When you visit a show that features Josef Albers you can feel fairly sure that the twenty year long Hommage to the square is going to feature. But the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague that is nearing its end now, offers a whole lot more. Yes there is the room that features fifteen variations of the long running series, including a mesmerizing and large yellow composition.
But Mr Albers is very much only half the story. There is Mrs Albers too. Anni, 11 years the junior of her husband is every bit as important in the display. Her textiles, graphics and drawings are every bit as eye-catching with their rhythmic repetitions and wandering lines that remind me of so many artists that were still to make there artistic mark in the second half of the twentieth century.
The work of both artists has a modest scale, you are drawn in to stand close and look carefully. A scale that is not dissimilar to my own paintings and drawings. I wondered beforehand if I would discover anything during my visit that may find its way into my own studio, and yes, I think I have. I’ve been folding landscape spaces in recent paintings and drawings, maybe there is something I will be able to do with Josef Albers Steps from 1935.
It’s nearly a year since I’ve been into a museum. My escape days to recharge my cultural batteries. The opening up of a post-lockdown world is finally allowing it again. It’s not quite as it was before, you have to book you entrance time slot and the number of visitors is restricted. It is also true to say that the exhibition programming of the museums has, I’m sure, been mangled by the repeated stop start of the last 18 months. But despite all this it has been fantastic to return to the Kunstmuseum in The Hague today, possible my favourite regular destination of all the big Dutch museums.
Apart from the regular collection, and despite the disruptive effects of the pandemic, the museum had a couple of exhibitions that had drawn me here, ahead of perhaps an Amsterdam of Rotterdam visit. First and foremost a solo exhibition by the Dutch abstract painter Bob Bonies. I remember discovering his work as a student in London back in the 1980s. The hugely reduced visual arrangements that the artist uses fascinated me. The way he worked with form that was physically absent as much as what was present influenced my own student work. Much of the work is of a reasonably large scale, but relies on the most subtle of tensions between the complete and incomplete form, the flat and the spatial, the physical and the illusionistic.
Bonies work is clean, sharp and draws you in. Immaculately made these geometric statements feel totally at home in this particular museum with its equally sharp and geometric design, created by Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).
Maybe the difficulties of exhibition planning in the Covid effected world has lead the museum to present an exhibition about its own building, or maybe it was planned all along. But it is certainly interesting to see how the building came about, Berlage’s influences, planning and maquettes. It is a piece of architecture that is always a pleasure to wander through, it’s heavy doors, repeating structures and wall paintings. But for me today, and maybe partly because I had just been gazing at Bonies work, it was a set of photographs by Gerrit Scheurs of the building that particularly caught my eye.
The photographs, like paintings by Bonies, play with the geometry. In this case, within the rectangle. Yes, if you look carefully you can pick out easily enough which part of the museum is actually pictured. But these images too have more than their fair share of spatial and illusionistic games going on……all with the cool diffused light that the museum always has.
One of the other spaces in the Berlage exhibition makes use of large, black and white photographs of exhibitions of the past. Often blown up to wall filling scale. The pictured museum spaces seeming to open up mirrored rooms, but ones that take is into the past, peopled by visitors exploring exhibitions held in the same gallery space maybe fifty or sixty years ago. You share the space for a moment, but find yourself reflecting on the different times and indeed the different world going on outside the walls of the museum.
Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs. They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants. The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.
Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry. They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs.
For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo. Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021.
There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown. I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague. The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.
As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport. The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education. There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?
I remember looking at Rob van Koningsbruggen’s work when I was an art student around 1990. He was held up as an example of a type of abstract painter who was much admired by teaching staff at the college where I was studying. He had taken on board in his work the lessons of American abstraction of the mid twentieth century without losing his European roots. Better still, he belonged to the Dutch lineage of abstraction.
Rob van Koningsbruggen, Untitled, 1985
I have regularly come across examples of his work in Dutch galleries and museums, but today, when visiting the Kunstmuseum (formerly known as the Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague I have seen a full-scale museum show of his paintings for the first time.
They were a succulent collection of canvases from the past decade of the now 71 year old painter. The paint and colour does quite literally on occasions ooze from the surface.
Peter Roseman, Composition on Drape, 1990
It was strange to walk around the rooms; I hadn’t expected it to feel quite such a visual reminder of the paintings I remember from the college studio spaces back in 1990. I just wish I had more photos from our work place back then. A very likeable exhibition, but at the same time strangely familiar.