When Bella and I first arrived in Leiden we noticed countless public buildings decked out in a pattern of red, yellow, blue and black rectangles. This Mondriaan motif brightened up shop fronts and adorned cafe windows. It was obvious the city was celebrating something but we just couldn’t work out what.
After some investigation we found out that Leiden is celebrating 100 years since the founding of the art movement De Stijl (The Style). Champions of this movement favoured abstraction and a strict use of monochromatic and primary colours, with very precise ideas on the use of shape and form. Our discovery led us to visit Museum De Lakenhal’s pop up public exhibition of larger-than-life abstract paintings in the city centre. International artists were invited to respond to the De Stijl philosophy; the results being big, bright and bold. Unfortunately, we visited on the last day of the exhibition but there is plenty more to see in and around the city, as Leiden is celebrating this birth of innovation in art and science with exhibitions, events and activities regularly taking place over the next few years.
On the recommendation of local artist Emma Van Noort, we visited the LUMC gallery located on the ground floor of Leiden University’s Medical Centre. The current exhibition, ‘In the light of the style’, includes abstract sculptural works – further responses to the De Stijl movement. The works fit very satisfactorily in the spaces, snugly in small corners or proudly governing the hospital’s open plan area. Light floods through the hospital’s rooftop windows playing on the sculptures, adding to their striking appearance. We had never been to an exhibition inside a hospital before, but the use of public space in this way is very effective in improving the mood of what could otherwise be quite a serious and daunting setting.
In the hospital foyer we were greeted by a permanent visitor: Dutch artist Margriet van Breevoort’s ‘Homunculus Loxodontus’. This is a life sized, grey, walrus-shaped figure with an elephant’s trunk, insect-like eyes and human hands. It sits demurely on a bench symbolising those waiting patiently to see a doctor. According to the artist, this character is intended to brighten the days of children who visit to the hospital but strangely enough the creature has become a meme in Russia and Ukraine. It is referred to as Ждун or “Zhdun” meaning ‘the Awaiter’, being photoshopped into famous paintings and photographs. Five or six exhibitions are organised each year in LUMC, usually with a topical theme that is linked to the world as perceived by patients, visitors and members of staff. Even if you’re not particularly interested in contemporary art, it’s worth a visit and I challenge anyone to find a comparable work of art in their local hospital! From Leiden Centraal (Central Station) LUMC is only a six minute walk.
As you stroll along Leiden’s side streets you will notice a surprising amount of ‘wall poems.’ This project began in 1992 with poems in their original languages carefully transcribed onto Leiden’s exterior walls. As you take a stroll through Leiden’s back streets you will encounter these beautifully unique art works almost by accident, as there are now over 100 poems since the project’s completion in 2005.
If you want to get a flavour for Leiden’s local art scene don’t pass up the opportunity to visit Galerie Café Leidse Lente as there’s more to be seen than first meets the eye. You enter through an open plan café and gallery space (imagine a vibe similar to the cosy sitting room of an eccentric aunt who has a passion for collecting art and other interesting objects). Upstairs there are artist studios and outside is a courtyard where you can enjoy a coffee and catch a glimpse of the artists at work – which is exactly what we did. Art workshops are run here and there is also a small cinema. I think it’s possible to book a tour of the studios and I’ve heard the lunch menu is really good too, so I would definitely recommend stopping by as it’s only a 12 minute walk from the station. While showing us round, Emma told us about the artist collective KLICK between Leiden and Oxford which was inspired by 70 years of twinning. KLICK is a platform for young artists in both cities to foster ideas and benefit from a cross-cultural exchange. You can get involved via KLICK’s website or Facebook page.
The Hague is only an 11 minute train ride from Leiden Centraal from which you can catch a bus to Museum Voorlinden, a contemporary art gallery which only opened last year. Voorlinden has an impressive public programme of contemporary art, with permanent and temporary exhibitions and many works are interactive – experience what it’s like to walk around inside and below a swimming pool, or get lost inside a giant steel maze. Again, even if you don’t enjoy spending a whole day dedicated to art, the museum is set in stunning country grounds where you can admire the mix of old and new architecture, forest, dunes, water and vast grasslands that characterise the landscape. It’s best to schedule most of the day for a visit because there’s so much to take in and enjoy, especially considering that adult tickets are €15, 13-18 year olds are €7.50 (kids go free.)