The Stedelijk and the Senses
Updated: Mar 18
Stedelijk Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Design
At the start of my Dutch sojourn, the Stedelijk was something of a secondary destination. I took the trip in the dead of January to experience the art of the ‘Golden Age’— the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Steen hanging in the Gallery of Honour at the monolithic Rijksmuseum. Curatorially speaking, however, I was most excited by the Stedelijk, which came as a pleasant surprise. It currently offers not only sustained and stimulating critical curation, but also a series of exhibits that interact with the visitor in unexpected and unusual ways. It proved to be one of the most memorable experiences of my trip—here’s why.
Above: In the bathtub. The architectural extension seen here is known as 'The Bathtub', designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects. Upon its opening in 2012/3, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman said 'I can't recall seeing a more ridiculous looking building than the new Stedelijk Museum.' Photo: author's own.
First, I had no big expectations. When I visit a place for a specific purpose I tend to get a bit fixated and preoccupied, and this is exactly what happened at the Rijksmuseum nextdoor. After I’d spent a day with The Milkmaid and The Night Watch, I felt the main aim of the trip had been pretty well fulfilled, and strolled into the Stedelijk with an open mind. In hindsight, this was an important factor influencing how I responded to the exhibitions: no baggage, so to speak, led to a more meditative and reflective experience. When I entered the first gallery, I took a little longer than I usually would to read the introductory wall panel, entitled Yesterday Today, Collection Until 1950, and consider its use of language. The text begins with descriptives:
‘Presented here is a selection from the collection of visual art, design, and photography from around 1850 until 1950. The arrangement is part chronological and thematic, and also features the work of female makers more than before. In addition, the correlation between modernism and colonialism is an important topic.’
Then moves to the reflective:
‘It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the collection and how it came into existence. Why are certain makers collected while others not? How has the museum contributed to the formation of a canon in this respect?’
Then the prospective:
‘By presenting lesser-known works alongside ones which are frequently shown and adopting a thematic approach, new and different stories can be told.’
The initial statements about women artists and colonialism are understated. Often when I visit institutions that have made or responded to representational changes, I feel that the rhetoric they employ is polemical, and aside from introducing a couple of new works, or perhaps putting on an exhibition dealing explicitly with subjects such as race or gender, don’t always live up to their talk. The confidence with which the Stedelijk opens— stating ‘this is what we’ve done’ rather than ‘this is what we must do’— is refreshing. The use of nuanced and considered statements, rather than a series of blunt imperatives and expressions of regret, is considerably more approachable for the average visitor. The reflective excerpt continues this trend by asking serious questions in an accessible and simple way. The visitor goes on to approach the collection with a critical and inquisitive mindset, rather than the sceptical one that polemical introductions often engender. The final reason why I liked this opening blurb was that it stated its aim in a rather elegant yet cogent way, and tells you exactly how they’re going to do it. The aim here is ‘for new and different stories to be told’. Surely you have to be dull as hell to want to hear the same stories over and over again, so it’s hardly an objectionable goal. As I will explore, the Stedelijk uses curation in different ways to achieve this aim; it’s not simply a case of outlining ‘new stories’, but actively presenting collection material in different ways, such as multimedia combinations and art installations.
After a brief pause to spot the Cezanne that was nicked in the 1980s (stolen along with two other works by Van Gogh and Jongkind, and recovered, extraordinarily, within two weeks), I found myself walking through a series of immersive experiences. The first of these was strongly visual—a ceiling to floor display along the theme of ‘Protest and Revolution’. One of the first things that came to mind was the recent post by Matthew Lloyd Roberts for Curation Space, exploring the ways in which money has been utilised for protest. The Stedelijk theme explores ‘an era of struggles for independence, new political views, ideological clashes, and philosophical revolutions’, and features famous posters such as ‘AIDS, THE KILLING BITE OF LOVE’ (Anthon Beeke, 1993), ‘WAR IS OVER! If You Want It’ (John Lenon and Yoko Ono, 1969), and ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ (formally titled No Justice No Peace, Farida Sedoc, 2020). Arranging the designs in this way conveys the scale of political and social activism over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, but also reflects the original crowded street contexts for which most were intended. In a small label to the side, which is dwarfed by the looming spectre of the wall, it is said that all of these posters are reproductions of originals in the Stedelijk collection. I felt in this context that presenting facsimiles did not detract from the exhibit one bit, even more so because most of these works were printed on a large scale anyway, and the museum could only ever possess instances of them. I left with a stronger sense of the statement this display was making, rather than the physicality of the objects themselves. If reproductions were to be interpreted as a sacrifice, it’s one worth paying for the curatorial impact.
