Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews Summer 2013 (AQ7)

Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews, Summer 2013 (AQ7)
by Bryan Monte

In the last two months, two very important museums have reopened on Amsterdam’s Museum Square or Museumplein as the Dutch refer to it. These are the Rijksmuseum (the Dutch national gallery) and the Van Gogh Museum. The opening completes the triad of museums along the square including the Stedelijk (which reopened last autumn) and, which with the Concertgebouw just to the South, make up the cultural heart of Amsterdam. The reopening of the Rijksmuseum was the most dramatic having been closed for ten years due to construction problems, cost overruns, and the bicycle path under the museum’s main galleries that had to remain open and which forced the architects and builders to change their plans. (Bicycles are one of the Netherland’s sacred cows. Cylists are given more leeway in traffic than pedestrians and motorists).

The Rijksmuseum was reopened by Queen Beatrix, with fireworks, military and marching bands and speeches. The Queen also held a state dinner in the “Hall of Honour” with visiting dignitaries and royalty from around the world just before her abdication and the investiture of her eldest son and his wife as King William Alexander and Queen Maxima respectively.

Now that the smoke has cleared, the museum is open and the crowds of visitors in their thousands have returned (300,000 in one month according to the Rijksmuseum’s website), it’s time to take a look at the remodelled Rijksmuseum and evaluate its improvements. The jewels in the Rijksmuseum’s crown, paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, Jan Steen and other 17th century notables, have been returned to their rightful places in the second-floor galleries. The paintings have been rehung on walls which are now a dark grey which makes the predominantly gold, brown, and grey tones on the canvases stand out.

At the end of the hall and the centre of attention of course is Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch.” It is hung just high enough so that viewers of the painting are the same height as some of the crowd characters on Rembrandt’s large canvas, so that from a distance, these viewers merge with the characters in the painting. The paintings in these galleries are on par with the Louvre’s best, but are presented in a much more intimate viewing environment. Few canvases are behind glass and viewers can walk within a meter or two of the paintings and take photographs unless specifically prohibited.

There are other improvements to the museum in addition to the darker gallery walls and access to the art. The paintings in many galleries are complimented and made more tactile by objects such as models, weapons, porcelain and furniture placed in the centre or to one side of the galleries. For example, spears and cannons are arrayed together in a gallery with paintings from the Netherland’s Indonesian or “Batavian” colonial period and ship’s model is the centre of a gallery with mostly maritime paintings. This breaks up the monotony of gallery after gallery of paintings and helps show artistic expression in the same period in different media and disciplines. Another improvement is the new Asian wing whose main features are a statute of the Hindu God, Shiva Nataraja, upstairs and two Japanese temple guardians downstairs.

Other major changes to the Rijksmuseum include its new main entrance and lobby area in two, underground, glassed-over, marble-lined courtyards bifurcated by the controversial bicycle path. The lobby can be reached by two, large, accessible, clear glass lifts on both sides of the bicycle path towards the North entrance along with two staircases at the South entrances. The new lobby/reception area includes a café, museum shop, bookstore, coat check, and restrooms. In addition, the second-floor lobby frescos, which were original to the building and Cuypers’ design and which had been covered over, have been restored.

Whilst the Rijksmuseum’s presentation of the paintings, sculptures, furniture and other artefacts in the various galleries is to be applauded, the layout of the museum’s new lobby, signage about how to navigate in the museum and the number and quality of facilities for the disabled invites criticism. Aesthetically, the museum’s new bifurcated marble and glass lobby is not welcoming but rather echoing, sterile and impersonal. Its clear glass roof is not as evocative or playful as rolling blue, glass roof over the British Museum’s courtyard, but more akin in construction to the hothouse roofs that dot the Dutch landscape. In addition, the restored Cupyers murals reveal why perhaps over the years they’d been painted over. Their idealized scenes of virtues and Dutch history are naïve, lifeless and flat compared to pre-Raphaelite or other Art Nouveau murals. Furthermore, the basement lobby’s hanging, treble-caged, white light and sound damping installations don’t lighten the lobbies’ atmosphere, but rather dangle heavily overhead like shark cages as was my experience when I ate in the café.

