Saturday, February 3, 2007

Artistic Tales: On some Dutch and not so Dutch artists

Of all things in paintings, it is the depiction of light which fascinates me most. How can one look and not be enthralled by the dim glow of light in Rembrandt's shadowed eyes as he stares out at us? Can one actually remain immune to the magic of the subdued indoor light, with a tinge of blue that only European light seems to have, in the Milkmaid by Vermeer? Does not the brilliant glow of the Cafe Terrace at Night, Van Gogh's unforgettable work, make one stare..and stare again? I was lucky enough to see all these artists on a visit to the Netherlands in 2006, and more besides.

In Amsterdam, admirers of Van Gogh's work have a treat, because the Van Gogh museum here has the largest collection of his works. I read Irving Stone's Lust for Life when I was very young, long before I had the pleasure of seeing Van Gogh's work in person. I had seen prints of course, even when I was a school girl. The sunflowers fascinated me; the joy they emanated seemed to contrast deeply with the artist's tragic life. This contrast always left me with this off-center feeling, my balance shaken, my perceptions heightened...and though I do not appreciate all his works, they affect me nonetheless. This museum has a large collection of his works, from his early ones, in browns and greys, to his later works, all colour and swirl, and then to his very last brooding painting. Portraits, landscapes and still life vie with each other for our attention. A very crowded museum though; buy tickets online to bypass the long queues, and try to get in at opening time.

Luckily there was a very interesting special exhibition being hosted in the same museum at the time of our visit : a comparison of the two great baroque masters, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Oh what an exhibition!! Have you seen Rembrandt's early self-portrait, his eyes in shadow, his curls gleaming gold, the light on his cheekbones just so? Or Jeremiah where the prophet mourns the fall of Jerusalem, in a gloom with light shining down only on his lonely figure? Or the myriad shades of brown that he uses in painting his son Tutus as a monk? Rembrandt really was a master of browns...a colour which can quickly reduce a painting to being muddy and dull. Magically, in his hands, they become the most alluring of colours. Have you seen his self-portrait in his fifties as St Paul, his face weathered and wrinkled, his strokes broader and bolder, his eyes gleaming with knowledge? And what of Caravaggio? Have you see the expression in the face of Doubting Thomas, the gleaming armour of the soldiers in the Betrayal of Christ? Or the perfection of the composition of The Supper at Emmaus, Christ's outstretched hand, the hands of one disciple and the elbow of another drawn in perfect perspective, seemingly enclosing the viewer into their circle? How can one see and not be touched, how can one not wonder at the mastery of the artist, not feel a greed to see, and see, and see again? And having seen the two masters together, how can one not feel lucky and blessed to be in their exalted presence? I felt indeed blessed.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a treasure of Dutch artwork. It was undergoing renovation when we visited, with a special exhibition of just the masterpieces. Given our shortage of time, it was in fact a useful way of seeing the best that is on offer. The museum had an interesting range of artwork, including beautiful delft pottery and silverware. But my interest has always been drawings and paintings, so I confess to rushing through the rest. There were more of Rembrandt's work to be see, especially his Night Watch, an impressively large piece of work. The other artists whom I admire are Franz Hals, Nicolaes Maes, Jacob von Ruisdael, Pieter de Hooch, and Jan Steen. But the paintings I swoon over remain those of Vermeer, my very own favourite Dutch Master. And what a master!!! I was very happy to see The Milk Maid, The Little Street and Woman Reading a Letter. I had seen the Love Letter, the fourth Vermeer in their collection, earlier in a visiting exhibition in Melbourne. They are surprisingly small, his paintings, yet they manage to overwhelm one's senses. The Rijksmuseum has an excellent website, with a room by room listing of the best works in the Masterpieces exhibition. Do go and have a browse.

My quest for Vermeers took me to a third museum in Netherlands, the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, housed in a beautiful building. A relatively small collection, it still had some wonderful pieces by some of the artists I have already mentioned. But most importantly, it has the simply glorious Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, as also his beautiful landscape View on Delft and his Diana and her Nymphs. Rembrandt's wonderful The Anatomy Lesson is not to be missed either.

My memories of the Netherlands and of its art are wonderful. I go back frequently to the web sites of the museums, and drool over their treasures. If you are an art aficionado, a trip to these museums will be treat for you, as it was for me.

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