Category Archives: Architecture

Beating the Crowds at the Rijksmuseum

The crowds at the Rijksmuseum are thick enough to discourage all but the most intrepid lover of art. Fortunately, many rooms await you which most visitors never see.  Just as you can escape the crowds when you go to the beach and walk a mile, you can slip into the hidden corridors of the Rijksmuseum and find wonders.  In the ten year long renovation, the curators had plenty of time to re-think every aspect of presenting and integrating architecture, sculpture, painting, and household objects.  The results are extraordinary.

Rijksmuseum photo

First, be honest with yourself.


How badly do you want to see the Vermeers and 

Rembrandt’s Night Watch?  If the answer is really badly, then buy your tickets on the internet and go before the 9:00 opening.  At 8:00 last week, I was the first person in line. Don’t carry any big bags, don’t check your coat, don’t pee.  If you scroll down on this page, you can download a map so you can plan your route before you get there.  Basically, come through the door, down the stairs and go left through the modern arches where the guards are.  Turn right, go past the multimedia tour (unless you want one), right again, and up more stairs to the actual entrance.  Then follow your map up to the second floor and sprint for the Gallery of Honor.

IMG_3574Apart from that, given that there are more than one hundred rooms packed with treasures, you’ll have to do some picking and choosing.
 You can opt out of making your own choices through the guided tours.  Even so, I encourage you to stroll through every room on the second floor.  This is the heart and soul of the collection, the Golden Age of the 1600s.  Do it in order, which means beginning in the room with the big ship right by the Night Watch.  The crowds will diminish as you keep moving.  Be sure not to miss the view into the Library in the corner, where the smell of old books and sunshine (if any) will flood you with nostalgia if you are over 40 (near room 2.16).  I’ve already rhapsodized about the Young Rembrandt room (2.8).  Avercamp’s famous winter scenes are worth seeing close up, even if you’ve known them in reproductions for years (2.6).  The dolls’ houses made famous by Jessie Burton’s best selling novel The Miniaturist are a fascinating glimpse into 17th century life (2.20).  I could probably recommend something about every single room.  This is where the collection is greatest and fullest.

In general, the farther you are from The Night Watch, the less crowded the museum will be.  On the first floor, devoted to the 18th century, you’ll find two chunks of canal houses which anyone who loves architecture should see.  I haven’t attempted to photograph them because it doesn’t do them justice, but do go to see 1.7, a neoclassical room from Haarlem, and 1.5, an earlier one from Amsterdam.  Both will take your breath away in different ways.  If you like Rococo, there’s tons of it.  Lovers of flower paintings shouldn’t miss 1.8, the earliest works commissioned to sell bulbs which were being developed in the 1700s.  A subject North Americans rarely see treated is the Ottoman Court in the 18th century, with all the different ethnic groups who lived there painted by Vanmour (1.4).  Your education would be incomplete without learning more about the Netherlands Overseas, including seeing the gold-encrusted royal weaponry the Dutch seized and stole in Sri Lanka (1.5), and evidence of the trade in slaves to the Surinamese plantations.

Right where you come in, you’ll find the spectacular Special Collections in the basement. The IMG_3694
ship’s models are to die for, and give you a sense of how the Dutch accumulated all this amazing stuff.  For the ingenious person, there are locks and keys of indescribable intricacy.  There are rooms of china that even a non-china lover would be fascinated by.  You can see the designer clothes left by a woman who had everything in Paris for much of the 20th century, including her lingerie.  For a child with an observant eye, the charms of silver miniatures could provide hours of entertainment.  Not to mention the armor and magic lantern slides!


On the other side of the basement is the medieval and Renaissance art, amazing oak carvings, brilliant reliquaries of various kinds, bejeweled church paraphernalia, ceramics, and paintings you will love if this is one of your favorite periods.  Don’t miss the Fra Angelico even if you don’t like religious painting.   Enjoy the double arches which make you feel that you’re back in that time yourself.  The exquisite new Asiatic Pavilion will give you respite.  

IMG_3689While its collection is not extensive, what is there is presented tranquilly and accessibly, with labels that actually tell you something even if you’re not a specialist.  The first floor is devoted to India, with the “Far East” downstairs.  Like the rest of the museum, seating is sparse, but you won’t be sorry you went.  Once you get deeper into the museum proper, you’ll find the 19th century work which will probably look familiar to you:  the Van Goghs and the depictions of the Amsterdam and countryside that you’ve had a glimpse of.  If you love Mondrian, climb up to the attic to see some fine examples of his usual style, and a superb representational work of a windmill in the moonlight.  If you don’t love Mondrian, skip the 20th century.

If you have a true interest in historic buildings, as a followup (or before you come) you may want to watch a lengthy but fascinating documentary about the ten-year-long renovation completed in 2013.

