Saturday, October 4th, 2014


Until the Dutch introduced art that depicted real people doing real things in the 17th century, painting consisted of insipid religious topics with unearthly looking malproportioned people. I struggle to generate any enthusiasm for suffering saints, and precociously wise infants.

Helst: Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

I’ve been to Amsterdam multiple times during the last ten years, but its huge art museum was closed for an extensive renovation. After 10 years of interior and exterior upgrades, the Rijksmuseum reopened last year, and Elizabeth and I had a short afternoon to enjoy the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.

 Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

My favorite was a very wide environmental portrait, with the equally wide title Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, painted by Bartholomeus van der Helst in 1648, it was one of several similar paintings we saw that had been commissioned by a town self-defense guild to hang on the wall of their club house.

 Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

These are clearly real people, with all their whiskers and warts, some staring directly at the camera, others chatting with each other, and some preoccupied with dinner. All the little details are fantastic, and its such a compelling tableau, I could stare at it for hours.

Rembrandt's The Night Watch

If you are going to spend a couple hours in a museum like this, you might as well take in a Rembrandt or two. His version of the club room wall poster, The Company of captain Frans Banning Cocq and lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch preparing to march out (more colloquially and conveniently referred to as The Night Watch) attracted huge crowds, but it wasn’t our favorite. Rembrandt isn’t necessarily…..a Rembrandt.

The Merry Drinker

Another one of my favorites was Frans Hals’ The Merry Drinker. A long string of somewhat dour but competent wedding portraits seem to have been his bread and butter, but he broke out with a series of genre paintings, many of them humorous.  Its as if Hals had attracted the militiaman’s attention and quickly snapped the shutter (about 1/800) while the subject was in mid motion and not yet fully posed. Tilting glass in one hand, apparently emphasizing a point in a bawdy joke with the other, and with a cheerful, slightly surprised expression on his face, the image oozes life.  The composition is actually quite sophisticated.  Shot from a low angle, with one hand holding down each lower corner, the arms lead up to the face, with his torso forming a triangle centered in the lower half of the painting.  An oval shape tops this triangle. The face is powerfully located at the crossing point of an X formed by diagonals connecting opposite corners.  He did a terrific job with foreshortening, gracefully handling the significant horizontal distance and perspective challenge of maintaining correct proportions between the Berkemeyer glass in the foreground, and the drinkholder’s face.  The awkward task of depicting the obscured left arm is deftly accomplished, and perfectly believable.

Still Life with Cheese

As a younger man, I was totally unimpressed by the idea of a still life, but at this point in my aesthetic evolution, I found many of the static depictions of natural and man made objects quite compelling.  Floris Claesz van Dijck’s Still Life with Cheese is a surprisingly interesting painting in which the painter demonstrates a phenomenal ability to depict shape and texture. Just as every decade draws me closer to the complex flavors of aged cheese and whisky, I find myself increasingly able to spend time relishing the subtleties of a skillfully executed painting of food or flower (and what better evidence for Divine Providence than the simultaneous existence of aged Dutch Beemster and single barrel American Bourbon?).

Pieter Claesz: Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario

Pieter Claesz could certainly paint food with the best of them, but I was more interested in his vanitas still life. These moody still lives wallowed in symbolism, warning the viewer of the transience of earthly existence.

Judith Leyster: The Serenade   Van Gogh self-portrait

Judith Leyster has been accused of being an imitator of Hals, but I thought her portrait of a lutist in The Serenade had a surprisingly modern composition.  Shot upwards and to the left from a very low angle, her off-center subject’s relatively small face is adventurously looking outside of the frame.  Like many of the paintings from this period, her subject’s nose has a bright highlight. In my own photographs, I tend to Photoshop that out, but I’m revisiting that idea.

We didn’t get much time to explore the rest of the museum, other than taking a brisk 1 hour tour that swung past an 1887 van Gogh. Its interesting that in this self portrait, he also depicted the subject from a low camera angle.  I thought it was a nice picture, but maybe a bit too heavily Photoshopped.

Beer in the Bar Biking Through The Rijksmuseum

While Elizabeth visited the shop, I found a table in the café at one end of the bright and open new Atrium, created by glassing over the original Courtyard.  Visible one level up and spanning the center of the Atrium is the Passage, an externally open corridor popular with cyclists, who could be seen speeding past on their evening commute.

Late afternoon on the Museumplein



The Colors of Music

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Dirk's 'Instrument'

I had a very interesting encounter today with a synaesthetic Friesien.  After a long ride on a loaner bike from our Amsterdam hotel, I decided to cool off in Beatrixpark.  On the way in,  I’d noticed some obscure signage about an art project, so on the way back, I decided to investigate.

"The Colors of Music"

I first noticed a sort of modern Stonehenge, of upright white panels, each dated on what appeared to be the rear.   Entering the circle, I was confronted with a series of brightly colored panels, staggered in 3 concentric rings, but at first, the view just wasn’t coherent.

Off Center View

I recognized the artist, Dirk Halze, from the picture, still wearing the same hat, and he came over from his easel of plastic paint pots to chat.   He explained that when you were standing in the center of the circle, indicated by an orange plastic upright that was suitable for leaning on, that the panels became a contiguous panorama.  Moving to the center, the panels suddenly popped into alignment.

View from the Center

Dirk further explained that he had synaesthesia, and when he heard music, he sees it in color.  He’s a fan of Mahler, and this not-yet-finished project is a visual depiction of that composer’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major.  He also told me that he was from Friesland, apologized for being able to understand English better than he could speak it, and mentioned that he’d spent a lot of time in Germany.  I offered to speak in German, and that’s mostly how we worked it out.

