Category Archives: Art

Vincent van Gogh’s 400 Days in Amsterdam

If you want a glimpse of Vincent van Gogh while he was still a theology student, and of Amsterdam in the 1870s, this exhibit at the City Archives will enlighten you. The delight of exploring the Eastern Docks where van Gogh lived with his uncle in the Navy is portrayed in some of Vincent’s letters to his faithful brother Theo.  Vincent is a vivid writer who gives a real sense of the bustle on the docks, especially when the floods of workers left the yards for the day, and of the smells and sights of great vessels being built and repaired.

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Photograph of Docks from Amsterdam City Archive

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Admiral de Ruyter from Amsterdam City Archive

Indoors, van Gogh was exposed mostly to naval heroes and religious art, some of which he loved and writes movingly about.  He bought many prints cheaply from his favorite Jewish bookseller, and spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter, as well as visiting the nearby Rijksmuseum, then located in the Trippenhuis.  These artistic interests were in addition to his making the tour of the major churches in Amsterdam, and contrasting the styles of various Protestant preachers.

To pursue his studies, Van Gogh was tutored in Latin and Greek by Dr. M.B. Mendes da Costa, a Portuguese Jewish scholar who lived next to the great synagogue. He wrote about seeing the future painter crossing the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, sometimes with a little bouquet of snowdrops he had picked at a graveyard where he often walked. “These are for you,” van Gogh said, “because you do so much for me.”  After van Gogh’s death, Dr. da Costa wrote a moving reminiscence here.  For me as a student of Jewish Amsterdam, it was especially fascinating to see stereoscopic views of the fishmonger, the Waterlooplein market, and the old market as they were, and to be shown again how integral the Jewish community was to the city.

Back to Amsterdam After Heartbreak   

After a misbegotten love affair with a woman who refused to marry him, van Gogh left Amsterdam for good — except for a return to view the newly built Rijksmuseum.  He went with a friend who left him in front of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride for several hours, then returned to find the painter in exactly the same position, reporting that he’d give ten years of his life to stay right there for a fortnight with a crust of bread.

 

A Tale of Two Photographers

It’s hard to believe that photographers Jacques Henri Lartigue and Francesca Woodman belong to the same human species. You can see their work at an often overlooked Amsterdam museum, FOAM, less than a mile from the Rijksmuseum at Keizersgracht 609.

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It’s in two canal houses which were refashioned completely into galleries with a glass wall at the back looking into the formal garden, worth seeing in itself (though perhaps not in February).

Lartigue’s Colored World   Lartigue, born in 1894, lived a good long life and recorded as close to every delicious moment of it that he could. Beginning at age eight, he took thousands of photographs of his own life. His gaze is always outward, on a luminous world, often of the women he loved most in glowing settings, often with flowers. This show focuses on his less known color work, and presents examples of the journal he kept for 70 years.  Lartigue always noted the weather and the highlights of the day, sometimes including a photograph or two. He didn’t receive recognition for his work until he was in his late sixties, and he was in high demand in his last years as a fashion photographer.

Bibi au Restaurant, from FOAM website                                                Bibi au Restaurant, from FOAM website

 

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976 © Betty and George Woodman from FOAM website

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976
© Betty and George Woodman
from FOAM website

Woodman’s Black and White Self Portraits      Woodman also began making photographs early, at age thirteen. Her enigmatic first self portrait conceals her face under her long hair. She is half turned away from us, but reaching toward us to detonate the camera’s shutter. For all her nude work later, this desire to conceal and reveal, to repel and engage, seems like an undercurrent in her work. When she photographs herself with a nude model rather than alone, his portly jolliness is an almost ridiculous contrast to her intensity. I’m not a sophisticated enough viewer to appreciate all of Woodman’s subtleties, but it’s not hard to see how much she positions herself in decaying environments, and the ramping up of images which include self abuse. Her work was recognized relatively early, including a McDowell residency. Just after it, Woodman ended her life.

These two artists both took their own lives as an important subject, but they were oriented differently in fundamental ways. On the surface, Lartigue worked within his own life, but he looked outward at his lovers and the world; Woodman’s only subject was herself in many iterations. The story has to be much more complicated than that, and one would have to know more to see through the mystery. Perhaps Lartigue was simply born into a happy, privileged Parisian home with good genes, and Woodman suffered disruption every year or two of her early life, perhaps with bad genes. Whatever the reasons may be, one person drank every day to the full, taking his last photo in his eighties, and another jumped off a building at age 22, having hardly tasted life.  It’s worth pondering why, and looking at their work perhaps gives some responses.

