Friday, November 06, 2009

Part 8 Van Gogh's Sun and Rembrandts shadow. Amsterdam

I spent an entire week in Amsterdam. In my opinion it is the most Civilized City in the World. They approach life carefully and with a plan. If it's good for business then it's good for Amsterdam. One example: civilized humans have vices, and yes we have religion and laws to squelch these vices, not that these laws and religions removes them, it just drives them into the shadows...However the dutch know that because humans have these needs its better for business to maintain control of these vices, to regulate and tax them to keep the coffers up and make sure the public is safe. Rather then dealing with this Puritan attitude in other countries that treat such 'needs' as evil and whatever happens to the person who chooses to indulge in these needs deserving whatever happens to them or what the Law will allow, the Dutch give it a place, make sure that the pursuit of it is safe and then tax it. Never underestimate the wisdom of a dutch business man.
I arrived In Amsterdam on a bright crisp morning, Via the shuttle train from the airport. I stopped at the tourist assistance office telling them I needed a place that was not expensive and clean to stay. They hooked me up. They also gave me a map, showed where I was on the map, pointed out points of interest in Amsterdam, Pointed out the red light district and warned me of as yet unnamed sickness that seemed to be there (I'm thinking that this was the first time I ran into Aids.) I was given directions to my hotel and set off. The hotel was run by a single man who when he saw my passport nodded and asked if my time in New Guinea was extensive. I said I'd spent almost a year their. He nodded and showed me my room. It was up a very very steep set of stairs. The dutch love these, they take up less floor space. The room was clean, simple, there was a bed, a simple dresser and small table next to the bed with a light, there was a single sky light allowing the maximum of daylight and air to enter the room. Exactly what I needed. I unpacked all my stuff and laid my drawing supplies and my sketchbooks on top of the dresser, grabbing the most recent of them and a couple of pencils. I went downstairs and asked after a decent place to eat. The owner pointed me at a restaurant, and then asked if I might be willing to have dinner with him the next day. I was puzzled at this request. He smiled and stated that he had bought this hotel to meet people from different places and find out about their cultures. I was in the unique position to tell him of places that he had never been but would enjoy hearing about. He suggested a game of chess and some good red wine. I shrugged and said I'd be delighted. I got to the restaurant and had dinner and then wandered around the city center of Amsterdam. The most noticeable things about Amsterdam is that the houses are tall and thin (there is a famous one that is as wide as the doorway.) They take up very little floor space (because this is taxed) however they were between 3 and some 5 stories tall (the air is not taxed) and the town itself is built in concentric rings with roads that join between the rings are canals. This allows transport of goods from one merchant to another or from a merchant to his customer by using the resource of water, a boat can carry tons of material and still be motivated in a direction by a single man or an animal almost effortlessly. I stumbled into the neighborhood that the Anne Frank house was in, walked by the church that she wrote of and sat down to draw it. The bench where I happen to sit was in front of a bar. I wasn't there more then 10 minutes when the proprietor of the bar came out and told me that the bench was for customers. I smiled and nodded and asked if he could bring me a Heineken. He gave a quick smile and a nod and my cold beer was delivered. He watched me draw for a few minutes however he didn't dawdle as his business didn't run itself. I was instructed that as long as I was drinking I could sit there and draw. I drank about 4 beers...nothing like fresh...the brewery was about 5 blocks away.
The next day I retraced my steps and I followed the clearly marked signs to the Anne Frank house. When I got there I was led through the hidden entrance behind the book case and saw the quarters where the Frank and van Pel families hid. I'd have climbed the walls if forced to live there by myself, the idea of sharing the space with 6 other people would have been out of the question, however these people had to do what they had to do to survive. When one reads of the hideous experiences of these people under the regime of the Nazi's, one becomes nauseated. When one becomes aware of their unspeakable fates after they were arrested and sent to the concentration camps one wonders at just how “civilized” man has become since he was in the caves, the power of hate is amazing. I will not dwell here. This tragedy is well documented, it needs nothing from me to add to it save one thing. I stood on the floor that these people stood on and within the walls they hid behind, from the most oppressive organization the world has dealt with in modern times. They were regarded as animals and criminals for no other reason then the name they called the same God who looks down on us all. Pitiful. Pitiful, Pitiful. I feel that this pilgrimage should be made by every civilized person. Think of it as being inoculated against senseless yet highly organized Evil.

