Corona reached the Netherlands by the end of February. In the very beginning we weren’t scared, somehow we thought it wouldn’t be like China or Italy. Government said: “don’t shake hands. wash them”. We saw an exhibition in Nunspeet on the 3d of march, another one in The Hage on the 5th and went for a short trip on 10-11 March, visiting the Municipal Museum of Alkmaar and the Westfries Museum of Hoorn. Before that, this year alone, we had been to the Doorwerth Museum Castle, the Singer Museum in Laren and the Fine Art Museum of Ghent. I already reported on the Van Eyck exhibition in the latter museum. Many people were planning to see the exhibition but never had the chance because Belgium suddenly locked down. In the Netherlands also the museums were closed, and they reopened just a few days ago. Some of the exhibitions have been extended and can still be seen, but since corona isn’t gone you have to reserve and the number of visitors is limited. In a sense this may be nice, because the crowds (of old people) were becoming exasperating, sometimes even deadly like the Vermeer exhibition in the Louvre or the Rembrandt-Velázquez in the Rijksmuseum. They had timeslot reservation but allowed too many people. Now we have the 1,5 meter plan, in those days it was 0,0 or less. If older people think like I do they will not be going to any exhibition yet, the risk is too high.
Through this web page I’m showing some of the paintings that struck me during those visits. It seems like a silly thing to do, taking pictures of pictures. Most museums nowadays allow you to take photo’s (no flash, no tripod) and indeed many people do, often with a smartphone. When I was still very young I visited Marrakesh and remember an american tourist who moved around the Jemaa el-Fnaa square with big steps and his camera glued to his face. He wasn’t seeing anything, he was collecting or rather hoarding evidence of his expedition. I imagine he would go home and look at what he might have seen, without the smell of camel dung, the noise of Gnawa and snake charmers and the nagging of street vendors. When I carry my camera I’m looking at the world thinking how I can capture what I’m seeing. I know I can’t, but I do. The three-dimensional experience, the breeze touching the skin, the smells of nature—herbs, flowers, manure, grass—, sneezing pollen, vertigo on the mountain paths, cannot be reduced to a relatively small two-dimensional image with a limited colour space. Drop it, don’t try to capture reality, try to show what you normally won’t see. Transform, metamorphose, reconstruct. Taking pictures of pictures seems like a different activity. Or is it? Long ago a painter friend of mine asked me to make photo’s of her paintings retaining the colours correctly. She knew very well this was impossible, and I guess she mainly wanted to convince me that photography was a hopeless endeavour to create paintings in the age of mechanical reproduction (pace Benjamin). I have also tried my hand at painting and my love of these arts helped me understand the differences and similarities, as well as their interaction.
The paintings in my photo galleries are not faithful repros. The colours don’t come close, they can’t, because of the limitations of the camera sensor, the light in the museum and the screen you are looking at. Western aesthetics has been desperate in its search for verisimilitude, or so it would seem. In painting that was abandoned abruptly with the meteoric developments by Van Gogh and Mondriaan (to highlight some of my compatriots 😃, both of whom wound up elsewhere). In photography there is amazing (and very costly) technology for the calibration of colours and printing systems to come ‘as close as possible to reality’. To sum up the above: be aware that the images you will see are not the real thing. Be aware also that the real thing is a relative if not impossible idea, because the lighting in the museum will already start by changing it. And then there is the frame (pace Bateson). I have removed the frame with rare exceptions. In one of his most famous sunflower paintings Van Gogh let the painting spill over the frame. But in most cases the artist works on a canvas without the frame. The frame transforms the painting, for better or for worse. A wonderful experience of the photographic transformation is zooming in. Art books show unexpected detail by zooming. Video goes even farther, panning and zooming through the painting and making us wandering around as if are there. I’ve not done this here.
