29 Jun, 2009

Moving works

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A new sister museum to Russia’s Hermitage has opened in Amsterdam. It’s just the latest feather in the top art city’s hat, says Jonathan Jones

On my last visit to the Hermitage collection, I could see skaters on the frozen Neva as I peered through the windows of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace. This time around, the water outside is warm and green and canal boats chug past laden with partygoers. This is Amsterdam, a place to have fun. But is it also a place to look at art. The city can boast many amazing museums, including the Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and an excellent modern art gallery. But its latest and very lavish opening is a big, modern branch of Russia’s most famous art collection – the Hermitage Amsterdam (Amstel 51, 0031 20 530 87 55, hermitage.nl), which opened its doors last weekend.

Amsterdam, it must be said, has faced some troubles recently as an art destination. The Rijksmuseum, palatial home to the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Peter de Hooch, had to close for massive rebuilding after asbestos was found in its 19th century walls. It has yet to announce a reopening, although a highlights show in its modern wing is excellent (Stadhouderskade 42, 0031 20 674 7047, rijksmuseum.nl). Meanwhile the Stedelijk Museum, which until Tate Modern opened was Europe’s most exciting public collection of modern art, also closed for a renovation.

Russia to the rescue! The Hermitage in St Petersburg is unquestionably one of the world’s great art museums, encompassing the Winter Palace, such incomparable works of art as Matisse’s Dance and Picasso’s Brick Factory at Tortosa, and so much art, so many historic clothes and clocks, that it can easily put on exhibitions abroad and still satisfy its own visitors.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is a brilliant way for Russia to share its collection abroad and a genuinely ambitious venture, on the scale of the American Guggenheim’s worldwide branches. On my trip last week I found a modern museum with all the trimmings: chic bar, two huge shops, children’s wing . . . and, oh yes, a vast suite of exhibition spaces. Its opening effort is all frocks and fancies: an exhibition that recreates court life in St Petersburg on the eve of the revolution. A portrait of the doomed Tsar Nicolas by Ilya Repin holds and haunts you. But why here?

Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in homage to his favourite city, Amsterdam. From the British visitor’s point of view, though, the simple attraction is that it’s easier to reach than the original. Getting to St Petersburg is still not particularly cheap and the Russian border isn’t the most relaxing to cross. Amsterdam is easy, and you can take advantage of one of the many hotels offering packages that include tickets to the museum – among them, the luxurious Dylan, where I stayed, which has boutique rooms in a 17th century building for far less than a visit to Russia would set you back.

What else is new to justify Amsterdam’s promotion of itself this year as an “Art City”? There’s a cutting-edge photography scene, for starters. Everyone knows Amsterdam is the city of Rembrandt, but what’s less famous is the fact that it is probably the most clued-up city anywhere when it comes to photography. Amsterdam hosts the World Press Photo awards every spring and overflows all year round with new photographs at galleries such as Reflex (Weteringschans 83, 0031 20 627 2832, reflex-art.nl) and the new Netherlands Media Art Institute (Keizersgracht 264, 0031 20 623 7101, nimk.nl).

Our visit to Reflex was particularly memorable. Caught in a shower, we found ourselves explaining its current show of photographs of gun-toting Haitians and masked revellers to our four-year-old daughter.

Just strolling around the western Canal district, where our hotel was located on the Keisersgracht, we found among the 17th-century houses the amazing Foam (Keisersgracht 609, 0031 20 551 6500, foam.nl), a superb photography venue where you’re liable to find two or three sensitively selected contemporary shows at once. I was provoked and fascinated by the juxtaposition of disturbing images of African poverty by Guy Tillim on one floor, with sunbleached, hedonistic Italian beach scenes by Massimo Vitali on another. You rarely see photography displayed with such energy in Britain.

Amsterdam’s modern art museum, the Stedelijk (stedelijkindestad.nl), has a collection any gallery would envy – its treasures such as Ed Kienholz’s Beanery, a walk-in recreation of a sordid diner that has its beholders gawping, grimacing and grinning, and Jeff Koons’s sculpture of cherubs tending a pig entitled Ushering In Banality, will be displayed in pristine rooms to match Tate Modern’s when it reopens next year. Will continental Europe’s most stimulating modern collection win back its crown? That really would confirm Amsterdam’s title as Art City. On a hard-hat tour, I found myself longing for all its great works to fill the rooms that stand so nearly ready.

I couldn’t have toured Amsterdam without taking in the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 0031 20 570 5200, vangoghmuseum.nl), a justly loved favourite that will unveil its most ambitious ever project this autumn – a completely new illustrated edition of Van Gogh’s letters, in print and online, to be launched with an exhibition here that displays the letters with their intense sketches next to the paintings they discuss (opens 9 October).

This museum also has a great cafe, which serves good Provencal specialities such as salade nicoise in honour of Van Gogh’s period in Arles. Amsterdam is such a relaxing place to walk around that you could be forgiven for not going into any galleries at all. When I was having my tour of the Stedelijk the others went to Artis zoo (Plantage Kerklaan 38-40, 0031 20 5233400, artis.nl) where small children are pulled around by their parents in little carts. The vision of my wife hauling my daughter around in this manner all afternoon will haunt me as long as any of the art we saw.

• Dylan Amsterdam, Keizersgracht 384 (0031 20 530 2010, dylanamsterdam.com) has an Art City package at €400 per double per night incl four-course “art” dinner for two, a gift and tickets to the Hermitage or the Rijksmuseum.

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