Modern. Everyone has an idea of this word. But how did the concept of modernity in art and design actually originate and evolve? The Stedelijk presents MODERN—Van Gogh, Rietveld, Léger, and Others; 300 works by 200 artists and designers who were innovative in their time and helped establish the foundation of what we now know as modern.


The 19th century: a time of industrialization, steam engines and ocean liners, science and photography, advertising and a thriving nightlife. New materials and techniques align with the contemporary era. In design, there is a resistance against the numerous cheap, copied neostyles – designers from the English Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, in turn, draw inspiration from craftsmanship. On the other hand, designers embrace modern techniques and new materials such as steel, cast iron, and pressed glass. Photographer Germaine Krull publishes a book about steel, a topic previously reserved for men.

Research reveals that the well-known modern tubular steel furniture by Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer from the 1920s had early predecessors, as evidenced by the tubular metal rocking chair from 1840/50, a remarkable loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Such examples must have been an inspiration for, for instance, Thonet’s famous rocking chair made of bentwood (a then-new technique). The modern tubular steel chairs, with their transparent structures and minimal upholstery, perfectly aligned with the modernist ideal of furniture that minimally interrupts the space. The relatively new method of chromium plating strengthened this effect.

Louis Vuitton also utilized the tubular technique for his “trunk bed” from 1871: a folding bed that could be taken along on journeys. There was also an extra-light aluminum version. This particular piece contains multiple stamps with the name and address of Vuitton in Paris; the brand name already served as advertising at that time.

Depictions of the modern era are also incorporated into products: the Normandie water jug by Peter Muller Munk in Streamline style echoes the bow of the steamship of the same name, and the American Rocket radio refers to a rocket – a reflection of new technology and space exploration. Sometimes, modern-looking design has a surprising origin. For example, Christopher Dresser’s geometric designs were heavily influenced by his trip to Japan in 1876.


Many designers envision a better world and focus on community art visible to everyone. One of the highlights in the exhibition is the monumental studies by Jan Toorop for a ceramic triptych that is still located in the Beurs van Berlage – the gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) initiated by Berlage. They provide a utopian image of the history of Dutch trade from a socialist perspective, ironically in the fortress of commerce.

Designers also aim to contribute to an ideal society through their work. De Stijl and the Bauhaus introduce a minimalist, functional design devoid of ornamentation, focusing on creating a new, universal environment for everyone. However, the most successful community art originated outside of Europe and North America: the exhibition showcases ceremonial objects such as a mosque carpet from Iran, barkcloth from Fiji and New Guinea, a Kuba cloth from Congo, and Surinamese Maroon clothing.


The Stedelijk is known as a “white cube.” But did you know that the white galleries used to be colored? The walls in the exhibition are painted in the original colors from 1895 when the Stedelijk first opened its doors. Architect Weissman was advised at the time by artist August Allebé, who was also the director of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. They chose Pompeian red, Sand color, Mauve, Olive green, Grey-green, Deer brown, and Death’s head (a color based on iron oxide, called ‘caput mortuum’ by alchemists). Ton Evers, the Stedelijk’s painter with expertise in historical colors and pigments, reconstructed these colors manually and based on natural pigments, as paint nowadays is synthetic and these colors are no longer available. The exhibition designer, Harm Rensink, incorporated the historical colors into the design of MODERN.


Is a parade of audience favorites, featuring works by Emile Gallé, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Josef Hoffmann, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet, William Morris, Charlotte Perriand, Gerrit Rietveld, Thonet, and Tiffany, as well as works that have not been seen for a long time, by artists such as George Hendrik Breitner, Odilon Redon, and Jan Toorop. New acquisitions by Christopher Dresser, Marcel Breuer, and Hannah Höch are even being exhibited for the first time. With over 300 works that are historically associated with more than 20 movements, from realism and impressionism to Dada, from Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau to Bauhaus and De Stijl. The exhibition offers a fresh perspective on internationally renowned names and highlights many lesser-known artists.