The first gallery is from an exhibition called Pictura Veluvensis, images of the Veluwe, a region in the centre-east of the Netherlands. By the end of the 19th century painters in the Netherlands were much inspired by the Barbizon school. Photography had opened up new visions of light and the oil paint tube enabled painters to work outdoors. There were groups of painters in different regions like Drenthe, the Veluwe, Groningen and the coast. You may not know most of them, unfortunately the list of “great” Dutch painters is so impressive that it has become difficult to be noticed. Both the landscapes and life in the countryside were the subjects. There had been a delightful exposition of Drenthe painters in Assen last year, under the significant name “Barbizon of the North”. The same year the Van Gogh museum had hosted incredible exhibitions of Millet, the Barbizon school, Daubigny, Monet and Van Gogh. The exhibition of Veluwe painters was spread over two locations: the Doorwerth Castle (photos at the end of the gallery) on the southern edge of the Veluwe and the North Veluwe Museum in Nunspeet at the northern edge. The painters on display are Gerard Bilders (1838-1865), François ter Meulen (1843-1927), Hendrikus van Ingen (1846-1920), Willem Steelink Jr. (1856-1928), Cornelis Kuypers (1864-1932), Jan van Vuuren (1871-1941), Xeno Münninghoff (1873-1944), Gerard Bergsma (1873-1955), Pieter de Zwart (1880-1967), Jacob van Rossum (1881-1963), Frans Huysmans (1885-1954), Ben Vliegers (1886-1947), Arthur Briët (1867-1939), Antoon Markus (1870-1955). I shall not waste our time by discussing all of them, but I would like to highlight two. First Gerard Bilders, who had been a student of the Swiss painter Charles Humbert and in 1860 he came in contact with painters of the Barbizon school. An exhibition dedicated to him in 1998 was called the Geldersch Barbizon (Gelderland is the province where the Veluwe region is). Bilders died very young of tuberculosis but he has been quite influential. The second painter I really like is Jan van Vuuren, “the painter of the river IJssel”, to whom a museum is dedicated in the lovely town of Hattem. His landscapes, the river and the sky, are splendid, as is the river itself.
Museum of Fine Art, Ghent
We visited Ghent on the 11-12th of February to see the Van Eyck exhibition. But the MSK (Museum voor Schone Kunsten) has more to offer. In my gallery there are paintings by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482), Jeroen Bosch (c.1450-1516), Cornelis Engelbrechtsz 1462-1527), Jan Provoost (1465-1529), Jacob van Oostsanen (1470-1533), Meester van de Magdalene van Mansi (1490-1530), Maarten van Heemskerk (1498-1574), Anonymus XVI cent., Pieter Brueghel de Jonge (1564-1636), Jacques Jordaens (1593-1678), Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637), Peeter Boel (1622-1674), Jean François Daubigny (1817-1878), Alfred Stevens (1823-1906). Most of these early Flemish and Dutch painters, like their Italian colleagues depicted scenes from the Bible. I grew up in a tradition of atheists and have no affinity with spirituality, spiritualism, spiritism or anything of the kind, but I feel that the emotions portrayed in those paintings are independent from religious beliefs. It must be added that I have a reasonably good knowledge of the stories that those paintings tell. I have been in temples in India where the emotion of devotion and religious feeling was so strong that it contaminates even an atheist like myself—mirror neurons at work. I image that in the middle ages and up to the enlightenment perhaps religious fervour might have had such an almost tangible quality. But coming back to the MSK, all those painters, were very competent, whatever the subject matter. I am particularly charmed by Van Oostsanen (slides 5 and 6), who was highly appreciated in his time and a very successful painter-entrepreneur. The MSK also houses more modern painters, of which I chose a Daubigny and a Stevens. Finally, there is an image of the pond in the citadel park, with an interesting sculpture by Jacques de Lalaing (1858–1917). It represents the two rivers Schelde and Leie, whose confluence gives Ghent much of its charm.
Mirror of the Soul, Singer Laren
The Singer museum is one of the best in the Netherlands. On 14th of January it opened a magnificent exhibition called the Mirror of the Soul. There were many paintings from the end of the nineteenth century, but in the gallery I only show works by Matthijs Maris (1839-1917), Jan Toorop (1858-1928), Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig (1866-1915), Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944) and Jan Mankes (1889-1920). The museum page of the exhibition says the following:
Around 1880 the rapid industrialisation of the Netherlands led to material prosperity and an explosive city growth spawned a dynamic urban culture. Yet a number of artists looked beyond the progress of the modern age and attempted to portray the inner life of the individual in their search for spirituality and reflection. Art was to be the mirror of the soul.
