Indeed, it’s easy and tempting to be voyeuristic in Amsterdam, and in the case of the Westelijke Eilanden (Western Island) kunstroute (art route), you are invited to be just that if you time you visit the city at the right time.
Over a three-day weekend each spring since 1985, about 60 artists in the Westelijke Eilanden, which is one of the oldest areas of Amsterdam, open the doors of their homes and studios to allow visitors to come in and view their artwork and their work-in-progress.
The programme is coordinated in De Kunstkerk, which is an old church turned gallery in Prinseneiland Street and in which, during the annual exhibition, participating artists display an example of their work, accompanied by their address. The idea is that visitors peruse the gallery and take note of the artists they would like to visit. Brochures and maps are distributed, and the tour begins. On the other hand, the doors of participating artists are marked with flags, and many visitors simply amble through the area and make unannounced visits to studios as they appear.Westelijke Eilanden – so named because the numerous canals in the area seemed to isolate it from the rest of the city – is in itself is a fascinating area and parts of it have been designated ‘protected townscape’ due to their loveliness and historical bearing. It was, in the 17th Century, the industrial centre of Amsterdam where energy from windmills was available at low prices. Many of the street names describe some of the activities that took place there. Zandhoek (Sand Corner) is where sand was sold to builders, Bokkinghangen was the place at which herring (stokvis) was hung to dry, and Galgenstraat offered a bird’s eye view of the municipal gallows. Look up carefully as you walk across the streets – with their tidy, tiny redbrick paving – and you will notice stone plaques describing the profession and sometimes the name of the original inhabitants graphically carved and affixed to houses. Numbers were only introduced to identify houses in Amsterdam when Napoleon arrived during the French occupation of the city in 1811.
As was the case with most old cities around the world, the economy of scale and modern machinery took their toll on the area, and after World War II industry gradually disappeared from the Westelijke Eilanden. The spacious buildings were transformed into homes, studios or a combination of the two, hence the high concentration of artists in the area.
The elaborate gable-topped buildings – many of which were warehouses – are (typically of Amsterdam) tall and narrow, so narrow that pulleys fixed beneath the gables are used to take furniture in and out. Some of these pulleys in the Westelijke Eilanden are original pieces of equipment that date as far back as the 16th Century.
The kunstroute, which is funded by the municipality and some local sponsors, includes artists working in a wide range of mediums from oils, charcoal, wood, ceramics, clay, wood, metal to new media applications such as video and computer-generated graphics. It is a rare treat to enter homes and studios to talk to the artists and even see them in action.
And, when you are all artied out, there are some tempting coffee bars and restaurants in the vicinity.
On the corner of Zandhoek Street, you’ll find the Gouden Reael restaurant, which joins in the kunstroute by displaying the paintings of a participating artist who lives a few doors away, in addition to keeping visitors to the area refreshed. Its menu presents largely French cuisine but, if you just want to sit at a table on the pavement and drink a Dutch or Belgian beer with a toasted sandwich or tapas, you are welcome to. The restaurant has a great view of Zandhoek’s historic wooden bridge, and the water of the Westerdok and Het IJ harbour – or you can just watch the walkers and cyclists pass by.
Traditional art-lovers know the route to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. For those who prefer modern art, there are the Stedelijk Museum and the Cobra Museum. There are plenty of other galleries, especially in the Spiegelkwartier and in the Jordaan. But if you really want to get inside the minds and studios of the contemporary artists of Amsterdam and absorb some history at the same time, plan your trip for early June to coincide with the kunstroute of the Westelijke Eilanden.
(First published in The Weekender.)