The café’s seating and service leaves much to be desired. The three times I’ve visited the museum, the café has been filled to overcapacity with people waiting on the staircases at both ends. The museum’s restaurant has not opened yet, so I assume once it does, this will take care of the overflow and shorten the wait for a table. The seating itself is disabled friendly with wide aisles although the sofa (lounge) chairs are set a bit low. There are conventional café chairs at round café tables that can be removed to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but I did not see any tables specifically designated for disabled customers. Furthermore, what I also found lacking about the café was its service. When I sat down at 5 PM after my third visit, I had to literally, after waiting five minutes, flag down a waiter to take my order and then again later to pay my bill.

Signage in the museum is also too small or confusing. Immediately after visitors enter the museum through its marble portals, they see a sign which says: “To the Collections” which unfortunately sends visitors to the right through the medieval galleries and not to the left through the Renaissance galleries which lead to the lifts to the second floor Galleries of Honour which contain the 17th century paintings that most visitors want to see. Floor descriptions next to the lifts and signs for the toilets are generally too small for older patrons to read.

It’s also difficult following routes in the museum even though each floor on the official map has been colour-coded. I heard one gentleman in the Asian wing exclaim: “How do I get to the second floor from here?” meaning probably that he was trying to get there to see the “Nightwatch.” In addition, signs like those for the lift with a standing figure and arrows going up and down, are perhaps not understandable to non-European visitors. Directions in Chinese, Russian and one Romantic language in addition to Dutch and English would be advisable based on the composition of the crowds on the days I visited.

Futhermore, as you could probably predict from my last review of the reopened Stedelijk in AQ6, the museum needs be far more sensitive to accessibility for disabled people in its lobby, cafe, shop, bookstore, and toilets. When I first visited the museum, the weekend before the Queen Beatrix’s state dinner, access to the café, shop and bookstore was restricted to only the able-bodied who could use the stairs. Anyone wanting to use the lifts to these areas had to ask the security guard to use his/her magnetic key to unlock the lift. In addition, there are no handrails along the sides of the staircase (along the marble walls), just in the middle. Thankfully, on my second and third visits a few weeks later, one could operate these lifts without having to ask a guard for a key. However, the toilet in the sub-basement level is only wide enough for the able bodied and the doors to the bookshop are far too heavy for some disabled people to open.

Another area of concern in the lobby is unimpeded access to ramps – especially the ones on the north side leading to the toilets and one on the south which is a gallery exit. Access to these ramps was taped off on my two most recent visits to the Rijksmuseum. Both times when I exited the Delft’s Blauw and Keys Gallery 0.7 and wanted to descending into the lobby along a ramp, I found the ramp to be roped off at the bottom. Both times I tried unsuccessfully to get a guard’s attention to lift the tape so I could pass. Both times, I had to move one of the poles myself so I could squeeze around it with my Zimmer frame.

On my last two visits, I’ve also had to ask a guard to remove a tape barrier at the entrance of a lobby ramp so I could roll up to the main toilets. Furthermore, there’s only one disabled toilet on each side and the hallway that connects the two toilets areas in the bifurcated lobby, has four steps, which make it impassible for a disabled person to go easily from one side to the other side, should one of the two toilets be occupied.

In comparison with the Rijksmuseum, the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum just down the street has plenty to crow about, not only due to the quality and depth of its exhibition about its namesake, but also due to the quality and accessibility of its bookshop and café. Reopened not more than a month ago, the renovated Van Gogh has maintained the original integrity and design of its Gerrit Rietveld building and assembled perhaps the most complete exhibition of Van Gogh’s work one will probably see in his/her lifetime. Paintings are on loan from Dutch museums such as the Amsterdam Stedelijk, the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Van Gogh Kröller-Müller, as well museums outside of the Netherlands, and most importantly, from private collections.

The Van Gogh exhibition has been chronologically arranged with early works on the ground and first (American English second) floors and his later periods on the second and third floors, so as one ascends, one goes forward in time. In addition there are many studies and versions of paintings such as the Potato Eaters, the Weaver (one from the Van Gogh, and one from the Kröller-Müller) and Sunflowers, (one from the Van Gogh, the other from the National Gallery in London). Viewers can thus compare Van Gogh’s execution of the same subject but with slightly different perspectives and/or colour pallets. The Van Gogh has also added interesting videos in different areas about Van Gogh’s history, his various styles and the conservation of his works.