Strange, because what was Van Gogh trying to do other than portray the inner life of whatever he painted; a chair, a tree, Lazarus, the potato eaters, and even the potatoes themselves. He was much inspired by Asian, especially Japanese, art. And in Asian arts we often see that not the outer appearance but the inner being is represented. And the best European painters managed to let the inner being transpire in spite of their obsession with outer similarity. I think of Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of the doge. I mention him rather than Titian or Rembrandt, because I think he was the first to achieve this meticulously and even ruthlessly. But Van Gogh dropped the idea to verisimilitude to enhance the expression. Anyway, he influenced many painters. Now one of this lot, Piet Mondriaan, surely went to the edge. We know him from the paintings after world war I: yellow, blue, red | white, black, grey | horizontal, vertical. Abstraction to the limit. Amazing, but hard to imagine anything beyond, in other words, it is like the end of the line. But his work before that shows an extremely sensitive artist—his trees for instance made me understand (and love) the naked trees of winter. Now if you haven’t heard of of Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig I’m not surprised. But Jan Toorop is a painter to reckon with, who, like Picasso, engaged with all fads in painting. And Matthijs Maris, what interesting paintings! In the first, the shepherd is a woman, who carries the lamb-humanity. The second (sorrow) shows a couple, which is supposed to represent marriage, but I see it as a pietà, very much like Michelangelo’s Rondanini version. The Toorop painting of two people sitting in a field exudes misery, as does the Nibbrig travellers on the ferry. Their mood reminds of the Hague School (see the next episode). Finally Jan Mankes’ “Mother”, what a wonder full of mystery. Are the sunflowers and the chair pointing to Van Gogh? Is the lady, the invisible light source and the composition reminding Vermeer? What is the cloth hanging high on the wall?
Breitner vs Israels, Art Museum The Hague
We visited this exhibition on the 3d of March, and corona was already in the Netherlands. However, there was no lockdown and it there were just a few cases in the south. It was very crowded, and as usual mainly with old people like ourselves and older, much older. Some are deaf and are spoken to loudly by companions, others reek of urine and yet others allow saliva to freely emanate from their mouth while they speak and cough. When the famous conductor Jaap van Zweden was asked if he didn’t find it a shame that classical music concerts are attended mainly by the elderly, he answered: “may they also have something to enjoy?” Museums have a similar destiny. There are those that focus mainly on children, which is ok if you are a child (or (grand-)parent), there are those that receive the obnoxious elderly, and there are the empty ones. Normal people have no time to go to the museum. Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother: “you must go to the museum often”, which proves my point.
I’m exaggerating, as you have surmised. But this was one of those exhibitions that really got on our nerves. Breitner (1857-1923) and Israels Jr. (1865-1934) belong to the second generation of the Hague School. They were friends, enemies, rivals. They pushed each other. Be that as it may, I really prefer the first generation: the Mesdags, Mauve, the Marises, Weissenbruch. The founder of the Hague School, Gerard Bilders (see above), found his inspiration in the Barbizon school, and introduced the coloured gray concept. Israels and Breitner intensified this and coloured gray became brown gray. However, the subdued colouration helps to highlight the subject matter, which provides a rich vision of the Netherlands in their time.
Alkmaar and Hoorn
The city museum of Alkmaar is wonderful and it houses wonderful exhibitions. I remember the great Van Oostsanen exhibition in tandem with the historical museum of Amsterdam. But also Ruysdael’s views of the church of Alkmaar and more recently the Toorop dynasty. The Westfries museum of Hoorn is smaller, but they do interesting things, like a virtual reality experience of Batavia in 1627. The museum has the subtitle “the golden age”, an epithet that has become highly debated, especially because of the dutch role in slave trade. That ‘gold’ was stinking, so much so that the Amsterdam Museum banned it on September 12, 2019.
In the Alkmaar museum we saw the collection of Paul Rijkens (1888-1965), a dutch captain of industry. This collection beautifully complements the main collection of the museum about the Bergen School. And unexpected gems: two amazing pieces from the 16th century, a pietà and a Mary Magdalen. Then there are paintings by Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Isaac Israels (1865-1934), Gerrit Willem van Bladeren (1873-1935), Leo Gestel (1881-1941), Jan Sluijters (1881-1957), Willem van den Berg (1886-1970), Matthieu Wiegmann (1886-1971), Toon Kelder (1894-1973). Gestel and Sluijters are my favourites of the Bergen School, and they also went far beyond. The Brabants museum had an enormous exhibition of Sluijters in 2018-19, named the wild years. And wild he was, powerful expression. His classical “Eliza” won the prix de Rome in 1904, in a style reminiscent of Caravaggio. It showed his mastery of the art. Soon after he absorbed influences from most recent currents but integrated them into a strongly unique and individual style.
Finally in Hoorn: Matthias Withoos (1627-1703), Egbert van der Poel (1621-1664) and Cornelis Springer (1817-1891). Names that few people know, but very good—look at the detail of the Withoos!
A final word
This page and its five associated galleries emerged as a recollection of closed museums and their exhibitions in coronial times. However, it became a big project that took a long time, even if they were only from 2020. Museums are open(ing) again and if you hurry you can still most of the exhibitions, apart from Pictura Veluvensis. A pity, because it was wonderful. Anyway, if you are in the risk group like me you may consider not to go, in spite of what Vincent said. I won’t.