Above, right to left: wall of activist posters; Der Agitator (1928) by George Grosz; and the 1940s room, in which the jazz playlist is looped. Photos: author's own.
The next immersion was auditory. We move through a room primarily focused on the interbellum years of the 20s and 30s, featuring works by Max Ernst and George Grosz, such as Der Agitator (1928) a caricature responding to the rise of National Socialism, and into a room themed around the western artistic developments of the postwar 1940s. The main attention grab in the 1940s room is not the paintings or furniture designs on display, but a jaunty jazz loop, playing bebop and swing. Hits such as Flying Home (Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, 1945), My Sweet Hunk O’Trash (James P. Johnson, Fourney E. Millar, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Everett Barksdale, Bernie Privin, 1949), and Picasso (1948) (Coleman Hawkins), provide an avenue for discussing transatlantic musical influences, and Amsterdam’s fascinating black history. Panels describe how ‘renowned African American jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington returned to the Netherlands after already having caused a frenzy here in the 1930s’. Amsterdam jazz cafés such as Casablanca and the Cotton Club (named after the Harlem one) boomed post-war. It was a refreshing immersion to see interior design, visual arts, and the musical avant-garde all on display at the same time in the same place to capture a zeitgeist.
And just as I thought the immersion had reached a natural limit, I wandered into the temporary exhibition galleries, which took things to another level. There, we find exhibits such as LUCK by Seán Hannan, and Digital Esoterism by Ginevra Petrozzi. Digital Esoterism ‘reclaims witchcraft as an anti-capitalist tool’, and ‘as a digital witch, Ginevra Petrozzi investigates forms of resistance against large companies that profit from our online data’. The idea here, as far as I can discern, is that the future is already determined, no longer by the stars or fate, but now by algorithms and AI; Petrozzi shows up every now and again to perform digital readings. Unfortunately, she was not there on this occasion, but I could appreciate the interactive space nonetheless. Installations by contemporary artists in close proximity to the permanent collections as a means to enhancing or extending a particular theme reminded me of the first exhibition I wrote about for Curation Space: Carlo Crivelli and Susan Collis at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Though at the Stedelijk, temporary works are in a distinctly separate space to the permanent galleries, their interrogation of similar themes (e.g., resistance, protest, marginalisation) contributes to the impression of curatorial coherence.
Sticking with the theme of magick (‘spelled with a ck to distinctly refer to spiritual magic’), LUCK revolves around an egg which has been cursed especially for the Stedelijk. It is displayed alongside a film that shows the artist’s journey to Ireland, where Tara Tine, a magick practitioner, curses the egg through a practice called piseógs, an ancient form of Irish folk magic. The curse is allegedly inside of the eggshell and is therefore only enacted if it breaks. ‘Its purpose’, we are informed, ‘is to restore a natural balance by transferring luck and prosperity from the Stedelijk to those in the arts who need it most’. Naturally, I was tempted to give it a knock, but with arts in the state that they’re in, particularly in Britain, I figured I wouldn’t be in with a shot at that prosperity anyway.
Above: the cursed egg, a part of LUCK by Seán Hannah. Photo: author's own.
Some of the integrated exhibits at the Stedelijk, such as the juxtaposition of furniture design and paintings, is mirrored by the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour is dominated by Old Masters, and architectural embellishments glorifying them. The only instances of what we might call design are Doomer Cabinets, executed with breath-taking intricacy, yet upholding relatively simple proportions. There is a Dutch austerity about them which is both beautiful and subtle. However, here the furniture of the 17th c. is not utilised in an interactive or engaging way, but displayed on the peripheral wings of the gallery, fostering the classic sense of gallery detachment. The Stedelijk, a mere two minutes’ walk away, does something very different with what we might crudely refer to as the same ingredients; strolling its rooms, from the spectre of protest, through the anthemic 40s, and into the realm of the supernatural, its curation gives our other senses a shot. These are the sensations I keep thinking back to— I can hear the music, see the protest hues, and sense a different atmosphere in the mystical spaces— in no small part due to curatorial choice the Stedelijk made more of an impression. Thinking back to its initial statements about women artists and colonialism, the immersion prevents any form of detatchment, or isolated identities. I never once felt spoken at, more like I was being conversed with. The immersive and sensory aspects of the Stedelijk are the key to its telling of ‘new and different stories’, and something from which other galleries can learn.
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space
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