Boijmans van Beuningen

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Paintings of flowers are generally the most approachable works. There is rarely a complex story to read in the details. Instead, the purpose of the work is just an attempt to portray the beauty of the object, the fleeting nature of its existence, or the impression you feel when you observe them. Take for example your average Dutch Golden Age floral painting; it contains exquisitely detailed technique and keen observations, each delicate blossom frozen in time. Or for example, an Impressionist garden or floral scene, the nodding blooms painted with a vibrancy and dynamic quality which mimics the way you observe them. However, today I want to talk about a floral still-life which breaks these notions and instead offers an emotional and deeply complex read : Cineraria in a Flowerpot” (van Gogh), 1886.

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Van Gogh is well known for his emotionally-charged works painted with swift and gestural execution. I used to think that van Gogh painted things without care for their detail or true likeness. If you spend more time with his work, and his biography, you begin to see that van Gogh painted the exact amount of details he wanted you to see, in fact he painted only what was important to the story. Everything else got in the way. Van Gogh was also known for selling only one painting during his life, often relying on his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, for support and sponsorship. His life was often chaotic and unpredictable, due to poverty and mental instability, among other things. So his subjects are not often of the richest variety. They are sometimes sad and lonely, figures and objects in singularity, often rich in meaning parallel to his own life.

“Dirty shoes and roses can both be good in the same way.” – van Gogh

Cineraria, which I got to spend some time with at Boymans van Beuningen gallery in Rotterdam, was painted during a period where van Gogh lived in Paris under the support of his brother, Theo. During times of financial insecurity van Gogh often directed his gaze at cheap still-life objects such as flowers as he could not afford models 1. His focus of floral paintings during this time are partly due to practical aspects, but conversely seen as an attempt to lighten his palatte and his perspective 2. His brother suggested to him he paint something of lively subject and colour ie)the cineraria, to cater to the taste of potential buyers 3. What is different about this work than some of the other floral paintings, is its unnatural and awkward perspective, as if the flowerpot itself is tumbling forward. The colours are very dark and muted, as if to counter your preconceived notion of a flower. The choice of flower itself, the cineraria, a low shrubby plant, lacking ornate or showy qualities. This humble and lowly plant finds no nourishing beam of sunlight, instead is confined to darkness. It fills the frame.. in fact is barely contained by it, which acts to both illustrate the overwhelming importance of the object, and to hint at its unhappy confinement. The muted colours of the plant are tinged with grey and yellow, exemplifying the withering of the plant, his situation and his outlook.

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Continuing the theme, I offer another painting for consideration, “A Pair of Shoes” (van Gogh), 1886 from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. This is another painting which by observing and painting a simple object but choosing which details to concentrate on, gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the underlying story of the work. Van Gogh bought the pair of work boots at a flea market in Paris, possibly because he needed shoes, but I lean toward the more romantic notion that he just liked the impression he was given by them. Plus they didn’t fit him at all. “He wore the boots on an extended rainy walk to create the effect he wished for this painting” 4 and afterwards used them only as a prop.

The shoes are unlaced, the right shoe flopped open as if they were just removed. They exist in a timeless and uncertain space, as if to imply they could belong to anyone. The shoes, worn with age and use, tarnished with mud, sigh quietly as they are discarded from the tired feet of some faceless workman. They represent age, and fatigue, but also the wilting away of life and mental vitality. The painting is both a tribute and a dirge to the working man. As with the cineraria, the painting could also be symbolic for Van Gogh’s “difficult passage through life” 5.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself. 6

1 http://tour.boijmans.nl/en/113/

2 http://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gogh_van/05/flower06.html

3 http://collectie.boijmans.nl/en/collection/st-92

4, 5 http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl

6 The Origin of the Work of Art (1935): Martin Heidegger

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pluie à rotterdam

Sometimes you go on vacation for so long it becomes very regular, like home. You grocery shop at your regular store, you work, you go out sometimes with friends. So sometimes you need a vacation.. from your vacation. The nice thing about being in Europe is the ability to hop a train for a modest fare and end up two countries over, two hours later. So it is with the Netherlands, my most cherished vacation spot, a place a few years ago I thought I would never go and now have gone twice.

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Gare du Nord

It calls my name, equally nice in the fall as it is in early summer. The clean air North Sea air breezes through town as the easy going locals zip by on bicycles usually with a partner hitching a ride sidesaddle on the back. Many a kind and smiling face greeting me around town, the gentle tune of the melodic Hague church bells like a pleasant memory floating through the air to greet me through the patches of ever-drizzling rain. I don’t think it stopped raining the whole weekend, though my spirits couldn’t be dampened. We hopped over just for the weekend so say hello again, snack on street food and acquaint ourselves with the newly re-opened Mauritshuis museum in den Haag.

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Den Haag Centraal

I was tempted to see the collection last year as it toured while the museum was under renovation. The closest stop was New York and it was a very tempting 12 hours away, though I’m glad I didn’t because getting to see the works in the new space was a real treat. The Royal collection is small, compared to the massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris, and is housed in a 17th century residence, now owned by the government of the Netherlands. The museum houses a stellar collection of paintings, mostly Dutch Golden Age, including some very famous favourites such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Fabritius’ Goldfinch.

