” for obvious visual reasons) will double the museum’s space. Expect serious installations of major contemporary artists—major retrospectives of Mike Kelly and Francis Alÿs have been announced—in its expanded quarters.
But What About the Rijksmuseum?
In every make-over, a few glitches are to be expected. Unfortunately, the biggest glitch affects the Netherlands’s crown jewel, Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. Closed in 2003 for a major restoration and re-imagining that will bring much needed focus, light, and grand public spaces to the historic building, the museum was slated to reopen in 2010. Construction and financial complications have delayed the already lengthy project until at least 2013, so while the end result should prove spectacular (models and plans are on display), don’t expect to see it anytime soon.
What to see now
The good news is that the Rijksmuseum is not (as banners on all sides of the building loudly proclaim) really closed: the most famous works are on exhibit in a previously renovated wing. For the casual visitor, this abbreviated Rijksmuseum may actually be an improvement. The installation is beautifully conceived, hung, and lit, and many of the works look better (and are certainly easier to find) than in the old museum. Presented as tour through the Golden Age of Dutch art, the most significant paintings (Vermeer, Steen, Saenredam), sculpture (Adrian de Vries) and decorative arts, culminating of course in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, are magnificently showcased.
Next door, the Van Gogh Museum, having undergone its renovation and expansion in the 1990’s, is fully open and ranks as one of the country’s most visited museums. With the largest collection of Van Gogh in the world (over two hundred of his 900 paintings and almost half of his 1100 drawings—an impressive output for an artist whose career spanned a brief ten years.) No matter how often you visit, there are always surprises in store. The museum also continues to expand its collection of impressionist and salon paintings by Van Gogh’s contemporaries, and mounts very impressive temporary exhibitions.
Two small but significant museums devoted to photography also deserve mention: The Huis Marseille and FOAM Amsterdam, both in historic canal houses on the Keizersgracht, present constantly changing exhibitions of both vintage and contemporary photographers. And the CoBrA Museum (technically in the nearby suburb of Amstelveen),devoted to major works by the mid-century CoBrA group and Dutch contemporaries, also mounts provocative temporary shows—such as a recent international retrospective of gay artists.
Beyond Amsterdam: Art in Depth
Can’t get enough of Van Gogh? The second largest collection of his works is also conveniently enough in the Netherlands. Take a day trip to the Kröller-Müller Museum, located in the Netherlands largest national park (the impossible-to-pronounce Hoge Veluwe). After you’ve toured the gem of a museum, you can use the free bicycles to explore the nature preserve—this being the Netherlands, the largest national park is conveniently compact. It’s easy enough to do in day by rail and bus from Amsterdam, but should you want to extend your stay, there are convenient and reasonably priced hotels just outside the gate in Otterlo.
Did you love the mini-Rijksmuseum but find yourself craving more? Head to the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, a former miniature Palace in Den Haag (aka The Hague) with an impressive collection of Golden Age paintings. You’ll find Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring (of book and movie fame), allegorical paintings by Rembrandt, genre paintings by Jan Steen, and plenty of those intricately detailed 17th-century flower paintings. The free audio tour is excellent.
Or head to picturesque Utrecht, where the Museum Catherijneconvent houses the Netherlands’s largest collection of medieval art, artifacts and manuscripts in an historic converted convent. While there, you can also take a self-guided, and free, tour of Utrecht’s many historic churches and stroll the uniquely picturesque canals. Finally, in Rotterdam, the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen offers another chronological and thematic course (literally, through a grand progression of small rooms in a beautifully restored 1930’s museum) in Dutch art and design from the Medieval—pride of place goes to Pieter Breugal’s Tower of Babel—through the 20th century.
Beyond Amsterdam: Modern and Contemporary
Prefer modern art? 20th-century Dutch design? Sometimes startling contemporary installations? The Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag has a bit of everything, but four things stand out. First is the building itself, an outstanding example of 1930s modernism designed by the iconic Dutch architect H. P. Berlage. Next is the worlds largest collection of works by Piet Mondrian, tracing his development from landscape painter to his famous grid paintings, including his last great (and unfinished) work, Victory Boogie Woogie; There is an impressive amount of space devoted to temporary exhibitions, with a focus on Dutch Design and contemporary artists; and finally, the basement is given over to what the museum calls the Wonder Kamers: a non-thematic, non-linear and often interactive presentation of varied works from the museums vast collection that really does defy description.
The Centraal Museum Utrecht is another museum with a comprehensive collection that also puts an emphasis on contemporary installations—mixed with 16th-century Utrecht painters and an impressive collection of 20th-century design in a varied collection of buildings that even includes a Gothic chapel re-imagined as exhibition space. Don’t miss the building across the courtyard devoted to 20th-century Dutch architecture and design.
Rotterdam is the place to see contemporary art and large scale installations by contemporary artists—not unsurprisingly, as Rotterdam is the Netherlands most modern city, a conscious decision made after the bombing of its historic center in 1940. The Kunsthal, an early and yet iconic building by architect Rem Koolhaas is devoted entirely to temporary installations. While it has hosted exhibitions by Dutch impressionist Isaac Israels and printmaker M.C. Escher, many of the constantly changing installations feature cutting edge artists and themes—2009 will bring, among 25 diverse programs, Culture and Confrontation, featuring international works by Christian Boltanski, Jeff Wall, and a slew of emerging artists. Likewise, the nearby Museum Boijmans van Beuningen has an entire building devoted to changing contemporary exhibitions.
Exhibitions 2008-2010: Holland Museum Cities
So many temporary and changing exhibitions could be confusing, But the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Den Haag and Rotterdam have put together a nifty program (website included) to promote their combined exhibitions from the end of 2008 through 2010. The Holland Art Cities program is centered around three themes drawing on the strength of Dutch collections: International Influences, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Dutch Masters—and will encompass special exhibitions at ten major museums.
Can I Really Get there from Amsterdam?
Travel between the cities is remarkably easy, as direct trains are frequent and fast, and the tram system is national, so you can use the same tram tickets you bought in Amsterdam in any city in the Netherlands. (The country is currently transitioning from the tourist-confusing strippenkaart tram ticket, to a rechargeable smartcard system). You can easily travel from Amsterdam to Den Haag, for example, in the time it takes to cross central London by tube.
Museums are also national, and museum enthusiasts should buy a 40-Euro Museum Jaarkart, which will get you into most museums, saving plenty of money over the separate 10 euro average admission costs (the card, design for locals, is good for an entire year, but can easily pay for itself in few days, and will also let you jump the ticket queue.) Check for museum hours and closing days (usually Monday) though Amsterdam’s major museums are open every day. Also check for late opening days as museums are less crowded in the evenings. Some, like the Van Gogh’s late Friday evenings, even offer special programs and free tours.
Amsterdam: Beyond Art
Amsterdam of course is a city of museums that encompass far more than art and range from the profound to the absurd. The most profound is of course the Anne Frank house—go very early or very late in the day to avoid the crowds. A good companion museum is the Verzetsmuseum, or Resistance Museum, a well presented history of the Netherlands during the WWII occupation. The Amsterdams Historich museum presents an exhaustive history of the city (perhaps too exhaustive) though temporary exhibits, which narrow the focus to such things as the history of prostitution, or homosexuality, can be quite entertaining. There are also house museums, church museums, a botanical garden, an energy museum, tram museum, tulip museum, houseboat museum and most recently a museum of handbags and purses. Make your choices based on your interests, but beware, even devoted stoners have little positive to say about the hemp museum and sex museum.