In a wide-ranging trip to Europe this year, I found three major new museums to love: in Amsterdam, the first satellite branch of Russia's celebrated Hermitage; in Rome, a long-awaited museum for contemporary arts that is a work of art itself; and in Paris, a picture gallery with a constantly changing program of special exhibitions meant to shake up the enterprise of art appreciation.
The Hermitage Amsterdam
The Hermitage, begun by Empress Catherine II in 1764, has 350 galleries in a series of decaying royal palaces near the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. But even they aren't enough to display the collection, 3 million artworks strong. When I visited the Hermitage during a long Russian winter some years go, many rooms were closed, and the heating system was so deficient that docents sat guard in coats and gloves.
Creating a satellite to display excess treasures from the Hermitage is an idea whose time has come, following in the footsteps of other museums with lesser collections, such as the Pompidou, now in the French town of Metz as well as in Paris, and the Guggenheim, which has planted offshoots in Venice, Italy; Berlin; Bilbao, Spain; and Abu Dhabi. Income from the Hermitage Amsterdam, a private institution, will help with upkeep at the Russian mother ship.
A baby Hermitage is a logical outgrowth of the long-standing ties between Russia and the Netherlands, forged when Peter the Great visited the Lowlands in 1697, and Anna Pavlovna, sister of Czar Alexander I, married Dutch Prince William of Orange in 1816.
The Hermitage Amsterdam, in the center of the city, occupies a long, low complex that was built as a home for the elderly in the 1680s. Its classical brick facade and finials look like something from Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg. But the interior was largely gutted to make way for wide, airy galleries around a courtyard where the old folks' linen was once laundered.
The dramatic restoration allowed for state-of-the-art touches, including scanners to read bar-coded entry tickets and synthetic DNA tags that help safeguard objets d'art. The main lobby has computer terminals and a contemporary flying staircase that leads to the stylish Neva Restaurant, with seating areas around coffee tables, a magazine rack and open kitchen serving Russian beet-root soup and salmon blinis.
I didn't have a ticket or even a city map when I arrived in Amsterdam by train. It didn't matter because the busy Central Station tourist office issued me a 24-hour transit pass, museum entrance and hotel booking at the Residence le Coin, a modest hotel on New Doelen Street owned by the nearby University of Amsterdam. From the train station I caught a tram that jolted past houseboats on placid canals and planters full of tulips, reminding me how hard it is not to like Amsterdam.
It was a quick trip, with just enough time to see the new museum's current exhibition of Russian Orthodox Church art that lasts until mid-September, to be followed by a couple of blockbusters: Flemish painters from the Hermitage, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Jordaens and Rubens (including his stunning "Descent From the Cross"), opening Sept. 17; and in the fall of next year, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks from the vast St. Petersburg collection, together with 75 works by Vincent Van Gogh, temporarily homeless while the city's Van Gogh Museum closes for renovation from September 2012 to March 2013.
A pleasant surprise at the Hermitage Amsterdam is a wing of handsomely restored rooms from the building's nursing home era when residents occupied snug chamberettes and attended daily religious services. The 18th century kitchen remains intact, and tall windows illuminate the old church hall, which still has an 1810 organ that once accompanied the singing of hymns.
Hermitage Amsterdam, 51 Amstel, 011-31-20-530-74-88, http://www.hermitage.nl; open daily 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. Wednesdays); Admission: $22.
Since May, half a million people have visited Rome's National Museum of 21st Century Arts, more commonly known as MAXXI. This is the new home of two museums devoted to contemporary art and architecture, demonstrating that there's much more to art in the Eternal City than headless statues and paintings of the Madonna.
I'd wager that many visitors come chiefly to see the building, designed by Iraq-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid. It took more than a decade to finish, a flamboyant, flying coil of a structure that joins a small club of noteworthy contemporary buildings in Rome, whose other members include Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica auditorium, Pier Luigi Nervi's 1960 Olympic Stadium and Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum.