As far as accessibility is concerned, the front entrance is accessible by a wheelchair lift at the far left of the staircase, though a museum guard had to lift the tape barrier so I could use the express lane with my museum card to enter. There are two lobby elevators: one for eight people and another for 21 people— both large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a pram simultaneously. Even with busloads full of tourists, the flow in the museum on the two days I visited (one weekday afternoon and one Sunday afternoon) was well-managed.

The two bookshops both in the lobby entrance and the basement extension, have aisles wide enough for wheelchairs and a good selection of art books about various painters. The one in the basement extension is also a bit quieter and has comfortable surround chairs and a table where patrons can sit and leaf through books. The self-service café is also welcoming and accessible. The aisles in the dining room are wide enough for wheelchair users, though the tables themselves are a bit too close together. The food is very good. I had a coffee and a slice of the lemon cheese pie on my first visit and found both delicious. The salad, apple pie, and caffe latte on my second visit were also good. There are more than enough chairs and tables inside and outside the café to accommodate visitors and there is a large lift downstairs (all the way to the end of the seating area outside) to the toilets in the new extension.

Here, however, is where the Van Gogh falls short—with its disabled toilets. There is only one disabled toilet downstairs in the new wing and unfortunately, this space is also shared with a diaper changing area. On the second day I visited the second disabled toilet, at the entrance lobby, was out of order. Exiting the museum also required that I get a guard’s attention so that she could lift the tape by the entrance so that I could go from the exit lanes to the entrance lanes to get back to the disabled lift.

If you are pressed for time when visiting Amsterdam and can only see one of these two museums (especially if the queues to the Rijkmuseum are wrapped around the building), then I would recommend visiting the Van Gogh. I doubt, as I mentioned above, that a collection of this depth, with paintings, drawings and watercolours from many museums and private collections, will ever be assembled in one place in my lifetime. The Rijksmuseum’s paintings, though of equal importance, can wait for another visit, or if that’s not possible, many can be viewed on the museum’s website. But do try to visit both museums. It will be more than worth the effort.

Book Reviews Summer 2013 (AQ7)

Summer 2013 Amsterdam Quarterly Book Reviews
by Bryan Monte

How to Kill Poetry, Raymond Luczak, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-29-1
Gutter, The magazine of new Scottish writing, Spring 2013, Freight Books, ISSN 2041-3475; ISBN 978-1-908754-13-4
Quiet Paris, Siobhan Wall, Frances Lincoln Limited Publishers, ISBN 978-0—7112-3343-0
A Lioness at my Heels, Robin Winckel-Mellish, Hands-On Books, ISBN 978-1-920397-43-2

I received or became aware of four more books worth mentioning during this year’s unusually cold, wet spring (one of the coldest on record and certainly the coldest and wettest I can remember in twenty years in the Netherlands). Dutch meteorologists are not certain whether this unusual weather is one of the first signs of global warming. I am certain, however, that the less than pleasant weather outside has given me more time inside to read, making my four book selections for this quarter a bit more adventurous. In addition to two books of poetry, I’ve also chosen a photography book and a literary journal to review.

Raymond Luczak’s How to Kill Poetry is book of three parts. The first part is a recapitulation of Western poetry including poems modelled on the works of Sappho, Homer, Shakespeare, Phillis Wheatley, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg and many others. This section shows Luczak’s awareness of literary history (he did, however, as an American, leave out Hardy, Yeats and Eliot) and his mastery of various poetic forms and styles.

The second part of Luczak’s book includes a facsimile of The Warmth of Winter by Roland Rieves, “Winner of the Shughill Poetry Paper Award 2213.” It’s supposedly printed on special paper in a limited edition of ten copies due to the climatic destruction the world’s trees. In this collection Rieves, (aka Luczak), writes rhapsodically about the cold and winters that no longer exist with poems such as “Hyperthermia” and “Jack Frost’s Bite.” In “Hyperthermia,” Luczak also displays his gift for concrete poetry. The lines cascade down the page like ocean waves. His poems entitled, “The Lyre” and “The Hydra” in the third section called “Leaves of Glass, 2363 CE,” also imitate these objects shapes without sacrificing any quality in their description.