 

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.

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First, be honest with yourself.

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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!
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An Art Ritual to Remember Jewish Neighbors

On May 4, the Day of Remembrance of the war dead in the Netherlands, the fourteen huge chestnut trees on the Kastagneplein witnessed a moving secular ritual on a sunny, coolish spring day.

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After attending a related program at the local  library, I stumbled upon what turned out to be a remarkable experience in memory of the 5500 Jewish people who were deported from the six streets leading to the open square of the Kastanjeplein.  From a distance, I saw people sitting at long tables doing some kind of art project in one direction, and piles of suitcases and files in another.  The day was ideal for an outdoor project:  sunny and bright, the chestnut leaves limp with spring, the air cool but not cold.  I approached one of the many volunteers hanging out by the art area and asked her to explain what was happening.

It turns out that the Kastanjeplein is at the heart of what was once the densest population of Jewish people in Amsterdam before the Holocaust.  “We are helping our Jewish neighbors who were murdered come back here, where they belong, to their own streets,” a woman in her twenties explained to me.  “In the center of the square we have made a map on the ground of the six streets where they lived.  Everyone who wants to is making a nameplate for one person, and then they lay it on the map where the person lived.  If you go over to the Archives, they’ll help you find someone.”

IMG_3514So I approached an artistically arranged mountain of antique suitcases and old fashioned file boxes.  Another young volunteer with the demeanor of someone in charge of important information greeted me.  Had I lived in the neighborhood, she would have found someone on my street, and very possibly at my address.  Instead, she assigned me a street that few had chosen earlier, the one which runs along the Oosterpark.  I sat down and read all the names of people who died on that street. It is only a few blocks long, but there were so many:  whole families with several generations, single people, old and young.  An X marked anyone whose nameplate had already been made.  In the end, I chose Flora Nerde-de Levie because her first name was the same as my Great Granny Munroe’s.


Returning to the long tables of art materials, I was struck by the diligence with which people approached their task.  Apart from a little quiet conversation asking for materials or advice, it was a meditative group, perhaps a dozen people at once, and of all ages.  I was moved to see a fully dressed Muslim woman come with her children.  When I chose a fabric with flowers for the background of my sign, a volunteer helped me staple it on.  Now for the name.  I’d assumed that I’d find a straight edge and do it freehand, but this is the Netherlands.  Piles of stencils were available to ensure that the letters were properly shaped, as well as rulers and other tools.

IMG_3512As I, not an artistic person, sketched and measured on paper before transferring the design to cloth, I thought about Flora Nerde-de Levie.  I wondered if the street were as busy then as it is now, how long she survived after the Nazi invasion, what she believed or didn’t believe about her fate.  What did she look like? Did she fit the Nazi stereotype so she was harassed in the streets? How did she feel as she sewed the stars onto her own clothes and perhaps those of her family?  When I had written her name as nicely as I could with the stencils, I colored in some of the flowers, and added some yellow stars around them, trying to represent both the joy in her life and the calamity which ultimately befell her.

The next station was near the archives, a woman standing alone with a kind of drum.  She asked me to close my eyes and think of the person’s name, and to think of her returning home.  She played music that sounded like a rain stick, which helped with the other worldly feeling.  For the first time, I shed tears.  After a few minutes, she directed my attention to the curb around the square.  Every inch at the most, the volunteers had chalked in train tracks, all the way around.  She invited me to follow them to the next stage, retracing the journey the Jewish neighbors had made.  The tracks were marked with each step and the distance:  Muiderpoort (the local station), Westerbork Transit Camp, Sobibor, Auschwitz.  It was chilling.

At the next stage, more suitcases were piled up with papers inside.  A friendly older woman asked if I would like to go ahead and put my nameplate in place, or if I would like to hear a story.  That was an easy choice.  She read me, first in Dutch and then translating into English, a poem by  Mrs. C. van der Hulst, who learns that she is living in a house where Jewish people once lived, and is now doing the same chores, cooking for her children, washing the dishes, and thinking of them.  She lays flowers for them on Remembrance Day.  How completely she expressed my experience, when I began to feel the presence of the people who hid where I lived in 2002, and ultimately gave 12 years of my life to researching and writing a novel about people like them.

