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Thursday, 24 October 2019

Randomness, Toilets and Beer

In 1932 Franklin D Roosevelt came to the conclusion that: ‘this would be a good time for a beer.’ In 2019, and after three days of intensive culture, I reached a similar conclusion but went one step further: a brewery – one, in my opinion, deserving as much time as an art gallery. Chris, a friend we met up with, agreed and took me to the Brouwerij ’tIJ in an obscure but pleasant suburb of Amsterdam. I loved it on sight, the beer even more. So much beer. So little time. And a rash but firm commitment on my part not to get drunk.

What I like about a good pub is the ‘random.’ Random events or conversations at the bar or sometimes the toilet, though the latter can sometimes verge on the dubious. It’s also quite a melancholy business, talking in the toilet, flushing out what you’ve just spent your pension on. Even so, it was in the toilet I enjoyed the classic random conversation, in this case with an American. At first I thought he was Canadian. “No, sir.” he assured me. “Indiana, sir.”
“Oh,” I said. “I know someone from Indiana.” (And no, I didn’t make the cardinal error of asking whether he knew Natalia C. ) “She lives in Zionsville, I think.”
“Zionsville. Hot dog. Zionsville. ” And from that moment we bonded for as long as the conversation lasted, and I remembered again the American fondness for  ‘Sir’. I love its courtesy, its formality, and how the smallest nuance of tone can add an element of threat. 

We talked about beer. He’d been there longer than me and made his recommendations,  adding sir to emphasise the beers he liked best. We never met again and never will but the Brouwerij ’t IJ brewery will forever bring to mind a beer loving American, and a man and a woman passionately making out in the men’s toilet. It was Amsterdam and likely it was cheaper than beer.

And so on to the general and things learnt.

a)    Some people rave on about Dutch Apple Cake. I found it sweet with a slight taste of cinnamon and even less of apple.
b)   The architecture forces you to look to the sky:
 A series of random streets

c)    My first time on a double-decker train.
d)   Trams are punctual to within seconds. They’re unaffected by traffic jams
e)    Dutch toilets are beautifully quiet with paper towels instead of the infernal electric hand-dryers. When four or five are in use together it's like being in the flight path of a Harrier Jet. In Holland you can ponder on what you've just done as you dry your hands. 
f)     The Dutch are very friendly. (When they’re off their bloody bikes)

Friday, 18 October 2019

A Treasure House

And at last, energy renewed, a day at the Rijksmuseum, that fine looking building in the near distance. It exudes late C19th confidence and the entrance hall itself is quite an experience.

I'm a sad little moth to the flame when it comes to stained glass

But where to start? I thought I wanted to see Rembrandt's, the Night Watch of course, but it was the 'Jewish Wedding' picture that grabbed me. 

Ghosts captured on canvas
I loved that hint of tentative affection and trust glimpsed in her hand touching his, the richness and texture of the fabric, the authenticity of face and expression. The silence.

And then of course there's Frans Hals

The Meagre Company
Gorgeously camp and real people, each face commissioned for posterity.

But I became more and more seduced by the unexpected, easily done when you’re as ignorant as me. Mind, I got off to a poor start. 

Winter Scene by Barend Cornelis Koekkoek
I was caught by this picture, it's bleak tranquility,  until an elderly American lady in tweed and pink trousers walked by. ‘Don’t you just hate chocolate box pictures,’ (more order than question) she said to her companion. Abashed, I wandered off in search of a Pollack but found this instead. A furtive glance told me tweed and pink was nowhere about, so that was all right.
The Merry Fiddler
I'd never heard of Gerard van Honthorst before but I have an irresistible urge to clink glasses with this guy as he bursts out of the picture. Honthurst also painted this:
                                                          The Satyr and the  Nymph

 Look at that smile, the proprietorial grasp of his beard. No  #Meto moment here. The Nymph is very definitely leading the lascivious Satyr on, though admittedly he doesn't seem too reluctant.

The Night School by Gerrit Dou

If you can be bothered counting, there are four different light sources in this paining. The School master is wagging his finger at the boy in the darkness (of ignorance) while the dutiful girl is learning her lessons and bathed in wisdom's light. Twas ever thus. 

I came across the most ornate cabinets, the best made by Charles Andre Boulle (one of which has already been incorporated in a forthcoming book)

I've no great love for Napoleon, but that furred robe begs to be stroked - if you're that way inclined.

I was drawn by unexpected faces oozing with character, men like Pieter Groenendijk long since dead but immortalised on canvas by the artist Maes
The perfect teacher's expression. 

