written Sunday 5 October 2003
Last weekend I had a nice ride at the north tip of North Holland that I need to write about...but first I'll tell about some other things going on "between rides." Let's start with the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands' national museum. A wonder. Worth the trip.
Half of it is under repair, and after two days I haven't completed the open half. More than meets the eye. Paintings and church interiors are where it's at in Dutch art. No historical powerhouse of literature or music, but the density of talent in painting is just dumbfounding. Painting for various purposes, too. Single, family, and group portraits, landscapes (generally horizontal), church interiors, scenes of home life, often gently satirical. The scale sometimes modest for fireplace mantels, sometimes grand to record victories at sea or groups of men at a specific place and time.
I didn't expect to recognize such similarity between present day views and many paintings' content. The rooflines and canals have changed little in 400 years. And the Dutch still carefully place patches of trees to distract from the otherwise flat horizons here. Church steeples are still made in the odd, dumpy, dunce-cap-on-square-brick-pillar manner (even so, they are landmarks much appreciated by bicyclists). For all the frequency of international intermarriage and other sources of Dutch social change, you can still pick out in the modern Dutch people themselves certain characteristics emphasized in 1600's portraits: the sloppy hair, the weathered skin of those over 30, and that very slight overbite so helpful of speaking the language and so beloved of Dutch cartoonists and TV puppet designers.
The paintings do suggest some modern differences from the past. Everywhere in the 17C and 18C paintings, men and women are writing, printing, reading reading reading. What happened to all that? Where are today's bookstores? Why are the people on KLM flights reading novels and magazines in English? Where are the Dutch novel writers? To this question I've heard that "the small number of Dutch readers doesn't justify such effort, when they all read English anyway" I don't buy it. I have two responses of my own. (1) That sure doesn't stop the French, and (2) If you don't give people a distinct reason to use a language, it is doomed. By strong contrast, the French go far, far out of their way to encourage "Francophonie." OK, yes, the Rijksmuseum is a source of pride in Dutch heritage, but what about the Dutch language? Who is ensuring that the Dutch language doesn't go the way of Occitan, Catalan, Welsh, Corsican, Irish?
I have to say something about the museum visitors, too--Dutch, French and Belgian, English, American, German. First: what is it with the cameras? What exactly is it that people believe they are gaining when they use their little digital camera to snap a Rembrandt? (Besides which, their pictures are all blurred--it's dark, and the museum throws you out for using a flash.) In the time these optical obstacles stand waiting for others to clear a visual path, they could actually be--gasp--looking at the painting. And what is it with the audiocassettes? If one doesn't read Dutch or English, fine, they are probably necessary, but is it really necessary to fall into a collision-prone daze just because you've spent 2 Euros for a hopefully sanitized headset? You can't avoid these people--it's almost as if they hunt you down to crush your feet or knock you down as you--shame on you--try to concentrate on why you bothered to come. These abstracted bumper-tourists are worse than teenage drivers with cell phones, and I can't imagine a worse epithet.
Ahem. It is characteristic that a large number of the paintings serve not to please the viewer, but to record something. Pleasing people is not quite at the core of Dutch existence, but recording things is terribly important to them, and they are good at it. In the Rijksmuseum are paintings of weddings, records of men at work, records of men at work recording things, records of men at work recording the progress of men at work recording things. This all rings true: today, every directional sign on Dutch streets and bike paths carries a serial number and each is on the official maps. Through all the intersections through the entire nation, every individual stop light is numbered. The 1600's scribes who were painted numbering every barrel going into every ship in the East India Company is right in line with the unique serial number printed on every train ticket sold every day in every Dutch train station. It is as though failing to number and record something's existence in an official list actually puts its existence into question. Someday after a couple of Heinekens (I know how to spell that because I have one on the windowsill next to me as I write), I will probably lose my reserve and jump a demolition site's fence, to see for myself if the bricks lying scattered were individually numbered.
Better still--at this moment I search my freshly-emptied Heineken can for...YES!!!--there it is! printed on the bottom: you'll be edified to know that I just finished Heineken can number 31.94528A1403. I am not kidding. And it was yummy.
The more you look into it, the more you fear you could never, ever get to the bottom of Dutch history. A certain painting in the Rijksmuseum "hung in the palace of Soestdijk"--whereas on a bike ride I dismissed Soestdijk as a relatively forgettable suburb of a suburb. Hmm. I read about painters working their wonders in Amersfoort, a small town I know only as a convenient train connection. A large night sea battle at Kijkduin--now a small tourist attraction advertised by a Kilroy-style cartoon character--but in 1673 the Dutch there defeated the combined English and French, an amazing story. It turns out that when the Dutch captured a foreign ship, their sailors and captains were brilliant enough to (within the space of an hour or two) run up and down the ship and learn to operate it and its weapons to support their own navy, in the middle of the night, while the same battle was raging, while people are shooting at you. Hell, 300 years later I know people who can't drive stick shift on a sunny day.
With all the understandable focus on painting at the Rijksmuseum, it would be easy to overlook the historical section. Now I'm not a big fan of 27 different kinds of pikes and the relative merits of various schools of disembowelment, but the small exhibit on ships and shipbuilding off in a corner of the first floor is amazing. Shipbuilding and navigation was the very highest high-tech of its time, the Microsoft of its day. You realize that much of the era's geometry and clock-making and optics were invented in support of ship navigation. You look, for example, at the rope riggings to control the ten or so large sails, and you realize that someone calculated that 12, not 10, ropes were enough at that particular angle on that particular sail; that these ropes but not those needed to be tied together to be safe for a 6 month's voyage where repairs in a storm could cost your life; that these two cannon portals needed to be spaced slightly more than the others to make room for the gangplank. That the shallow Zuider Zee harbors called for two Dutch levels of cannons rather than the English three, but that the shape of the ship's bottom could then be adjusted to steady the ships for more accurate cannonfire on the open seas. The museum's intricate model of a floating shipyard, and real thing had nothing to apologize for compared to an microprocessor factory. The ships' storage vaults were made flexible enough to carry ingots of lead out to Java but barrels of spices back, all cataloged and secured for 6 months' voyage in rolling ships.
When you've emerged from the dark Rijksmuseum, the bright city of Amsterdam around you is more understandable and familiar--and the whole country more impressive. The Netherlands' arts had a stupendously successful start in the 1500s and 1600s, the nation in the 350 years since seems to have been built in the image of those paintings. The rooflines, canal shapes, bridges, living rooms, and parks even today seem to have come out of the strongly rendered images from enormous early talents. In the Netherlands as much as anywhere, I suspect that Art has built Life, rather than the opposite.
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