Amsterdam: Art, Photography and Type
Introducing my new city to friends
Recently I had 2 friends from the UK come to Amsterdam to visit and I wanted to show them the city I have been living in for the last 5 months and all that is great about it. I could easily have taken them to the bigger tourist attractions such as the Heineken Experience, the Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum and so on. But I wanted to share my pieces of local knowledge which I have picked up on so far and also find and explore new places in the city for myself.
Firstly we visited the Stedelijk Museum which although yes, it is one of those big tourist attractions, as one of the world’s best museums with a great collection, the 3 of us as intrepid young designers could not escape its allure. I myself went recently to visit the Willem Sandberg exhibition although this had since finished but in its place was a great exhibition celebrating 100 years of ‘De Stijl’. For those who don’t know, De Stijl was a revolutionary art and design movement in the early 20th century (1917–1931) with artists like Mondrian and van Doesburg at the centre of it producing work that they saw as a reduction of form and colour choosing to mostly use vertical and horizontal shapes only using black, white and primary colours.
The exhibition itself covered these characteristics of the movement by showing these well known names tied to De Stijl — there was Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition’ pieces and Gerrit Rietveld’s ‘Red and Blue Chair, these people built the aesthetic of the movement with the other pieces on show by artists and designers who have/had been inspired by them. There was Ellsworth Kelly with ‘Red Blue Rocker’ in the shape of a folded geometric circle. Roy Lichtenstein’s huge piece ‘As I Opened Fire’ a painting produced using the same reduced colour palette. Also here was a strong piece by the collective — General Idea called ‘Infe©ted Mondrian’ where they parodied the artist, copying the composition but replacing the yellow colour with a more toxic green to address the AIDS crisis which General Idea focused a lot of their work on and a comment on the dominance of De Stijl. The exhibition is part of a longer project marking 100 years of De Stijl and hopefully I can visit more of it as I see it as one of the great commanding art and design movements which is still prevalent today.
The next day we took the boat over the River IJ to NDSM, described as ‘a rugged shipyard to a creative hotspot’. The ‘creative city’ is a historical remainder of the largest shipyard in the city and has become a haven for all people interested in creativity and art with something for everyone to admire. What stood out to us was the main NDSM building/warehouse, now a hub for studios and restaurants; the outer walls still adorned with the original painted sign. The letters on the 2 sides read “Netherlands Shipbuilding Company’ and ‘Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij’ with each letter painted on heavily in white, with little consistency in letter styles but following some sort of grid. We were motivated to photograph the letters and digitise them to produce a display font with all of its inconsistency and variety as a homage to the building, as designers it was impossible for us to not look at this and be amazed and inspired.
We also found a great bar in the NDSM area — Pllek, built out of old shipping containers a huge glass window looking out onto the IJ and the cold Dutch winter air. We stayed here for a while, chatting and chilling. Drinking a few beers whilst some live music played. A really cool find and as the Dutch might say, it was ‘gezellig’.
I got the following Monday off work to continue our quest around the city and we ended up at the FOAM photography museum (Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam) to check out the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition — Black Box. An overview of the Japanese artist’s work which covered his major series. There was a lot of variety in what was on show but the works which really stood out to me were ‘Lightning Fields’ and ‘Theatres’ because of the processes which were used to make them. ‘Lightning Fields’ are images where there is no camera involved, they are made by channelling electricity over photo paper and exposing it. The marks left behind are incredible and the size of the prints makes for a visually strong image. ‘Theatres’ are a series of images where the artist photographed empty theatre halls, the exposure length of each photograph dictated by the length of a feature film, so each image is brighter or darker than the other. They create these ghostly like images of the room with a solid white image on the theatre screen which is almost sinister like to look into as you are surrounded by these images. The rest of the museum is also great as well as the inside of the building, it is one of the canal houses on the Keizersgracht and inside it is a series of winding rooms and dimly lit hallways: easy to get lost — which we did.
Finally throughout the few days we were walking around I had prepared a map that documents some of the great historical and innovative typographic signs that exist through the city. I was inspired by David Quay’s type tour with us back in the warm summer time in September and using these places as well as my own findings we wandered around as I pointed out these great relics, most of them with some story to tell.
My personal favourite was this piece by Dutch artist Piet Parra on the Tuinstraat. A huge wall mural near a school and kids park which reads: “Ik speel in de stad met alles wat er bestaat” — I play in the city with all that exists. I just love how the letters flow from one to the next and also Parra has a unique style which fits the city perfectly.
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