Living in the Amsterdam School


The sheer variety of work on display in ‘Living in the Amsterdam School’ at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is quite stupendous. From around 1910 to 1930, Dutch artists working as part of the Amsterdam School produced enough material to fill a dozen rooms on architecture, furniture, glass, prints and much more.

A major idea behind the Amsterdam School was to adhere to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, that a building and all its fixtures and furnishings should form one coordinated, comprehensive work of art. It is this idea which has allowed the curators of this exhibition to fill so many rooms with such a variety of works.

Living in the Amsterdam School, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij
Living in the Amsterdam School, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij

These rooms were initially devoted to particular artists and then, later, to particular forms such as stained glass or prints. This gave a useful overview of how the style developed at first, before exploring more deeply how the thoughts and ideas of the initial members were executed.

While the principle members of the School (Michel de Klerk, Johan van der Mey and Piet Kramer) all started out as architects, their principles translated well to mediums such as furniture. This lead to ‘total’ buildings which were unified inside and out, from their architecture to their light fittings, such as the Bijenkorf department store in The Hague and the Shipping House in Amsterdam.

The Shipping House, Amsterdam
The Shipping House, Amsterdam

Through videos and examples of furniture and light fittings, the exhibition strives to give an impression of how these buildings worked as Gesamtkunstwerks. Unfortunately, without being able to stand in the spaces themselves, the overarching impact these ‘total’ buildings must have had in the past was missing.

This problem applied similarly to the items of furniture that are scattered throughout the exhibition. While they were undoubtedly attractive and useable looking, the total, unified nature of the work was hard to grasp without seeing them in context. Stuck up on plinths as individuals, they seemed distant and isolated. The videos, original photos and models helped give an impression of how they would have looked, but it was no more than a light impression.

De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam, Photo by Diedrik Van Der Laan
De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam, Photo by Diedrik Van Der Laan

According to the exhibition literature, the movement was supposed to be a reaction against Niewe Kunst, the Dutch version of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was an art movement which, like the Amsterdam School, encompassed all aspects of a building and its fittings, furnishings and decoration. It was usually comprised elongate linear designs and flowing, floral motifs.

Looking at the curved, elongated forms of the furniture and the floral designs filling the stained glass on show, it was hard to agree that the Amsterdam School was a reaction against Niewe Kunst. Contrastingly, the buildings of the Amsterdam School do have more in common with the major art movement which followed Art Nouveau – Art Deco. This later style of the 1920s and 1930s had a strong geometric basis which can be seen in the Amsterdam School buildings discussed earlier – the Bijenkorf and the Shipping House.

Living in the Amsterdam School, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij
Living in the Amsterdam School, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij

This blend of styles does highlight a flaw with this exhibition. It showcases many fine works of art which form a neat link from Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The interiors and furniture look back to what came before while the architectural forms look ahead.

However, the curators seem to have been caught in two minds about how to demonstrate this. On the one hand, it’s easier to show off the furnishings but on the other, it is the buildings which best illustrate their ideas. The result is a show which neither goes into enough depth on the architecture nor displays the furnishings as complete, immersive rooms.

While this is undoubtedly a problem, this should not detract from the overall quality of the work on show. Caught between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the Amsterdam School is more overshadowed than it deserves to be. To redress this, the exhibition beautifully captures the clean lines, elegance and eminent usability of much of what was produced in the Netherlands during this period.

‘Living in the Amsterdam School’ is on at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until August 28th.






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