The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam wants to reinvent itself and reconnect with current developments in art and the art debate. Under the leadership of Rein Wolfs, diversity, inclusiveness and a post-colonial perspective are the main pillars of the exhibition and collection policy. Wolfs always emphasizes that there is not one art history, but many different histories, and that he wants to do justice to perspectives that until recently had been neglected at the Stedelijk, such as art by women and by non-Western artists.
These are relevant and necessary principles for a museum policy, and they take shape in the new collection presentation – the successor to the Stedelijk Base, the collection presentation that has been exhibited in the basement of the museum for almost five years. That presentation is now, with the third part heading Yesterday today, from 1880 to 1950, complete. opened earlier Tomorrow is a different day (●●●●●), featuring art and design from 1980 to the present and Everyday life, one day and other stories (●●●●), from 1950 to 1980. In the two previous installments, expectations are fulfilled at different times in the exhibition. In the room with contemporary works by El Anatsui, Sigmar Polke, Sheila Hicks and Willem de Rooij, in Tomorrow is a different day, the different perspectives meet. This ensemble is rock solid. The same applies to the combination of Magdalena Abakanowicz and Lee Bontecous sculptures and the room with futuristic and utopian furniture designs in Everyday life, one day and other stories.
The exhibition says a lot about the Stedelijk, but very little about the art on display
With the earliest part of the collection presentation Yesterday today but it goes wrong. Again, the focus is on the political and social development and on the work of female and non-Western artists. But it is a mixed bag of works of art whose coherence is neither substantive nor visually comprehensible. In the first room, for example, paintings are hung crosswise, from the nineteenth-century impressionist Breitner and the modernist style painter Bart van der Leck to action paint Jackson Pollock. These paintings have nothing to do with each other, except that, according to the text in the room, they come from the collections of female collectors. Virtually nothing is disclosed about the background of these gatherings of women, so it is a mystery what is being argued for. That women can also look carefully or were aware of developments in art? This says nothing about the art on display.
And so it is with the whole presentation. To understand why objects are arranged together, the explanation must first be read and then the explanation is too superficial to clarify a theme or the work, let alone elaborate. On the subject of ‘Mass and Power’, a painting of half-animal, half-human monsters by the surrealist Max Ernst hangs next to a cartoonish work by George Grosz of a turbulent crowd being stirred up by an agitator with a swastika on his tie. . There is no synergy between the two paintings. Grosz and Ernst are told only that they viewed the rising fascism and militarism in Germany with suspicion.
Picasso as Orientalist
With regard to the theme of ‘Orientalism’, reference is made to Edward Saïd’s critical cultural theory. According to Saïd, the European perspective on the ‘Orient’ is the result of a tendentious opposition between Western culture as rational and progressive and Eastern culture as sensual and primitive. The genre of the odalisque, the reclining harem woman, which was popular in the early 20th century, is said to illustrate Saïd’s theory. You would Odalisque van Matisse, who traveled to Morocco in 1912 and 1913, in this way. But it is very far fetched Femme nue devant le jardin of Picasso – who by the way throughout his life drew and painted reclining nudes – in this specific context. Furthermore, it is a painting from 1956.
The exhibition approach says a lot about the Stedelijk Museum, which tries to justify its own existence morally and politically, but very little about the art on display. In addition, too many themes and topics are discussed without going into depth in an interesting way. The result is a boring exhibition, because it is an approach that levels the art.
Not only in the Stedelijk Museum and not only in the Netherlands, but throughout the international official art circuit, art is held in the grip of bringing the right message. The recent events surrounding Documenta and the alleged anti-Semitic motives of the organizers are also examples of this. Artistic values play no role in these discussions.
Works of art really have something to say about the reality we live in. It is at least as important that they are always about themselves as works of art and about art in a broader sense, for example about the artistic position the work wants to take, and what vision it requires from the viewer. A work of art is always about image, about visuality and about an aesthetic experience, aesthetic in the sense of perception of the world, a certain view of it. This means that a concrete meaning or message of the artwork is suspended and that the artwork is not usable or usable as propaganda. There are always several possible interpretations, and the viewer is encouraged to reflect on his own position on a particular subject.
Precisely this freedom, the freedom to appreciate and understand a work of art in an artistic and substantive sense, a freedom essential to art and to our dealings with it, is emphasized by the propagandistic nature of Yesterday today taken from the viewer.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 28 September 2022