Amsterdam – The Cultural Evolution Continues

Peter Morrell goes back to his favourite city to discover what’s new on the arts scene

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Every visit to Amsterdam reveals a wealth of innovative and exciting things to see and do. It’s a city that reveres the past, embraces the present and look forward enthusiastically to the future. I was there recently to view a major new exhibition at The Hermitage and take a look at the completely revamped Van Gogh museum.

An early KLM flight from Heathrow had me in Schiphol airport comfortably before lunchtime. A surprising twist in the journey was using one of the fleet of new taxis to get into the city. These are all electric executive saloons giving thump in the back acceleration and a whisper quiet, smooth ride.

There was just enough time to drop my case at the hotel before boarding a canal boat, the elegantly appointed Monne de Miranda, for lunch. Cruising the waterways in Amsterdam is a relaxed and fascinating way to enjoy the sights of the city. Festoons of bulbs were being hung over the bridges and buildings in preparation for the annual Festival of Light and as famous landmarks slid slowly by we sampled traditional Dutch food of cured meats and mature cheeses.

At the end of the cruise we moored at the pier outside the Hermitage, an outpost of its namesake in St Petersburg. The building, completed in 1681, was originally a retirement home for elderly women. Now a museum, it normally draws its exhibits from the main collection in Russia but this year, in a break with tradition, it is featuring paintings, drawings and bas-reliefs in an exhibition Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age.

The Golden Age roughly spanned the 17th century. During that time merchants in the major Dutch cities grew rich from the trade generated by the import and processing of exotic goods from newly found lands. As well as having to administer and control all these industries the wealthy merchants were also charged with the care and discipline of their communities.

These commercial and charitable affinity groups felt a desire to preserve a record of their service for posterity and as the Golden Age had also seen a proliferation of highly skilled artists there was a ready supply of painters willing to satisfy this demand. So this exhibition is all about the birth of the group portrait.

The main gallery in the Hermitage is filled literally from floor to ceiling with very large, well executed works. Here we see the skills from many of Holland’s finest artists, who by the way loved these commissions, as they were paid by each individual. Nicolaes Pickenoy’s Banquet of Guardsmen for example has more that 20 people in it, making it very lucrative work for the painter.

What I particularly liked were the glimpses into the lives of the subjects, the high heeled boot of a Burgher and the servant ready with a pitcher of wine. The characters, both male and female, are all well groomed, immaculately dressed and glow with health.

One of the greatest examples of this genre was painted by Rembrandt and it is currently on show in London. The ‘Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild’, is one of the stars in the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery. So if you want a flavour of what you would see in the Hermitage, go and take a look.

In all a well curated and impressive exhibition, well worth seeing.

It was then on to the Van Gogh Museum, which as the name suggests is dedicated to one of the world’s most well known artist. The museum has recently undergone a complete refurbishment and has been designed to show the artist’s entire life, particularly related to the events and crises that he endured.

A very pleasant surprise at the start of my evening was to see some Vincent self portraits unveiled by three of his descendants. Their great grandfather was Theo who was Vincent’s brother, and their grandfather Vincent Willem, founded the Van Gogh museum in 1973.

A tour of the new layout revealed the extent of the upgrade. A video wall, showed Vincent in popular culture, displayed his images being played with in a highly amusing and innovative way. One of the artist’s most famous group of figures, The Potato Eaters, sees them sitting in a modern burger bar rather than a peasant’s cottage.

The floorplan of the galleries has been radically changed and key paintings like Sunflowers stand on their own. The works are intertwined with information about the pivotal moments in the painter’s life. His time in an asylum, where he still produced some extraordinary paintings, is discussed. The episode of his ear cutting is explained and the works he produced immediately before his suicide are grouped together. One of the most poignant being Wheatfield with Crows where the flock of black birds seems to signal a gathering depression in Van Gogh.

Vincent was also a man of letters and over 800 still remain, 650 were written to his brother Theo. They contain a unique insight into the troubled mind of this genius and there is a gallery devoted to the subject. Many letters were stored in an ornate cabinet which is on display in the museum.

I was at the museum about a year ago and the changes have been far-reaching, they have rounded out the life of Van Gogh and the new format can be appreciated by both art lovers and people who want to get to know one of the world’s most famous artists more fully.

After an early start and a long day of culture my comfortable bed in the Grand Hotel Amrath was even more enticing. This is very much a Grand Dame hotel, originally the Shippinghouse from which Holland’s maritime trade was conducted. The extensive use of wood and marble in the public areas add to the feeling of luxury. Drawing back the curtains in the morning I was greeted with the sight of a canal with charming waterside houses, so typical of Amsterdam and one of the reasons that the city is such an attractive place to visit.

It was time to say goodbye to this city of culture and as I did, found one more attraction of the Amrath Hotel, it’s only a five minute stroll from the central railway station with frequent trains back to the airport.

Riding back to Schiphol I reflected on the fact that every trip to Amsterdam always reveals a new and exciting cultural vista, I can’t wait to return

Useful Links
KLM – http://www.klm.comThe Hermitage – Van Gogh Museum –

The Grand Hotel Amrath –

Monne de Miranda –

Amsterdam Tourism –

Dutch Tourism –