In the third section, Luczak provides a history in poetry of what happened to the earth when its climate “reached its tipping point in 2234.” People live in biodomes up north and churches no longer exist. Winners of contests get to wear spacesuits to retrieve books in the Hades of Texas. In this section he once again imitates the poetry of Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud to make his point. In How to Kill Poetry, Luczak gives his readers more than enough to think about regarding poetry and climate change. If you care about the environment, love poetry and only have time to read one book this summer, let it be this one.

Gutter, an anthology of Scottish writing, was given to me by AQ contributor, Iain Matheson, whose slightly surrealist poems “the refreshment trolley is now closed” and “Could be” are included in the spring issue, number 8. Also included is fiction by Nick Brooks, Rodge Glass and Kirsten MacKenzie, poetry by Sally Evans, Brian Johnstone and David Kinloch and reviews of Ron Butlin’s The Magicians of Edinburgh, William Letford’s Bend, and J. David Simons’ An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful among others. Even though Gutter is anthology of Scottish writing, not all of its works are set in Scotland. Kirstin Zhang’s short story, “Rain on the Roof,” for example, takes place in Papua New Guinea and describes that country’s poverty and harshness of its climate. The story is told by, Epi, a gardener and his struggle to keep his plants alive during a drought. There are also some poems on Biblical subjects such as David Kinloch’s “Lilith, ” “Sarah,” and “Ruth,” as well as classical ones “Bacchus and Adriane” and “Diana and Acteon” by Hugh McMillan and “Dionysian hangover” by Stav Poleg. In all, Gutter makes an interesting read which is published twice-yearly by Glasgow’s Freight Books.

The third book I would like to mention is Amsterdam resident’s Siobhan Wall’s photography book, Quiet Paris. This book is the third in a series with Quiet Amsterdam and Quiet London as its predecessors. In Quiet Paris Wall has assembled photos of the tranquil interiors and/or exteriors of the quiet museums, gardens, cafes, shops, bookshops, restaurants, places of worship, etc. that can be found in The City of Lights. Her photos have a sense of balance and serenity (although all, but three, are devoid of people). My favourites are her photos of the rough-hewn stone and simple chairs of the Eglise Saint Severin and the Musèe d’ Art Brut bookshop, whose painted, metal columns and views through its large windows embody fin de siècle architecture and Impressionist Paris respectively. One location included in her photographs which I strongly recommend to Parisian visitors looking for peace and quiet is The Tea Caddy, 14 rue Saint Julien le Pauvre, where I enjoyed a splendid cup of coffee, quiche and flan without hearing one mobile ringtone.

One of the reasons Wall’s photos achieve such as sense of calm is due to their balance and deep focus. Churches and cathedrals are shown with arching vaults or doorways centred as are walkways leading through gardens and parks. Most of the building photos are of interiors. One very successful exterior is that of Restaurant de Lat, interesting for its curved perspective as it rises and also for the clouds in the upper left corner. I think a challenge for Ms Wall in her next book, (if she does another of a quiet city), would be to include more building exteriors in their entirety and more people in the scenes she photographs to see if she can still convey a sense of a “peopled” urban serenity.

And lastly, I would like to recommend Robin Winckel-Mellish’s A Lioness at my Heels. This book of poetry describes scenes and people principally in South Africa but also a few in the Netherlands as well. Her poetry is at its best when she is describing landscapes which function as a metaphor for her feelings. The first lines of “Meditation while waiting for something unpleasant” are: “If my mind wanders/it’s to that stone farmhouse/beside the winding dust road/the ostriches, a few palms/a creaky bridge over a dried up stream.” This is poetry that takes the reader into a landscape which is immediate and real. Her poetry can also reflect a sensual awareness as in “Anniversary eggs,” “Restaurant Mozambique” and “Paper boat.” Other favourites of mine include “Old Rose,” about an aged cook, “Madiba,” about Nelson Mandela, and “The same language,” about returning émigrés, which describe South Africa’s old and new orders. Technically Winckel-Mellish’s poems use a variety of stanza and line lengths that are organic to the subjects described. In addition, the image of the lioness appears three times and functions as a way of holding the book together through its three sections. Whilst reviewing A Lionness at my Heels I read it unorthodoxly—from back to front. I can happily report that I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) as when I read it from front to back. I hope you will too.

