Friday, May 03, 2019

Hermitage

I visited the original Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 2011, and was, like a million tourists before me, overwhelmed by the avalanche of riches in its collection.

But I hadn’t realised that the Hermitage has spawned mini-Hermitages across the planet, the first of which being the one in Amsterdam. 2019 is its 10th birthday, and they are celebrating with what is honestly one of the most wonderful art exhibitions I’ve ever seen.

The Treasury! Exhibition is built around pairings of artworks. Each display featured two different but somehow similar artworks. One pairing was two 16th century paintings of the Madonna with Child, one by a Catholic artist, the other by a Protestant. In light of the different theologies on the divinity of the Madonna, viewers were invited to contemplate how Mary was depicted.

Another featured two warhorses in full armour, one from 3rd century Mongolia and one from 16th century Turkey, and viewers could consider the evolution from simple leather to ornate steel. Other pairings celebrated swans, or St George, or breakfast, inviting viewers to compare and contrast what very different artists wanted to say about the same thing.

This could only have been achieved by an institution as mind-bogglingly wealthy as the Hermitage. Only they can afford to downplay the fact that one of the paired works on the subject of nudes is by Leonardo da Vinci. Oh, and the other one is a Matisse. I also remember my dawning astonishment as I realised that one of a pair of panthers, a football-sized gold 7th century Siberian carving intended to decorate the quiver of an archer, was actually made of solid gold, and was worth millions of dollars just in the metal alone.

But one of the most interesting items, sitting all by itself not paired with anything, was a little carved blob of limestone that looked like a fertility goddess, if you squinted enough. It was fairly unimpressive, until you discover that it’s twenty five thousand years old.

It’s staggering. That’s older than a thousand Justin Beibers… which doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Enlightenment

Rembrandt’s House, our first art gallery for today, is a genteel museum for nice middle-class old people, with free audio guides which explain, in the clear patient tone of professional care workers, who Rembrandt was and how he lived his life.

He lived his life badly, as it turned out, since he declared bankruptcy in middle age and lost his large house to his creditors. The audio guides were far too well-mannered to consider why an enormously successful artist and art dealer might go bankrupt, but his fondness for rare antiquities and the finer things in life (which in the 17th century mainly ran to pineapples, fake marble paneling and leeches) may have had something to do with it.

Once out of Rembrandt’s House, we had a little brunch and then took a wander through Amsterdam’s Botanic Gardens. Both Benny and I appreciated the tropical greenhouse, partly for the rich biodiversity of plant life, but mostly because it was blissful being somewhere warm and humid after days of chilly Dutch weather.







Later, as I was strolling towards the lake, admiring the swathes of flowers and foliage, I noticed a young woman standing on a little bridge, staring out over the water with a sweet, thoughtful expression on her face. For almost a complete second, I thought, “Isn’t it nice that in this age of stupid social media, constant distractions and FOMO, people can still be moved to quiet contemplation by the beauty of nature”. But, after almost a complete second, it seemed to me that something felt off. Then when I glanced around, I noticed her boyfriend standing on the shore a little way off, taking her selfie for her.

She wasn’t moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden. She was playing being moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden for Instagram. I wondered if this was what these people’s lives are like – constantly performing the role of a person living their best life rather than actually being a person living their best life?

A friend of mine who knows a lot of drag queens once told me that the danger of drag is that the drag persona almost always takes over the performer’s life in the long run, because the drag persona is fabulous and fascinating and the ordinary man underneath it is just a normal, comparatively boring person. He becomes a slave to the oversized personality of the drag queen. I wonder if on some level Instagram is just drag for straight women - a scintillating, commanding public face that eventually strips all life and agency from the girl behind it.

I left the girl on the bridge to her profundity cosplay and went off to our final museum for the day; Micropia, the world’s only museum of the microscopic. Every exhibit has microscopes set up to allow patrons to observe algae, tardigrades, mould, eyelash mites and other tiny monsters that cause you to cringe when you realise that there’s hundreds or thousands of them on your skin at this very moment. There are also exhibits demonstrating how bacteria causes both good smells (cheese) and bad smells (sewage), and the role bacteria and viruses play in every aspect of our lives. On a more macro level, there was also a pile of foliage literally seething with leafcutter ants, who were kept in their habitat by a swirling moat – if you’re a little myrmecophobic, as I am, it was grotesquely fascinating.

