AQ15 Spring 2016 Art Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Living in the Amsterdam School. Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 7 April to 28 August 2016
Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs. Rijksmuseum, 24 March to 12 June 2016

Living in The Amsterdam School

If you’ve ever wondered what happened when the optimistic, fin de siècle, organic Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements crashed into the trenches of the First World War, visit the Living in the Amsterdam School exhibition now at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum. This carefully-researched exhibition will show you the lavish interiors created as these movements entered the dark, expressionist wood created by this Dutch movement (1910-30). And since this exhibition concentrates on carefully reconstructed interiors and objects, the visitor is able to get a feel for what it was like to live in a stylish 1920s Amsterdam home, work in an office or shop at some of the Netherlands’ most prominent department stores.

Instead of seeking solace in the simple, natural forms as the Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau movement had done, the Amsterdam School sought escapism and adventure in the exotic possibly as a reaction, but also perhaps as a precursor of the coming financial and political disasters. Characteristics of the Amsterdam School include unusual use of colour (red, orange, and yellow detailing on dark backgrounds), unusual wood detailing and carvings and exotic influences and designs. It’s worth visiting this collection of Amsterdam School artwork because as director Beatrix Ruf said at the press conferences it “is the largest ever assembled.”

The exhibitions first gallery includes a pyramidal display of the distinctive somewhat-tear-shaped clocks (similar in shape to Amsterdam School building towers) in various but mostly dark woods with orange, red and black accents. This is part of the 300 clocks collected for the exhibition and which also mimic the shape of the tops of the towers of the Amsterdam School buildings where mainly large, exterior clocks of similar design were displayed. (One design in particular, by Hildo Krop, contains long, thin, seated memento mori figures at the top of each clock). This gallery’s exhibition is also augmented (as in some others) by a film, music or video. (In this gallery, it is a silent film about Amsterdam School architecture exteriors).

The next gallery includes the reconstruction of an office with a large table and several very solid chairs and coffee table (One needed a very strong back to move this characteristically heavy massieve furniture) Further galleries include furniture for the home including first living, dining and bed rooms including photos of some of their occupants involved in various activities such as knitting next to the hearth, reading, etc. The dark wood furniture in this collection, some by Peter Lodewijk Kramer, creates a very den-or cave-like interior. A notable exception to this a suite of black and white bedroom furniture by Joseph Crouwel which stunningly presages the streamlined clean lines of Art Deco.

Another aspect of the Amsterdam School included in this exhibition is sculpture including the Modernist looking Girl (three-quarter figure) sculpture and the cast concrete Man with Wings (who looks more like a demon with wings from The Lord of the Rings) both by John Rädecker. Hildo Krop is also represented by his wood closets with wooden sculptures both above and in the cornices. Some of Krop’s work can also be found today on some of the city centre’s sculptured bridge pillars.

The exoticism of the Amsterdam School movement is given further explanation by its use in film theatres and department stores. In the 1920s, going to these two buildings was a type of escape, the first for a new form of entertainment—film, the second to a sort of retail adventure. These are demonstrated for example, by photos of the Tuschinski theatre’s Pieter den Besten’s native American designs (mural and lamp) and in The Hague’s Bijenkorf department store’s by two, giant, dark-wood, carved staircase padauks with details of flautists, a harpist and theatre masks by H. A. van de Einde. Toordorp is also represented by an expressionist (almost ’60s hippieish) brightly-painted wooden changing screen.

The last three galleries include even more gems. In the antepenultimate gallery, objects are displayed on shelves similar to those used in depots. These objects include firescreens, ceramics, a cradle, and an exquisite chest of drawers by Louis Bogtman of batik-patterned wood and wrought-iron from a private collection which demonstrates how Eastern styles affected the Amsterdam School.

The penultimate room in the exhibition has dozens of characteristically tear-shaped, dark, metal, hanging electric lamps demonstrating the new influence electricity was having on home interiors. Across from the lamps are distinctive stained-glass windows for both commercial and home use.

The exhibit’s final room contains a collection of Amsterdam School exhibition posters of shows, revivals and retrospectives. In the centre of the room is a red, yellow and white bedside table by Hildo Krop, which looks strikingly similar to the simple angular, Mondrian-coloured Modernist furniture made by Gerrit Rietveld. It demonstrates how Dutch interior design and this long-lived, multi-media artist (1884-1970) reinvented themselves again in the 1930s.

There’s probably something to satisfy everyone’s interest in early 20th Dutch interiors from chairs, tables, sofas, beds, desks, paintings, rugs, lamps, windows, posters, art magazines, photos, film, video and music. Visitors with children will probably be grateful for the “Build Your Own Clock” hands-on activity area, about two-thirds of the way through the exhibition, for visitors with children. Here children can construct and customize (detail and colour) their own Amsterdam School style clock. There are three different styles (5 minutes for the easiest, 15 for the most difficult). The clockworks, however, must be purchase downstairs at museum shop.

Even though Dr. Marjan Groot spent 10 years researching and collecting the Living in the Amsterdam School’s over 500 objects, gallery visitors are not overwhelmed by either too many objects or too much information. Her selection provides a rich overview that is exhaustive but not exhausting for the visitor. It is both scholarly and tasteful and the perfect length for a morning or afternoon museum visit.

