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First Look: ‘Modern Times’ at the Rijksmuseum

6 November 2014

The Rijksmuseum has opened its first exhibition of modern photography in its new Philips Wing. How does a museum so well known for its Old Masters approach such a display, and what can it tell us about the medium? We spoke to the curator Mattie Boom to find out more.

Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

This is the opening display of the new exhibition wing of the new Rijksmuseum, starting with new masters: the best of the Rijksmuseum’s rich 20th-century photography collections. A lot of people don’t know we have such amazing photographic holdings.

What makes this a distinctive show?

This is the first time the Rijksmuseum has shown 20th-century photography; more than 400 vintage photographs from Breitner, Brassaï and Bill Brandt to William Klein, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and Lartigue. There is a mix of ‘high and low’, big names and small masters, and even anonymous photographs. There is Dutch photography and international photography. There is black and white and colour; albums, books and magazines…

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

My colleague Hans Rooseboom and I are actually the first photography curators at the Rijksmuseum. Photography is the ‘youngest’ art form in the museum (which is best known for its Old Masters). Now the Old Masters in the main building overlook the new masters we’ve put up, with a lot of cross-overs and similarities: Klein vs. Rembrandt; Eggleston vs. Vermeer. What painting was in the 17th century, photography was in the 20th: by the people for the people.

More First Looks…

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

Old photography: László Moholy-Nagy looking down from Marseille’s Pont Transbordeur. New photography: Stephan Vanfleteren’s huge tableau of portraits of 100 Dutch people (among them, our former queen Beatrix).

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

The amateur work by Hendrik Teding van Berkhout: he was one of the former directors in charge of Rembrandt’s drawings and Dürer’s woodcuts, and a talented amateur photographer. We’ve hung his work next to Lartigue’s iconic images! The 20th century is the age of photography, with the rise of the amateurs; the invention of colour photography; photojournalism, fashion and advertising. It developed over this period into the autonomous art form we know today.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Using the nine beautiful new daylight galleries. Edward Weston now hangs where Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride once did, and it really works. Photography suits the museum very well.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

We’ve put together some tableaux, including the mentioned work by Vanfleteren, the series Métal by Germaine Krull, and Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst series. And we’ve added showcases for books and albums.

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

We’ve been killing a lot of darlings: but there is a new photography gallery in the exhibition wing, so they will come out in due course.

‘Modern Times. Photography in the 20th Century’ is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 11 January 2015.