IMG_3516Finally, I went to the area where the map was laid out on the stones of the Kastanjeplein, an area at least 10 meters long and three wide.  Among the brightly colored bells, I chose sky blue to ring for Flora, and with help laid her nameplate down on the map, exactly where she lived.  I looked at the others, so many too many of them, beautifully marked by nameplates decorated in every possible way:  elaborate lettering, vines and flowers, geometric patterns, all in the full array of colors, so that what we saw was a collage of LIFE not just of murder and death.  A tall woman with brilliant red hair saw how moved I was.  “There are so many,” I said.  Her answer:  “5500 from just these six streets.  We have to bring them back here, where they belong.”  It still makes me cry.  Surely that is what my work is all about, through every poem I have written on this theme, and through all these years of the work on my novel.  To bring them back, where other people can see and feel them the way I do – even though I never knew them, and this is not my country.  But it is, somehow, my story to tell.  But for an accident of time and space, I would have been their neighbor here in Amsterdam, the city I love..

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The last stage was being presented with a divine cup of herbal tea, in a real teacup, and sitting down for a chat with whoever happened to be there.  In my lucky case, it was Nicoline Snaas, the choir director who planned to have six choirs converging on the square that evening, singing in preparation of the two minutes of silence which happens everywhere in the Netherlands at 8:00 p.m.  Even the trains stop.

 

Nicoline asked me, “What’s your connection to all this?” and I tried to tell her about my great love for this city and how that led to my connected to the people whose descendants should be here, but are not.  Then I walked to the street where Flora Nerden-de Levie once lived.  Along the way, I saw a sign someone had put in their window with the names and birthdays of the Jewish people who lived in their house, and the date they were murdered at Auschwitz.

Oosterpark 13, Flora’s house, had been torn down.

 

Unpacking Kitaj at the Jewish History Museum

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Should I feel abashed that I’d never heard of R.B. Kitaj before today, when I stumbled on an exhibit about him at Amsterdam’s Jewish History Museum?  He was an American who lived mostly in England, making friends with David Hockney, Lucien Freud and other figurative artists whom he dubbed the London School (not original, but it stuck).  This exhibit, titled “Unpacking My Library“, shows his paintings, and prints derived from the covers of books which have inspired him.  What’s he doing in Amsterdam, and at this museum?  Sure, he visited the city a number of times and was influenced by Rembrandt and Van Gogh — but who hasn’t been?  The answer lies in his origins and what he made of them.



R. B. Kitaj was brought up in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio.  His own father disappeared, and his mother remarried an Austrian Jewish refugee who influenced Kitaj deeply.  He went to Vienna to art school, and visited his stepfather’s village.  For the first time, he realized that it didn’t matter whether he felt Jewish or not; he would have been deported and murdered by the Nazis had he been there at the time.  Kitaj then wrestled with Jewish identity, particularly as an artist attempting to express what he called “the condition of Jewishness.”  He read widely and found soulmates among authors, particularly Hannah Arendt, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin.

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When Kitaj and artist Sandra Fisher married, they chose an orthodox synagogue ceremony, surely a statement of how far he had moved from his secular roots.  The event is pictured in one of Kitaj’s most striking paintings from the exhibit, although he never considered it fully finished.

As a person, Kitaj faced some of the worst trials a human being could go through.  Despite numerous accolades (the Royal Academy, prestigious exhibits), his life retrospective at the Tate Gallery was reviled viciously and personally by critics.  Soon thereafter his second wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, died of a brain aneurism.  (His first wife had also died young, of suicide.)  Deep in the study of Jewish mysticism, Kitaj found Sandra again by painting the two of them together again and again.  He moved to Los Angeles and lived out his life near his children, reading and working until the end.

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Through all this, books were great friends, alongside some of the leading artists and writers of his time.  Kitaj lived with Parkinson’s for a few years, but ultimately took his own life in 2007.  He did write two “Diasporist Manifestos” exploring the question of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, particularly for an artist.  Kitaj said, “Diasporism is my mode.  It is the way I do my pictures.  If they mirror my life, these pictures betray confused patterns.”

