Tag Archives: Amsterdam

The Rijks

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One of the world’s great art museums, the Rijksmuseum was built in 1885.  It closed for massive restoration from 2003 to 2013.  The massive entryway is now saturated with light.

Still Life

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I remember being floored at the Louvres’ collection of Dutch still life.   The paintings, reflect the wealth and power in Amsterdam In the 17th century.  They also sometimes contained subterfuge, showing the contrast between the wealthy and the needy.  They often honoured nature and represented scientific accuracy in some of the most beautiful paintings ever painted.  The still life rose in popularity, expressing both objects of beauty and the philosophical climate of the times through carefully composed arrangements and groupings.

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Breakfast with Crab, Willem Claeszoon Heda

The still life in the Netherlands in this period became a source of competition for artists and their patrons and inevitably, several subcategories emerged.  An ‘ontbijtje’, or small breakfast, became a particular genre as were flower pieces, banquets, paintings featuring the results of the hunt, and Vanitas paintings.   The Vanitas were paintings that reminded the rich burghers of the Netherlands that everything – including their wealth – was transient.  The peeled lemon here symbolises deceptive appearance: beautiful on the outside, sour within. Beware the beautiful looking man or woman, they may not be as sweet as they appear.   There was a tension that developed in this period between the new Protestant religion that devalued objects of wealth that had previously been used to display the power of the Catholic church and the rising nouveau riches who commissioned paintings that demonstrated their ostentation.

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Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht

Some versions of the Vanitas are less opaque, like this one at the Rijksmuseum, Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht

 

 

 

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A couple more stood out in my visit today – Pieter Claesz’ Still Life with a Turkey Pie – complete with turkey:

 

 

And de Heem’s Festoon of Fruit and Flowers:

Rembrandt (1606-1669)

“I can’t paint the way they want me to paint
and they know that too. Of course you will say
that I ought to be practical and ought to try
and paint the way they want me to paint.
Well, I will tell you a secret.
I have tried and I have tried
very hard,
but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it!
And that is why I am just a little crazy.”

– Rembrandt

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Old Man with a Gold Chain

During the Dutch Golden Age, portraiture rose in popularity.  Members of the new merchant class enjoyed commissioning imaginative likenesses of their selves to display in their homes, and companies and other professional organizations would also acquire group portraits. Rembrandt was one of the greatest portraitists of this time, known for his impeccable capturing of his subjects’ distinct personalities and emotional idiosyncrasies.

 

 

The Original Selfie

When Rembrandt wasn’t being paid to paint other people’s portraits, he used himself as a study.  His extensive self-portraits provide a unique visual biography of the artist.  It would be a mistake to assume the vanity that exhibits itself in today’s selfies; Rembrant’s self-portraits are candid, vulnerable and inward-gazing.

 

Rembrandt wasn’t the only painter who made self-portraits.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone,
because I am the person I know best. ”

                                                                         – Van Gogh

Frida Kahlo, the artist from Mexico whom we’ll be seeing much more of next spring, used her self-portraits to express fundamental truths:  what it was to be a woman, what it was to be Mexican, what it was to be an individual and lastly, what it was to be her.  

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Etchings

Rembrandt also made important contributions to the development of art, surpassing even the inventiveness of Titian and Velazquez with his progressive handling of paint, making it as much a subject in the composition of a painting as his figures. Variations of brush stroke between loose and rough, or the manipulation of textures through scratching or with a palette knife, would all contribute greatly to a radically new signature style that would influence generations to come.  He also raised the etching process to an art form and arguably remains the greatest of all at creating etchings.

The Night Watch

Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious
that he says things for which there are no words
in any language. It is with justice that they call
Rembrandt ‘magician’  – that’s no easy occupation.”

                                                                           – Van Gogh

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Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece The Night Watch is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Golden Age Dutch painting. Formally titled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” the dramatically rendered military group portrait has an epic history all its own.  Rembrandt’s innovative decision to depict the military in a moment of action rather than a traditional composed group portrait, as well as the work’s nearly life-sized scale made the painting a triumph of 17th Century Dutch art.  At the time he made it, Rembrandt was at the height of his creative powers.  The subtle use of texture, shadow and light seem to reveal truths about his subjects that they may be unaware of themselves.  His greatest influence was Caravaggio, who took darkness and light to extreme.

