Art in Amsterdam – Contemporary and Classic

Tons of dilapidated tourist bicycles behind Central Station

Tons of dilapidated tourist bicycles behind Central Station

As a blogger, it’s up to me to decide what images to show you of a place I visit. If I show you a romanticized pic of the perfect bicycle alongside a canal on a sunny day, with the reflection of a bridge mirrored in the water you’d get a “travel-porn” view of Amsterdam.

But that wasn’t my experience, so that’s not what I am going to show.

These images are how I saw bicycles in Amsterdam. They abound by the hundreds, most of them homely and half-broke, locked up with thick metal chains, leaning against buildings, or bound to fences or ugly concrete pillars beside the canals. They are an eyesore; the city is over-run with them.

More bicycles leaning against a building

More bicycles leaning against a building

Art can be like that too. We have expectations of art. We want it to deliver a certain viewing experience. In many cases we romanticize art, particularly classical art.

For instance, when you are in Amsterdam and you go to any of the major museums, you will see the “Dutch Masters.” It’s easy to look at these images and settle back into your chair at your computer desk (unless you are looking at this screen on a tablet, or a cell phone I suppose) and say to yourself, Ah, yes, these are the paintings a tourist would see in Amsterdam. How beautiful.

It requires no thinking, it is a passive viewing experience.

So when we think of famous artists from the Netherlands, we’d call to mind Van Gogh:

Van Gogh self portrait - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh self portrait – Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

or a lovely Vermeer:

Vermeer's The Milkmaod - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Vermeer’s The Milkmaod – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

or perhaps Rembrandt:

Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

I’m not criticizing this art. I’m not suggesting these artworks aren’t worth seeing, but I am saying a viewer will not feel challenged when you look at these works. You will see exactly what you expect.

So, I’d prefer not to just highlight these conventional images, and talk a little bit about images that aren’t as expected.

The original rock and roll smoking skeleton? Maybe. It's a Van Gogh.

The original rock and roll smoking skeleton? Maybe. It’s a Van Gogh.

Unfortunately I will be unable to show you photos of the art made an impression on me because I was not allowed to take photographs at FOAM – the contemporary museum of photography. I also forgot to take a photograph of “W139: a contemporary art space” and the current work there called “On Fresh Soil.”

Fortunately for you dear reader, I am a writer – not a professional artist – so I can share what I observed in words and you will come up with your own imagined view of what I saw.

*          *          *

At FOAM, I saw a large exhibition of the works of Stephen Gill. The show is entitled “Best Before End.” This show will be on view at FOAM from May 17th thru July 14th 2013.

Here is an excerpt of the show’s description by the museum’s curators:  “The exhibition Best Before End incorporates a number of photographic series Gill made in and around the London borough of Hackney over the past 14 years. … Gill made various attempts to jump outside the technical boundaries that photography imposed. … His processes include burying photographs, making exuberant flower collages, places objects inside the camera so that their traces could be encapsulated within the film emulsion.”

One interesting technique Gill used was adding colored energy drinks to his film and the processed photograph would have a large orange, red or other color “splotch” in places on the finished print.

The content of Gill’s show isn’t always as fascinating as his techniques though. One series of a dozen photos was images of different individuals sitting on a train looking out the window. Another series was old women who used shopping carts and the images were centered on the woman with the shopping cart, and not much else in the image. Still another series was different pieces of concrete sitting in the center of the image, with no discernable background.

However, there were other images that strived toward a larger narrative. My favorite piece in the show was a small photo of a field of cone flowers with a yellow base to the flower, graduating to reddish orange on top in the foreground… in the background, were a series of industrial smokestacks, the top portion of which were safety yellow – but processed to look similar in color to the flowers.

Another interesting part of the exhibit was a dozen works on paper – not photos. Each paper had a smashed purplish blue splotch in the center. The contents of these artworks were, according to the description, “blueberry, hammer, paper.” The description of these works actually said “pathetic attempt to capture” … and I think it said something like the essence of that place at a particular time. But it’s a good challenge to a viewer at a photography exhibition, in my opinion.