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The painting to your right, The Jewish Rider, uses a Rembrandt painting of The Polish Rider as a model, and shows a Jewish man who is reading and traveling through the landscape of postwar Europe, with a conductor holding an upraised whip in the background.  This disquieting image comes as close as anything to expressing Kitaj’s ambivalent view of the Jewish artist in our time.

 

Young Rembrandt at Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum’s room on the Young Rembrandt and his time which is as uncrowded as the Late Rembrandt show is mobbed.  Crowds understandably paw their way through to see that special exhibit, as well as the Night Watch and the other Rembrandt masterpieces.  But if you have seen what you want of the “Greatest Hits” in the Gallery of Honor — Rembrandt in his prime, Vermeer, other masters of Dutch painting — you may be ready for a break.IMG_2809

The Young Rembrandt room epitomizes the best of what the museum did during ten years of renovation, giving context for the artist’s life and later work through objects and furnishings as well as paintings.  It’s fascinating to see how innovative he was even as a very young man, painting a self portrait lit from behind among other surprising works.  Looking at his contemporaries shows the class Rembrandt was a part of, so it’s easier to see just what was innovative and exciting about his lighting and choosing of the moment when a story was at its most dramatic.

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While there is much to comment upon in that room, what charmed me most was a portrait of Johannes Lutma, an Amsterdam silversmith, by Jacob Backer, and the objects which accompany it.  His face has such an open quality, and the painting is smooth and serene, the opposite of Hals’ bold brushstrokes.  Lutma clearly preferred a more polished style, both for him and for his wife, whose portrait hangs nearby.

Since portraits were Rembrandt’s bread and butter for years, it’s interesting to notice that, while the accuracy in Backer’s work is admirable and also characteristic of Rembrandt, the depth of emotion that often radiates from Rembrandt’s work does not seem to be there.

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In the adjacent display case, I noticed a silver trowel attributed to Lutma’s.  I was far moreinterested in it than I would have been had I only seen the object on its own, as if a friend of a friend had made it.  Beside it was an engraved gold medal Lutma created for the four children who had important roles in the 1648 laying of the first stone of the Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace thanks to Napoleon, but that’s another story).

To give us a further sense of Rembrandt’s environment as a young man, we see a carved arch from a great canal house, furniture with magnificent inlay of ivory into ebony, a ceremonial silver platter, and a great painting by Van Dyke of the marriage of William and Mary, two children barely touching hands.  On the other side of the room we see her as a widow at age 19, left with only the orange in her hand.  The sense of interconnections in this room is profound.  the more time you spend there, the more you will be spun into the web of the young Rembrandt’s world.

The Stedelijk Museum and WWII

 

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Even if you just went to look at the art, the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibit on its experiences during World War II would be more than worth it:  a Picasso cubist still life, a Matisse odalisque, several Klees, and German Expressionists including Max Beckmann’s famous double portrait with his wife painting in Amsterdam during the war.  But there is so much more to the exhibit than that:  a soul searching examination of the many dimensions of the Museum during the war, beginning with a chronology complete with photographs that show, among other things, Nazi marches right on the Museum Square with the Concertgebouw in the background:

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The Museum supported German immigrant and Jewish artists before and during the war, including commissioning work from them, as well as “degenerate” avant garde artists throughout this period, and immediately after the war.  Curator Willem Sandberg foresaw the need to protect art in wartime when he visited Spain after the German attack on Guernica.  The Stedeljk began construction of a bunker at Castricum in the dunes to stow away treasures even before the Nazi invasion.  Eventually, this bunker held more than 500 collections, both public and private.  Because some of the latter were from Jewish owners, records were deliberately not kept to avoid seizure by Nazi authorities, which led to complex issues of ownership after the war.

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Sandberg concocted an exhibit on “City and Country” so that he could travel on a “study trip” to Germany in 1941 and gather information for the Resistance, as well as commission photographs from independent artists (including Jewish Emmy Andriesse, part of the Underground Camera group) including those of power stations and other potential targets.  This was one of only two propaganda-style exhibits at the Stedelijk during the war.  I should mention that the Museum’s one Jewish employee was dismissed, but over protest.

Because he had helped to organize the March 1943 bombing of the Population Registry (which enabled the Nazis to locate Jewish citizens), Sandberg was on the “wanted” list and had to remain in hiding for the rest of the war.  A respected graphic artist himself, he created a series of books titled “Typographical Experiments.”  This one, with apparently random letters, signifies the names of each of his comrades who were caught and executed by the Nazis.

