Jim Conaway is just back from a visit to Amsterdam, where he checked out two current exhibits at the city’s celebrated museums.
In Amsterdam, two unique artists beckon this winter from distinctly different worlds. Anyone passing through Holland, even with just a few hours between connecting flights, should make tracks for both the national Rijksmuseum, and the nearby Van Gogh Museum. And if for some reason Americans miss this opportunity, they’ll get a second chance at these extraordinary shows, as I’ll explain.
The Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1) has mounted its “Little Ice Age” exhibition of 17th-century paintings by Hendrick Avercamp, foremost conjurer with Dutch winter scenes that capture two lost aspects: the costumes and social mores of the time, and the bleak beauty of an icy land that due to global warming is no longer a common reality in the Netherlands.
In the last dozen years the canals of Holland have frozen solid enough for skating only once, last year, releasing a flood of pent-up affection for ice skating and all it stands for in the Dutch past and psyche. Ice skating was a democratic endeavor, like most in Holland, where rich and poor gathered on the same slippery surface to recreate, court, compete, party, show off, and travel. Avercamp captures this appealing Low Country ice-aphilia in nostalgic, haunting detail that appeals even to those who have never even strapped a blade to their feet.
The paintings go beyond a fine reflection of Dutch period life to rope in associations with disappearing landscapes everywhere and so acquire a much broader relevance. Fortunately the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, will bring “Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age”, to the nation’s capital in March, 2010, hence the chance to see it on American turf. Efforts are being made to include actual specimens of the lovely, curvilinear 17th-century ice skates and other related objects, so that immersion in associative childhood dreams – a la Hans Brinker – can be complete.
The other exhibition – “Van Gogh’s Letters: The Artist Speaks” – is also riveting but for very different reasons. Van Gogh of the explosively pigmented landscapes and severed ear is in some way everybody’s favorite artist, if for no other reason than his dedication and tragic end. He painted determinedly without financial success for an entire lonely lifetime, and wrote almost 1,000 letters about every aspect of doing so, largely propelling himself into the annals of original art.
Now the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, Amsterdam) has brought together paintings, including many most Americans have never seen, with relevant letters, all arrayed in a truly breathtaking display. Many of the letters contain, in addition to Van Gogh’s surprisingly concise handwriting, sketches of the places he sought subject matter and comfort, primarily in France, and responses from his beloved brother Theo, the lifelong friend and fellow artist, Emile Bernard, and others.
There are also paintings of Van Gogh by himself at various points in his career, and by painters who include the problematical Paul Gaugin. But it’s the complete presentation of the letters themselves that’s unique, and significant. All of them, with annotation and every conceivable bit of addenda, are newly available in a boxed set available in several languages, done in conjunction with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The English version, published by Thames and Hudson, can provide Van Gogh enthusiasts with unique access to the man and the artist.
For the first time you can focus directly on Van Gogh’s own and his contemporaries’ references to paintings, as well as the paintings themselves, plus every relevant aspect of his life. Further good news is that, even if you can’t afford the hefty price of this seminal opus, you can find it online. Just go to www.vangoghletters.org and watch the screen explode in complementary color and pathos.
Photos: Above, courtesy of the Rijksmuseum; below, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum.