Holland's largest museum, best known as a home for old masters, this weekend debuts a newly renovated wing hosting a photography exhibition that stresses modernity.
Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the national showcase of Dutch Golden Age masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, reopened to the public in April 2013 after a decade of construction and renovation. During work on the $500-million project, the Philips Wing remained open, displaying some of the museum's most popular attractions, including Rembrandt's Night Watch and Jewish Bride and Vermeer's Milkmaid. Over the past year and a half, however, the Philips Wing (named for the electronics company, a supporter of the museum), also underwent a makeover, directed by Seville- and Amsterdam-based architecture studio Cruz y Ortiz. Its reopening this weekend marks the complete overhaul of a museum first opened in 1885.
The Philips is "a museum in itself, not just an exhibition wing," explained museum director Wim Pijbes at a press preview last week. The 13 refurbished rooms total almost 38,000 square feet, and they offer many of the amenities of a freestanding institution: an approximately 2,200-square-foot atrium, a high-end restaurant that seats 135, a terrace and an espresso bar.
The facility is a literal conglomeration. A 17th-century spiral staircase ushers visitors up to the second-floor galleries; one wall in the atrium-the Breda Wall, a 16th-century remnant of the Palace of Hendrik III of Nassau-also lends a sense of history. So the Rijksmuseum is both a museum of Dutch art and a museum of Dutch architecture, one that "brings fragments together in a fragmented building," Pijbes said.
In fact, five years after the opening of the main structure, designed by famed Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (also known for Amsterdam's central railway station), a separate edifice was constructed in the garden, incorporating the remains of pre-19th-century Netherlandish monuments, deemed old-fashioned by their hometowns. The resulting structure was named the Fragments Building; it and two later expansions constitute the museum's south wing, newly dubbed the Philips.
In an effort to shift the insitution's image from hallowed hall of Dutch masters to an institution also known for modern and contemporary programming, the Dutch firm Studio Drift's kinetic sculpture installation greets visitors en route to the new wing's inaugural exhibition, "Modern Times: Photography in the 20th Century" (Nov. 1-Jan. 11). As visitors climb the stairs to the galleries on the second floor, faux light fixtures descend from their posts on the ceiling. Mounted on elegantly retracting metal spines, the ethereal white "flowers" float down the middle of the spiral staircase before bursting into bloom and quickly rising again.
The photography exhibition, organized by in-house curators Mattie Boom and Hans Rooseboom, begins with a Peter Hujar portrait of writer, filmmaker and public intellectual Susan Sontag. A phrase from her 1977 bestseller On Photography is printed on the wall: "To collect photography is to collect the world." The exhibition offers the first public viewing of several hundred of the roughly 20,000 modern photographs in comprise the permanent collection, 20 years after the museum undertook to extended its holdings beyond the 19th century.
And what a collection—works by Brassaï, Lewis Hine, William Klein, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Edweard Muybridge and Man Ray, among many others, trace the introduction of color, the growth of documentary and news photography, and the re-conception of photography as a high-art medium. Highlights include John Gutmann's Class, Olympic High Diving Champion Marjorie Gestring (1936), a model of compositional power. The diving board parallels the taut body of the 13-year-old athlete, starkly horizontal against the gray sky. Robert Capa's haunting and empathetic images from the second Sino-Japanese war elicit strong emotion, and in Helen Levitt's 1980 Squatting Girl/Spider Girl, a woman, hair obscuring her face, leans against a lurid green car, either drunk or pissing on the street. Somehow, this range of representation is not discordant.
"We want to enter modern times," Tim Zeedijk, the museum's head of exhibitions, explained in an interview with A.i.A. "Everyone nowadays wields a camera on their phones. With this show, we invite as many people as possible, but many different kinds of exhibitions will follow."