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Het meisje met de parel (Vermeer) 1665

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) 1632

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The Goldfinch, aka “puttertje” (Fabritius) 1654

The museum was absolutely packed, especially with snooty art types like me who refrain from snapping selfies and linger in front of works contemplatively scratching their chins. They were also all above a certain age.. I won’t say which. The only way in which the flighty consumer types that normally frequent the said massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris are superior, is that you can bet that they won’t spend more than 2.6 seconds in front of a painting, so if you want a look, you just have to wait around for your turn. With snooty art types this could mean waiting for a very long time. That’s okay though because there were a number of truly excellent works that I could just stand in front of all day.. well at least until my legs fall asleep.

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Vanitas still life (Claesz) 1630

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Old Woman and Boy with candles (Rubens) 1617

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The Messenger, aka “Unwelcome News” (ter Borch) 1666

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Wooded landscape with cottages (Hobbema), 1665

There were a number of works which I have never seen before, and it’s always nice to make new friends and be surprised. I’m afraid my SO is rapidly becoming my artist’s assistant, helpfully scribbling down titles and observations for later digestion. My notebook came home full of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Claesz, Jordaens, Leyster, Rubens, Steen, Hals, as well as some new pals such as Beuckelaer, van der Weyden, van Aelst, ter Borch, de Vlieger, and Hobbema.

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Spruistraat

Retiring from the Museum we shopped around the slick cobbled pedestrian streets of den Haag, checking out the celebrations leading up to St. Nicholas’ day on Dec 5th, featuring Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his racially inappropriate sidekick Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s origins lie somewhere between a liberated Ethiopian slave to Moorish origins, to the more modern preference of his helpful little face blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys. Regardless local folks seem to like dressing up in Victorian garb and blackface playing carnival music and tossing candy out to the little kids.We followed this parade from a distance, trying to figure out what was going on until we stopped for nieuwe haring and the folks behind the counter explained the tradition to us.

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Similar to traditions back home, children leave shoes by the fireplace on St. Nicholas’ eve in hopes of waking in the morning to find a treat inside in exchange for good behaviour. Though if you’re naughty you don’t get a lump of coal you get beaten with a switch by Zwarte Piet. The children usually leave out a carrot or some hay with a thoughtful bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas and a beer for Zwarte Piet. Despite the fact that traditionally Sinterklaas was accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet we have Canadians to thank for throwing a Sinterklaas party after the liberation of the Netherlands, encouraging a whole slew of Pieten to roam the streets.

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Lola Bikes and Café

We departed our rented flat early on Sunday, forgoing a cold shower as the hot water heater was inoperable, and strolled up to the so called best coffee in the Netherlands. It also doubles as a serious bicycle store because, hey, you can pursue two passions at once. SO had a good time checking out all the bikes and gear, pointing out the superior composition of the metal in particular bike gears or somesuch. I decided I liked the pink one for.. reasons. The coffee was truly excellent and we happily lingered way longer than intended. Back on the train we traveled to nearby Rotterdam to check out the town and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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rotterdam at night

Rotterdam has a very different feel, the majority of the buildings very contemporary with lots of skyscrapers. A huge amount of old Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing and subsequently rebuilt in modern fashion. The city has much less warmth and character somehow, probably a figment of my imagination as I’m known to be very sensitive and have a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise.

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The “little” Tower of Babel” (Bruegel (the Elder)) 1563

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The Wayfarer (Bosch) 1500.. the only museum to house Bosch in all the Netherlands

Boijmans is a huge museum with a very diverse collection, ranging from medieval to contemporary and every facet in between. It has a lovely selection of Bosch and Bruegel, including the famous “little” tower of Babel and the Wayfarer who is said to be choosing between debauchery and virtue. Some other favourites of mine include van Dalem, Koninck, Havicksz, and Daubigny.

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 landscape with dawn of civilization (van Dalem) 1570

Koninck=extensiveland

An extensive landscape, with a river, (Koninck) 1664

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The cascade of Mahoura, Cauterets (Daubigny) 1873

The museum also houses a very nice selection of French Impressionist works including featuring a nice but unusual MonetMaison du Pêcheur” featuring a very nice seascape with cabin on a very uncomfortable angle lending the impression you are in some danger of leaning too far into it. The collection also houses some very nice works by Sisley, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

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la Maison du Pêcheur, Varengeville (Monet) 1882

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Le moulin à eau Provencher à Moret (Sisley) 1883

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Un verger au printemps (Sisley) 1881

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Moonlit city square in Cherbourg, (Sidaner) 1934

A bit father down in the collection there is a really nice Sidaner, an intimist painter whose “moonlit city square” is expertly illuminated, and its quiet volumes of night shades a rare achievement in my opinion. Apart from the very broad range of styles and endeavours there is also a lovey collection of very modest floral still lives which are uncomplicated, delicate, and very lovely.  

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Peonies (Fantin-Latour) 1882

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Polder with mills near Overschie (Gabriël) 1898

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Cineraria (van Gogh) 1885

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In the vegetable garden (Mauve) 1887

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Study of the Trunk of an Old Tree, (de Gheyn II) 1600-1610

If you decide to go museum hopping don’t forget that art feeds the brain and the heart, but not the stomach so around 3:00 we were losing steam and remembered that humans require nourishment to walk around for hours and hours and had to resort to overpriced museum café food. Oh well. After exhausting the collection, and the soles of our shoes, we wandered around Rotterdam taking in the weird architecture and public sculptures before picking a restaurant with maximum comfort and slow service for some r&r in the form of Phở

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