Dirk Hakze at his easel

In 2012, Dirk premiered “The Colors of Music”  on the beach in Harlingen.  The current project, which is described as the 14th edition, was started on July 24 and will run until October 14.  An interesting experiment in the connection between the visual arts and music, I’m not sure the current location, sandwiched between a school, a parking lot, and a construction site, is as favorable, let alone noticeable to passers by, as a North Sea beach.  He’ll be performing further editions of “The Colors of Music” in Germany, and then in Austria, completing his tour in Vienna.

The Poo Machine

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Tasmanian devil David Walsh’s delight in shock and playfulness are epitomized in the clinically neat and strangely compelling conceptual work Cloaca Professional, affectionately referred to as ‘the poo machine.’

Cloaca Professional, 2010

Many of the works in his privately owned Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) are characterized by Walsh’s preoccupation with sex and death, but one commission was intended to celebrate a different bodily function.  The most recent in a series by mad scientist Wim Delvoye, this digitally-controlled mechanical piece simulates the human digestive system.  Fed  from the right side (above) with chopped up food, and injected with a series of enzymes and chemicals, a neat series of glass reactor vessels progressively breakdown the nutrients.

Cloaca Professional, 2010

Evoking images of the laboratory, if not lavatory, the installation isn’t exactly beautiful, but it obviously was designed and built with a sense of aesthetics.  The gleaming glass and stainless steel spotlights the milkshake-colored slurry, accented by bright red plastic trim.  The individual vessels, each containing a different color and consistency of partially digested liquid, are vaguely evocative of udders and milking machines.The unpleasant smell is a bonus not offered by all works of art.

Cloaca Professional, 2010

In a triumph of regularity, artificial turds are emitted precisely at 2pm every afternoon (one can only imagine the eager crowd collecting at ‘reverse feeding’ time to experience the excitement of excrement).

For those who feel that modern and conceptual art is BS, Delvoye’s creation is a must see.

Subversive Adult Disneyland

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Exterior of MONA

Imagine if Tony Stark had one of the world’s largest private art collections, it was housed in the Batcave, and you were allowed to visit and even play with it some of it. It seems understatement to describe Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) as “the subversive adult Disneyland”.

Mona Roma

Financed by his success as a professional gambler, the eccentric David Walsh created a world-class museum up the Derwent from Tasmania’s largest city.  Clearly a personal vision, without the hindrance of boards or directors, the stunning, quirky, and  unusual pieces are housed within a beautiful and imaginative underground facility serviced by a his high-speed boat, the Mona Roma.

When My Heart Stops Beating

Elizabeth and I took the glass elevator down to the lower floor, and next to a bar serving beer made by Walsh’s co-located brewery, we were issued our iPods.  Instead of labels on the artworks, visitors use the iPods to read the descriptions of the art, which are often accompanied by personal notes from Walsh, along with other background information. Some of the iPod entries have topically related musical tracks.

Surreal Ping Pong

When first confronted with a huge trampoline, surrounded by brass temple bells, or a three-dimensional ping pong table, it isn’t immediately clear that you are actually supposed to interact with, even play with, many of the exhibits. Filled with paintings, statues, collages, and multi-media works, Elizabeth and I spent 6 hours in the place, and didn’t truly see everything.

On Perspective and Motion - Part II 2006

Many of the artworks are huge, taking up entire walls in a space that is the size, but certainly not the aesthetic, of a small convention center.  Screens are everywhere, some playing what could be easily understood as a movie or video, others defying easy categorization.

Vivian Girls

One room contained multiple pages from an extravagant 15,000 page work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.  I’d never heard of creator Henry Darger, but it turns out that ‘out is the new in’.  Our iPods offered three different musical tracks inspired by Darger’s Vivian Girls, pictured above in their least shocking form (yes, that’s blood smeared on the right most revolutionary).

The Holy Virgin Mary 1996

Famously dissed by Rudy Giuliani, and fully at home in a museum dedicated to the roasting of sacred cows, the only MONA work I was actually familiar with was Chris Ofili’s 1996 The Holy Virgin Mary.  Perhaps elephant dung is an artistic accent that should be considered an acquired taste.

David Walsh's Head

An exceptionally unusual feature of the MONA is a set of windows between the floor of the owner’s apartment and the ceiling of one of the galleries. After Elizabeth noticed a big shaggy dog in the apartment, I managed to catch someone, apparently Walsh, sitting in a chair.


A visit to the MONA isn’t necessarily over once you’ve left the museum.  If you enter your email address on the iPad, you can later login to the museum’s web site, and use a 3D mapping function to replay your trip chronologically or geographically. The web site allows you to view photos, descriptions, and commentary on the works you visited during the trip, and the ones you missed.

Untitled (White Library) 2004-6

Fat Car 2006


Berlin Buddha

Culture and war in Madrid

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Elizabeth and I are visiting Madrid this week. This is a beautiful, modern city, with incredible art museums.  We managed to spend several hours in the Centro de Arte Renia Sofia before they cleared out the galleries at a somewhat early 2:30 in the afternoon.

Picasso’s Guernica isn’t the only artwork that reminds the world of the pre-WWII horror that the Spanish Civil War represented.  We saw a film showing children tearing the stones out of streets and making barricades near to our hotel in Madrid.  The photographs of bombed out towns and cities previewed the high level of devastation that would be visited upon many European cities over the following 10 years, children and parents frantically seeking shelter from a rain of bombs delivered by sleek and powerful bombers.

I have to wonder if America would be so eager for military solutions if it had suffered as much as Europe did during the first and second global conflict of the twentieth century.  Americans, especially on the right, tend to characterize Europeans as decadent, weak, and even cowardly, for not being more willing to participate in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Maybe if America had undergone 400 years of nearly constant warfare, and then had much of 2000 years of cultural destroyed, along with several generations of young men, it would have a smaller military today.