Friday, February 24, 2006

Koorbankjes (Choirstalls)

Duvven & Trekken (day 1).
Prinsengracht (day 2).

I started the next morning at the Van Gogh Museum (they pronounce it more like "faan hoek"). It's a bright, modern museum, with an entire floor dedicated to telling the life story of Van Gogh and displaying his artwork, and another floor displaying work from a broader range of artists, his contemporaries. I learned - or re-learned - many things about Van Gogh's life: how brief his career as an artist (about ten years), that he was self-trained, how young he was when he died. All these things, when you are seeing his artwork, only serve to underline his incredible talent. The man simply did not paint like anyone else, and he developed this style in such a short period of time...

From there, I made my way past the larger-than-life statues of "The Night Watch" (in the Rembrandtplein) up to Museum het Rembrandthuis, a museum all about Rembrandt's daily life, located in a large house which he bought and then had to sell again as he had spent too much money on furnishings, artwork, and curiosities. This museum is a gem. At first, it seems a little dull, as the first few rooms are filled with dark, unimpressive paintings by Rembrandt's students and friends. You do get a peek at interesting customs of the day, such as the tiny box-beds in which people slept. An English-speaking visitor told his wife that the people in the 1600's were so short as to sleep lying down in these beds, but I read later that people slept in a seated position. In any case, the box-beds were found in nearly every room; people did not have separate bedrooms. Guests slept in a drawing room where Rembrandt displayed work for sale, the maid slept in the kitchen, and Rembrandt himself slept in another living room sort of space.

Every half hour or so, a young woman gave a presentation in a small studio about the process of making engravings. She used an original plate to demonstrate the process, explaining, in two languages, the three different methods of engraving and the method of spreading ink on the plate and then cleaning most of it off. The museum has an upper floor dedicated to engravings, with dozens (hundreds?) by Rembrandt and others. The prints themselves weren't all that interesting to me - a few stand out, but there were so many... but the process of making them was quite interesting.

Next, I peeked into Rembrandt's cabinet of curiosities. The man collected everything, from pieces of coral and artifacts from island cultures to marble busts and stuffed lizards. I couldn't find anyone to ask whether these objects were arranged in the same way that Rembrandt had displayed them, but... wow. A little creepy, and extremely cool. (You will have to click on the picture to see it clearly, as it was very dark and I was not allowed to use flash).

Finally, I looked around Rembrandt's large, well-lit studio, where painting materials from the day were displayed. The museum has hired an artist to sit in the studio and paint four replicas of one of Rembrandt's paintings, as an apprentice-painter would have done. The man was dressed in period clothing and peered at Rembrandt's brushstrokes before applying his own, but my favorite moment was when his cellphone rang - and he answered it! I love the juxtaposition of old and new, anachronism within anachronism. I tried to take a picture but he would not hold still during his conversation, and even though there were several other visitors standing around, and he was speaking Dutch, the whole thing felt a bit weird.

The Holland Experience is located right next door to het Rembrandthuis, but the next showing was not for 1 1/2 hours after I left the museum, so I skipped it. This is a true shame, as it apparently includes carefully-timed scents coordinated with the images of typical Holland scenes. My guidebook dismissed it as
a kind of sensory-bombardment movie about the Netherlands, with synchronized smells and a moving floor - not to mention the 3-D glasses. The experience lasts 30 minutes and is (allegedly) popular with young kids.
Which, as far as I was concerned, was reason enough to... see it? do it? The tacky at home is just tacky. Tacky in another land: fabulous. And who knows? Maybe it wouldn't have been tacky at all!

You simply can't do everything. Instead, I wandered around - and around - the Red Light district, searching for Oude Kerk, the old church. So, I got a glimpse of the well-known "window brothels" and lots and lots of neon. Cobblestone and neon, another interesting juxtaposition.

Oude Kerk is a beautiful building, able to impress in the way that only very old, very large churches can. Many of the large stone tiles on the floor are graves, and additional memorials adorn the walls. The ceiling is arched and very beautiful, and the church features three impressive organs. The church was originally Catholic, and was stripped of most of its decoration when Calvinists took over in the 1570's, so much has been lost. Fortunately, the Amsterdammers liked organ music enough that the organs were spared, though used only for secular concerts, not during services. The church is another good example of how every time period makes choices about what to protect. The church as it currently exists is still used for organ concerts and other special events, but seems to be primarily a museum, but for hundreds of years it was an active congregation which added chapels, decorated and re-decorated as suited their needs; I can't help but wonder when the balance shifted from church to museum. It was renovated in the 1950's, and some of the graves examined by archaeologists, which is clearly a different kind of rebuilding than what took place during the hundreds of years preceding. Anyway, the Protestants painted over but did not destroy the artwork on the ceiling (mainly because it was too high!), and left intact the choirstalls, with their carvings representing sayings, like "Money does not fall from one's ass," which seemed self-explanatory to me, but was translated in the guide to mean "Money doesn't grow on trees." Indeed. There's also "sitting between two chairs," showing what happens when one agonizes too much over a choice. (Again, you'll have to click on the pictures to see them properly).

After the Oude Kerk, I spent another half hour wandering around the Red Light district, searching for "Our Lord in the Attic," or the Amstelkring. This is an example of a clandestine Catholic church - housed in the upper stories of a merchant's home, from the time when Catholics were permitted only to worship in secret. Unfortunately, I arrived just 15 minutes before it closed, so I had to race through, but what I saw was beautiful, if a bit gaudy. I can imagine worshippers arriving at the ordinary-looking doorway (so ordinary that I passed it at least twice without seeing it!), then climbing the stairs to the sparkling church with its tiny altar. How precious one's faith must have been at that time!

I walked across town as dusk fell, ate at a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurant, where a red-nosed old man chatted with me about "duck sickness" and whether we have it in the US. I stopped in at Chocolata, a tiny coffeehouse on the Spui, for a strong hot chocolate (though not as strong as I'd hoped), to while away some time. And from there, I went to the Tuschinski movie theater to see Brokeback Mountain. The movie was all right, but the theater itself is fantastic. It's famous for its Art Deco interior, with gilt and brightly colored, handpainted wallpaper, grand stage, and more. Even the bathrooms were enormous, Art Deco lounges, with wooden stalls and black and white patterned tiles. My pictures of the interior did not come out very well, so here are a couple I found on the internet. If I lived in Amsterdam, I think I'd go here for all my movies - and I'd want to sit in one of the "loveseats," couches for two in the back of the theater.


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