Friday, November 23, 2012

Travelogue 476 – November 23
The Binnenhof

So I'm in Den Haag for the day. It feels like I've made a trip to the big city, though Rotterdam is actually bigger. Maybe because Den Haag is the capital, there is a more cosmopolitan air. And of course, more history. As long as there has been something loosely identifiable as the Netherlands or Holland, there has been a capital of sorts in Den Haag. It was in the middle of the thirteenth century that the Count of Holland, a certain Floris IV, built his mansion next to the Hofvijver pond, setting up the pretty scene that persists to this day.

Den Haag is only a half hour away on the slow train. Though Rotterdam is the port city, it isn't all that close to the North Sea. You have to float west down the Maas some miles to reach the North Sea. But if you travel more directly north, you will pass through Delft and Den Haag, reaching the beach at Scheveningen.

Rotterdam is missing most of its historical center because of the Blitz in 1940, but Den Haag has retained a good portion of its own. The bit I get to see is west of the train station and the modern centrum with its humble but attractive set of highrises. It consists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Grote Kerk, with its high, six-sided bell tower, and the church's environs, narrow streets set with beautiful buildings that date in some cases back to the sixteenth century, leaning, shuttered constructions of brick. Some are newer, maybe even modern nineteenth century. I'm reminded how the mundane, the morning coffee or the afternoon shopping, is enriched by the architecture housing it.

And then there is Count Floris's mansion, expanded and renovated over the centuries, still standing by the Hofviyver pond. This painting of the Hofviyver dates to 1553, and the scene hasn't changed too much. The mansion has become the Binnenhof, the seat of government for all the Netherlands. There are new wings, new buildings, including the famous Knight's Hall, but they essentially line one side of the pond in the same manner, walls flush with the straight side of the pond.

And on the other side of the pond, there is still a humble park, a few gravel lanes under lines of trees. In the middle, there is a statue of old Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, sitting with bronze hand to his heart. One finds this venerable figure sitting with just about the same gravid weight as his huge statue at a critical nexus in Dutch history. He was Land's Advocate for Holland when Holland led the confederation we call the Netherlands, when the Land's Advocate was the strongest official in Holland, stronger even than the Stadtholder. It was becoming a tradition by then for the Stadtholder to be from the family of Oranje. And old Oldenbarnevelt had a formidable political counterweight in Maurits van Nassau.

This was the early seventeenth century, a century that would become Holland's golden age. The Dutch were engaged in a long war of independence with Spain. The Dutch general was Maurits, who, it seems, was the military genius of the age. The Spanish were ready for a truce, and it fell to Mr. van Oldenbarnevelt to negotiate the treaty, and he was in the board room what Maurits was on the battlefield. Holland won the truce on nearly all their own terms.

With no one to fight for twelve years, the Dutch turned upon each other. It seems old van Oldenbarnevelt was an advocate of a strain of Protestantism that takes issue with standard Calvinism, shamelessly flirting with the concept of free will, a sect called Arminianism. The sect has been predetermined to fail. They call for a national synod. Their enemies call for a synod. There are riots. At old van Oldenbarnevelt's urging, the state of Holland arms and declares itself alone and independent in the world, honoring no Dutch brothers. Maurits sighs and stirs from his truce-time repose. No militia opposes him. Van Oldenbarnevelt is arrested, and a year later executed.

Maurits cleans up the house of state, consolidates the power of his house, and he expands the Binnenhof. Centuries later, the old statue of old van Oldenbarnevelt averts its eyes from the mansion that sits ahead, across the peaceful surface of the Hofvijver, as though the statue contemplates the choice God made for the man.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Travelogue 475 – November 20
The Bringer of Light

I discover the Museumpark before I discover the museum itself. I discover the park while exploring the centrum on bicycle. It's just a short ride from home, just past the Erasmus hospital, across the street and down the block from 'Het Park', the patch of green by the river featuring the mouth of the Maas Tunnel. The Museumpark is a pleasant pause in the urban landscape, and for a few days I make a point of drifting through its open spaces on the way downtown. There are rectangular pools of water and a modest canal, and there is a small English garden. A broad, open plein offers plenty of large pieces of sculpture, but without suffocating the spaciousness. There is plenty of room to simply coast on the bike and enjoy.

