Amsterdam Part II: Insight into two masters of introspection: Van Gogh and Anne Frank
That familiar pang in my legs and feet, pulsing with a heavy burning sensation, is always a good sign at the end of a day spent exploring a new city. It tends to signify a heavy day’s sightseeing and usually a substantial intake of cultural enrichment… Galleries and museums are deceptively exhausting. Why hasn’t anyone invented a gallery on a conveyor belt, whereby the viewer takes a cinema-like reclining seat, and lets the art do the moving? Awaiting this invention, as we must, I nevertheless ensured that my second day in Amsterdam took in the remaining cultural hot points, despite the considerable walking distance between them.
First on the list was the all important Van Gogh museum, which delivered masterpieces aplenty in a purpose built, airy space which more than catered for the influx of visitors present. Oh what a contrast to the last time I saw some of these works, at the Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition, when all semblance of civility was lost somewhere around the Dutch peasant paintings, leading to all out war between Royal Academy Friends and foes alike as we scrambled to peak a view at Van Gogh’s chair or his whimsical poplars, not to mention get within an inch of that all important blood stained last letter to Theo. No, no, here one could more or less flit between paintings without too much fuss, leaving each room fully satisfied by the breadth of work on show, the logical chronological ordering of the works, and the provision of one masterpiece after another: The Potato Eaters, the Yellow House, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Gauguin’s chair, the Sunflowers and so on. I also left a little more informed about his technique. He had not adopted this often clumsy, thickly layered style of painting because of any lack of skill. Rather, he had been heavily influenced by the trends of Paris at that time, where pointillism had taken over from Impressionism, and figurative works were becoming more and more symbolic and abstracted. He was also influenced by Japanese art, with its flat, two dimensional representation and black outlines. By contrast, his first efforts – in which he concentrated on peasant portraits and bucolic landscapes – on the back of an absence of any professional training whatsoever, were really quite impressive. It seems he really did have naturally inherent talent, and plenty of it too.
I was of course thrilled to see the original of The Potato Eaters, which inspired me to paint my own family portrait last year. I was however rather frustrated that the work was displayed behind highly reflective glass which did no service to its dark, muddy shades, which were almost indistinguishable behind the glossy glare. None of the works were in fact that well lit, and the museum ought to take a leaf out of the Musee d’Orsay’s book in Paris, where new lighting set against dark blue walls makes the Van Gogh works glow beautifully.
From one, forever active, always creative but troubled mind, to the youthful introspection of a girl in times of trouble – Anne Frank, whose house, always the site of long spiralling queues, we left until late to avoid the tourist crush. This we did with relative success, waiting only around 5 minutes to enter. Once inside, the excellent fusion of multimedia presentation with the old house still intact made for an effortless narrative, but did rather clog up the small space with tourists, most of whom would stay frozen to the spot until they had heard every word of the various video clips on show. This was particularly prevalent in the small annex itself, where Anne Frank, her family and four friends of the family, we’re hidden away for two years during the Nazi occupation of Holland. There, in tiny rooms and even tinier, almost vertical staircases, the tourist cram was uncomfortable, but served to emphasise how horrifically claustrophobic it must have been for the 8 persecuted Jews hidden away in these rooms without daylight and being unable to make any noise. Being able to walk through these rooms, still dressed in their original decor, Anne’s pictures of hollywood icons and even the British Queen and her sister pasted onto the walls, made for an intense and emotional experience, far more so than in a museum full of facts and figures.
So two of Amsterdam’s great minds have been explored and all that remains is a hot bath to sooth my now fizzing feet, plenty of tea and then dinner. Last night’s dinner, at a romantic art nouveau inspired canal-side brasserie, De Belhamel, was not entirely successful. We were rather pleased, at first, to have been seated up on the mezzanine, with a commanding view over the restaurant and the canal beyond. This advantage soon turned sour when, somewhat topped up with wine, I waved my arm enthusiastically, only to then knock my full wine glass off the edge of the balcony, whereupon it bounced off one railing before shattering, ceremoniously, across the entire ground floor of the restaurant, spraying several tables with its contents. After the crash came the complete shocked silence of the whole restaurant, and suddenly all eyes were on our little table up on the mezzanine. Oh the embarrassment. Oh the mortification. Oh the utmost humiliation. Needless to say, I insouciantly helped myself to more wine before taking a measured but fast retreat from the restaurant. Possibly won’t be returning there in a while.