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Something I learned in researching this post is that the large tiles in the Waterlooplein Metro Station are done in Sandberg’s typography, especially appropriate/ironic since much of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed to build the Metro.

The room devoted to questions of provenance is fascinating — asking which paintings legitimately belong to the Museum and which are in question, which means the case is submitted to a specially appointed body which adjudicates them.  Some of the dossiers are available for Museum visitors to peruse and draw their own conclusions.

IMG_2443Many stories are told in that room, but let one stand for the others.  Here’s a modest but pleasing little painting, Pears Packed in a Glass Preserving Jar, by Sal Meijer.  What’s most unusual about it is a part of a typed label which remains on its back, “Goudst—.”  What does this mean?  Unlike some other significant Jewish art collectors and dealers in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker was a native of that city.  He was among the most important dealers of Old Master paintings between the wars, if not the most important.  He fled Holland by ship to England along with his family just after the Nazi invasion, leaving behind an immense collection of priceless art in his gallery in the care of his employees.  In a ghastly irony, Goudstikker fell on the ship to Liverpool and died of a broken neck.  However, he did have in his possession the notebook in which all of his acquisitions were noted, which became the basis of the biggest effort to recover art by a Dutch Jewish family after the war.

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Within days of the dealer’s death, Hermann Goering and a Nazi banker had managed to pay the gallery employees off.  They acquired virtually the whole collection for a tiny fraction of its value — over the strenuous objections of Goudstikker’s widow.  (The exhibit doesn’t point this out, but restitution of this collection only happened in 2006, after an investigative journalist published a book on the subject and the scandal became ever more public.)  However, research showed that this particular painting was returned to Goudstikker’s widow in a timely way, and she sold it to the Stedelijk Museum, so it was not in the controversial group.

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All in all, this is a sobering but also engaging exhibit that illuminates the many aspects of the museum’s relationship to the occupying power and the situation it created in Amsterdam during the war years.  While I’m sure some people will come forward with other versions of the truth, the Museum deserves credit for putting this information before the public just before the 70th anniversary of Liberation.

 

 

US Video Art in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk

The last place I would have expected to find the advanced video art of San Francisco’s Tony Oursler would be the oldest building in Amsterdam, the Oude Kerk, built in the 13th century.  But maybe that’s the point, and it’s a juxtaposition Amsterdam is famous for, the antique and the utterly contemporary.   I’d gone over to hear the magnificent weekly carillon concert (Tuesdays at 4:00) and noticed the sign.

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Soon, I was in the midst of commissioned work in that spectacular setting, projected right onto the walls.  This piece involved two characters talking, a very straightforward man who was blunt and clear, and this ghostlike figure who clearly wanted to hide.  According to the supporting materials (in Dutch and English), the point of all this is questioning the way technology and especially internet connectivity pervades many people’s lives.  I’m not sure I would have looked at the works as intelligently without that hint, but no matter.  

 

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Older pieces from elsewhere were shown in two side rooms, which were beautiful in themselves, and which I don’t remember being open to the public before.  The contrast with the ultra-modern imagery (not shown here because it didn’t photograph well) was delicious:  two dolls talking glumly to each other, with faces projected onto their stuffed faces.

 

 

My personal favorite of the whole show was a talking worm whose discourse was uproarious, while what I interpreted as wounds appeared and disappeared on its body.  It reminded me of the dreaded internet worm.

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Nearby, two large faces were projected on the stained glass of another time.  For me this was the most enigmatic of the works, but the history of the glass made sense to me.  It was removed during the Nazi Occupation and hidden in Zandvoort in the dunes (how or where the label did not say).  Unfortunately, some pieces were broken anyway, and the shards were all placed in this window, which Oursler uses as a screen.  That part I understand:  the present and its complexities and discourse are always projected onto the shattered remnants of the past, even and especially whatever we have tried to protect.

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By the way:  Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, is buried here, her grave in the floor of the Oude Kerk marked only with her name.  Her husband died a pauper and is interred in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk.

Be prepared:  The women of the world’s oldest profession are on display in windows right by the church.  However you feel about it, don’t be surprised.  And don’t take a photograph.