Poor Benny was menaced by the HIV. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a first for visitors to Amsterdam.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Tropenmuseum

Visit any art or history museum in Amsterdam and you will hear about the Golden Age, a period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Holland’s power and wealth were at their greatest. They are proud of this heritage, and kind of wistful that it’s all over, but, if you dig deeply enough, they acknowledge that all of this power and money had to come from somewhere, and the previous owners probably didn’t give it up without a fight. It was a pretty awesome time to be Dutch… but it was a somewhat less awesome time to be someone who had something that the Dutch wanted.

The tricky business of acknowledging this unpleasantness has fallen to the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s grand museum of multiculturalism. It’s a much better museum than you might expect it to be, given that the phrase “museum of multiculturalism” brings to mind diversely coloured children holding hands and singing stupid hippie folk songs. The Tropenmuseum currently has cutting-edge exhibitions of the Hadj, on the influence of Japanese pop culture on the world, and on the exploitation of children in African coffee plantations. But the core exhibits address the dark history of the Dutch in South East Asia.

The Tropenmuseum used to be called the Colonial Museum, and is housed in a gorgeous 1926 building covered in classical friezes of happy brown people toiling in stylised plantations and paddies, as well as exquisitely carved woodwork on the doors and windows.



The conceit in all of these things is that the Dutch and the Indonesians were partners in this exploitation, and it’s certainly true that Indonesia has influences across Amsterdam. The streets in the suburb where my AirBnB is situated are all named after Indonesian islands – Madurastraat, Balistraat, Javasrtraat, Borneostraat – and there are also some pretty great Indonesian restaurants in the city. However, that probably doesn’t make up for all of the slavery and oppression – the Dutch held on to their slaves right up until 1873, 8 years after the Americans and 40 years after the British.

The Tropenmuseum’s approach to this history is, surprisingly, sort of the opposite of virtue signaling. In Australia, museums approach the sins of the past with great histrionics, if not downright hysterics, about the travesty and tragedy of it all. The Tropenmuseum’s approach is comparatively sanguine. It happened, they seem to say, and we are going to neither sugar coat it or flay ourselves about it.

But then, maybe when you’re an eco-minded marriage-equalising gender-neutralising modern Dutch person, treating the massive atrocities of the past with flat objectivity is the only way to maintain your poise. When screeching fury is the expected response to a misaligned pronoun or a plastic straw, how can you possibly scale that dudgeon up to respond to genocide?

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Reijkmuseum

Sick of spending too much time despising the Dutch, today I threw myself into the cultural life of Amsterdam and started hitting the museums.

Amsterdam has a lot of museums. This is possibly because the Dutch value education and knowledge, but it's probably more to do with their autism-level obsessiveness. Of course there are the expected museums of windmills, tulips, clogs and Anne Franks, but there are also museums of pipes, canals, toilets, funerals, sex, clocks, handbags, diamonds, pianolas, ships in bottles, houseboats… basically if you can obsess about something to the point of being socially awkward, the Dutch have already erected a building to facilitate that.

I started my cultural journey in the Reijkmuseum, the sprawling edifice housing Holland’s vast national collection of pretty much everything. I spent five hours patiently trying to see all of the fine art and sculpture, only to discover a huge gallery full of priceless jewelry, porcelain, glassware and weaponry in the basement on the way out. D'oh!

Occasionally, between sitting to massage my aching feet or leaning against a wall while bemoaning my interest in the finer things, I took a moment to helpfully rename some art.


The Last Supper, Featuring That One Disciple Who Always Focused on the ‘Supper’ Part, Artist Unknown, 1520



Madonna With Child and Seriously Like Her Fifth Mimosa, Artist Unknown, 1350



The Christ Child Three Months After Getting an AbBlaster for Christmas, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, 1528



Okay, Who the Hell Ordered Cow Face?, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, 1530



Bossie, Suspicious of This Whole Jesus Thing, Pieter Aertsen, 1560



Portrait of Clara Billows, Inventor of Farting and Blaming it on The Dog, With Research Assistant, Therese Schwartze, 1879



The Fat White Bastards Who Rule the World and Don’t Care Who Knows It, Govert Flinck, 1645



Portrait of Esmerelda van Lemonsukker, Inventor of Resting Bitch Face, Daniel Vertangen, 1660

Monday, April 29, 2019

Better

My foul mood started to break today, or at least commenced the first hints of a thaw. I discovered that one of the Amsterdam H&Ms was selling a 20 euro tie and pocket square combo I’d admired in a H&M in Italy for 3 euros. There’s nothing like a bargain to improve one’s outlook.