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David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Franz Hal’s The Meagre Company is a more typical posed Guard portrait of the day:

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The Night Watch fame has only been heightened by its storied and indeed dramatic history. The painting has been subject to attack on three separate occasions — the last, an attack by knife, leaving the painting in need of extensive restoration.  It is under restoration now, too, but the museum has drawn the public into the process by keeping the piece on view with high-tech equipment and restorers working on the painting in plain sight.  The restoration work can be followed around the world online live each day in a project called “Operation Night Watch,” here.

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Each portrait is a masterpiece within it – here are a few:

 

Vermeer (1632-1675)

Until more recently, so little was known about Vermeer’s life, he was referred to as “The Sphinx of Delft.”    Well-known and moderately successful within Delft, he never left the city and was devoted exclusively to his art.

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Vermeer specialized in scenes of domestic bliss, the type of bliss which evaded him in his own life.  He worked slowly and with great care, which is why he was not prolific, having painted about 50 known paintings (compare that to van Gogh’s output!), of which only 34 survive.  There is no other 17th-century artist who employed the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) either so lavishly or so early in his career and this later would perhaps contribute to his financial ruin.

He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work, for example, the glint, in the eyes and pearl of the Girl with the Pearl Earring (at The Hague Museum), the appearance of wetness to her eyes and mouth, and the warm light captured in his Dutch interiors, so much so, that he became known as “the Master of Light.”  His primary influence was Leonardo da Vinci.

The Milkmaid

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In Dutch literature and paintings of Vermeer’s time, maids were often depicted as subjects of male desire—dangerous women threatening the honor and security of the home, the center of Dutch life—Vermeer’s painting is one of the rare examples of a maid treated in an empathetic and dignified way, although established amorous symbols in this work, like the Cupid tile and the foot warmer on the floor, still exemplify the tradition.

Vermeer certainly meant for the sophisticated viewer to recall earlier paintings of comely milkmaids and kitchen maids, and the reputation of milkmaids in particular for sexual availability. In real life, their impromptu suitors were often “proper” gentlemen, not social equals, and of course the intended viewer of this painting (and those by Dou) was not a servant but a man of society and a connoisseur. Compared with the sort of ideal women we see in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and other mature works by Vermeer, his “Milkmaid” exudes a very earthy appeal, with her pushed-up sleeves (revealing pale skin normally covered), her ample form (similar to that of women in slightly earlier works by Rubens), and her faint smile. For a male viewer of the time (in this case, Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven), the hints of sexuality would have given the painting an element of fantasy as subtle as the shadows on the whitewashed walls.

The painting has much more depth and richness seeing it first-hand, but here are my impressions of it:

 

Eventually Vermeer’s lack of productivity and extravant spending forced him into bankruptcy and he was barely able to support his wife and seven children.  In December 1675, at age 42, Vermeer died after a short illness. In a petition to her creditors, his wife later described his death as follows:

“…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable
to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting
with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a
result and owing to the great burden of his children having no
means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence,
which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into
a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy
to being dead.”

I found at the following link a compelling video, a debate about who is the greater artist, Rembrandt or Vermeer, between the charismatic art critic and BBC favourite, Simon Schama, and the author of the novel which became the Scarlett Johannsen film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier.  In reality, one doesn’t have to choose, but their insights into both artists are fascinating.

https://youtu.be/cCQZnXz2Uss

Serendipitously,  my brief stopover in Amsterdam which led me to the Dutch Golden Age, was en route to the City of Cape Town, the founding city of South Africa.  Cape Town was originally a Dutch outpost of the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch settlers were sent to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the ships of the Dutch East India Company on their trade route.  I’m headed there next, on a 12-hour KLM flight.

Best,

Jan
PS   Rembrandt was born Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn in 1606.  He added the silent ‘d’ to his signature for reasons unknown, in 1633.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch!

7-course Chef’s Table lunch at The Rijks – oh yes, the museum’s Michelin-starred restaurant.  Where pictures speak louder than words.

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I KNOW!!! Amazing.  And delicious.  Of course.

