ON THE TRAIL OF ART AND ADVENTURES IN ONE OF THE MOST INTRIGUING DESTINATIONS IN EUROPE
By Edward Kiersh
THE CAST-IRON STATUE looms high above the pulsating Rembrandtplein square in the center of wild, charming and always surprising Amsterdam. It’s a regal, dominating presence, one that seemingly changes expressions in the play of lights from the surrounding restaurants, bars, the spectacular Pathé Tuschinski cinema and numerous art nouveau cafes.
Wearing a roguish-looking cap, a long and flowing cape and knee breeches, the immortal Dutch painter of The Night Watch and The Jewish Bride sometimes seems to be scowling, annoyed by the clamor from the ceaseless revelry.
But there are moments when this figure seems to be smiling in appreciation of the beautiful young people bicycling towards the nearby lush Vondelpark. Rembrandt could also be admiring the nearby Museumplein, which boasts three exemplary art museums, including the magnetic and comprehensive homage to Vincent van Gogh. Or that smile might have a more libertine interpretation, an approval for the neighboring Jordaan boutique and restaurant district. A picturesque and fashionable hotspot dotted with artisanal businesses and hidden cafes, this is the area where Anne Frank spent the last years of her life.
These expressions of Amsterdam’s patron saint may be confounding. But this blend of exuberant, well-heeled living and exasperating grittiness makes this 1,000-year-old city with 90 islands, 1,500 bridges, more than 70 miles of canals and 179 nationalities one of the most intriguing destinations in Europe. “Compact with edgy art galleries, music and top restaurants concentrated in a small area, Amsterdam makes it easy for collectors to enjoy themselves,” says Jacco Scheper, managing director of Amsterdam-based Heritage Auctions Europe, created last year after Heritage joined forces with MPO Auctions.
“Sailors came ashore to let loose, and that ‘go for it’ spirit is still felt,” says Scheper, invoking the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century when the city was a center of world trade. “Exciting, even a little crazy, Amsterdam is about good times and enjoying life to the fullest, especially when it comes to walking along canals, having fun and buying art.”
Make like one of those sailors and “live dangerously” as you dodge the endless stream of bicyclists. Amble along crooked, cobbled streets past restored, gable houses and newly opened designer studios in the red light district. Here, money, haute cuisine and rising real estate prices are leading to far less louche shop displays. Enjoy the Oude Kerk, the 14th century church where Rembrandt’s wife is buried. Visit the quirky, artist-run W139 space, rare book stores, and the 5&33 art gallery with sculpture, street art and video performances.
Found in the sleekly designed Art’otel (art hotel), where the dominant concept is “art fused with life,” the radically improvisational 5&33 gallery is a social venue complete with flowing Bloody Marys and Mediterranean-flavored stuffed squid and lamb cutlets. Linger here or hang with the fashion crowd in Restaurant Anna. Or head for Mata Hari, a hamburger bar for preening, gallery-hopscotching millennials. Collectors passionate about stamps or coins can visit the nearby Postzelmarkt, a lively scene just behind the Palace on the Dam square where the trading recalls an era when the Dutch ruled a vast colonial empire.
Long renowned in the world of rare objects, MPO Auctions is an even more inviting option for discovering treasured collectibles. This Dutch auction house served European collectors for more than 20 years before teaming up with Heritage Auctions to offer discrete, personalized service in 40 auction categories. “What makes us unique is our honesty,” Scheper says. “Our prices are authentic. Nothing is inflated. Our people have worked in museums, leading institutions, and they’ve noticed that the market is becoming Americanized. Collectors are opting for condition rather than rarity. They want coins in slabs. That’s a very big change.”
Finding 18th century medals, Napoleonic Era banknotes and exquisite leather-bound books at Heritage Auctions Europe certainly offers exhilarating pleasures. Scanning its catalogs or previewing various art objects means savoring golden eras of culture and world history.
But Amsterdam is not just about old empires, trade routes and Classical Europe – a city reputed for its Oldest Profession, labyrinthine alleyways crammed with herring stalls, flower markets, and such smoke-stained, 17th century brown cafés as Café Hoppe and Café Chris. The capital of the Netherlands is also a dynamic, expect-the-unexpected art mecca. Boasting hundreds of contemporary galleries and performance spaces, this city has a unique eclectic verve, ever celebrating emerging and barrier-breaking artists in numerous mediums.
“Collectors quickly realize that Amsterdam is discovery, youth, openness,” insists Gerhard Hofland, owner of a gallery specializing in abstract and figurative art. “So many institutions stimulate provocative artwork.
