Kettle’s Yard House & Gallery

Currently closed until 10 February 2018.

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Keith Brown

This May, the Friends of Kettle’s Yard explored Amsterdam, taking in the collections of The CoBrA Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Rijksmuseum and the Kröller-Müller Museum, to name just a few. Keith Brown shares their experiences abroad with us.

Saturday 20 May 2017 

One of the many good things about a Kettle’s Yard trip is that it starts, and ends, in Cambridge. 6.15 in the morning saw Friends gathered in Victoria Avenue for a BA flight to Amsterdam Schipol and onto a bus for our first visit – the CoBrA Museum of modern art in Amstelveen, a satellite town to Amsterdam.

CoBrA was a collective of international artists (called after the cities they were based in, Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) founded in 1948 with a manifesto setting out the group’s socialist views and international perspective. They believed in a universal language of symbols that could be ‘read’ by everyone, regardless of their geographical or cultural background and they drew inspiration from the creative work of children, and tribal and primitive art. Their work is exuberant, colourful and rich in fantasy. The CoBrA Museum is contemporary, light and spacious, and our guide was the first of our many impressively knowledgeable and approachable guides.

Then on to the NH Amsterdam Centre, a comfortable hotel centrally situated, where we were issued with a museum pass and a tram ticket, and enjoyed welcome drinks and a communal meal in the adjacent San George Brasserie.

Stedelijk Museum, photo: John Gray

Sunday 21 May 2017

Our first visit was to the Stedelijk Museum, a short walk from the hotel. The newly refurbished museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art. It is currently celebrating 100 years of De Stijl, whose artists, designers and architects sought abstraction and universality by reducing form and colour to essentials – for example, by reducing composition to the vertical and horizontal and using only black, white and primary colours. At its height De Stijl had 100 members, including Piet Mondrian.

In the afternoon, to Het Schip (1920), one of the best examples of the Amsterdam School movement. They aimed to combine art and architecture with social ideals. Their principles were often applied to working-class housing estates and local institutions. The buildings are characterised by brick construction with complicated and decorative masonry, glass and wrought ironwork. Het Schip is one of a group of three monumental public housing blocks, and is still occupied. We had a guided walk through the neighbourhood and through some of the interiors.

Rijksmuseum entry hall, photo: Christie Marrian

Monday 22 May 2017  

In the morning a short walk across the park to the Rijksmuseum. When the museum was opened in 1885, it was intended to be a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total experience where works of art would be seen in a building which was itself a work of art, with elaborate brickwork, architectural reliefs, painted decoration, floor mosaics, stained glass, and sculpture. Over the years many of the elaborate frescoed walls and terrazza floors were painted over or removed, but in 2003 the museum was closed and the Spanish architects Cruz and Ortiz were commissioned to restore some of its original splendour; it reopened in 2013. Only the position of the Night Watch, the ‘altarpiece’ of the museum, has remained the same. Everything else – the architecture, curatorial philosophy and display – has been rethought. In addition there is an airy new entrance hall. The result is spectacular. Our visit focussed on the building itself and its redesign. Though there was, of course, also time to explore the collection.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a boat tour along Amsterdam’s new waterfront in a traditional canal boat. Until the 1990s the harbour area was separated from the town by the central station. Since then two new peninsulas have been created and transformed into high-density city quarters, with housing and office blocks and cultural and civic amenities. We were toured round the NDSM Wharf, a former shipbuilding wharf with an enormous hanger, now home to Amsterdam’s alternative art scene. Further to the east we stopped to visit a waterfront housing area.

In the evening we were invited by the owner, Marsha Plotinsky, to the Merchant House, a traditional canal house converted into a contemporary art gallery. We enjoyed a generous reception and an exhibition of work by Pino Pinelli. The works on show use the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, and thus make an explicit connection to Mondrian.