There were several other galleries with other photographic works on display. The museum is not large, and depending on how you linger over particular exhibits, you can see it in an hour or hour and a half. Still, I found it worthwhile.

*          *          *

Travel Tip: If you want to purchase some decorative street art from local artists (tourist stuff) … you can stop by the “Art Plein Spui” on Sundays only, in the Spui district. There’s a little something for everybody: landscapes, nudes, abstract, a bit of sculpture … all while being serenaded by a harp player accompanied by a violinist.

Entrance to Art Plein Spui

Entrance to Art Plein Spui

Artists ready to meet the day's tourists at Art Plein Spui

Artists ready to meet the day’s tourists at Art Plein Spui

*          *          *

Finally, I didn’t have nearly enough time – or map sense – to find out what the contemporary art scene was like in Amsterdam. There was only one ground-breaking space (literally) that I saw, at W139.

W139 is a pseudo-warehouse looking space, with high ceilings, although accessible at street level. When I visited, W139 had “broken ground” by pulling a small tractor (yes, a farm tractor) into the building to plough a “furrow” into the blacktop macadam they had laid over a concrete floor years ago. The artists collective who run the space decided they are going to remove this blacktop surface, and they had a groundbreaking ceremony where the tractor did its bit to cut into the floor.

Unfortunately I wasn’t there to see that. I saw the aftermath… a tractor parked in the center of the space, behind the tractor are pieces of blacktop thrown to both sides of this “furrow” and the rest of the space looks like (and is) an unfinished construction zone.

The folks at W139 present this as an artwork in progress, and that is what’s on view. They are calling this exhibition “On Fresh Soil.” Entrance to the space is free.

*          *          *

Just like the random chaos at W139, there is no neat and tidy way to summarize the art I saw in Amsterdam. The museums are the institutional view, the street art is what it is, and the contemporary galleries are mostly unknown to me.

But if you find bicycles to be the moving art of the city of Amsterdam, don’t worry, you’ll see plenty.

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6 Responses

  1. I love your take on Amsterdam especially the photo of the dilapidated bicycles. Your evaluation of the art scene gives me a good sense of what’s happening as well. I would disagree thought, that art must always “challenge”. I love Van Gogh simply because I love looking at his paintings. They’re sensual, decadent, full of life, that’s enough for me.

    • Thanks Sean. Since I’m suggesting that challenging the viewer is a way to get them more engaged, I’m using (more than a bit of) the same approach in the way I’m writing about Amsterdam too.

      As I said in my post though… I’m not dissing Van Gogh or classical art, I’m saying that when you see a Van Gogh, you see what you expect.

      If that’s “enough” for you – that’s cool.

  2. Hi Carol,

    Carol: “It requires no thinking, it is a passive viewing experience.”

    George the Zenmaster: “Nothing requires thinking.”

    Carol: Fortunately for you dear reader, I am a writer – not a professional artist – so I can share what I observed in words and you will come up with your own imagined view of what I saw.

    George: A writer like you is, for me, a professional artist. The way you write about thinks I know, and thinks I don`t know, are an eyeopener.

    I think. I know how you are building images for youre readers.

    But, Van Gogh is a master in writing also. And when a writer paints like Van Gogh does, it requires thinking too.
    Have a look at this. And I read it in Dutch. And then try to remember what you have seen from Van Gogh. And now … think!!

    http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/

    Your stories are great,

    Sincerely yours, George.

    • Thanks so much George, I appreciate your encouragement. Thanks also for the link to the bound volume of letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. This is something that was highlighted in a film at the Van Gogh museum about the brothers.

      Sadly, when Vincent died, Theo died within a few months… many say of a broken heart. They had corresponded very regularly for years.

      I did think a lot about Van Gogh when I visited the museum, but after I left the work didn’t stay with me as vividly as the contemporary work I experienced.

      But you and Sean are of the same opinion, Van Gogh makes you think!

  3. Add me to the list of Van Gogh admirers.

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