National Gallery's latest exhibit recreates Amsterdam's red light district

Installation recreates the alleyways of the Dutch capital's most notorious quarter – complete with life-size figures of blank-faced women

Audio slideshow: National Gallery gives the red light

Amsterdam's red light district has landed in the National Gallery, London – and it's not pretty.

Ed and Nancy Kienholz's immersive installation The Hoerengracht ("whores' canal"), which opens at the gallery tomorrow, is a re-creation of the alleyways of the Dutch capital's most notorious quarter – complete with life-size figures of blank-faced women posing in the windows of brothels.

According to Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, the installation "does not in any way glamorise or romanticise prostitution".

Out of the darkness, dimly lit figures loom from carefully remade shop fronts. Their anguished faces at times recall paintings of the Madonna one can see on any stroll through the rooms of the National Gallery.

Showing such a piece is an unprecedented move for the gallery. Its collection comes to an abrupt halt at 1900 and, except in the context of its artist-in-residence schemes, it rarely shows contemporary art.

But the point of showing The Hoerengracht – which was made by the American husband-and-wife artists in the 1980s – is, according to curator Colin Wiggins, the light it can cast on the other works in the gallery.

"We're full of prostitution. Take Hogarth's Marriage a la Mode – one scene from that work shows a weeping child prostitute being presented to an aristocratic man," he said. "But because our paintings are shown in gold frames they look safe and pretty."

He also referenced Courbet's Les Demoiselles Au Bord de la Seine, which shows prostitutes. And, he said, in the background of Monet's Bathers at la Grenouillère a bathing-suit-clad woman can be seen propositioning a man.

There is a particular relationship, said Wiggins, between The Hoerengracht and the gallery's collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings – a number of which show scenes of prostitution.

In Godfried Schalcken's A Man Offering Gold and Coins to a Girl (circa 1665-70) the theme is clear since, in this candlelit scene, a woman sits on her bed as she receives money from an amorous-looking man while Cupid looks on. In other works the theme is less clear, but it is subtly indicated, said Wiggins. In Pieter de Hooch's A Musical Party in a Courtyard – which to innocent eyes merely shows an elegant gathering – a man offers a woman an oyster (then, as now, regarded as an aphrodisiac), while she dips her knife suggestively into her glass of wine.

Ed Kienholz died in 1994, but today Nancy Reddin Kienholz was at the National Gallery to oversee the installation of The Hoerengracht.

On having her work displayed in the gallery, she said: "I've been telling my friends I've won the Oscars on this one. For a living artist there is no better place to be shown – hands down – than the National Gallery."

She described the work as "a piece for voyeurs" and "not against prostitution, but rather for prostitution". She said it was "a kind portrait. It has a calmness and a contemplativeness about it."

The work, she said, "opened up discussion" about the status of prostitution. "It's certainly something that is there in every major city in the western world," she said. "Any taxi driver in any city can tell you where it is."

The work was constructed in Berlin using friends as models, but the Kienholzes spent some time in Amsterdam researching the piece and photographing prostitutes' premises.

"They didn't like women coming into the area and I was the one doing the photography," said Kienholz. "But once they realised we were offering 50 guilders for a five-minute photoshoot they got more friendly."

"The point of showing The Hoerengracht is to shed light on the permanent collection," said Wiggins. "It's easy to go round the gallery and miss the fact that many of our pictures are far more repellent and horrible than Hoerengracht. The National Gallery is full of gang rape, incest and bestiality."

As regards incest, he pointed to the paintings in the gallery that show a biblical incident in which the daughters of Lot feed their father wine and then seduce him in order to guarantee the continuity of the family line (Lot's wife having been turned into a pillar of salt).

For bestiality, one need look no further than the copy of Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan, once regarded as too indecent for public display (it was hung in the director's office in the 19th century).

And Rubens's thoroughly unpleasant Rape of the Sabine Women does not spare the horrors of the incident in early Roman history in which Romulus's men supposedly seized and kidnapped the women of the neighbouring Sabine tribe.


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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