Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hallowed Halls and Quiet Sidewalks

At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
For over three years, my father-in-law has been planning a all-expense-paid cruise for the family, a cruise which would entail visits in The Netherlands, Ireland, and England. Although I have been a frequent traveler throughout the years--my adventures neatly unfolding between the solid covers of books--I never really ever imagined having anything more than a worn library card. This is one of those gifts that has left me marveling to myself every day, and I think it will for years to come.

In the picture above, taken only a few weeks ago, I am standing in front of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  This gargantuan structure is on par with the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., a beautiful behemoth sprawling with seemingly infinite exhibits. We only saw part of one floor...and we spent nearly the entire day.

It's like walking in the pages of a gigantic art history book, except the reality of what you are seeing keeps stunning you and knocking out your emotional equilibrium. Still-lifes, Biblical scenes, Asian art, vast panoramas of ships and battles, all ranging from the Middle Ages to the late 1800s are displayed, but much of this we didn't see, as there was no time to even stop and pause on those floors.  Our group was on a quest to see the greatest of the great Dutch artists, and so with gusto we bee-lined to the Rembrandts and Vermeers, immediately overwhelmed by the scope and expertise of even supposed 'lesser' painters of their time.

I adore talking about art, about why it can make tears spring to my eyes, about what I learn from it, what I see in it. But how in the world do I talk about the lofty works we saw? I mean, these are works that define an entire culture. They are the totems of Western Civilization.  

Awe, joy, a sense of smallness and even overwhelm, all of these emotions flooded through me as we navigated the crowds in this world-renowned space. I was struck again and again by the 'realness' of the works in front of me, and my mind kept whispering, 'this is the real such-and-such' in order to cut through a continual fog of disbelief.  The real is on a different plane from the photographed or the copy. The real glows and moves and speaks and almost embraces you. It's the closest I can come to magic, how the color pools layered and textured as velvet, and the brushstrokes, made by passionate, worn human hands, speak quiet truths that still are here, after century upon century. Heady stuff. 

'The Milkmaid' Johannes Vermeer, 1657
All of this is beyond the abilities of even the most sophisticated camera lens. Perhaps this is where human inspiration and creativity will always trump technology. It used to drive me crazy how my work seemed somehow drained of life when it was photographed, no matter how many techniques were learned, no matter how advanced the camera or the lighting or even the photographers I sometimes hired. I used to place the photograph next to the work, driven to distraction with how two things could be so similar and yet so intangibly different. But while standing in front of Vermeer's 'The Milkmaid' totally dazzled, I realized that I wasn't alone. Although I have seen this work a thousand times--and perhaps you have too--it was as if I had never seen it before.

The other major museum in Amsterdam we visited was the one dedicated solely to Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is like a demi-god in Holland, his work in a flashy modern complex that draws hundreds of viewers a day--quite the irony when you consider how shunned he was in his lifetime. I'm glad that I had the experience of being there, especially when stumbling upon the display of his grubby, beat-up tubes of paint and palette, a sight that moved me even more than his ecstatic paintings. Perhaps I was so moved by his simple materials, because it really was the most authentic aspect of the place, the most  'vincent' of the entire building--if that makes any sense.The crowds swarming four deep in front of every painting and the eerie almost rock-star promotion of this humble man really got to me. How surreal to see his haunted face printed on tote-bags and tennis shoes, postcards and books and coffee cups, to see his sunflowers blown up into posters the size of billboards. I surprised my husband by asking to leave early. 
Standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh's Childhood Home, Neunen, The Netherlands
However, it was visiting Neunen, his childhood home, that catapulted me into emotional overload. I hid it well behind a broad tourist smile, but visiting this place hit me with an acheing, deeply personal pathos. 

He was really here, and it seemed like you could feel it in the air, in the quiet, cobbled sidewalks where his boots had actually stepped, hear the echoes of his speech in the heavily accented English of the Dutch tour guide. So little has changed in this tucked-away village; even the very trees and town square were once his everyday world, now looked at through another artist's eyes, two hundred years later.
Vincent Van Gogh's studio
It seemed unimaginable that such emotion could come from this forbidding, nearly windowless brick shed that Vincent loosely called his studio. An outbuilding once used to do the family laundry, it seemed to me a place where perhaps the family could scrub away the shame of having such a blazingly unconventional son. So much alienation and resentment must have kept him company on those endless lone walks in the countryside, painting gear heavy on his back. I completely broke down and wept at his father's grave, the cold tearing through my warm jacket, a chill that had nothing to do with the crisp October day.
Humankind will always struggle with worshipping idols, and the arts are not exempt. We have a compulsion to build lavish temples to those who dedicated their lives to something as impractical and necessary as beauty, and we treat what is left behind with truly fanatical care. But it seems to me that the higher and grander we build  monuments, the further we distance ourselves from the energy that resides within the art, and the life that was spent creating it. 

Right now, the painting "The Night Watchmen" by Rembrandt is on display surrounded by scaffolding and a pinnacle of current technology, a scanner that runs back and forth in front of it inch by inch, precisely recording the slightest gradation of color, so that restoration will be done with mathematical accuracy. This painting is now so celebrated it's not only a Dutch work; it's indeed a Dutch identity.  It's easy to forget that it was this painting that began Rembrandt's downfall from fame and led to a tragic bankruptcy from which he never recovered.  It's easy to view the Vermeer works, glowing like jewels under their state-of-the-art track lighting, and forget that Vermeer lived under the charity of his mother-in-law and the oppression of frequent debt. And it's easy to stand in front of a Van Gogh still-life of potatoes, so richly painted and textured that you feel you could reach in and feel their dusty skins, and forget that this might have been all he had to eat that night.

How do we honor great art and still manage to see the sacrifice that lies beneath every brushstroke? That is a question for which I have no answer. 


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