Best,

Jan
PS. They take their chicken very seriously here, it is a rarity because there isn’t enough land for the chicken to run.   This chicken is not on their regular menu because the supplier can’t tell them when they will be ready, he just knows and shows up with a few every few weeks.  I had wondered the night before at a dinner menu on which the chicken was priced higher than the halibut.

Dutch Golden Age

Florence had the Renaissance, Vienna had its Classical Period, Paris had its Belle Epoch and the salons of the 1920’s, and New York was a hotbed of modern art in the World War II and post-war period.   Amsterdam in the 17th century was one of those cities that experienced a moment in time, attracting artists who inspired and influenced one another, creating new and original art forms.

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Simon Jacobszoon de Vlieger, The Flagship Aemilia Fires a Salute for Admiral Maerten Harpertszoon Tromp

The movement that sprang up in Amsterdam arose from the economic success borne of the 80 Years’ War.  Strategically located, the nation controlled access to the Baltic Sea and charged hefty duty to foreign ships passing through.  They established their own marine silk trade routes.   The Dutch nation became one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, dominating international trade and creating a vast colonial empire.   Tne upper middle class surged in the strong economy and it was at this time the Dutch built their world-famous canal system, so impressing Russian Czar Peter I that he patterned his new capital, St. Petersburg, after it.  You see it as soon as you arrive in “Peter” – canals (which absorbed the wet lowlands) down the centre of lovely mansion-lined streets.

 

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Still Life with Flowers, Willem van Aelst, 1665

With all the new-found money and painters arriving in Amsterdam, it was little wonder the Dutch Golden Age of painting was just around the corner.

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The Netherlands’ religion changed too, and this had a powerful effect on the art world.  The Netherlands declared independence from the Catholic Hapsburg Empire and the protestant religion took its place.   With the end of Catholicism, a new and unprecedented freedom replaced the genre of religious art with several different styles.  Landscapes, portraiture, “genre painting” (simple domestic bliss), and still life blossomed.  Some of the most famous artists of all time painted during the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt and Vermeer.

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Still Life with Dog, Monkey and Parrot, Adriaen van Utrecht

My day was so packed today, I’m posting in two parts.  The Dutch state museum, the Rijksmuseum houses Rembrandt’s most famous painting known as The Night Watch.  I spent much of the day at the Rijk, taking a guided tour.  And, although much later in history, one cannot overlook perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous citizen, Vincent van Gogh.  I visited the Van Gogh Museum first, the largest collection of his work in the world, housing some of his most famous and important paintings.

Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Real painters do not paint things as they are…
they paint them as they themselves feel them to be.

– Vincent van Gogh

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What more needs to be said about the iconic tortured artist, Vincent Van Gogh?  I’ve seen “Starry Night” at MOMA which is so representative of his luscious, flowing, late work, but since my teens reading the book, Lust for Life, by Irving Stone (one of my favourite reads of all time), I have wanted to go to Amsterdam to see his early work, The Potato Eaters.  He was in a state of fervent activity, young, poor, but compelled to reproduce everything he saw, producing many sketches per day.   The farm labourers in the Netherlands, achingly depicted in the resulting painting, were almost caricatures.  He expressed in this painting the connection of the poor peasants to the land, their work-weary hands central to the picture.  But when he sent the work to his brother Theo, the art dealer said, no, you have to come to Paris and see what Monet, Gaugin and the others are doing with colour and light, you need to start again!  In the end, it was not long in Paris before his fellow painters influenced him and he started using colour and light in new ways too.  I still love this one, though, the faces tell the whole story of the people.

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In addition to seeing his paintings, some of the best ways to capture how van Gogh  strove to convey his emotional and spiritual state in each of his paintings came in recent films. The visually beautiful animated film Loving Vincent (on Netflix)

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Trailer:

https://youtu.be/Gy0RVDM1sNA

and the recent depiction by Willem Dafoe in the film At Eternity’s Gate, which captured his life so beautifully in film sets drenched in yellow.

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Trailer:

https://youtu.be/T77PDm3e1iE

 

 

“His post-Impressionist style, canvases with densely laden,
visible brushstrokes rendered in a bright, opulent palette
emphasize Van Gogh’s personal expression brought to life
in paint. Each painting provides a direct sense of how the
artist viewed each scene, interpreted through his eyes,
mind, and heart, just as he intended. This radically
idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued
to affect artists and movements throughout the 20th
century and up to the present day, guaranteeing Van Gogh’s
importance far into the future.”
 

