Rijksmuseum wing opens with 20th-century photography exhibition

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With its breathtaking, grand exterior and ornate, lavish interiors, the Rijksmuseum in the heart of Amsterdam is a sight to behold. On 13 April 2013, the museum re-opened amid much pomp and circumstance after a 10-year closure for refurbishment; today [1 November 2014] sees the completion of that process as a new exhibition wing – Philips Wing – opens its doors to the public.

The first exhibition in the new 13-gallery strong space, which was designed by Spanish architects Cruz and Ortiz, is Modern Times: Photography in the 20th Century. Featuring more than 400 vintage prints from the museum’s 20,000-strong 20th-century collection, the exhibition explores photography’s social and artistic developments throughout the last century – a century in which photography came of age.


From its scientific beginnings, to the rise of photojournalism in the 1930s, the boom in amateur photography, development of colour photography, and struggle to be accepted as ‘art’, photography has undergone a huge amount of change in its relatively short history. With this as their guide, curators Hans Rooseboom and Mattie Boom present their print selections under seven key themes, which include: ‘Daily life’, ‘The camera at war’, and ‘Experiments and studies’ – a look at some of the photographers who have embraced photography’s artistic possibilities.

Extending over nine of the wing’s rooms, the exhibition begins with a huge, visually arresting timeline that stretches across an entire wall, featuring the names of the photographers whose work is included in the show. The earliest photographer is Eadweard Muybridge, famous for his experimental animal and human motion studies; the most recent is Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen (the exhibition dips into late 19th and early 21st-century photography by way of historical context). Ten of Sassen’s colourful images from her 2013 Suriname series, which explores the collision of traditional and new ways of life in this part of Africa, are beautifully presented alongside Erwin Blumenfeld’s classic black-and-white nude studies created in 1937 and 1940, which together form a striking juxtaposition.

“To collect photography is to collect the world,” reads a quote by Susan Sontag in a panel of text on the wall in the first room – an appropriately chosen extract for an exhibition that looks at the history of photography through some of its key international practitioners as well as Dutch masters of the genre (Rineke Dijkstra, Ed van der Elsken and others); around a third of the exhibition comprises Dutch photography, according to Rooseboom.

The museum began collecting photography in 1994 and around ten years ago focused on expanding its holdings beyond the 19th century. Its rationale, we are told, is to collect and show “rare, original prints, as they were made, used and seen in their own time”. We also learn that the museum collects photographs “as still images, as tangible objects, historical documents or artistic expressions”. With this in mind, the curators include select photobooks and magazines such as Life in vitrines scattered throughout the show, which are a welcome reminder of photography’s applied uses.

Among the many highlights is the ‘Daily life’ room, which offers an easy way into the enormous, complex and unwieldy topic that is the history of photography. A highlight for me is the inclusion in one of the vitrines of a scrapbook-cum-visual diary made in 1929-30 by a pupil of Blumenfeld, which serves as a refreshing reminder that people have been appropriating photographs and creating collages long before it became trendy to do so, and a wonderfully striking series of portraits of seven-year-olds by Céline van Balen, commissioned by the Rijksmuseum.

Sanne Sannes’ passionate and evocative photographs showing embracing lovers and blurred semi-clad figures capture the flair and free spirit of the 1960s. A charming series of photographs by Dutchman Hendrik Teding van Berkhout of his young daughter, taken in the early 1900s, is also moving, but in a different way – the ordinariness of the scenes depicted is striking in its similarity to the way we live today: a father (the photographer) is seen feeding his baby daughter in one image, while a birthday tea party is in full swing in another. We can’t help but wonder what happened to these people, what lives they may have led, and are reminded of photography’s connection to our own mortality.

Elsewhere, a huge mosaic of portraits by Belgian Stephan Vanfleteren, commissioned by the museum for its annual photography commission in 2000, is a breathtaking sight, while in the ‘Man-made’ section, studies of steel structures and architecture by Germaine Krull, and contemporary Dutch landscapes by British photographers Jem Southam and Mark Power, reveal how the banal can be made beautiful.

A nod to Holland’s colonial and trading past comes via two rooms, which explore ‘beyond Dutch borders’, but for me, the most powerful section is ‘The camera at war’, which delves into war photography and explores how the camera has been used, and misused, to record and document conflict. Among the topics explored here is photography’s use as a vehicle to draw attention to war crimes, evidenced in an anti-Vietman War poster created by the Art Workers’ Coalition, which draws on Ronald Haeberle’s harrowing photograph of an American massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai (1969).

Photographs by Dick van Maarseveen, who recorded life in a German prisoner of war camp between 1943 and ’45 are especially chilling, among those taken by some of history’s greatest photojournalists – Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Philip Jones Griffiths and Werner Bischof – which remind us of photography’s ability to record human atrocity.

Many of the big names in the history of photography feature in Modern Times – Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Joel Meyerowitz, Weegee, André Kertész, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, William Klein and Helen Levitt – to name just a few. And there is no denying their work is impressive to see in the new, sleek space. But equally interesting, to my mind at least, is the lesser known practitioners – the likes of Teding van Berkhout, for example – who remind us that photography isn’t just about the stars who made their names through the medium. After all, the 20th century was when photography truly became a medium of the people; Modern Times is a celebration of this, and photography’s perplexing but endlessly fascinating and enjoyable possibilities.

Modern Times: Photography in the 20th Century runs until 11 January 2015. A catalogue featuring essays by the exhibition curators is also available, priced €40. For more information click here.

There is also now a permanent exhibition space for photography in the Philips Wing at the Rijksmuseum, which is currently showing Hans van der Meer’s studies of the border region between Holland and Belgium. On show until 11 January 2015.

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