The pall that hung over me after this experience became part of me but I moved on to the business that I was there to do. I went into the Rijksmuseum. I was extremely impressed with the stark almost spartan layout of the museum...each object was handled like a jewel, but there was very little ostentation, no superfluous decoration that might mark “the museum” as anything but the practical building that housed these treasures of the Dutch people. One expects to see the Franz Hals, The Rembrandts, and other dutch masterpiece's that we are familiar with, however I wasn't a fan of Still life's till I went into that museum, to list a few:Willem Claesz Heda's “Still life with goblet”, Johannes Torrentius “Still life” and “Still life with Cheeses” by Floris Claesz Dijck. These and others were Amazing and I don't use that word often. These and others challenged the line between the 2 dimensional world of painting and the 3 dimensional world of life. Then there was the landscapes, such as the set of Winter and Summer painted by Jan Van Goyen and the winter scenes painted by Aert Van De Neer and Hendrick Avercamp (I liked this painting so much I bought a poster of it and hung it every home I've had since then). Then there was the “Merry Drinker” by Franz Hals, the body of work by Rembrandt including the night watch...I could go get the picture. It seemed that every time I sat down to work the same two people were in the room along with me, I only noticed this after a while. Finally when I settled in front of “The Threatened Swan” by Jan Asselijn and began to draw. soon I had an audience. This time I confronted them and asked if there was a reason that they were following me. They said they just thought that my work was interesting...I nodded and finished my drawing. I decided that it was time for lunch so I found a local grocery (Located in a below ground level floor of a house) and went in and bought myself some cold cuts, some bread and a beer, and parked near a canal. Soon, the couple that had followed me found me again. They had been looking for me, I made some smartass comment about if this were hide and seek I'd be it. The joke went past them. They wanted to discuss a possible commission. I was surprised, I introduced myself and asked them why they wanted to talk to me about a commission...They said they really like the intensity of my work, the fact that I was quietly vocally critical of myself while I worked and they felt that after our extremely brief conversation in the museum that I was just the guy they were looking for, they were a French couple, I told them I'd just come from Paris and had the time of my life. They were pleased at this so, after a few minutes of conversation I said “...okay, what did you have in mind?” They wanted me to do a portrait of her about 18”x 24”. I shook my head and told them I was unprepared to do a portrait and that I would charge far too much to attempt it here and now. They asked how much that might be...I gave them a figure off the top of my head like $400 American, hoping they would decide that I was a bit rich for their needs, They agreed to my price immediately. I must have looked shocked. They wanted to know if I wanted it in cash...I suggested that if they were to send me some good photo's I'd do it when I got back to the US, (I really wanted to shake these people off) They said that this was agreeable. But they insisted on paying me then. SO, I took their money and gave them the address of my Aunt, [ They indeed did send me the photo's, however they had found this lovely antique silver frame that was about 3”X 5” and drew the inner diameter of it on the letter. The return address was a chateau in the provincial area of France...although their names escape me, The photo's weren't great but I did the best job I could...they wrote me and said the loved it. Easiest money I ever made]. I returned to work at the Rijksmuseum richer then I had been when I left. I returned back to my hotel and had a lovely dinner with the landlord, the conversation centered on my travels and my opinions of the things that I saw and experienced, which for me was sorta odd. I observe and collect information, I don't necessarily enjoy talking about myself and my opinions. However he was kind enough to invite me to declined on a game of chess however I did accept a cigar and a glass of wine and I asked him of Holland and his experiences. I found his conversation to be typical of what I found while I was in Amsterdam. Friendly, guarded, giving you enough info to answer your question but not labor you with unnecessary details. He mentioned that I made quite the impression on the cleaning lady. I assured him I couldn't imagine how since I'd never laid eyes on the woman. He smiled and said that she'd found my sketchbooks on the dresser while cleaning my room that day and had taken the liberty of looking at them. Okay, I wasn't offended, just sort of like having someone find and read a private letter that you wrote to someone else. Nothing in there I was ashamed of but it wasn't meant for public consumption. The landlord assured me she wasn't prying, its just that the top one was opened to one of drawings I'd done in museum of Egyptology and that she felt the need to see more. I asked if he'd like to look, he said he would. So I related my adventures again to him-this time in chapter in verse with Illustrations. Lovely evening, food was pretty good too; simple but wholesome -bachelor cooking doesn't bother bachelor's. I returned to the Rijksmuseum the next day and did more drawing, This place held a major piece to the puzzle that I was assembling in my head. The concepts of Art, the directions of Art, and the flavors of Art.
