I really enjoyed the Stedelijk Collection, more so because of my recent studies in modern art. I found I was much more able to enjoy the works and appreciate the intention behind them.
The collection starts with earlier works by Van Gogh and Cezanne which is fitting given their important influence on modern art.
Van Gogh’s portrait of Augustine Roulin, called La Berceuse from 1889 is a strangely coloured portrait. The paintings is predominantly green and even her flesh has a greenish tinge. The green is set off by complementary reds and oranges in the carpet, chair and her hair. Her features are large and her body seems misshapen. The flowers on the wall behind her remind me of Matisse’s Harmony in red as the dominate the background. Unlike Matisse however, they remain firmly on the plane behind the figure. It quite a jarring portrait and definitely not intended to flatter.
One of Cezanne’s many versions of Montagne Sainte Victoire painted in 1888 is included. Of the many depictions he produced, this one is quite pale, with weak colours. The forms are reduced to basic shapes, the curve of a hillside or the slope of the mountain. His brushstrokes seem short and angular hardening the curves into angles. Short vertical lines rise from the landscape and these tonal interest and focus the eye moving it across the landscape towards the mountain. Typical atmospheric perspective tools have been used so that the colours become cooler the further away they are. The mountain is ice blues and greys.
Both of these artist were attempting to paint exactly what they saw rather than what was expected of them. Breaking from the traditional techniques these artists were beginning the advent of the modern period.
Several Kandinsky’s works are shown, displaying the development from his early more traditional style in Kochel – Brücke from 1902, to becoming less representational in Bild mit Häusern (Painting with Houses) from 1909 with its unnatural fauvist colours through to (almost) complete abstraction in Improvisation 33 (Orient I) from 1913. In actual fact the latter is drawn from the theme of the Garden of Eden. On closer inspection the horizontal shapes in the foreground is a reclining figure(s) while the blue oval at the top of the painting can be seen as a spouting fountain. The smaller shapes in the centre appear like a distant landscape with buildings and hills. The shape on the right clearly looks like a figure standing over the reclining one (perhaps in judgement?). I was interested to look for Kandinsky’s musical influence in this work. My lack of knowledge of musical theory doesn’t help me but perhaps the strong black and red shaped are like punctuations perhaps indicating a loud segment which then proceeds along the swooping black lines which could indicate fast paced rhythm.
Kirchner’s Dancing Woman of 1911, is a sculpture of a woman roughly carved from a log and demonstrates the influence of primitive art at the time. It is painted which add to the expressive element.
Still in this first room of the collection, there was a large painting by Max Pechstein called Leba Harbour from 1922. I didn’t know much about this artist other than he had been a member of Die Brucke. I loved the colours in this painting, the violent oranges in the sunset reminded me of Munch’s The Scream which had been painted nearly 30 years previously. This was much more representational however and less ominous that Munch. The red highlights on the boat in the foreground are particularly effective.
In the next room, a Braque still life, Pitcher and Three Bottles from 1908 is from the year that Braque painted his first cubist still life. This one is not quite in the style he would use but you can see the cubist elements like using different perspectives featured, simplified shapes and muted colours that would follow. Cezanne’s influence is also evident in the directional brush strokes and shading and flattened shapes.
There were several works by Mondrian in this room which spilled into the next showing the development of his style. Tableau No. 3 Composite in Oval and Painting No II both from 1913 and are completely non-representational. This style had developed from similar works of trees where the branches themselves became the lines. The is no evidence of this however in these works. Both have a similar palette of browns and beiges with dark lines.
His later works start to become more simpler in palette and line. There were a couple of completely abstract geometric pieces where curves are completely replace with perpendicular lines and his typical primary colours have replaced the tones.
I spent some time looking at these works. On closer inspection one can see subtle differences in the thickness and lengths of the lines. Some of the black lines don’t quite meet the edge of the canvas and some of the colours seem to flow off the edge of the canvas while others are boxed in. All of these aspects balance the compositions and create the interest.
Chagall’s Self Portrait with Seven Fingers from 1912 is an odd painting. It is completely unrealistic and quite bizarre looking, with strong colours and contrasts and odd perspectives. The fact he has seven fingers just increases the effect. In reality, Chagall chose to show himself in between two worlds: the view of Paris outside of the window and his birthplace in Russian in the dream-like cloud above his head and the picture on his easel is a rural scene with a milkmaid and a cow. The seven fingers represented the importance of the Jewish tradition that has mystical meaning for the number seven and the fact he was born on the 7th day of the 7th month in 1887.
The collection has a number of Malevich works which span all stages of his career. I found it an interesting contrast to see his early works next to his Suprematist works. Lamp/Musical Instruments from 1913 is shown next to Hierarchic Suprematism of 1920-21.