When you are so dazzled that you have to stop, go outside if it’s a nice day.  The garden to the left as you emerge on the Museumplein side has a delightful fountain that tricks people into going inside, then gushes all around them.  A kiosk provides champagne, juices and snacks, near lots of chairs near and under an enormous tree.  The spectacle of deep dark red tulips is just ending, but plenty more flowers are on the way.  Best of all, you can sit down.  If it’s not a nice day, go to the other side of the garden and eat in the interior Rijks Cafe, or go a little farther on the left and try to glassed in Cobra Cafe.  (There’s usually a line for the cafe inside the museum, and you’re probably ready to be outside.)

By the end of your hours at the Rijksmuseum, be they long or short, you’ll have images of paintings you’ll never forget.  More than that, you will have had an education, thanks to the pithy labeling in a down-to-earth but erudite Dutch voice.  And you will have had the experience the architect Cuypers meant you to have more than one hundred years ago, thanks to the brilliant renovation of the building, and the re-conceptualizing of the exhibits.  Bravo!


The Portuguese Synagogue Lit by Candles

Last night, the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue was lit only by candles for a brilliant concert by the Frans Hals Kwartet, four gifted musicians who met recently at the conservatory.  The Synagogue is a huge subject which I’ll address one day, but for now let’s just stick to the magic of last evening.  There is neither electricity nor heat in the Synagogue, so the woman who sold me the tickets warned me to “dress really warmly, and then add something else after that.”  I wrapped up in a down coat, polarfleece and a turtleneck, wore my hat and gloves and was reasonably comfortable.  These photographs are a very pale imitation of the beauty we saw.

IMG_2406Just like 1675  The Synagogue is enclosed in an outer square of one-storey buildings which house its precious library and exhibits, with small paved courtyard separating the Synagogue from the rest.  We crossed this in a fine rain or thick fog (depending on the moment), and pulled open the high wooden door to enter the immense worship space — perhaps three stories tall, with balconies on either side, the central space held up by immense columns.  Almost all the restoration done since builders finished the Synagogue in 1675 has been maintenance, so the place looks and feels as it did more than 300 years ago.

Brass chandeliers beyond any others   First, I smelled the candles burning, then saw the whole space radiant with a soft light that I’d only sipped at in home environments.


This was candlelight so pervasive, so bright, that you could read by it, see every nuance of the architecture around you.  And raising your eyes to see the candles themselves was another revelation.  The Synagogue’s glory to the Gentile viewer is the 17th century brass chandeliers, the model for others around the world.  They are endlessly elaborate, immense in size (at least 10 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet in diameter at the bottom) and hold 30 candles each.  Because the brass has been polished within an inch of its life, there are hundreds of brilliant surfaces which can reflect the candles when they are lit.  Four of these chandeliers hang in the central part of the Synagogue, plus countless smaller ones everywhere else.  There are even holders for single candles on the columns, standing candelabras here and there, small sets in windows, plus smaller versions of the huge chandeliers under the balconies.

There literally was not a single dark corner in any part of that huge space.  For the hour that the musicians played Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor and then Ravel’s in F Major, we were transfixed — not only by the music itself and its wending path through the range of human feeling, but also by being saturated, probably the first time in our lives, by candlelight.  We all know what a difference a single candle makes.  I can say that when there are hundreds (we stopped calculating at 500), the difference is multiplied by thousands.

If you go    You won’t find these concerts listed in the usual places.  Look here and hope for the best; they only happen about once a month.  Come early to see the candles lit.  We were 15 minutes ahead and it wasn’t enough.  Don’t bother getting tickets in advance; the place is huge.


Free Opera at the Stopera

Every Tuesday from 12:30 to 1:00, you can hear a free concert at the Stopera right on the Amstel River.  It’s a wonderful venue, easily reached by tram or subway, or best of all on foot or by bicycle.


Because folding chairs are set up on the stairs leading down to the main lobby, there’s lots of room — and at worst you can always stand at the back or lean over the open balconies above. So the need to come early and stand outside is less pressing than at the free concerts at the Concertgebouw. The people at the door greet you warmly and provide a printed program, which is much appreciated.

This week was a particular treat: a superb young Dutch soprano, Maartje Rammeloo, accompanied by Nathalie Doucet on piano, doing classic arias from Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti.

The singer appeared in a really stunning gown — strapless midnight blue with a full skirt which set off her substantial height. But it was her voice that really gripped us from the start, effortlessly hitting a wide range of notes at both soft and full volume.  Her ability to go through different feeling states and convey them intensely was remarkable, especially in a recital which involves snippets rather than the buildup to a full aria.  We had the delightful surprise of hearing her husband, Jan-Willem Schaafsma, a fine tenor, assist her in several scenes.  Their canoodling had the feel of true love!

Because the whole curved side of the building is glass, the natural light was excellent, and of course there’s no problem for an operatic soprano to be heard right to the top of the house.  In half an hour, we were transported back through centuries, but also into our own hearts.