“It’s great to spot these trends in galleries and to see who might become collectible,” Hofland continues. “But savvy collectors shouldn’t overlook places like the [art schools] Rijksakademie, de Appel and de Ateliers. These learning institutions have artist-in-residence programs. They are magnets, breeding-grounds for the experimentation that will drive the market tomorrow. Go there to see who will be hot.”
Youth is certainly served at the Kers Gallery on Lindengracht. Owner Annelien Kers wants “to keep innovating” to help artists break through – and to realize that goal, she stages workshops for young collectors. “I like being approachable,” she says. “Along with music and performance art, I always have teacher-pupil exposition so my art remains affordable.”
MODEL FOR RECLAMATION
Noord is another vibrant hub of creativity. This waterside district sparkles with all-night dance parties, houseboats serving as work spaces, and cavernous warehouses filled with ateliers where the art of the future is being created.
To enjoy this ultra-hip hot spot, just step behind the Central Station and take a free ferry ride across the IJ lake. Once the city’s forgotten “other side,” a place known for abandoned shipyards and dilapidated housing, Noord is now an inspirational model for urban reclamation.
The most spectacular symbol of this transformation is the soaring EYE Film Institute. Looking like a cross between a floating iceberg and flying saucer, this art house, cinema complex and museum is clearly meant to be a playground – an institution that puts Amsterdam on the cinematic map alongside Brussels and Paris.
Then comes sheer madness: Noord’s scream-a-second spin on adventure travel. That’s the newly renovated, 22-story A’Dam (or Amsterdam Dance and Music tower). Scheduled to open in spring 2016, it will offer a revolving restaurant, pioneering dance companies and a swing set that sends thrill seekers in safety harness flying over the building’s edge.
“My big risk-taking artists certainly reflect the city’s audacious spirit,” says Juliètte Jongma of Galerie Juliètte Jongma. “I take risks, too, but no way am I getting into a swing. To distinguish myself, I started my own record label and music performance program. Collectors in Amsterdam love radical, what’s fresh and high spirited. Music is so tied to art [that] you see bands playing during my exhibitions.”
Jongma’s rollicking festivals on the city’s south side are always crowded. But before falling under her spell, try another Amsterdam staple: the Dutch gin known locally as genever or peket, a juniper-flavored liquor. Then stroll along the Herengracht (Lords’ Canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and the city’s most opulent canal, the Prinsengracht (or take a “gentleman’s launch” cruise through these waterways in a classic, European salon boat with a teakwood interior, full bar and hostess).
Amid the luxe hotels and pricey boutiques lining these broad, architecturally charming canals, Anne Frank’s house reigns supreme as a tourist attraction and lasting memory. That means long lines. So be smart and book your visit in advance. And be prepared. This poignant return to the Holocaust Era can be unsettling, even transformative.
Rembrandt’s House is not as emotionally moving. Guides certainly detail the master’s triumphs, the glories associated with his iconic self-portraits and paintings of his contemporaries. But instead of enduring another sorrowful tale (his wife’s death, bankruptcy and burial in an unmarked grave), discover the seductive charms along the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal).
One delight is best appreciated by standing on a bridge. While the “narrow house” architecture is enchanting, admiring the stream of bicyclist is even more captivating. Just be careful. No one stops for a pedestrian.
EMERGING, PROVEN ARTISTS
If dead-set on the past, the five-star Pulitzer Hotel with seven gables, all ornamented with pictures of red deer, dates to the 17th century. Nearby are the Houseboat Museum, and Café Molenpad, distinguished by a canal-side terrace.
These souvenirs of another age evoke images of the rich merchant class that once led the mighty Dutch East India Company. When these traders weren’t plotting to dominate Asian trade (or collecting art), they relaxed at Café Papeneiland, the oldest café in Amsterdam (built in 1641), famous for its apple pie.
Taste treats abound in the nearby, maze-like Jordaan. Explore this upscale neighborhood on your own, or take Eating Amsterdam’s cruise into decadence, which involves an hour-long boat trip through canals and three hours’ worth of tastings in 12 restaurants. If more intent on the cerebral, this district features enough contemporary art galleries for collectors to enjoy numerous exhibitions in a single afternoon.
“The Jordaan is a visual feast, very cool, but the rents are climbing … making it hard for galleries to exist,” laments Emiel van der Pol, gallery manager at Torch. “This is still a great time for Americans to visit Amsterdam to discover emerging and proven artists. The art market in Europe is still recovering, and that means prices are very good for visitors. Americans can go on a shopping spree, get very interesting, quality work from even well-known artists, remarkably for less than 5,000 Euros.”
