Souvenir shop landscape
My partner had very much wanted to see the fabulous "Late Rembrandt" exhibition, when it was on at the National Gallery, but with one thing and another she managed to miss it. But the show has now shifted to its natural home, the re-opened and renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so what better excuse for a few winter days in one of the more exciting European capitals?
I have been to Amsterdam twice before, but that was back in 1971 and 1974 when the town was in an advanced state of disrepair, and mainly famous for its White Bicycle anarchists, a relaxed attitude to cannabis, and an exotic Red Light district. It was a magnet for the thousands of us seeking the fullest expression of Youth Culture, primarily by getting helplessly intoxicated, and trying to live in a major capital city on a tiny budget, thus becoming vulnerable to the more streetwise and predatory inhabitants, and putting a massive strain on the municipal budget. Amsterdam has been seeking to improve its louche image ever since, and the city I visited this week has been transformed, by and large in a good way, though I doubt my 17-year-old self would agree.
The "Late Rembrandt" exhibition is, indeed, fabulous. Paintings, prints and drawings from collections all over the world have been assembled in what is probably a never-to-be-repeated experience. We had booked our tickets for the second day and, even with time-slot allocation, the inevitable level of interest meant shuffling through crowded galleries with sharp-elbowed scrums forming around the choicer items. It's surprising how competitive the bespectacled classes can be in such circumstances. As it happens, I have a taste for prints and drawings, and these draw rather less attention than the blockbuster self-portraits. Being able to compare four different "states" of the same etching on the same wall -- seeing the masterful additions, subtractions, and rethinkings by flicking your eyes back and forth, as if in one of those "spot the differences" competitions -- was, for me, deeply instructive and rewarding and worth the discomforts and annoyances of the travel several times over.
One of the bad decisions they have made is to allow photography throughout the museum, including the Rembrandt show. Few things are as irritating as an assemblage of fools with iPhones, all attempting to get to the front of a crowd in order to get a clear shot of the same painting; photographs which will inevitably be blurred and worthless (most galleries are dimly lit, for obvious archival reasons). I kept hearing someone muttering, "Buy a fucking postcard, you fucking idiot...", then realised it was me.
Of course, the Rijksmuseum has plenty of early and middle-period Rembrandts, too, hanging in the permanent galleries, not to mention Vermeers and any other Dutch or Flemish artist you have or haven't hear of. I loved the mediaeval galleries: for sheer eye-candy, you can't beat those generally nameless painters of jewel-like altarpieces, full of excruciating martyrdoms and characterful crowds, all evenly lit by the clear blue sky of a summer's afternoon in heaven; not something often encountered in the Low Countries.
Although, the day before, we'd seen plenty of blue skies, not to mention martyrdoms and characterful crowds, when visiting the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum), a brilliant examination of Holland's imperial trading past, with some truly clear-eyed displays about the nature, benefits, tragedies, and mixed legacies of the colonial enterprise. I wish there was something similar in Britain.
Yep, that's "The Night Watch": buy a postcard...