                                                                           – The Artstory.org

It’s amazing to be reminded that van Gogh only painted for about seven years, and in that time he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life.   The gallery also houses one of his five Sunflower paintings, his Vase with Irises and his Bedroom at Arles, to name a few.

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No photography is permitted here, but here is an image of his Almond Blossom – you can see his love of Japanese art here.  He painted this as a gift for his brother and sister-in-law on the arrival of their first child.  The couple named him Vincent after his uncle.

 

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Vincent – the nephew – eventually inherited the van Gogh estate from his mother and he almost immediately began negotiations with the Dutch government to subsidise a foundation to purchase and house the entire collection.  He participated in planning the project in the hope that the works would be exhibited under the best possible conditions. The project began in 1963; architect Gerrit Rietveld was commissioned to design it, and after the architect’s death in 1964, Kisho Kurokawa took charge.  Work progressed throughout the 1960s, with 1972 as the target for its grand opening.

The Van Gogh Museum opened in the Museumplein in Amsterdam in 1973.  It quickly became the second most popular museum in the Netherlands, after the Rijksmuseum, regularly receiving more than 1.5 million visitors a year.

Best,

Jan

 

Anne

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 📕Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

On 4 August 1944, after more than two years in hiding, Anne Frank and the other people hiding in “the Secret Annex” in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested.    Anne’s father, Otto, later described the moment.  “I was upstairs with the Van Pels family in Peter’s room, helping him with his schoolwork. Suddenly someone came running up the stairs and then the door opened and there was a man right in front of us with a pistol in his hand. Downstairs they were all gathered. My wife, the children, and the Van Pels family all stood there with their hands up in air.”  The families were sent to concentration camps and by February 1945, Anne was dead.  Only a few months later, the war ended and the concentration camp prisoners were released.  Anne’s father, Otto, was the only survivor.

             📘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”

Anne’s diaries, by a miracle, did survive.  When the family was arrested, the contents of a briefcase were dumped on the floor to make room for seized valuables.   Two employees in the main building retrieved the diaries from the floor and gave them to her father after the war.   Otto was startled by what he read, calling it, “a revelation. There was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.”  This reflected Anne’s own admitted difficulty; she wrote that she struggled to fully express herself within her family.

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📙“I can’t imagine having to live like Mother,
Mrs. van Pels and all the women who go
about their work and are then forgotten.
I need to have something besides a husband
and children to devote myself to! I don’t
want to have lived in vain like most people.”

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📕“I can shake off everything as I write;
my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Anne had little difficulty expressing herself on paper, and it is clear she wrote for a larger audience than herself.  It was her dream to write a book and have it published and she wanted to become a journalist and writer.  Perhaps the years trapped in hiding caused a torrent of feelings to pour out of her through her pen.

📗People can tell you to keep your mouth shut,
but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion.”

Anne’s diary reveals an insightful, confident and direct young woman.   She was honest in her writing , expressing intimate teenage things that women were discouraged from speaking about.  She also wrote outspokenly about ethics and humanity.  These were radical acts that made her an inspiration and a role model for girls.

📘“….  Women should be respected as well! Generally speaking,
men are held in great esteem in all parts of the world, so why
shouldn’t women have their share? Soldiers and war heroes are
honored and commemorated, explorers are granted immortal
fame, martyrs are revered, but how many people look upon
women too as soldiers?…Women, who struggle and suffer pain
to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much
tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those
big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together!”

Anne’s last diary entry was made on Aug. 1, 1944.  But her legacy lives on.  By 1947, knowing she wanted them published, her father had the diaries published.   Through Anne’s diaries, people began to learn about the Second World War and the Holocaust, and they read about how it is to be excluded and persecuted. It was a direct, honest entry into a life of persecution that couldn’t be denied.  Anne Frank is well-known and has become almost a sanctified figure.  Today, several organizations do humanitarian work on her behalf.

📙“I still believe, in spite of everything,
that people are truly good at heart.”