The museum is the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and it is housed in a humble building on the north side of the park. The central structure dates back to 1935. Both the park and the museum survived the horrific shelling by the Germans in May of 1940. The architecture of the museum is simple. The literature calls it a 'traditionalist design', all dark brick and copper, and topped by a square brick tower with a copper canopy that looks like something Jan Van Eyck might have designed.

Inside, Jan Van Eyck is the flavor of the season, star of a special exhibit, featuring a few key pieces of his from Berlin and Washington and Belgium, and displaying them among contemporaries and immediate precursors. Van Eyck emerges as the genius in the room, of course. I've had occasion to marvel over his work before, particularly at the National Gallery in London, and even more particularly the amazing Arnolfini Portrait, famous for its mirror trick.

Painting in the 1420s and 1430s, Van Eyck was the grandaddy of the Flemish Renaissance. He was court painter to both John of Bavaria and Philip the Good of Burgundy. He became famous in his own time, and yet there is very little that we actually know about him. The man had flair; he had a sense of humor; he had an astounding commitment to detail. Background, foreground, floor, ceiling, hands, face, clothing: there was no part of the canvas that received less than all his skill and attention. He famously signed some of his pieces 'Als ik kan', meaning 'as I can'. Though my weak Dutch may be deceiving me, I sense a wonderful ambiguity there, als implying both 'since' and 'if'. We might have a self-portrait of Ven Eyck in 'Man in a Turban'. But this is about the sum of what we know about the artist. It's disappointing for those who need bio with art. But he lived, and his work survives him. That's quite enough for me as I move slowly through the humming halls of the Boijmans.

The experts tend to link Van Eyck's central achievement to light. There is much more to any one of his works, of course, but it is his sense of light and dimension that seems to separate him from his contemporaries. The International Gothic style so prevalent in his day tends toward the abstract. Figures are elegant. They are symbolic. They float, and the setting or scene is either allegorical or meant to narrate. With Van Eyck, suddenly there is a sun in the sky and air to breathe. Gravity holds the figures to the floor. And humanity appears again in the faces.

One of my favorite pieces of his in the show is his Annunciation. This is a favorite New Testament scene for Renaissance artists: the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her the good news, that she will bear God a son and suffer mightily for it, etc. Van Eyck brings a few twists, some flairs of flamboyance, individuality, and humanity. The first is in the colors, particularly the peacock design in the wings of the angel. This was immodest in his day. He may as well have painted mascara and scarlet fingernail polish on Mary. And there is something to Gabriel's expression that I really enjoy. To my eye, there is a tenderness to the smile that adds so much to the usual impersonal majesty and triumph depicted in this scene, a smile one would share with any expectant mother.

There are many more pieces in the exhibit contributing to context than there are of Van Eyck's. And the context is very interesting, capturing a fragile historical moment in which Northern Europe is transitioning from high medieval culture into something more complex. Particularly intriguing is painting's debt to goldsmithery. It's a period and a culture led by rich royal and aristocratic courts. By and large, art objects are trophies meant to demonstrate wealth. So it's no surprise that the goldsmith's art is the most prized. Painters are led to emulate the effects of the goldsmith's art, laying down lots of gold leaf and then punching and stamping it in imitation of the goldsmith's art. But they went further. At the risk of copyright infringement I will quote the exhibit catalogue: 'Gold and silver were often decorated with enamel, creating brilliant colours as the precious metal shone through the glass. It seems that painters wanted to emulate this effect of enamelling by building up the paint layer in a series of thin, translucent glazes. The technique … used oil as the binding medium.'

Van Eyck eschewed the use of gold leaf, but he did become a master of the new medium, oil paints. So much so that later generations claimed he was the inventor of them. No less an art gossip than Giorgio Vasari recorded that claim in his history. But it isn't true. More proof that a great artist does not need the Moon and Sixpence bio, or need to be an inventor or the first (though in modest ways Mr. Van Eyck was, of course,) in order to be solely what the work makes him: a great.

