A Peek at Dutch (Art) History at the Stedelijk Museum

By Danielle Carter

The Stedelijk Museum has acted as a key supporter of contemporary art in general—commissioning the first Richard Serra piece intended for public space, for example—, but has also played a particularly important role in the stimulation of Dutch contemporary art. The museum, for example, commissioned the work of Ed van der Elsken, the preeminent Dutch photographer of the 20th century, and later organised a retrospective of his work.

Despite the international nature of the collection and exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum, there are undoubtedly a significant number of Dutch works on display at any given moment. One of these – the Appel Wall, a mural made by the Dutch artist Karel Appel (1921-2006) – is permanently on view and embedded in the walls of one of the galleries.

Karel Appel, Mural (1956), in the former restaurant space, Stedelijk Museum, photo John Lewis Marshall

The colourful composition—consisting of a bird, a human figure, and a flower—could barely be contained within one wall. This former restaurant space has since been converted into a gallery and greets visitors as they enter one of the main galleries on the right hand side of the museum.


Appel is known as one of the founders of the CoBrA art movement in 1948, of which the Stedelijk museum has a distinctive collection. The CoBrA movement included risk-taking artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam (hence, the name CoBrA), but was founded mainly by Dutch and Belgian artists, whose work, although not warmly welcome in the Netherlands, found favour in Denmark. In its typical artist-supporting, experimental fashion, the Stedelijk Museum held the first major exhibition of CoBrA art in 1949 under the title ‘International Experimental Art’, which caused much public disturbance and, after one night of poetry reading, a public brawl.

De Stijl

Installation view, Gert Jan van Rooij

Aside from its respectable CoBRA collection, the Stedelijk Museum is among one of the most significant holders of De Stijl artwork. This art and design movement—of which Piet Mondrian is the most famous—is characterised by its linear or geometric style and its focus on primary colours. The collection at the Stedelijk Museum includes key pieces by Theo van Doesburg and famed Dutch architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld.


Amsterdam School

Finally, furnishings from the Amsterdam School, an architectural movement of the early 20th century are also found in the Stedelijk Museum. The movement’s goal was also to create an architectural experience, blending interior with exterior; thus, furniture design uniquely reflects many of the characteristics of the architecture. Founded on socialist ideals—the architects often constructed residential buildings for the working class, government institutions, and schools— the Amsterdam School-style furniture served to expose factory workers or government employees to art on a daily basis, with the idea that this would improve their daily lives. Although Amsterdam School furniture often resembles Art Deco of the same period, the design is unique to Amsterdam because Amsterdam’s multicultural society influenced it with motifs from Japan, Indonesia, and Sweden.

The beloved former director (1945-1963) of the Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg (1897-1984), was essential in moulding the Stedelijk Museum into what it is today. During his tenure as director, Sandberg sought to ‘open’ the museum, which he did by constructing a restaurant, opening a library available to the public, and initiating the establishment of educational activities for children. To this day, the Family Lab—a room in which children and families can make art inspired by the surrounding collections—is central to the Stedelijk Museum.

The renovation of the Stedelijk Museum also transformed the aesthetic and symbolism of the Museumplein. Commissioning the Dutch architect Mels Crouwel, the Stedelijk Museum sought to renew its building: the entrance was moved to face the Museumplein, the museum was extended forward onto the Museumplein, and the white addition to the building serves as an extension of the Sandberg interior that made the museum famous. Furthermore, all of the public events at the Stedelijk Museum take place in the new extension of the building, so that these events take place almost literally in the public space of the Museumplein.

Stedelijk Contemporary

Today, the Stedelijk Contemporary program ensures that young artists are represented in the museum, both by organising temporary exhibitions of their work as well as by commissioning works by these emerging artists and collecting their works into the permanent collection. In this way, the Stedelijk Museum collection is very dynamic and energetic, and continues to contribute to the formation of innovative art and artists on a global scale.

The Stedelijk Museum reveals the tumultuous and energetic recent past of Dutch history and art as well as continuing to support the development of emerging artistic talent both at home and abroad. The changing exhibitions and permanent collection are an exciting glimpse into the development of Dutch and international modern and contemporary art.

The museum is open 10:00-18:00 daily, and 10:00-22:00 on Fridays.  Join us for a private tour at the Stedelijk for a deep dive into modern art with one of our specialist private guides!