Buying wisely is still a challenge, mainly because there’s such a profusion of intriguing work. “Amsterdam was a wasteland for young artists in the 1980s, but now there’s so much happening, collectors should visit several galleries, see what’s out there, for knowledge is power,” insists Ellen de Bruijne, a former museum curator who owns the Ellen de Bruijne Projects gallery.
De Bruijne features a wide spectrum of young and much-heralded performance and installation artists, including Venice Biennale exhibitors Dora García and Lara Almarcegui. Almarcegui specializes in turning ruins and excavation sites into gripping art.
Perhaps even more intent on cultivating young, unproven talent, the long-respected Fons Welters gallery has developed a “Playstation” platform – or exhibition space – that it says nurtures possibilities and experimentation. Welters’ “urgency of now” means risks for collectors. Yet after lauding the “mesmerizing, removed from time” sculptress Femmy Otten (a Rijksakademie graduate who creates centaurs and other mythological creatures to fashion a seductive imaginary world), Welters gallery director Laurie Cluitsman says, “Of course it is a gamble to buy something from unproven artists. But we help them develop, and that reduces the risks [for clients]. Even if it doesn’t work out financially, Otten’s world is still fun.”
Three other Jordaan galleries offer exciting and illuminating works. The Andriesse-Eyck Gallery celebrates an exemplary cast of internationally known artists in sculpture and photography, including Gianni Caravaggio, who does “striking metaphysical” photos, and Richard Struth, applauded for his jolting but still compelling Grazing Incidence Spectrometer Max Planck sculpture.
Showcasing its own willingness to be daring, the Annet Gelink Gallery further studies the relationship between art, time and space. Here, the widely exhibited British sculptor Roger Hiorns, known for studying the “tension between construction and destruction, the living and dead,” is celebrated, particularly his BMW car engine stunningly sheathed in blue copper sulphate crystals.
Gelink has also promoted fine, contemporary photography. But arguably the best source for finding an intriguing mix of vintage and modern photos is Kahmann Gallery. “I work with 30 internationally respected photographers, have over 10,000 vintage prints,” says collector, publisher and gallery owner Ray Kahmann. “Why should collectors come here? The secret is my getting information, my being surrounded by beautiful images that give me energy. My four people search out the best material, photos – from such people as Albert Watson, Dutch national treasure Gerard Fieret and Sanne Sannes – that thrill clients.”
Immersing oneself in this encyclopedic, thought-provoking array of art can be taxing. As gallery owner Annelien Kers recommends, “There are so many surprises, so many mysteries, it’s best to step back at times to determine what’s worth pursuing, at what cost.”
Relaxing along the Jordaan’s fairy tale canals is another sensual treat. There are numerous convivial cafes (Bar Brandstof, ’t Smalle, and Struik), and scores of equally inviting restaurants (Cinema Paradiso, Daalder, Proeverij 274, and Balthazar’s Keuken).
AVOID IMPROMPTU PURCHASES
To fully appreciate all of Amsterdam’s enticements, it’s best to stay at least three days, which allows collectors to study the market and avoid the risks of impromptu purchases. “Love-at-first-sight buying is fun at art fairs, but if you want to build a serious collection, establish relationships with gallery owners, look at catalogs, just take the time to understand the artist’s mentality,” advises Lumen Travo Gallery owner Marianne van Tilborg. “This is a good time for Americans. The dollar is high against the Euro.”
Insisting there are no great trends in the current market, that socially minded artists are “very individualistic in their statements about society,” Tilborg daringly shows photographers and painters who stoke controversy. “Iranian Shirin Neshat, one of my most prominent artists, bravely does photos and videos of … women, prostitutes victimized by violence. Wonderfully combining light and shade to make poetry, her photos have been terrific investments. Selling for $600 not long ago, one recently sold for $24,000.”
Located close to the Heineken Brewery, Lumen Travo is a five-minute walk from the city’s famed Museumplein, and next door to another showcase for evocative and exploratory exhibitions.
Known for overlapping media, such as combining video installations with performance art or sculpture, Galerie Akinci typically features ascending and internationally recognized artists described as “idealistic activists with strong agendas.”
“Worried that technological advances cause alienation, video artist and photographer Melanie Bonajo is certainly representative of my gallery’s focus on social/political issues,” Leyla Akinci says. “Very sensual, highly emotive sculptor Stephan Balkenhol makes equally strong statements. His wood, expressionless statuary of non-idealized ‘every man, every woman’ is very prized by collectors.”