The day after I spent at the Van Gogh museum right next door to the Rijksmuseum. Where as the Rijksmuseum is this huge imposing castle like structure, the Van Gogh Museum was contemporary with walls of Glass. Fitting, Van Gogh reveled in light. He moved to south of France because of the light. The work was the exact opposite of that I'd found in the Rijksmuseum. The paintings there were a celebration values, of the quiet, the private, the calmness of the mind. Whereas the work of Van Gogh was electric, vibrant, a celebration of color and movement. Even in calm things seemed to vibrate. Their collection of his work is immense, and with what is spread throughout the world the guy was extremely prolific...I think I read somewhere that he averaged a painting every day or two. Unreal. The next day I asked my landlord about a laundromat and the Rembrandt house. He stated that there was a laundromat right across the street from the Rembrandt house. And what a laundromat it was. This is what led me to conclude that Amsterdam was the most civilized city in the world. This laundromat was set up as restaurant/bookstore downstairs and upstairs was the laundromat. You could go in, put your laundry in the wash, order some baked goods, a cup from a varieties of coffee's, grab a book enjoy your breakfast and at the time your second cup was being poured you needed to put your clothes in the dryer. If it was in your tastes you could then enjoy your second cup of coffee with a bowl of hash as long as it was smoked on the premises it was cool with the law, and finish your book. Then should the notion take you you could go to the red light district and shop for the girl of your dreams...they are sitting in store front windows. They also have “clubs” you can go to to meet these girls. These girls have to have a license that they have to carry with them at all times and produce when requested (I found out about all this from my landlord) that they pay for. In order to get one they need a doctor's certificate ( I don't remember if it was bi-monthly or monthly) that must come from the doctor himself (something like a prescription) thus keeping the chance of forgery down to a minimum, and the exam is paid for by the state, thus bribing the doctor was sorta pointless. I did my laundry and had some of the best apple spice cake I've ever eaten with a cup of some Turkish coffee that would polish brass and I read an illustrated copy of the lives of the artists by Vasari. I passed on the Hash (quite regularly while I was there). After I was done at the Rembrandt house I also went window shopping in the red light district. Some fine specimens of femininity there however I took to heart the warning that was given and figured I best leave well enough alone. The Rembrandt house was interesting. Sorta a church to the concept of intaglio printmaking. They had a demonstration plate on how one does an intaglio print, from a drypoint, engraving and etching. An intaglio press was there, set up with the blankets to show how a plate is printed and in the separate rooms was a selection of his prints.
The next day I heard about a private Gallery that was having a show of contemporary Dutch artists. I decided I'd go. I needed to balance out what it was I was seeing as history and the affect it was having. I got terribly lost. I stopped a guy on a bicycle to get directions, after about 10 minutes of trying to explain what I needed to do he just said “I'll take you myself.” I looked at him and the bike...I must have had a look on my face that conveyed the concern I was having. He stood and told me to sit on the seat and keep my feet from getting caught in the wheel. He peddled me back the way I had come and then made a turn I'd missed and delivered me to the front of the Gallery. I assured him how grateful I was to him. He just gave me that famous, ever so slight Dutch smile and said It was his pleasure, that without people like myself coming to visit, Amsterdam would be just another city in Europe. I couldn't agree more. I would be visiting my last capitol the following week and I began to understand some of the “other part” that this journey was supposed to teach me. Cultures might be different but people are about the same.


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