AQ16 Summer 2016 Art Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Andriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape, Rijksmuseum, 22 June to 25 September 2016
Living in the Amsterdam School. Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 7 April to 28 August 2016

Not Just a Pleasant, Sunny, Sunday Afternoon

On 22 June 2016, the Rijkmuseum’s soon-to-be-director (as of 15 July), Taco Dibbets, launched the Andriaen van de Velde Dutch Master of Landscape exhibition. Van de Velde, the son of a painter was one of the best landscape artists of the de Goude Eeuwe (the Golden (seventeenth) Century) even though he only lived to be thirty-five. The museum has assembled one of the largest collections of Van de Velde’s oeuvre (60 works — 37 sketches and 23 paintings from public and private collections). It includes not only landscapes peopled with farmers, milkmaids, shepherds, shepherdesses and farm animals arranged around a lone tree or thatched huts or cottages, but also the seaside, ice skating and hunt preparation and even a few religious scenes. In addition, many of these paintings are accompanied by Van de Velde’s preparatory pen and ink sketches. The Rijksmuseum describes Van de Velde as “one of the best Dutch landscape artists,” but Dibbets added during his introductory speech, that Van de Velde painted much more than just scenes from a “pleasant sunny, Sunday afternoon.”

The combination of sketches with the paintings clearly shows the development of the larger canvases from various sources. The link was clearest for me in Van de Velde’s “The Annunciation” (1667). To the right of this painting hangs a sketch of woman naked to the waist, posed with the same outstretched arms and expression of fear and astonishment as the draped Virgin who greets the angel. The woman’s pose in the preparatory sketch allowed Van De Velde to make this standard religious scene much more compelling by having his Virgin look directly at the angel versus a more traditional paintings in which the Virgin looks away.

Although Van de Velde was generally a landscape painter, he also paid equal attention to the human element in his compositions. The central painting of this exhibit is certainly his “Portrait of a family in a landscape” (1667), Van de Velde has painted a well-to-do family out for a ride in an open coach. This painting shows off the family’s money through their elaborate clothing and red coach drawn by two white horses. The gentleman is dressed in a brown coat and stands in the centre foreground of the painting with a walking cane. His wife stands on his left in a black dress and a red mud skirt. Even further to his left is his son who holds a mottled white-and-brown dog on a leash. To his right is a nanny who holds his daughter dressed in white. The triangular placement of these burgers also emphasises their social solidity, familial order and wealth in the middle of an ideal countryside.

In contrast to this wealthy family, however, Van De Velde also painted many fieldworkers. “Haymakers resting in a field” (1663) depicts an intimate gathering of fieldworkers, some taking a break. The first four in the foreground are seated. One man has his arm around a woman while another looks on and another man smokes a pipe. To the right is a man standing drinking from a large, brown jug and a fourth man is asleep on a mound of hay. There is such a contrast of activity in such a small space of canvas—and these are only the characters in the foreground. In the background, four other workers continue to build haystacks with pitchforks and by hand. Other general social scenes include ice skating as in “Colf players on the ice” (1668) and “Ice skating outside the city wall” (1669) which are populated by men, women, children, dogs and horse-drawn sleds lit in a dusky gold-gray winter light.

Van de Velde’s mastery of colour, light and shade is further demonstrated in his paintings of Scheveningen which include “View of a Beach” (1660) and “The Beach at Scheveningen” (1670) with the ships and horses lit in what I think is a similar yellow light to what Breitner used in his paintings at Scheveningen two centuries later.

Some surprises in this exhibition were Van De Velde’s “Figures in a deer park” (1667) in which the eye is drawn by a row of tall trees dwarfing the figures of the men and deer beneath them to the left and into the distance. Others are sketches of figures representing “The Continents of Europe and Asia and America and Africa,”(1671) and a few male nudes (undated). Lastly, are sketches of “Plundering soldiers at a peasant’s dwelling” (1669) showing soldiers with a battering ram and others loading muskets preparing to break down an old farmers door. Another sketch, “Marauders attack peasants at their huts” (1669) shows the next scene in which a man on his knees is about to be run through with a sword, a woman with bare breasts is held by a man from behind whilst another approaches, and a last man with sword drawn chases two figures towards the fields. Such was the reality of life during the wars in the Lowlands during the 17th century. These two, atypical pen and ink sketches remind us how quickly a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon in the countryside then could disintegrate into chaos and carnage.

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.