Rietveld academy: ideas over technique

The city that has the most nationalities in the world is situated in one of the smallest countries of Europe: Holland. The inhabitants of Amsterdam are currently made up out of 177 nationalities. The Gerrit Rietveld Academy, the most famous academy of Holland, perfectly reflects the international character of the city of Amsterdam. Some departments have more foreign than Dutch students.  But what is it that makes ‘the Rietveld’ so attractive that people from all over the world want to apply?  Four foreign students help answer that question.

Four years ago Jenny Lindblom (25) came to the Rietveld from Sweden, after she had heard good reports about the school from a Swedish girl who had already studied there. That is often the case. Advertisement by word of mouth has given the academy a good name abroad. Exchange students who had been there came home with enthusiastic stories. Graduates too advertise unknowingly. Elena Givone (28) was studying art in her home country Italy, but she looked for a good academy to follow an exchange programme. ‘While I was looking at the CV’s of some of the artists I admire most, like Rineke Dijkstra, I found out that quite a few of them had graduated from Rietveld Academy.’ The academy itself does nothing to attract foreigners. You won’t find any academy posters or brochures abroad. Some students are drawn by the city of Amsterdam itself: it has a good image and besides, there is a lively art scene with many galleries and museums. It has a favourable location too: close to other culturally important European cities and easily accessible through the airport Schiphol. Another reason why students choose for the Rietveld is that in some other countries it is far more difficult to get admitted to an art academy. One of those countries is Sweden, where most academies only allow around 15 students each year.

Despite the enormous amount of applications, the Rietveld isn’t always the first choice. Jenny: I wanted to apply in Germany, but there you have to take a German language test first and I didn’t think that I would pass’. It is one of the academy’s strongest points: all lessons are given in English, and it is what is spoken most in the corridors as well. That is what makes the school unique on the European continent. Co-ordinator Bas van Leeuwen: ‘Until ten years ago every student was addressed, whenever possible, in their own language. But with the arrival of large numbers of Asian and Eastern European people, this was no longer doable. So in 1998 we switched. Nowadays, all students, Dutch as well as foreigners, must demonstrate that they speak English’. For the majority of the foreign students it is an absolute must that lessons are given in English. But why is it then that all those students don’t simply go study in England? It’s because of money. The tuition for a year of studies in Amsterdam is about 1600 euros, for many a considerable amount, but in England one easily pays 6000 euros. The choice is easily made.

Apart from practical reasons like location and an affordable price, the characteristic approach of the Rietveld towards art education is what makes students choose for the school as well. For Janko Ilic (27) a curiosity about a different view on teaching art was what made him go studying in another country. Because he is studying art in his home country Serbia as well, he can make a clear comparison between the two different approaches. Janko: ‘At the Rietveld you have to think a lot about your work. You become very aware of what you are doing, and learn to communicate about it. I consider that a plus of the Rietveld approach. In Belgrade, you have to make a lot of things,  but there is hardly any discussion about your work. Teachers don’t encourage that sort of attitude. But I think it is necessary for an artist nowadays to be able to communicate about his work.’

A lot of students speak positively about the Rietveld approach, that often differs quite a bit from that of academies in their native countries. The biggest difference might be that acquiring technical skills is not a priority. Inga Cholmogorova (32) gives a typical example of that difference when she talks about art education in her home country Lithuania. ‘To enter the academy of Vilnius  you must be a very good painter and drawer beforehand. That’s not really important at the Rietveld.  At this school, the focus is mainly on ideas and less on execution and techniques. The way of teaching is not academical at all. The Rietveld approach appeals more to me, to the way I am.’

In general, the unforced nature of the studies is perceived as a relief, but sometimes the school overdoes it a bit. One of the people to think so is Elena Givone. Even though she does appreciate the freedom a lot, she still expects a good education to put more emphasis on teaching technical skills. Coordinator Bas van Leeuwen defends the policy as follows: ‘Technical skills are just a tool to visualise one’s ideas. It is much more important to develop one’s mental process and vision. That’s where the artist’s identity lies. Technical skill will come naturally.’ A large amount of time is therefore spent on theoretical reflection: the students have to be able to lecture and write about their art. They are expected to write a paper about their work a couple of times a year and a thesis in their final year. In that way the school wants to prepare the students for a ‘changed professional practice’. The Rietveld notices a change in society, which expects artists to expressively justify their work. That’s why the Rietveld puts so much stress on acquiring communicative skills.

Another characteristic of the Rietveld is the emphasis on individual schooling. It’s considered very important that every student develops in their own way. They’re guided in their search by a number of teachers. Quite some of the courses are group sessions, like art history and drawing from a model, but the face to face conversations between student and teacher form the core of the education. Every weekday the school is open until ten o’clock, so that there is a lot of time for the students to work by themselves in their studios. So an independent, disciplined attitude is necessary to make full use of one’s studies. The board of admittance takes that into account by preferably admitting people that are somewhat older, in stead of those who have just finished secondary school. ‘In general, older students are better equipped to deal with the loneliness and competitiveness that come with being an artist and they can better deal with so much autonomy as well’ , explains teacher André Klein. For instance, when a student wants to cast a sculpture, but can’t do it, he is expected to contact a specialised company himself.