In terms of expressive faces, it's hard to beat the Bickers, father and son. The father, Andries Bicker was a man of substance and power who'd made his wealth as a merchant in Russia and trading in spices. He was elected as Mayor of Amsterdam ten times, elected to the States General (Parliament) and served as ambassador to the Scandinavian nations and Poland. When he sat for this portrait, he was the most powerful man in the city. 

In contrast his son, Gerard, is clearly more of an overweight, over-indulged clothes-horse. I enjoyed the sly deadpan last line in the short, information alongside. 'Gerard was not awarded as many key administration positions in Amsterdam. I suspect he might have fared better in today's 'celebrity culture' but then again . . .

And if there was any doubt that this was undoubtedly a man’s world the Regents of the Spinhuis confirms it in spades, their grave expressions, their seriousness, and quiet self importance and all  for the fallen women of Amsterdam. These are the five regents of the werkhuis interrupted by messenger with a letter. The Spinhuis and Nieuwe Werkhuis housed women imprisoned for begging or theft and they spent all the time spinning while these men considered how important they were. How Amsterdam has changed. 

The Regents of the Spinhuis and Nieuwe werkhuis by Karel du Jardin

Friday, 11 October 2019

The Hague, matron to Amsterdam's floozy

The third day, we took the train to the Hague, which is a very fine city, the matron to Amsterdam’s floozy. The government buildings were particularly impressive as were the Mauritshuis museum and another devoted to Escher.

I’m too old to feel shame so I’ll just say it. I went to neither. It put me in mind of a similar experience in America many years ago. After a 36 day tour where I’d tried to do everything, we finally arrived at George Washington’s house. It was too much. I'd had too much. I remember lying on a vivid green lawn staring up at boldest of blue skies and going asleep. It’s my only memory of George Washington’s house, but it’s a pleasant one.

Now, after six hours in the Van Gogh museum, I was similarly galleried out: aching legs and a brain sizzling with sunflowers.

My wife went to the Escher museum, I ambled across to the Mauritshuis, which holds some fine Rembrandts and Vermeers, but instead of going in, I sat outside reading my kindle and listening to tourists.
Inside is a stylish cafe which sells some excellent beer. Rembrandt tomorrow, maybe.

They had cyclists in the Hague, too, but much better dressed ones and far more sedate. Or maybe I was just getting a little more used to them.

We walked about five miles that day passing some pretty intriguing statues like this for example. The statue of Johan Rudolph Thorbecke is a case in point. I was pleased to note that he was the man who drew up the Dutch constitution guaranteeing more religious, personal and political freedom to ordinary citizens. Worthy stuff.  But I was equally intrigued by the other half of the statue showing a woman with erotically crossed legs; well, as erotic as you can be in stainless steel. 

And like Amsterdam, it was packed with beautiful buildings that made you groan to think of the steel and glass monoliths that dominate our present day culture.

The three pictures below are those of the Binnenhof, essentially the seat of Government.

I like the contrast between old and new -  and where the new  has yet to take over
I loved the lavish architecture looming over every shop
A house that caught my fancy
The Noordeinde Palace - one of the three official royal palaces. 

Thursday, 3 October 2019

The van Gogh ear

The Vincent van Gogh Museum 
Close up, it doesn't look particularly attractive but, as part of a whole, it's very effective

And inside, it's stunning

The following day it was the Van Gogh museum where we spent six hours exploring the four floors of paintings. We weren’t completely mad. It also included a one-hour beer break in the café. One thing became obvious. If you decide to save money and not buy into the ‘audio’ tour make full use of the advantage. What we saw were painfully slow bottlenecks of ten to fifteen people blocking pictures and moving to the pace of the audio tour. Far better to make guerrilla attacks in the gaps: those pictures ahead or immediately behind the slow moving tortoise.
It was dizzying to see so much of his work in one place, at the end overwhelming. 

I never realised, for example, he’d done so many self-portraits, nor how little respect he had for his left ear, which may explain why he eventually dispensed with it. This for example. It looks like Mr Potato Head ear, a lurid perfunctory addition to otherwise subtle and beautifully painted face. Little wonder he decided to cut the real thing off; he couldn’t paint the damn thing.

The attendants were pleasant and most of the time unobtrusive, but they enforced one rule with particular vigour. No Photographs! As soon as the ubiquitous iPhone appeared, a fierce and sibilant whisper cut the air like a whiplash: ‘No photographs please.” The please was perfunctory, like  van Gogh’s ears.

As a result the few paintings I’ve posted here, were acquired on line. Two in particular, which I’d never seen before and which I loved.

After which we ate in the 'The Small Talk' sometimes known as the cafe on the corner, where I enjoyed fried chicken livers, bacon and mushrooms and two pints of beer. Culture begins and ends with the stomach; at least it does if you come from Liverpool