A lot has been said about the renovation projects of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam over the last decade or so. It has been a long, much-discussed subject in the capital. But it looks like the dust has finally settled with Stedelijk Base, where the museum for modern and contemporary art presents the history of modern art in a whole new fashion.
In 2012, the newly renovated Stedelijk Museum opened its doors to the public after years of construction work. This reopening happened four years later than planned, and the costs turned out to be 20 million euros more than what was budgeted for. So imagine the surprise when newly appointed director Beatrice Ruf expressed her dismay with the way the audience experienced the museum. According to her, something needed to be done to present the collection in a better fashion. Ruf turned to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and exhibition specialist Federico Martelli for advice. They came up with a plan to transform the interior of the museum. The old part would welcome the newest art in temporary shows, while the new wing (also known as the ‘bathtub’) would offer a fresh approach to the permanent collection. And so it happened. Part of the museum closed to the public again and would stay that way for nearly a year.
A new introduction to modern art history
The result is Stedelijk Base. It is the name of the new way Stedelijk Museum presents its collection of modern art and design to the public. On display are around 700 artworks from 1880 to the present day, including those of artists such as Mondrian, Malevich, Rietveld, Koons, and Dumas. With an approach that is “engaging and unorthodox”, Stedelijk Base is showcasing these works in a whole new fashion, seemingly fitting for the age of social media. The exhibition display presents the collection as an open-ended route in a landscape of specially designed freestanding, ultrathin walls. This unique feature was made possible through the innovative application of steel, by working together with steel manufacturer Tata Steel. Screens support sheets of white plasterboard to which the artworks are attached.
“The exhibition display presents the collection as an open-ended route in a landscape of specially designed freestanding, ultrathin walls. ”
Chronology versus hierarchy
The exhibition follows a chronological order of developments in art and design, with works of Van Gogh and Cézanne at the very beginning. Within this order, thematic zones with related artworks are formed. Rem Koolhaas: “We did not want to create a rigid circuit for visitors. They’ll have the freedom to explore in different directions, and choose their own route, as adventurous as circulation through any city.” It results in a presentation that breaks away from the hierarchy that is usually followed in art exhibitions. Even though the chronology is there, Stedelijk has boldly combined artworks and design objects. Imagine seeing a Barnett Newman’s painting right next to an Eames chair. The presentation makes surprising, even dazzling connections. But then again, that is what great cities usually do.