Document Nederland

Document Nederland is a series of approximately 180 photos of the Dutch educational system in Rotterdam, by Rotterdam photographer and filmmaker Carel van Hees, currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This series is a year-long, longitudinal, photographic documentation of Rotterdam’s educational system from infants school to university and is part of a larger series of photographic documentation, which was begun in the mid-1970s which has almost annually documented changing or controversial aspects of Dutch culture such as unemployment, elections, the broadcasting media, youth, post-WWII neighbourhoods, healthcare, refugees among other topics. The exhibition was given an enthusiastic introduction by Rijksmuseum director, Wim Pijbes. Pijbes also mentioned the unusual way Van Hees’ poster-size photos of the Dutch educational system are presented by the Rijks—in lightweight frames, which visitors can page through. In addition, these photos are illuminated by spotlights hung above in an otherwise darkened room which this reviewer found a very compact, yet intimate way to present such a large collection.

Van Hees’ photos capture Rotterdam’s educational institutions as modern, constructive and multi-cultural. Hees’ photos of the RDM Campus Albeda College welders show the strength and beauty of two young men whose dirty, heavy protective clothing—helmet, steel-toed shoes, fireproof gloves and aprons—reminds me of Lewis Hine’s iconic Powerhouse Mechanic Working on Steam Pomp (1920) or his 1930s Empire State Building girder riveters. It’s understandable why this photo was used to promote the Document Nederland series.

This static photo is contrasted by another more lively group of predominantly female, shipping and cruise school students (Scheepsvaart en Transport College) in their dark blue, uniform dresses clumped together and bursting with laughter whilst their two male colleagues or instructors remain (shyly?) almost hidden in the background. Van Hees’ photos also document constants in the Dutch educational system such as student teacher conferences at the elementary OBS Bloemhof and secondary OSG Hugo de Groot and graduation ceremonies at the polytechnic Zuiderpark VMBO and Erasmus University, where the facial emotions and intensity of interaction are the same and only the size of the desks and types of gowns are different.

Van Hees’ photos reveal the Dutch educational system’s merocratic aspiration to be open and accessible to all classes, races and genders. When asked during the press conference which of his photos he found the most iconic of the Dutch educational system 2016, Van Hees directed me to two, large portrait photos presented side by side in the gallery. One was of a student in coat and tie from the prestigious Ermaains Gymnasium. The other was of a student in an orange worksuit from the Zuiderpark VMBO. Van Hees’ commented in a brief interview (to be presented in AQ15 next month) that although the two young men both came from “two different educational programs, (they) were still two fellow citizens from the big city.”

Carel van Hees at Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs exhibition, March 2016, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Photo Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte.

Carel van Hees at Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs exhibition, March 2016, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Photo Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte.

The art of Van Hees’ photos is indeed his excellent portraiture of these students’ world whether he captures them in class, socializing in groups, with boy/girlfriends, sitting alone or sometimes even anonymously from behind, their clothing, hairstyles and posture still revealing something about their backgrounds and outlook.

That said, my one criticism of Van Hees’ photographic series is even though he was given permission to restrict himself to Rotterdam, in doing so, he missed documenting some pressing issues in rural areas such as the closing of small, local elementary schools and/or the lack of high-speed internet for some of these schools which is also a concern for the Dutch educational system albeit a minority and a peripherally geographic one.

This criticism aside, however, Van Hees provides an excellent overview of the Dutch, urban educational system anno 2016. He shows young people from infants to university in all social and economic groups in class and socializing with their peers. The value of these photographs is not only as a historical document, but also as sensitive, moment opnamen as Van Hees referred to them, in which he has captured the students’ hopes, fear, frustrations, activities and achievements artfully.

In addition to Van Hees’ photoseries, the photographic work of ten, secondary school finalists in the Jong Nederland competition that Van Hees judged were on display at the Rijksmuseum’s Teekenschool (which I was surprised to discover was older than Amsterdam’s own Rietveld Art Academy, and in fact, actually gave birth to this institution). Sashia de Boer (Het Lyceum, Alkmaar) won the Document Junior photo competition for her series of retro-punk photos shot in vintage ‘70s clothing against ’70s-style school backgrounds captured in the stylistic black and white photographic grittiness of that era. She will participate in a six-month internship with Van Hees at the Rijksmuseum before, according to Van Hees, going on to study at the Rietveld Academy.

Two other students whose work I feel is also worth mentioning is that of Rosalie van der Does (Wassenaarse Adelbert College) and Joelle Tahapary (Kalsbeek College, Woerden). Van Der Does, who took her national, second-form finals at 19 due to a disability, shows the challenges she faced in her photographs, especially one in which she appears to be standing still and everyone around her moving so quickly that they’re blurred and another in which she lying down, eyes closed, her right hand covering the right side of her face. On the other hand, Tahapary’s photos are abstract, kaleidoscopic and look somewhat like modern stained-glass windows. All ten sets of finalists’ photos on display at the Rijkmuseum’s Teekenschool document successfully the creativity engendered by the Dutch educational system in general and by this Jong Nederland competition, specifically.