Tropenmuseum: Colonial Reflections

Tropenmuseum photo

Although the Tropenmuseum was built in 1926 to exhibit the cultures the Dutch had conquered, often brutally, its purpose now is almost the opposite:  to reflect on colonial history and the paradoxes it entails to this day, and to educate northern people about the world outside Europe and North America.  It’s one of the world’s great ethnographic museums, deeply involved in preserving local cultures.  Its imaginative displays are housed in an absolutely spectacular building.  Even the outside walls deserve study, replete with carvings of peoples from around the world.


You enter a few steps below ground level, and mount a small circular staircase (or lift) into the main exhibit area.  Take a few steps forward, and you’re in a colossal central space with three full storeys of exhibits on broad balconies, in addition to a large area for kids.  The atrium has the grandeur we associate with the Victorian era in England.

As a sampler of the remarkable variety the museum offers, here are a few Tropenmuseum exhibits I’ve seen on two recent visits:

IMG_1796Soulmade:  Jasper Krabbé Meets Tropenmuseum    
A contemporary artist was let loose in the huge storage areas of the museum, and allowed to bring out and group anything he wanted any way he wanted.  He was then commissioned to make paintings in response to those objects, to be exhibited with them.  Nothing is labeled, which makes it much more intriguing.


House in South Turkey

West Asia and the Steppes    Where else could I sit happily in a yurt for 20 minutes and watch three screens’ worth of Central Asian steppes and the people who populate them?  I didn’t understand a word and it made no difference at all.  Apart from that, I was fascinated by the models of houses and villages of people in Islamic West Asia (the so-called “Middle East”).  On the news, we usually hear only about “terrorists” from that part of the world.  A whole section on the three great religions points out their similarities, and the sources of discontent in all directions, not just “us” versus “them.”  Like so many exhibits here, it makes the viewer think and question assumptions.

Grand Parade – a theatrical art installation by Jompet Kuswidananto    
This almost indescribable convergence of life sized figures by a contemporary Indonesian artist brings together a quasi-military parade, a parade of artists and dancers, and a political demonstration – all done with costumes and equipment rather than sculptures of people!  Sounds and movement happen at prescribed times.


Sugar, Slavery and Spices   The exhibits on sugar and slavery, which I’ve visited in the past, are bloodcurdling as well they should be, giving only the facts.  The conquering of the Spice Islands is an especially horrific story.  I’ll never use a nutmeg again without remembering that a virtually whole island population was exterminated to ensure the Dutch monopoly on that product.  The 1,000 survivors of a population of 15,000 were enslaved and forced to work in the nutmeg groves.

The Tropenmuseum is a great place to get an education both about what is priceless about peoples whom Westerners know little about – Latin Americans, Asians, Africans and others – and about the history of our relationship with them and why it is so fraught.  You could spend days there, but you’ll relish even an afternoon.

A Silly but Stunning Opera at the Stopera

Even Rossini didn’t think that “The Voyage to Reims” had much of a future after it was performed four times for the coronation of Charles X of France.  Fortunately, the National Opera of the Netherlands under the direction of Damiano Michieletto thought otherwise, and has turned a silly story with glorious music into an ingenious and even stunning production.  And the setting is glorious, but with a past.


After decades of controversy, the National Opera and Ballet building was built in 1982, combining the City Hall and Opera House in one space.  When construction began, rioters protested many aspects of the building — its cost, its vast size, and the destruction of many medieval landmarks on the site, once inhabited predominantly by Jewish people who died in the Holocaust.  The building was nicknamed the Stopera after the protests, and the name stuck for years.  Now I notice they are rebranding, with National Opera and Ballet in large letters atop the building.  Set right beside the Amstel River across from historic buildings whose reflections glimmer at night, the Opera House was bound to be a striking contrast to its surroundings.


As we approached from the River side, we could peek inside the huge windows to see the sleek interior.  It is definitely in keeping with the Amsterdam tradition of letting in as much pale northern sunlight as possible, and encouraging others to see in.  Even in private homes, curtains are often left open so that people can see indoors.  Coming closer to the building, we began to see more details, including the suspended balconies which all look into the main, immense lobby, providing excellent vantage points to look back out and see up and down the River.


Once we got settled in the red-red second balcony with a program, we grasped the fundamentals of the opera’s plot.  It didn’t take long:  a group of aristocrats are supposed to travel to Reims for the coronation but don’t, and instead entertain each other.  (The first half hour is taken up with a woman throwing a fit because a piece of luggage has been lost, which gives you an idea of the richness of the story’s arc!)

To the extent that we had an image in mind of where aristocrats might disport themselves, it was certainly some pastoral vale gussied up with urns and columns.  Instead, to our delight, the curtain rose on the following:

We were treated to a completely other, surreal experience while Rossini was sung unimpeded:  a gallery opening of “The Golden Lily” and all it takes to put it in place.  It was a romp of brilliant staging, which I won’t spoil for you in case some of you are lucky enough to see it one day.  But if you’d like to see some professional photos and read a proper review, look here.