Friend with Pinelli work at the Merchant House, photo: Trysha Hunt

Tuesday 23 May 2017   

To Het Sheepvaartshuis – the Shipping House. In the early twentieth century, six shipping companies decided to join forces and build a shared head office, designed by Johan Melchior van de Mey. The exterior is brick built around a concrete skeleton and has elaborate brickwork and dramatic ornamented facades. The interior is even more remarkable. Waves, sea creatures and ships appear almost everywhere in stained-glass windows, sculptures and in furniture and fittings. There is a large leaded glass cupola depicting a map of the world, complete with navigational courses, whales and ships. Like the (earlier) Rijksmuseum and (later) Het Schip development, the Shipping House melds interior and exterior, architecture and design in a stunning Gesamtkunstwerk. After World War II the shipping companies gradually moved out, and in 1983 the city’s public transport company moved in, refurbishing the interior with pastel-tinted ceiling panels, computer floors and strip lighting. In 1998 the building was sold and after a major renovation reopened in 2007 as the five-star Hotel Amrath, its original features restored or re-instated together with new marine-inspired paintings, sculptures and fabrics. We were fortunate to have the architect’s granddaughter as a guide to this splendid building. The afternoon was free to wander back to the hotel through the city.

Wednesday 24 May 2017  

By coach to the Kröller-Müller Museum, set in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, a forest park of more than 75 acres where the trees were in their early summer green. The museum has the second-largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world and an impressive collection of work mostly by twentieth-century artists. As always our guides were well informed and interesting. The museum is an airy modern building which is itself set in large sculpture garden reflecting Helene Kröller-Müller’s conception of a symbiosis between art, architecture and nature. There are over 160 sculptures by iconic artists scattered around the garden, which also has two pavilions, architectural gems from the 1960s, given a new home here. A peaceful and welcoming place.

In the evening we fought our way through a happy and friendly crowd of football enthusiasts on their way to a large screen showing of the Ajax v Manchester City match. Our goal was the Ambassade Hotel. This luxurious hotel occupies ten original seventeenth-century canal-side mansions and contains a large collection of CoBrA works and, more surprisingly, a collection of over 4,000 books, all signed by the authors during their stay at the hotel. We were there for the group three-course dinner. Excellent cooking of a delicious menu.

Thursday 25 May 2017   

Our last day. Scheveningen is The Hague’s seaside resort with a long, sandy beach, an esplanade, a pier, and a lighthouse. In the dunes overlooking the beach is Beelden aan Zee (‘Images/sculptures by the sea’), a sculpture museum. Incongruously, it is adjacent to a Palladian seaside home built in 1826 by King William I for his wife, Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia. The Hague municipality insisted that the museum be invisible from the boulevard, so it is built almost entirely underground, with open air terraces in the dunes. The concrete and glass museum, holds around 1,000 sculptures. The mission of the museum is to use a mix of forms and materials in the works to express ‘the human experience’ and its display is both indoors and on the museum’s patios and terraces overlooking the sea.

At Beelden aan Zee, photo: Rosemary Cullum

Our final visit was to the Voorlinden Museum, another striking modernist building set in a landscaped garden whose open construction connects the interior with the surrounding garden to take maximum advantage of changes in the North Sea coastal light as the hour and the seasons change. We saw two exhibitions: ‘The Meantime’, a striking selection of the museum’s own holdings of some 40 contemporary artists displayed around the theme of ‘inner time’, and ‘Martin Creed: Say Cheese!’, which starts with a room filled with balloons and continues with 54 works imaginatively made out of a variety of materials – cacti, light bulbs, stacks of toilet rolls, chairs, tables and a wall covered with broccoli paintings. Very satisfying.

Then back onto the coach to Schipol, for the flight back to Gatwick (just missing the BA computer debacle) and another coach back to Victoria Avenue.

The tour aimed to study architecture and modern art and the interactions between them. Our tour leaders, Lindsay Millington and Nicki Marrian filled their brief admirably. The tour was very smoothly organised. It was a very pleasant social event and we saw a series of beautiful and thought provoking buildings, many accomplished art works and were constantly inspired to consider relationships between the buildings, the art works and their social context.
To find out about upcoming Friends events click here.  Becoming a Friend is an excellent way of providing support and developing your own interest in art. Visit the Friends page to see how you can join, and support Kettle’s Yard.