Most people who travel to Holland and are interested in art congregate in one or more of Amsterdam’s major museums. Outside of the city you can find some small jewels off the beaten path, though, that warrant a closer look. They provide introductions to Dutch art movements that are perhaps less well known but worthwhile getting to know. As a bonus you also escape the throngs of people you meet everywhere else, particularly during the summer months where the entire world seems to descend on this small country.
A 40-minute drive north of Amsterdam lies the small village of Bergen. Close to the North Sea, nestled among pine forests and dunes that are now a national nature preserve, the village was historically an artist colony, home to the Bergen School, a group of painters in the early 1900s who embraced cubism and expressionism and shared a taste for rather dark colors. Two museums in the area have large permanent collections of this School. One is the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar, about three miles south of Bergen, which also houses an amazing number of exquisite 16th and 17th century paintings.
The other is the Museum Kranenburgh in Bergen proper, which I visited this week. The museum used to be the mayor’s home, an impressive old villa, to which new exhibit wings were eventually added. Light- and air-filled spaces allow views over a small but decent sculpture park, and provide enough space for changing exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection. Two current shows drew my interest, for two very different reasons. Both have been extended until September 30, 2018, should your travels bring you to North Holland.
The Mystery of Gestel is an exhibit of paintings by Leo Gestel, the grand master of the Bergen School. Landscapes and portraits (including one of a woman alluded to in the exhibit’s title) on loan from various museums provide a glimpse of what’s left of the larger oeuvre of the painter. Born in 1881, Gestel soon was drawn to both French and German avant-garde movements, exhibiting in Berlin as well as Dutch salons. He is considered on par with the other master of Dutch modernism, Piet Mondrian; tragically, a lot of his works were lost in a fire in his Bergen studio in 1929. He died about a decade later. His experimentation with cubism is fully on display in the current exhibit, but what draws me back to his paintings (some of which I first got to know during my childhood summers spent in Holland, long before this museum existed) are his use of color. There is an exuberance, a clarity and intensity, that captures the light of these northern parts so much better than the generally dark and dusty hue conventionally associated with the Bergen School. Think of a Matisse palette within a Mondrian form, add to it some subtle humor, and you have Gestel. “Heel mooi,” as they say over here: quite beautiful!
The other current exhibit is of a very different nature. Ans Wortel, Bohemienne in Bergen, is a retrospective of a painter who used to work and live in the very villa where her paintings, gouaches, poems and prints are now displayed. She was as much famous as infamous (for her lifestyle) during the years she spent here, and her stay ended in an éclat when she was asked to leave the house for good and refused. Born in 1929, self-taught, her art became quite known and collected in the ’70s, awarded first prize at the Paris Biennale and exhibited in major institutions. Frankly, I have little access to her work, which seems derivative way beyond the 1950s that are generally acknowledged to be heavily influenced by de Kooning and Picasso. Critics more perceptive than I certainly considered her innovative.
Tableau magazine described her this way: ‘Ans Wortel does not tend to any existing group. Although she certainly has an affinity with the reckless eloquence of Karel Appel, Ans Wortel remains faithful in her quest for expression that is closest to her heart: the organic allegories of people against a setting of sun, water, earth, walls and roads. …. images that appear as figurative, but are in reality only suggestions of images, intended to convey an abstract message.’
I might not be particularly taken by the art, but I was certainly admiring of the curation of the show. The catalogue is smart, but, more importantly, the displays were accompanied by old photographs of her living and working in the very rooms where you now view the images. One entire room is devoted to several video stations where you can watch interviews and footage of the artist, the walls papered with newspaper clippings that describe her successes as well as the drama of the eviction at the end of her time in Bergen. Last but not least, there are spaces dedicated to the hanging of people’s testimonials, memories, nuggets of gossip, or heartfelt letters, all invited, about the artist. To witness the remembered interaction of a community with an artist or the impression she made within a tightly knit village; to read about the reflections on both art and artist; it anchors the art in history, which is pretty moving. Perhaps that is due to the fact that today’s artists’ work is more often than not done in isolation; we don’t have stable communities that share a lifetime among them. In any event, curator Patricia Bracke and designer Geer Roobeek made this a special experience.