The 2006 advent of the starkly modern Ara Pacis on the Tiber River in the historic heart of Rome caused much head-shaking among architectural purists. MAXXI avoided censure because, like the Parco della Musica, it is in Flaminia, several miles north of the center. Getting here by public transportation involves catching a clattering tram at Piazza del Popolo, which traverses a pleasant, green residential district before arriving near MAXXI's threshold in about 15 minutes.
Approaching from Via Guido Reni, visitors see an early 20th century Italian army barracks; behind the old facade, Hadid's new building prepares for takeoff. It's shaped something like a quotation mark; its third level sweeps over the first and second before coming to a stop in a glass-lined, cantilevered gallery. This show-stopping space overlooks the plaza, which occupies an entire block and has another barracks-era building now housing a bookstore and restaurant-cafe.
MAXXI's fluidly curving interior has catwalks and ramps leading through its five galleries, equipped with ceiling tracks that allow for room reconfiguration and louvered blinds that allow natural light. Hadid designed MAXXI to accommodate big temporary exhibitions in which the works can be huge or unconventional, such as the stainless steel mirrors and mountains of rags in a show devoted to Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto on display through Aug. 15.
More an art campus than a museum, MAXXI is already a hub for events such as this summer's Young Architects Program, which has transformed the piazza into an archipelago of green islets. Future exhibitions include "Thoughtform," created by London-based Otolith artists collective, and "Indian Superhighway," new art from the subcontinent, both opening this fall.
The architecture museum uses gallery space to display special exhibitions and pieces from its archives, which include fascinating photos, sketches and diagrams by important modern Italian architects such as Carlo Scarpa, Pier Luigi Nervi, Aldo Rossi and Enrico del Debbio, who designed the Mussolini-era Foro Italico sports complex just across the Tiber.
MAXXI has, in effect, put the whole north end of Flaminia on the map of Rome, now a must-see district for people interested in the Italian arts — especially architecture — since Michelangelo and Bernini.
MAXXI, 4A Via Guido Reni, 011-39-06-32810, http://www.fondazionemaxxi.it; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. Admission: $16.
Pinacothèque de Paris
Aren't there already enough museums in Paris? you ask. The Louvre alone has more than 5 miles of galleries visited by millions of people every year who file past masterpieces, all too often looking without really seeing. "Museums are the cemeteries of the arts," said writer André Malraux, who served as French cultural affairs minister during the 1960s.
To rouse the dead, as it were, the Pinacothèque de Paris plans to mount six high-profile exhibitions a year featuring artworks from private collections, often never before seen by the public, while showing its own small but distinguished collection of new and old masters. Director Marc Restellini says the Pinacothèque's arrangement style will stimulate dialogues between seemingly disparate works, revealing themes and correspondences that run across the history of art.
One of the two buildings occupied by the museum on the Right Bank near the Place de la Madeleine began showing special exhibitions in 2007. But this year the opening of a second building in an Art Deco landmark around the corner brought the Pinacothèque into full operation, with showings of art collected by the Romanov czars of Russia and the Hungarian Esterhazy family, as well as an exhibition devoted to the work of Italian comic book artist Hugo Pratt.
When these exhibitions close, three more will open for the fall-winter season: "The Etruscans and Giacometti," on the Swiss sculptor's fascination with the art of ancient Italy; "Expressionism: 1905-1915, Berlin-Munich"; and a show featuring Dutch golden-age masterpieces from the collection of Ilona and George Kremer, including seldom-displayed paintings by Rembrandt and Pieter de Hooch.
At the Pinacothèque, I sampled the surprises of the museum's permanent collection, composed of 100 pieces ranging from a 1,000-year-old West African totem to paintings by Modernists such as Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. In September, they will be joined by a recently acquired panel of Christ and his mother, Mary, by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli.
It's hard to keep up with the Pinacothèque, where change is the norm. New choices are part of what it brings to Paris, along with smaller, more manageable, creatively themed exhibitions for art lovers who've already tramped through the Louvre.
The museum has a bookshop, but no cafe or restaurant. No need; the renowned gourmet food shop Fauchon is just next door.
Pinacothèque de Paris, 28 Place de la Madeleine, 011-33-1-42-68-02-01, http://www.pinacotheque.com; open 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. (until 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays). Admission: $15.