Today, I visited Anne Frank House.  There is such an immediacy about being in the place where these people lived, going from room to room and imagining their constant fear and tension.   Anne and her mother had to constantly admonish her father for not whispering or stepping too heavily lest any of the workers in the warehouse below should hear them.  They imposed a “no plumbing after 8pm” rule.  It is hard to imagine a 14 year old keeping her spirits up for so long under such conditions.   It was impossible to stay cheerful just experiencing it for an hour. Her notes and diaries were here, and her handwriting is so impeccable and mature.  It gave me a chill to know Anne died of typhoid at Auschwitz.  It was so easy for me to visit the travel clinic and get a typhoid shot before I came here.  

Even in her uniquely horrible existence, confined for over two years in the Secret Annex, trapped with her family, this angsty teen found joy in the clear blue sky and reminded us to find our happiness.   Her voice, like a bullet,  direct and piercing, shot over the heads of her oppressors. Through her writing, she revealed the hideous truths of those who voraciously burned books.  She gave girls a voice and inspired women.  She understood the power of the pen, and used it.  And, she was vindicated.  She didn’t want hers to be a life lived in vain – certainly it was not.  In fact, she became one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

I recently read that now, after 70 years in a bank vault, the diary of “the Polish Anne Frank” has been published.   You can click on the link for more info.

Best,

Jan

A’dam

Researching my trip to Central Europe several years ago, I came across the article in the journal Gramaphone U.K., World’s Greatest Orchestras, and resolved that if I ever got to Amsterdam, I would attend a concert by the world’s premier orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

The opportunity finally arrived when I needed a stopover in Europe before the second long flight from Europe to Cape Town.  I had to hope my flights would be on time, since my arrival at Schiphol airport was at 10:05 a.m. and the concert began at 2:15 p.m.   No problem!  Thank you, KLM!!  I even had time for lunch and a glass of wine before the concert, and why not?

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The 1881 concert house has some of the best acoustics in the world.

The program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, with guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev, who, among other things, is the musical director of the Bolshoi Theatre and a Russian specialist, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Beethoven wrote the Fourth during the late summer and fall of 1806, while staying in the palace of Count Franz von Oppersdorff in upper Silesia, to whom it was eventually dedicated.  A critic at the time said,  “the first Allegro is very beautiful, fiery and rich in harmony, and the minuet and trio also have a distinct, original character.”  Later, another critic stated that “there are no words to describe the deep, powerful spirit of this work from his earlier and most beautiful period.”   If you like, listen to an excerpt from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 played by the Concertgebouw orchestra directed by Carlos Kleiber.

That was the starter; now, on to the main course.  Though Shostakovich wrote this piece after the death of Stalin, it is speculated that he conceived of it during the last tyrannical years of Stalin, when, in an atmosphere of fear for one’s life, Shostakovic was heard saying, “even if they chop my hands off, I will continue to compose music – even if I have to hold the pen between my teeth.” The beautiful piece expresses the mood, from dark and dreary to angry (the second movement has 50 crescendos) to ultimately optimistic.  This is an excerpt from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 played by the World No. 2 Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle:

The musicians were so nuanced in their playing and what stood out for me was they were constantly adjusting the volume from very soft and trilling up to very loud but every single instrument played at exactly the same level, it was amazing.  They did a lot of that, too, which was very effective, that may have been the influence of Tugan Sokhiev.   He had his back to us, of course, but at the end of one very heavy duty ending of a movement, he had his arms outstretched and he lowered them very, very  slowly, and you could have heard a pin drop.  At the end of the piece there was a great sudden, great crescendo and a final note that ended abruptly, all the strings played the last note on the upswing and pointed their bows to the sky in a flourish.  It was so dramatic!  Of course the ovations were amazing, Europeans absolutely love and appreciate their musicians.

I fell in love with Amsterdam immediately.  There are bicycles and beautiful separated bike paths everywhere.  The leafy streets are lined with brick townhouses until the road opens up and a magnificent example of modern architecture reveals itself.  

This is my street:

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After a sleepless overnight flight, early to bed tonight in my cosy single room at the gorgeous boutique hotel Bilderberg Jan Luyken (named for the Amsterdam engraving artist), located steps from the concert hall, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.

Best,

Jan