In fact, the collection owns a large collection of his drawings and paintings that weren’t displayed and the online catalogue gives a even more in depth demonstration of this development. It starts with quite traditional portraits and romantic Klimt-like figures of the early 1900s to more stylised figure representations with unnatural colours and then reducing the figures to cylindrical shapes with even tonal gradation. Complex cubist arrangements incorporating musical notes followed and even cartoon like prints which are almost pop-art before his sudden change to the stark geometric shapes and abstraction he became famous for. I found this seemingly abrupt change quite odd, I wonder if it was just as sudden as the collection makes it appear or whether he had been toying with the ideas for a while.
The next room included the Interbellum period between the two wars. In this space was a wonderful self portrait by Stanley Spencers, Braque’s Still Life with Knife form 1932 and Picasso’s Heads of 1943.
I’m not very familiar with Stanley Spencer other than his Shipbuilding on the Clyde series which hang in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, and his images of war. I loved this portrait with his use of greens and dramatic lighting. I look forward to perhaps exploring this artist more in the next section.
Braque’s still life and Picasso’s Heads show how they both progressed in different directions from their cubist period. I was surprised not to find any of their definitive work for this time in the museum given that it was such an influential genre.
Calder’s hanging mobile Suspended Composition of Small Leaves (Four Red Spots), 1947 was such a light and airy piece but seemed to fit well with the Mondrian pieces in the same room. It’s simplicity complemented Mondrian’s geometry. I was unable to see what it was hanging from which cleverly made it seem to defy gravity as it moved slightly in the breeze of passers by.
Pevsner’s Fresque en ovale from 1945, contrasted greatly with Calder’s delicate mobile. Made of brass and copper it seemed like an inverted alien wooden mask hanging on the wall. I found both sculptures strangely hypnotic, moving around to look from different angles but for very different reasons and results. Pevsner’s work was almost foreboding and sinister in comparison.
Following a couple of Jackson Pollock’s there was a large collection of works by the Dutch artist Karel Appel. I was unaware of this artist before but a large space was devoted to his work, including several murals and a small room he had painted. There were many references to animals in his work and primitive faces. I have to say I didn’t like his work much it seemed too childlike and random.
Upstairs the chronology continues with Barnett Newmans massive works. I was actually quite impressed by these enormous slabs of colour. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III I found actually quite hard to look at for any length of time. The red was just so overpowering it was just a bit intense. I found it interesting that a colour could create this effect in me, it was actually quite unpleasant. Cathedra was much more relaxing. This great expanse of blue was broken only be a lighter blue vertical line and a white line slightly off centre. I felt quite absorbed by the texture of the blue surface. Apparently there was 6 layers of different pigments all carefully blended together giving a mottled surface. It was a bit like being under the sea.
The Pop art section contained Lichtenstein – As I Opened Fire, 1964 which was interesting to see up close to see how the small dots came together to create areas of colour form a distance. The eye almost didn’t want to see the dots like an optical illusion. The image itself I found fairly unappealing but I could see the message that he was trying to convey about the minimalism of violence in our culture which I think is very important. Warhol’s Bellevue II, 1963 was more interesting for me. At first you don’t realise what you are looking at, then you can see the repeated images of someone being tended to on the street by a medical professional while a police man looks on. I found so much to think about in this image, the viewer wonder what has happened to the person, why in the policeman not helping but standing to the side – he is silhouetted in black surrounded by white while the paramedic is in white. Why has Warhol shown the policeman in this dark and odd way, like good and evil. In fact this is derived from a police photograph of a person having just leap to their death from the psychiatric hospital in Manhattan, Bellevue. The title therefire is not only informative but also is a play on words as this is clearly not a beautiful view.
At the time of my visit there was a large exhibition by Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden. She focuses on faces and figures in a variety of techniques including oils and watercolours. There are several themes: love, death, longing and guilt but the artist has left the interpretation of the images with the viewer. She wants the visitor to “finish of the story” in our own personal way – drawing on our own preconceptions and experiences. I found this very interesting and some of the pieces were not only technically impressive but quite moving as well. Over all though I found it quite unnerving though and but at times disturbing. To me, her multitudes of faces peer out of the canvases and seems to be emitting misery and torture. By the end, the viewer is exhausted by the emotion that pours out of them. Perhaps this says more about me than the artist though, if as Dumas says we are drawing from our own experiences. I’m not sure about this though and I would maybe prefer to see her works in smaller numbers I think.
I would like to return to the Stedelijk, I think perhaps it was my favourite of the museums in Amsterdam which is saying something indeed!
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