Sunday, 28 April 2013

A changing Dutch interior

Still life with asparagus.
The forecast for Friday involved rain, so one of the big set-piece visits of my entire trip – to the newly-re-opened Rijksmuseum – had been scheduled for our last day in Amsterdam.

The mock-gothic building was designed by Pierre Cuypers and originally opened in 1885.

Ten years ago, it was closed for a major refurbishment and redesign, with a limited amount of the collection temporarily housed in a smaller part of the building.

On 13 April, it was finally reopened by Queen Beatrix – her last public engagement before her planned abdication and the inauguration of her son, Willem-Alexander, at the end of this month.

We’d visited before – both prior to the refurbishment was begun and since.

It has a collection of treasures that is always worth taking a look at – and not least of these is the collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, a period that covered the 17th century and came at a time of huge growth for the Netherlands as a whole, in a variety of walks of life.

But the day started with breakfast at Cobra, the café near the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein: coffee and a plate each of poffertjes.

Poffertjes – not health food.
Now, let’s be clear: by no stretch of the imagination could poffertjes ever be described as health food.

These delightful pancake pillows are served warm, drenched in icing sugar and melting butter. And oh, they’re gorgeous.

It was the perfect way to set yourself up for some serious culture vultury.

I had – in a fit of sensible behaviour – booked tickets online beforehand so that we could avoid the queues that were gathering early.

Since the re-opening, the Rijksmuseum is looking as popular as the Louvre – certainly on the basis of the coach parties that are heading to it.

Medieval chalice.
On our first visit, we’d started with the gallery of painting of Dutch naval might. By the time we got to the best stuff, I was both knackered and deeply bored.

Today, the ground floor has, on one side, a collection of medieval art and objects, and the Asian collection. We headed to the former.

This isn’t just a shuffling around of exhibits, but a groundbreaking decision to display objects and paintings and sculpture together.

Apparently there have been complaints – someone wanting to see all the cabinets together, for instance. However, this arrangement gives a far rounder sense of a period than simply seeing things according to individual discipline.

On a personal level, I would probably not, for instance, have gone somewhere to look at bishops’ crosiers, but because they were in a display case in a room with paintings I looked at them, and they added to my knowledge and appreciation and experience.

And that was repeated over and over, in a whole range of periods.

The Annunciation by Tilman Riemenschneider.
If you’d told me, 10-15 years ago, that I’d be interested in matters medieval, I’d have laughed as much as if you’d told me that I’d pay to see a silent film.

The breakthrough was probably a visit to the Louvre a few years ago.

We were among the first through the doors, but the mass rush toward the Mona Lisa sent us scurrying in the opposite direction.

And this led to a magnificent collection, and names such as Rogier van der Weyden that I hadn’t thought of since my days studying art at school.

The Virgin as Mater Doloroso.
And there was hardly anyone else there, making it even more enjoyable.

Last year’s trip to Bruges hardly damaged my interest and, of course, the trip to Lübeck had involved matters medieval.

Here, there was plenty to be astonished by.

The Annunciation by Tilman Riemenschneider in Würzburg (c1485-87) is regarded as unusual because, while it shows Mary receiving the news that she is to bear the Christ child in a subdued, shocked fashion – which seems a tad heretical, to be honest.

The Virgin as Mater Doloroso(1507-10) attributed to Pietro Torrigiano – an Italian who lived in Bruges – struck me as looking particularly naturalistic for its era: it's also an example of the excellent new lighting in the museum.

The Rijksmuseum’s collection has a number of works by Dürer – the first I’d seen ‘in the flesh’, and they are marvellous – and there was plenty more to fascinate.

There were other works that delighted me too. 

The Shop of Bookdealer Pieter Meijer.
The Shop of the Bookdealer Pieter Meijer, by Johannes Jelgerhuis, from 1820, is a delightful take on the Dutch interior.

Parts of a surtout de table, in gilt bronze, made by Karl Friederich Schinkel in 1820-25 for Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia was yet another example of the sort of object that I would not otherwise have gone out of my way to look at had the exhibits been displayed in a more traditional manner.

There were also a number of Adriaen Coorte's still life paintings of food, including Still life with asparagus from 1696.

There were other pictures that featured food too – but we'll look at that another time.

The Other Half particularly wanted to see The Milkmaid again, Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece from around 1658.

This was the juncture at which I got a bit thrusting. Crowds were milling around, shoving; people demanding to have their friends take a picture of them next to X or Y work, and The Other Half was about to turn away.

Surtout – Prussian eagle detail.
I pretty much waded through as gaps fleetingly appeared, summoning him behind until he could get an unobscured view – at least for a few seconds; just long enough to admire the brush work and observe (I’d not noticed it before) the Delft-style tile detail on the skirting board of the room.

But the most important reason of all for another visit – from my perspective – was the chance to view, yet again, some of the extraordinary work of Rembrandt van Rijn.

We barely bothered with The Night Watch: over a decade ago, I sat down on a bench some way back from it, able to get lost in this huge canvas. There was no chance of anything like that on this visit, as a scrum some half a dozen people deep at least had formed at that end of the room.

