City of (Red) Lights: As a New Installation at the National Gallery Recreates Amsterdam's Red-Light District, Melanie Abrams Traces the History of Dutch Liberalism

Article excerpt

There is a vibrant area in the heart of Amsterdam which dates from the 13th century. It is characterised by canals, narrow streets and even narrower alleyways and is lined with tall, thin 17th-century houses built during the city's Golden Age. Inside the windows of these elegant houses scantily clad girls vie to draw men in for sex. Some gyrate to music, booming from their stereos. Others simply pose and preen. Sometimes they hurl abuse at tourists who attempt to take photographs.

This is Amsterdam's red-light district. From November 18th the experience of walking through it will be recreated in London. The National Gallery is hosting The Hoerengracht (Whore's Canal) 1984-88, by the American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, a walk-through installation of streets where whores pose in windows, hallways and stairways.

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While one in three tourists go to Amsterdam's red-light district to gawp and party, the Dutch are largely indifferent to the sexual behaviour that pervades their streets. Indeed research has shown that 74 per cent of the Dutch population regard prostitution as an acceptable job and prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000. According to Annemarie de Wildt, curator at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the Dutch take pride in their permissive society. 'It is in the DNA of the city to have openness,' she says.

The Dutch have tolerated prostitution throughout their history, taking the pragmatic view that it will happen whether it is prohibited or not. One of the first Amsterdam by-laws of 1413 stated 'the reasons the court and sheriff of Amsterdam shall not entirely forbid the keeping of brothels: Because whores are necessary in big cities and especially in cities of commerce such as ours--indeed it is far better to have these women than not to have them--and also because the holy church tolerates whores on good grounds.'

Even when prostitution was forbidden in 1578 as the country converted from Catholicism to Calvinism, or had periods of regulation during the Napoleonic era (1810-14) and later in 1911, the trade flourished. In the late 16th, 17th and 18th centuries brothels sprung up all over the city. After 1911, although keeping a brothel was forbidden, the prostitutes themselves were not penalised, so it proved impossible to eradicate.

Prostitutes also found ways to undermine the regulations. When the Napoleonic Code of 1810 ordered mandatory medical inspections to give registered prostitutes a red card as a kind of work permit and a white card if they were infected, prostitutes would swap their white cards for red to continue working. Local officials would also collude with brothel keepers--even in the 18th century, when moral attitudes were hardening, magistrates rarely prosecuted.

Holland's open and cosmopolitan society stems from its powerful maritime and commercial culture, pre-eminent during the 17th century. In 1546 Amsterdam was a town of 14,000 people but a 100 years later the population had grown to 200,000 and the city had become the financial centre of the continent. Prostitution was part of the port culture, which was the basis of the country's wealth and civic pride, and wealthy merchants and sailors were the whores' main customers.

There has also been a history of wider social tolerance in Holland with Amsterdam, in particular, providing a safe haven for religious groups fleeing persecution--such as the Jews since the 15th century and Huguenots in the 16th century, as well as other migrant communities from Germany, Italy and China in the 19th century. …