I emerge from the museum, just the man I was, not so great as Mr. Van Eyck, but inspired and happy. I apply myself to one task that I have a unique gift for, which is coasting on a rickety old bicycle across the open plaza and enjoying the gloomy Dutch afternoon immensely.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Travelogue 474 – November 18
March of the Merch

I blink. I look again. It's true. To the west, there is a break in the clouds. I'm cycling into town on a quiet Sunday morning, and discover this miracle: blue sky, there, along the horizon, out toward the sea. I send a quick message to God, the one I doubt mightily. I say, 'Please, dear God, send that this way.'

And God listens. By mid-morning, the clouds have been pushed inland, and the sun shines. The sun-starved souls of Holland respond immediately, and they are out in mobs, cycling, taking walks. But I find out in the afternoon where to find them in masses.

There's a bookstore on the Lijnbaan, the shopping street, that I enjoy visiting. It's like seeing family. There are three floors with books, and on top of that, two floors of music. There are plenty of English language books and magazines mixed in with the Dutch. I am happy.

I shouldn't call the Lijnbaan a street, by the way, though it does show up on the city map as one. There are no cars, and the length of it has been laid with foot-friendly pavement and reserved solely for the consumer-crazed pedestrian. And on this Sunday afternoon, everyone who fits that profile has descended on the Lijnbaan with his or her family. The place is mobbed. I park my bike, and I wade in.

There is a central plaza to the whole enterprise, right in front of the bookstore. This is a space maybe half the size of a football pitch surrounded by sleek-sided buildings and sleek display windows. There's a massive video screen above us, looping Media Mart's ads for video games. There are no doors to this mega-store, just an alluring escalator leading to initiation in electronic consumer goods. At the base of the escalator is a smaller screen advertising TV sets with advanced functions, the looping video set to the Black-Eyed Peas, the sound of which awakens in me primal revulsion, and never fails to turn my steps away.

In front of the Media Mart, standing alone in the center of the plaza is a large french fry stand. The Dutch are fry-crazy. Families line up, turn over their two-euro coins, and receive a cone full of frites, topped with a heavy dollop of mayonnaise. The adventurous order krokets, a Dutch treat that defies description and all laws of nutrition – just another way to serve deep-fried potato.

People always ask what it's like returning from Ethiopia into shopping environments such as this one. My first answer is that it's been years now of going back and forth. The two worlds co-exist comfortably in my polluted psyche. I have no problems with my bourgeois self, my bourgeois roots. Marx says that puts me just one step from four away from Nirvana. I'd say that's pretty good.

But that said, there's something about the dream of excess – not even the excess itself – that falls flat. When I first arrive in the Netherlands, my focus is on healing the old lungs, and part of that plan is to run lots of miles. I'm drawn to the sport shops. I stop in one, browse, and carry on. Oh, look there's another one. Wait, it's the same chain. I look back, confused. The same store just three hundred meters on. I enter. Yep, all the same stuff. I'm puzzled. Sure enough, another quarter mile on, there it is again.

Stop in the clothing shops. They deploy space as though they sell precious metals. There can't be more than a hundred articles of clothing in the space. These are special items. And, furthermore, they all fall into precisely the same categories and sizes as any other shop along the strip. It's strange. For real shopping pleasure, I prefer the oddball shops on the Nieuwe Binnenweg, where fastidious old Arab women sit behind the counter, watching over veritable piles of cheap and random goods stuffed into deep shelves along the walls. There is real discovery in that kind of shopping.

I have one chink in my cheerful consumer armor. Since Ethiopia, there are certain types of stores that never fail to depress me. I can't tell you why. Those are the big warehouse-style supermarkets and discount stores. There is something about walking down a fifty-meter aisle in an American supermarket, between neat shelves of neatly categorized boxes, set in blocks of uniform color, one food item for ten meters, but offered in a dozen brands, that induces in me a trance of despair.