Is it snobbery to wish that you could have a little more space to be able to view a work?

Just to be clear: I fully believe that culture should be accessible to everybody; not an exclusive thing.

Scrum at The Night Watch.
I also believe that it can enrich lives and teach us all sorts of things. We know, for instance, that teaching children a musical instrument can help them to develop other skills, including concentration – never mind introducing them to aspects of our culture.

But if you’re racing through a gallery or museum, in large parties, squealing and paying little more attention than wanting a tick-box record of your visit on your smartphone, what is the point?

And for clarity, this is not a matter of generations: the problem occurs with people of all ages.

Fortunately, the gallery containing some of Rembrandt’s less well-known works was far less packed, and here you did indeed have time to stand and look and take in what you were seeing – as did other visitors.

Born in 1606 and dead by the end of 1669, Rembrandt produced a staggering body of work in those 63 years.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem.
Two works from that particular gallery stand out for me.

First, there’s the picture of Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, from 1630.

Like so many of Rembrandt’s pictures, the lighting is stunning.

The background is minimal and all the concentration is on the figure of Jeremiah and the treasures that give him no comfort. The detail on the clothing is extraordinary – as is that on the face.

This is not heroic or idealised painting of a Bible scene, but something far more down-to-earth; more recognisably real and human.

The composition, the way the main subject and background create a curve, again takes us away from the formal arrangements of so much that had gone before.

My second pick of the bunch is the Self portrait as the apostle Paul, from 1661.

Self-portrait as the apostle Paul.
The apostle that Rembrandt painted himself as can be identified by the hilt of the sword and the manuscript that the subject/artist is holding in the picture.

But although he painted a number of other people in the guise of Biblical characters, it seems quite an extraordinary act of ego to portray yourself in such a role.

Yet at the same time, the portrait is brutally honest. There is nothing glamorous here – the face is lined, the nose enlarged and with a blackhead visible, the hair grey and disordered.

And look at the eyes – a combination of questions and challenge.

In the 18th century, a taste for Dutch painting was viewed, in England, as being ‘a Whig’ one, and in France it was associated with the Enlightenment and desires for political reform.

William II of the Netherlands.
When you see how Rembrandt painted real human beings – and how others of the age painted scenes from real lives (Vermeer’s Milkmaid is just one example) – then you can see why it became associated with such ideas.

As a slight diversion on this theme, one of the paintings we saw as we wandered around was a very informal picture of William II of the Netherlands  (1792-1849), painted by Jan Adam Kruseman in 1840.

It’s an extraordinarily informal pose when we consider pictures of British monarchs, both then and right up to the present.
This was the Dutch king who, in 1848, saw what the future held as revolutionary turmoil affected the continent – and decided that the best way to avoid such unrest in Amsterdam was to initiate moves to draw up a constitution.

I changed from conservative to liberal in one night,” he apparently said at the time.

In the process, he quite possible saved his own house.

And Beatrix herself seems to continue with that certain relaxation.

A different sort of art – salmon.
In a bookshop window, I spotted this cover. But remove the print and you’re left with an intriguing portrait.

In the light and very limited palette, it could be harking back to Rembrandt. But as with Kruseman’s portrait of her ancestor, she appears relaxed and, in this case, almost shy.

Anyway, that – in a nutshell – was the Rijksmuseum.

Chocolate mousse.
To say that it's worth a visit is an understatement. The refurbishment is a superb job – the building as a whole is now so much lighter and more pleasant to spend time in.

But if you do, then I suggest that you get your ticket online (it doesn't limit you to any one day or time).

Get there for that day's opening and head right to the second floor and The Night Watch before the coach parties arrive. Once you've seen that, then you can take a little more time to wander in the less popular galleries.

We headed back to the hotel, needing food – a late lunch. And finally, the Café Americain properly came up trumps.

Salmon, with a crusty topping, the apparently obligatory trio of cherry tomatoes and a very nice buttery sauce.

It came with more handcut chips and a bowl of salad – and was by far the best thing we’d eaten there during this short stay, and we both followed it with a chocolate mousse that came covered in piped cream that had had a torch passed over it, and sitting in a 'fruits of the forest' compote.

Cheaper when alive (Rodin's Eve next to it)
And very pleasant it was too.

So that was pretty much that for our trip.

Later, we took an evening wander, where we spotted art shops that were selling a real Bruegel, a doubly signed print by Picasso and some bronzes (second castings) of Adam and Eve by Rodin.

Which really rather left me astounded – I always assume that every single such work is already in a museum or gallery – or in a private collection certainly not likely to be spotted in the window of a gallery on a street in Amsterdam.

Or anywhere else I happen to be strolling, for that matter. 

And that’s without mentioning the work by modern, living artists that was also on display in the shops on, some of which was absolutely delightful – and, in one shop, work by living artists had a nice discount.

And then we hit Café Hevel.

But if this trip illustrated one thing, it is that it is a nonsense to claim that Amsterdam is only sex and drugs and that you cannot visit without encountering both.

And as a final note: Eurostar – your food may not be 'disgusting', but Thalys rather left you in the shade on our return. And the fare cost less.

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