Ed van der Elsken at the Stedelijk Museum

Ed van der Elsken, Meisje in de metro, Tokio (1984) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Observing Human Behaviour through the Camera Lens

by Danielle Carter

The new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum explores Ed van der Elsken’s (1925-1990) infatuation with photography and film throughout his life. The exhibition takes its name from a film that van der Elsken made for Dutch TV, The Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera), for which he won the national prize for film art a year later. Due to van der Elsken’s longstanding relationship with the Stedelijk Museum, the venue is the perfect fit for this remarkable reflection on his life and work as a photographer.

The exhibition walks through phases of van der Elsken’s life, which are punctuated by photographic habits, tendencies, or projects. Unlike some artists, who do not gain acclaim until later in life, van der Elsken began working in the photography sector early on. Around 1945, he picked up street photography in Amsterdam—documenting strangers that he saw in the street in a personal manner—and he began working for Magnum’s photography lab in Paris in 1950, just to quit a few years later to pursue street photography once again. Edward Steichen, the ambitious photographer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art, even selected one of van der Elsken’s photographs for the famous Family of Man exhibition (1955), which was organized as a photo essay elaborating on the human experience. The exhibition, van der Elsken’s works, and even van der Elsken himself would eventually end up touring the world for several years.

The exhibition pays due respect for van der Elsken’s favourite medium—photobooks. The rooms throughout the exhibition are generally organized by either his location—in Paris, central Africa, Asia, or the Netherlands—or by his photobook projects.

In Paris—where van der Elsken began to establish himself more professionally as a photographer—, van der Elsken documented his domestic life with his partner, Hungarian photographer Ata Kandó, and her three children, but he was also preoccupied with his paid work at Magnum Photos and with compiling his first photobook. These domestic images implicate van der Elsken as a photographer: his film strips hang from the ceiling, segmenting an image of Kandó’s children; his reflection and his direct gaze confront us in other images, especially in an image wherein he and the lens of his camera peer over Kandó’s shoulder as she scrutinizes herself in a mirror. The intimate tone of these images, as well as his urge to return to street photography, lay the foundations for the rest of his career in photography and film.

Ed van der Elsken, Vali Myers voor haar spiegel, Parijs (1953) Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken / Collectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Although van der Elsken is perceived as one of the most important Dutch photographers of the 20th century, his filmic works also became a significant part of his oeuvre. Van der Elsken’s frustration with the delay in publishing his photobook documenting his 14-month around-the-world trip with his then-wife Gerda van der Veen led him to pursue film. Particularly striking is the film that addresses the illness that consumed the last months of his life. This video is very personal and honest, deliberating on his confrontation with his illness more than he did with his own family, which, in the end, seems to be a fitting opening to an exhibition in which van der Elsken’s very personal and confrontational style of photography becomes apparent.

Throughout van der Elsken’s career and throughout his travels and various photographic projects, van der Elsken remained committed to his passion for observing and documenting humanity and human nature. The themes throughout the exhibition and his oeuvre remain clear: street life, daily life, and the reality of the average human, perhaps even the commonalities among these average people despite their different ethnicities, nationalities, or appearances. Even when van der Elsken was asked to photograph an exhibition for the Stedelijk Museum, van der Elsken’s camera captured the people visiting the exhibition and their reactions to and participation in the exhibition more than the exhibition itself.

Despite van der Elsken’s adventurous spirit, he always returned to the Netherlands. Amsterdam sparked his interest in youth and the rebellious spirit that would become ever more prevalent in the ensuing decades, and he got his start with street photography in Amsterdam. His confrontational, witty, and honest method of photography might even be described as typical of Dutch character.

The variety of objects in the exhibition—the wall-sized reproductions of his photographs, the audio for interviews, van der Elsken’s films, van der Elsken’s scribbled notes as he tried to organize and design his photobooks, and digital film flipping through the pages of van der Elsken’s completed and published photobooks—provide an immersive experience in the like and work of van der Elsken.

De Verliefde Camera (The Infatuated Camera) is on show at the Stedelijk Museum through 21 May 2017. The Stedelijk Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum located on the

Museumplein in Amsterdam. The museum is open 10:00-18:00 daily, and 10:00-22:00 on Fridays. An adult ticket to the museum costs 15 euros.