February 21, 2010

How To Be A Stupid American Tourist and Still Pretend Understand Art (travel writing piece)

As evidenced by my Rijksmuseum pamphlet, which was already sporadically stained with rain droplets due to my close examination of it before I was even close to the museum, I was excited. More excited than I would have ever expected myself to be about a national art museum. I’m usually not very excited by the prospect of art museum filled with art with a mostly historical significance, but I think I could take exception to this in The Netherlands, or for that matter, any country other than the US, where in order for there to be historical art its usually stolen from indigenous peoples.

When I reached the front the Rijksmuseum, I noticed that they had a wonderful exhibit called sunshine that they were showing right outside the doors to get in, which the rest of my snow and sleet filled time in Amsterdam lead me to believe was a pretty rare exhibit. Things got even more interesting when I went inside. The Rijksmuseum has a very modern interior, with fully glass walls and clear spiral staircases and a whole lot of other architecture terms I don’t know. Though only a small portion of the museum was actually open, because they were renovating the rest of it to make it more modern looking. Museums tend to need constant renovation, as to keep the guests from mistaking the museum for an exhibit in itself.

The first series of paintings that really intrigued me was a group of still lifes all in a room together that incorporated the same theme of messy dinner tables, with titles such as Still Life With Turkey Pie and Still Life With Gilded Goblet. The tables were covered with evidence of a night of partying: water jugs, half eaten fruit, ruffled tablecloths, loafed, crumbed, and sliced bread, and empty oyster shells. While to me it seemed me that when the rich threw parties they wanted some way to document how awesome it was so they hired a painter to do so, similar to what a sixteen year old would do with Facebook nowadays. As it turns out, they started out as subtle Calvinist propaganda paintings, symbolizing how the rich were so wasteful, and warning people not to be like that. The oysters were particularly special because they are an aphrodisiac, which means there’s probably some other sinning going on under the table. At a certain point, people stopped caring about the religious meaning of the pictures and just liked them for arts sake. One wonders if this is eventually the case for all Christian propaganda, I for one would love a gallery of “It’s A Child Not A Choice” bumper stickers.

I guess it was the teenage socialist rebel in me that really enjoyed paintings criticzing the rich, which is why I still couldn’t be less enthused by most of the portraits, commissioned by the rich to have done of themselves so that they could show how important they were. What did interest me were the many pictures of a large group of people together. It’s something you rarely see in popular art, and yet very prominent in Dutch art. And while people are rarely smiling when they are alone in a portrait, they seem to always be smiling when surrounded by other people, save paintings of war or religion.

There’s a lot to be said from this about paintings that focus on a large group of people rather than one or two. I would never say that I’m an art expert, but I think I can understand a thing or two about the reflections it can make on a society. There’s a common phrase about how God made the world, but men made Holland. The people of Amsterdam created the titular dam and the centuries old canals by carving them out with their bare hands. There were no construction equipment or bidding contracts, just a village worth of people working their fingers to the bone for no pay just to create a home. Historically speaking, the people of The Netherlands are famous for giving amnesty to the exiled of other countries, and being all inclusive. On top of that, at a time when most other European countries were using monarchy as their form of government, the Dutch were experimenting with a Republic. So in the same way that a portrait of one person is meant to reflect the idea of this person’s importance, when groups of people are painted it is a statement of the importance of each and every one of those people, which explains the popularity of this in Dutch paintings.

Nobody showed this style better than Hendrick Avercamp, the artist of the featured exhibition in the Rijksmuseum. His signature paintings were whole towns worth of people in fantastic winter scenes, most of them skating around on ice. I paused at the first one I saw, simply titled Ice Scene. The scene was extremely calming, which is in part due to the fact that that it was painted with watercolors and every hue of its palate is unabrasive. You wouldn’t realize the beautiful tranquility if you looked at the top of the painting though, it was full of ominous dark clouds, and morose black birds. But focusing down only a few centimeters, the mood changes drastically with a wave of pale blue sky. The rest of the picture, while matching the weather of the clouds, make a classic juxtaposition of them in terms of mood. There have to be fifty people in the picture, most of them gleefully skating, and with every person there is another story to be told. The young couple holding hands, the old man chopping wood, and the small boy trying, and failing, to run across the ice are only a few among the many characters with their own intricate reasons to be doing what they are doing. One could sit for hours looking at each person and trying to know their story, they could come up with a thousand different stories, each of them just as valid as the last; it would take days to just analyze every person in this small part of a Dutch town. Avercamp doesn’t even sign his name, except for in some subtle graffiti carved into the side of the building. It’s so difficult to even find the signature, one is more likely to notice the boy in the picture exposing himself, also carefully hidden. Apart from the saying “jokes based around nudity are timeless”, it is also Avercamp saying his name is no more important than anyone else in the picture, symbolizing quite clearly that the art does not belong to nor represent one person, not even him.

Note: This is the best sized Avercamp I could find, not the one I'm writing about.

When I left the Rijksmuseum, I immediately met up with a group of over eighty people. While it’s true that this was part of procedure because I was with a large class group that had to make sure they didn’t lose anyone, I’m sure it’s something I would have wanted to do anyway. There was a clear message in the art and history of The Netherlands that says happiness is only worth something if it’s being celebrated with other people.

No comments:

Post a Comment