Jenny: ‘In Sweden they arrange everything for you. You get so many things for free. A big studio, lots of equipment.. I thought I preferred the Swedish system, but now that I am here, I  think this is actually better. Its more connected  to reality. It would be very convenient to have it all done for you, less costly, and time saving, but you need to develop certain skills. To know where to go if you need assistance and how to make a good deal.’

The school has only one shortcoming which annoys all the students. The studios are far too small. In their final year, the students still have no more than a couple of square metres to themselves. They build plasterboard walls to make more efficient use of the open rooms and to create some privacy. The lack of space is so bothersome, that some students are renting studios outside school. Co-ordinator Bas van Leeuwen: There is always a shortage of space, because students always want a bigger studio, preferably with a kitchen and a place to sleep! Truth be told, this building isn’t really suited  for art education. There are so many safety and domestic rules, you can’t even deill a hole in the walls. When it comes to that, even an old factory building would be better.

In the end, the shortcomings in accommodation can’t keep these students from reaching a positive judgement about the Rietveld. All the positives easily compensate for the few disadvantages they can think of. The characteristics of the Rietveld approach, namely: the stress on development of communicative skills and the  focus on ideas instead of execution, are positively estimated. Apparently, that fresh view on art education attracts a lot of foreign students every year. That’s what makes the Rietveld a very international school, where you can find a lot of contented students from all over the world.

Text:  Maria Groot


This article was published in Zoe magazine


The first time I saw Merlin Spie, she was hanging one metre above the ground in a self made mould. A bar was penetrating her mouth. Swallow’ was the name of that performance, which she gave in a crowded art gallery in Antwerp. Three years later I speak with the renowned Belgian artist about her latest series of performances ’Le Silence des Danses’. Merlin Spie about silence, philosophy and the shortcomings of our society.

Merlin Spie (40) is striking in her naturalness. She wears no make up or fancy clothes, her long hair covers her shoulders without a specific haircut. Merlin spends many lonely hours in her garden reflecting on her experiences, her environment and developments in society. During those months of inward study, she filters the essential considerations from the irrelevant. When she speaks in her soft voice, she takes you some steps along into her realm of thought.

Merlin: “Silence is necessary to grasp the things around you.. ‘Le Silence des Danses’ consists of three seperate performances, all executed by another person. I directed them all, but I am only visible in the last one. Two of them take place in complete silence, because these performances don’t need extra information. A certain calmness helps to feel and absorb my work. To add sound would only distract the public. It’s what happens in our society, the senses are overly stimulated and our attention gets diverted. We get confused because it leads our focus away from what is essential in life. Because people are used to be overwhelmed with information in this fast society,  I knew it was risky to use silence and slowness in my performance. I wasn’t sure the audience would stay concentrated for an hour and a half. But I was convinced it should be like that, and I don’t want to renounce what I think is best. Fortunately many people appreciated what I did. They seemed to understand.”

“I showed my face for the first time. In all preceding performances the public couldn’t see my face. I was often hidden in a mould of wax, because I wanted to represent a human being, of any sex. The focus had to be on the inner self, on how the world around you can have a devastating influence on you. I wanted to show how the cruel society can shock and damage a fragile human being. But I recently chose a different direction.  In my latest works I don’t concentrate on the collision anymore. There still is a confrontation, like in that performance with the spurt of water against my body. But in spite of the powerful forces, my body and mind have the ability to recover and start over again. Every time the water stops gushing against me, I start moving my arms, in a sort of dance. The environment doesn’t dominate me any longer, I can deal with it. I even make something beautiful out of it.”

“Philosophy should support art. The existential questions are closely related to the process of creation. Creating is going away from what is fake, to search for the essential. If an art work lacks necessity or relevance, it becomes exchangeable. A performance can’t just be about me, that’s indulgence in navel-gazing. I need to understand in what kind of world I live, so that my work can be placed in a broader context. Deeply understanding takes time, I need months of reflection and delving. That process isn’t dominated by reason, it is more intuitively searching. I strongly believe reason can stand in the way to fully experience things. We are so focussed on mental progress that we become alienated of our body. We don’t pay attention to the way the body wants to communicate, or how it feels. Some people are so obsessed with the cognitive and ambition, like scientists, that they can’t feel what life is about. Everything got disconnected. It would be beautiful if things got merged again: the mind and the body, femininity and masculinity, philosophy and art.”


“My work gets interpreted better now than in the past. In the beginning some people didn’t know how to interpret my performances, because they couldn’t find any references to it. They weren’t perceptive to what I tried to express, but attempted to relate it to the art canon. Some thought my work was about erotism, probably because they were concerned with that issue themselves. So when I covered myself with pear syrup, the assumption was made that I referred to sexuality. There wasn’t much written about me at that time. I think it’s important to pay attention to what people write. I have always tried to keep an overview of it, because I want those texts to correspond with how I perceive my work.  When people come to see my performances nowadays, they are generally better informed. That doesn’t mean that my work can only be understood if you have read about it. Many people feel intuitively what I want to communicate. Someone came to me yesterday after ‘Le Silence des Danses’ to tell me he was going home happy. I think that person understood.”

Text: Maria Groot

Photo’s: Lieven Herreman

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