Book Reviews Spring 2013 (AQ6)

Amsterdam Quarterly Book Reviews Spring 2013 (AQ6)
by Bryan R. Monte

One Window North by Kate Foley, 69 pages, Shoestring Press, ISBN 978-1-907356-63-6
Song of San Francisco, by Edward Mycue, 20 pages, Spectacular Diseases, (no ISBN) 83(b) London Rd, Petersborough, Cambs., PE2 9BS, UK.
Poet Wrangler, droll poems by Marvin R. Hiemstra, 65 pages, Two Harbors Press, ISBN 978-1-937928-46-9
Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland, 87 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-24-6.

During the past submission period, I’ve received four books that I felt were especially worthy of mention—each for slightly different reasons. The first book I received was Kate Foley’s One Window North—her fifth poetry book from Shoestring Press—with its beautiful, cover illustration of the view out the poet’s north-facing kitchen window by Claire Peasnall. Since I interviewed Foley in AQ4, I’m a bit more familiar with her work. One of the reasons that Foley’s poetry is so interesting is because she draws the reader into her descriptions. Another reason is because she depicts life in Amsterdam where she has lived since 1997. Before her move to the Netherlands, she was head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. Thus, it’s not surprising that many of her previous poetry collections have been about paintings or the process of making art.

One Window North, however, distinguishes itself from her previous books in that it is less about visual art and more a personal view of herself—her life in Amsterdam and her mortality and others’ since, as she mentioned in her AQ4 interview, she is “knocking on a bit.” The book’s first poem, “How Loaves Come Singing” states: “Those who are statistically a little closer/to death, not necessarily wise,/ are less inclined// to find the idea romantic.” “A Short Chapter in the History of Stone” follows. It is about the stoning of an Iranian woman for infidelity. A third poem, “For Agnes Sina-Imakoju” about “a sixteen year-old girl shot in a take away” follows directly thereafter.

There are many more poems about death and mortality in One Window North. “The Tin Factory” describes someone being fitted for an artificial heart and there is the more personal, “Heart Surgery.” Poems such as “More Less an Island” and “Oma” describe elderly pensioners, “Postcards” and “To the Field of Reeds,” the artifacts and ideas of the hereafter from ancient civilizations in present-day Malta and Eqypt respectively. These are sparsely-worded poems about weighty subjects. All benefit from Foley’s cinematic ability to zoom in on only what is important to tell a story.

In fact, most of One Window North’s poems are no more than a page to a page and half long. Foley’s experiments with long poetic series such as the 21 sections of The Silver Rembrandt and A Fox Assisted Cure have been scaled back. One Window North contains a series of six poems entitled “Coming in Late” about music concerts perhaps inspired by frequent visits to the nearby Concertgebouw. Here, Foley has definitely raised the bar. Trying to describe music is far more challenging and abstract than, for example, portraying the colours and/or figures in a painting. How does one describe tonality with images? Foley does so by describing a drumroll as: “a drummer pouring out/the thunder of a barrel of apples,” or “A young pianist, wobbly as a calf,/her plump figures butting the notes,/tears on her face. I must admit I’m not sure I know exactly what “shubertian uplands” or “pizzacato mountains” look like, but I can imagine what they feel or sound like. And this is what makes One Window North a delight to read.