I also remembered that for all the Dutch failings with savoury food, and their indefensible salty licorice, these people do know their way around a pastry. The apple pies that feature in every cafe, as inevitably as croissants in France, are superb. Any country that regards apple pie as a standard breakfast food can’t be all bad.

Just mostly bad.

Benny was happy. But then Benny is always happy. It’s one of the benefits of having a plastic head.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Amsterdamn

I spent the day in a foul mood, thanks to my experiences with Dutch credit card shaming, which coloured my view of these people and reminded me of all of their worst qualities.

They look like giant human dumplings, and dress accordingly. They are stubborn to the point of rudeness. Their language sounds, at best, like someone mockingly pretending to speak Dutch and, at worst, like someone choking on mashed potato. Amsterdam is full of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs, probably because they offer better food than most authentic Dutch restaurants. The coffee is triple of price of that in Italy, and half the quality. They ride around on clapped-out bicycles with a curious upright posture, as if primly judging everyone else as they rattle by. The reason why they invented gay marriage is because two men boinking is the least perverted sexual thing they do. And the only Dutch contribution to the world of hospitality appears to be the Dutch Treat, or the act of inviting someone out for a meal then insisting that they pay for their half of it.

While stewing on all this, I remembered that I know Dutch people back in Australia… and I don’t actually like any of them. They are somehow simultaneously sanctimonious and crude, like someone farting in church then loudly thanking God for the gift of a digestive tract.

You might ask what I am doing in Holland when I can’t stand the Dutch. I’ve asked that question myself.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Bari

The day started on a cruise ship in Bari, on the east coast of Italy. It ended in an AirBnB apartment in the Eastern Docklands precinct of Amsterdam, on the north coast of The Netherlands.

We woke early, just before 7am, as the cruise line had advised us that it wanted us out of our cabin by 7.30am and off their damn ship by 7.45am. And so, naturally, at 8.15am we were sitting in the buffet having breakfast. As I’d realised at the Torre della Ziro, it’s culturally appropriate to ignore the rules of Italian bureaucrats. We reckoned that the worst they could do to us was throw us off their ship, which would have allowed us to skip yet another queue, so frankly we could see an upside to it.

From the ship, we walked up through Bari Old Town, a maze of pale stone buildings reminiscent of Split, and then into Bari New Town, where a dedicated pedestrian mall allows people like me to go all the way to the train station without encountering a car. Except for this one, which was okay by me.



From there, we took a local train to the Bari Airport, then got on a plane belonging to an airline I’d never even heard of to fly to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, a flight of about two and a half hours.

From Schipol Airport, we took the special airport train in to Amsterdam Centraal, then a local train out to Indische Buurt, then walked to our AirBnB and collapsed in a heap.

I rallied long enough to walk to the local supermarket, which after the charmingly haphazard supermarkets of Italy seemed like a bright modern space filled with good food and drink. I bought French wine, pastries, berries, salad and crusty bread, then took it all up to the cashier and whipped out my credit card.

Which was declined.

Not because there was anything wrong with my credit card – it’s still working fine. But apparently Dutch supermarkets don’t take credit cards. It seems that the Dutch regard buying something as basic as food on credit as morally reprehensible, and they won’t be a party to that.

Never mind that I use my credit card as a debit card and haven’t paid a cent of interest in years. Never mind that the rest of the civilised world has accepted credit cards in supermarkets for decades. Never mind that the Dutch supermarkets even have the machines set up at the checkouts, but only for proper Dutch debit cards.

So I had to use about half of my rapidly dwindling reserves of cash to pay for my groceries. Which left a rather sour taste in my mouth, alleviated only by the aforementioned French wine and pastries.