While always fascinating, the swirl of images in these two galleries is so provocative and relentless that it sometimes makes sense to rediscover the glories of traditional art – a calming escape where the visuals are less frenetic and ambiguous.
That’s the Museumplein and its three preeminent institutions: the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh and Stedelijk museums. At the Rijks, such fabled Rembrandt works as The Night Watch, Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit and Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem certainly command most attention. Just don’t overlook works by Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Franz Hals and Pieter de Hooch. They too are compelling.
The Stedelijk offers a playful romp with Andy Warhol, Ray Lichtenstein and other modernists. While next door, it’s possible to trace the fortunes of Van Gogh (and his friends Monet, Rodin and Gauguin) through his classic Sunflowers, Wheatfield with Crows, and The Bedroom.
Yet this triumvirate of stellar art institutions offers more than gripping works. These museums drive Amsterdam’s creativity – and they are inspirational cornerstones for tomorrow’s talent.
“I like enjoying life’s normal moments with Vermeer and Van Gogh,” says Femmy Otten, who will soon be exhibiting at the Istanbul Biennial. “It’s very important for young artists to see a lot of work, to get inspiration in these museums. I should go to them more often. The calm there lets me dream about what comes next.”
BARBARA BROEKMAN’S JARRING YET INTIMATE WORK MAKES HER ONE OF AMSTERDAM’S MOST PROVOCATIVE ARTISTS
INSISTING THAT ARTISTS must be provocateurs, confronting people with difficult subjects and stirring them to reflect on their privileged position, Barbara Broekman looks proudly at Open Mouths, one of the many canvases lining the walls in her spacious Amsterdam atelier.
A combative, no-holds-barred depiction of women as “lustful objects” dominated by men’s societal supremacy, the 10-by-50-foot Open Mouths is a compelling woven cotton tapestry of 45 photo images of women’s faces.
Even if a bit jarring, it’s still intimate and ennobling. As the artist says, “Textiles have a great human dimension. They epitomize the incredible creative power of mankind.” It’s certainly reflective of her stances against militarism, blatant sexism and anti-immigrant fervor in Europe.
“I need to be engaged, not to shock, but to provoke, to seduce people to think,” says Broekman, who typically does huge, complex textile works to confront “women’s submission,” the angst of people facing war and genocide, and the beauty of loving mother-child relationships.
“Open Mouths is about porno in society, sexuality, even about fashion photography,” says Broekman, noting that the piece has received criticism and newspaper attention. “But I don’t want to be ‘in your face.’ I want to connect with people, celebrate the power of art, and that’s to be inspirational.”
While willing to energetically question ruling shibboleths and prejudices, the Amsterdam-born Broekman, who attended the California College of the Arts (“America,” she says, “helped me find a new vision”), is no outsider struggling to find an audience in the city’s competitive art scene.
Despite her outspokenness, numerous elite institutions have commissioned monumental, three-dimensional works from her. “I am good in huge scale. I have statements to make,” she laughs, puffing incessantly on cigarettes and admitting “all artists struggle. Every time I do a new piece, I get the creeps, I get anxiety, wondering am I still capable? Am I still good enough?”
She’s certainly been talented enough to win a commission from Amsterdam’s new Palace of Justice. In those august surroundings there’s her Jacquard-woven tapestry depicting “Good and Evil” (she’s just received another commission to picture justice in Biblical times, the Greek and Roman era, and during the Middle Ages from the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Justice. It will be 110-feet high).
The city’s Central Tax Building displays seven of her tapestries. Over 2.5 million visitors to the Amsterdam Museum have seen her My Town, a patchwork carpet exploding with colors celebrating the city’s diversity of nationalities, and P&O North Sea Ferries prominently showcases her series of two glass wall mosaics.
But arguably her most evocative piece was done for the Dutch Cancer Institute. Called Tribute to Life, this 79-foot-long work is essentially a photo collage of a thousand interlaced photographs — shots of body cells, sick and healthy, along with portraits of relatives who’ve been afflicted with the disease, including four images of her mother. Like many of her layered compositions, it can be seen as an emotional purging, and also a stirring affirmation of inner strength.
Describing her mother’s battle with uterine cancer for two years, and how she honored her by weaving pictures of her throughout this Tribute collage, Broekman says, “Doctors came up to me and said, ‘It’s wonderfully all about people,’ and that’s how I want to connect with the world.
“But best of all, a woman going through radiation told me the collage gave her hope, lots of hope. I was so proud, for that’s the whole point of my work, my mission, to be inspirational to people.”
EDWARD KIERSH, who collects first-edition books and gold coins, has written for Cigar Aficionado, Vogue and The New York Times.