Out into the sun again. The day advances, and we all know tomorrow will be another story. The toddlers are running beside their mamas and shouting, pointing at the gulls, pointing into the skies.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Travelogue 473 – November 8
The Masses

There is a DJ at the Sijf bar and restaurant. He sits behind the bar, raised above it, almost as though in a pulpit, his equipment suspended in a wooden tray just above an array of glassware. The bar is carved in traditional geometries, the whole of it shaped like a question mark wrapped around the blonde triplets acting as bartenders. I'll have a La Chouffe, please. But I don't bother with words. I tap the tap. She counts my money for me. I can't hear.

Outside is nighttime Jacobusstraat, a tiny stretch of herring-bone brick somewhere off the Lijnbaan, the now dormant shopping district at the center of Rotterdam. (A couple from Hull accosts me this morning in the cafe. They have taken the ferry over for a shopping spree. 'We heard there was a shopping mall around here.' I point out the Lijnbaan. 'Oh, we've been through there!' I laugh. I keep then talking because I'm enjoying their accent and missing England.)

The music swings from old world jazz to summat so modern that the beat makes it utterly anonymous. There is a circling simulation of 70s guitar, but so tightly coiled and repetitive that it is not the 70s. I've just seen a movie meticulously set in the 70s. (Actually 1980.) There is, of course, a certain cult of the 70s among the artistes of the naughts and teens, which I whole-heartedly endorse, having lived through them and hated them.

The DJ has black hair pulled back behind grey jowls, behind nondescript studs in the ears. Skin pallor indicates an absorbing engagement with his art, a thing I support for the evening, that we can all support as a benefit to society. The bags under his eyes might signify taste, even if the music doesn't. In this case, bags and tunes match.

This film by Mr. Affleck is set during the Iranian hostage crisis, an historical set piece I can identify in my own memory, a time of anxiety and of ill omens. The film can be recommended as a piece of art. Mr. Affleck proved himself for me in his last, the one placed in unholy Boston. He matched his achievement here.

He does manage to bring a tear to this dry and jaded eye, though what provokes it is probably not what the director might have expected. It is not the suspense. It is not the trials of victimized countrymen.

The DJ winks. He knows it's in the music. No film moves without its soundtrack, and ine, ik, yo, and io, so far from home for almost a decade now, am vulnerable to the tunes that package the eras of my memory. The DJ's eyelids hang now, weighted with care, weighted with knowledge. It's a priest's life.

No, the real heroes and anti-heroes of the film are not the trapped Americans, who are worthy of sympathy, but never quite become flesh and blood here. The heroes are outside the gate. They are the ones with blood in their veins, the frightening and the frightened. They are those creatures of lore, 'the people': the sad and afflicted, the untamed and the mannered, the ignorant and the impulsive, the aristocrats and the mob, the mistaken and the proudly mistaken, the rude and the gracious, the enraged, the people. They're banging at the gate, and it feels like we have awakened Grendel.

I remember the state of shock, and the sense of fate, during those days of the embassy occupation. My generation was going to be the first to look down the barrel of that gun, the long return and coming ascendancy of the repressed 'Third World' and the fire for retribution that will shine in some of their eyes, a wish to visit the sins of the fathers upon their sons.

The developing world we call it now. It is the center of gravity for the world; it's the mass and the reality enveloping the fringes of world population who call themselves 'consumers' and call their movements history. History for my generation, and a few to come, might just have begun and ended in those fiery events in Teheran.

I've been away too long. I sit in the theatre, among the hyper-developed, and among sons and daughters of Arab immigrants, rooting for the soldiers of the Ayatollah. And that's what I see: I see the world outside the gates, the veiled moms driving jeeps, babies chanting death, men playing cop and judge with knives and guns. I recognize all that; while I see through the cultured interiors of the Canadian embassy, as though they were ghostly visions.

There's a brief sax solo at the end of Bowie's 'Changes', and it seems to provide a nice wrap to my haunted thoughts. The DJ winks again. I raise a finger to my cap, in a mock military salute. Regards from the Great Satan.