The next book I would like to recommend is Edward Mycue’s slim, ten poem volume entitled “Song of San Francisco.” Sean Carey, in his introduction to this book, refers to these poems as a Song Cycle. The first poem, “The Song of Cities Like Viruses,” starts with the line: “is survival about leaving a message of what works.” Survival and disease are two themes that are woven through the next nine poems. “Sugerstrands” talks about how Mycue’s mother: “…cupped her right hand into my head to press me/into a welter of old beliefs…” to try to protect him. In “I Went Out Into the Sun of Broken Glass,” Mycue describes how “I went out queer, clumsy, read, and egg-/shell thin drinking the evening thickening and soft,” a very elegant beginning of a journey that would take him to Africa as a young adult in the Peace Corps and to San Francisco later as a gay man. He describes failures along the way in “SOUB – Same Old Under Born as: “some solo spinout,/ some bungled possibility, some/token aspiration.” He explores his genealogy in “Old School,” and his connectedness with “We Are All Husbands Here.” And “Memory Tongue” is one of the best poems about San Francisco’s emotional geography: “San Francisco, you/blind, handsome city./your harbor has a stone/ in its mouth.” echoing my sentiments exactly (as a former ten-year resident). This thin book of songs is well worth reading.

Marvin R. Hiemstra’s Poet Wrangler, droll poems, has a more comic tone, but its poems are just as well-written. Poet Wrangler shows the range of Hiemstra’s poems which vary anywhere from very short, thin poem’s of Eastern/hippie wisdom such as in “The Poet’s First Duty.” in the book’s third section called “Dancing at the Last Roundup.” “Don’t forget/to blow/tenderly/in the ear/of the Universe/ as often as/you can.// The Universe/gets/so lonely.” Longer ruminations in the same section include the series of four poems from page 52 to page 57 which include “A Poet’s Handy Tool List,” “A Selection from “The Poet with Us: Nora May French,”” “Just Found Dream,” “Wooly, My Muse,” and “Tell Them You Are in Rehab.”

Hiemstra’s poetry exhibits a playfulness that is not afraid to experiment with line length and typography and mix it with humour to talk about love, loss, and of course, the meaning of life. The book contains list poems, poems about dreams, even poems about prehistory such as “Carbon Dating Can Be Pretty Sexy/Just Remember Forever Isn’t” which begins with “Long, long ago, people got stuck/in thoughts, giraffes galloped by, joyful,//notes bouncing on the landscape. People/painted those giraffes on solid rock.” Hiemstra writes: “I print poems,/heartscapes high on a cliff. Rock Face/will cherish my words, hold them tight/till Earth crumbles.” And he puts the relative worth of his poetry into perspective showing its reception by one of the modern guardians of literature, the librarians, in “Best Compliment Ever.”  “Our poetry review has hatched at last./ I deliver it to libraries stuck on hold: jolting/each slow motion librarian from a dream…” The book fails to excite the “dusty librarian, who stifles an Arctic yawn…” The poem ends with an unexpected validation from a homeless man next to “a jammed Wall Street Journal rack/ he whispers, “Hey man, I really like your shirt.”” This puts the poet’s desire for connection, notoriety and/or recognition into perspective. Hiemstra’s Zen-like, humourous observations remind me of those of Allen Ginsberg or James Broughton.

Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland is a collection of approximately 50 poems about the writer’s “first year without my father.” The collection starts in December just after the writer’s father dies in a car accident and continues through the next year just beyond Thanksgiving. The collection begins with “Instructions for How to Approach the Bereaved,” at a funeral or wake and continues with a “buried,” “frozen” Christmas where “Midnight mass turns/mourning chapel/Jingle bells toll joylessly.” It includes poems about childhood reminiscences, genealogy, his father’s profession, dreams about his father, and a psychic’s explanation of the real reason for his father’s accident. All of this whilst the writer gets on with his life packing away his father’s belongings, fixing his mother’s home and caring for the family plot.

Pirates is an impressive collection of mostly short poems which are powerful in their combination of the mundane with the writer’s remembrance of his father’s absence. For example, in his poem, “Pedestal Days,” “Pardons come as easy as breath/in the waxy face of difficult decisions,/the color of the casket,/which shirt goes with forever.” Or from “The Day That Cemeteries Change: “Like a backyard quarterback/I kneel with my bare knee//to settle the flowers we leave/against the winds of our absence.” Such writing is simple, precise and concentrated and draws the reader through the collection to its conclusion in December a year later. It is a book, which undoubtedly will touch both those who have lost a parent and lost who have not.