AMSTERDAM — So read the caption beneath Kees van Dongen’s Woman with Shawl at ‘Van Gogh’s Park View and Other Works’ exhibit currently showing at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a magnificently simple line that I immediately filed away with other luscious gems of sublime simplicity that I wish I had written. Another is Michael Stipe’s lyric, “I look at her and I see the beauty of the light of music.” There’s a very tangible light that illuminates music; if it’s a beautiful light, that’s all the better. And if that musical light emanates from the lovely landscape of a woman, then you’ve experienced a rare trifecta that simply can’t be outdone.
But the sentiments of Van Dongen (or Stipe) didn’t seem to fit with this exhibit, one that aimed to put Van Gogh in context with his immediate predecessors, contemporaries and successors. Van Gogh, it seems, rarely painted portraits of women. And of the few times he did, more often than not he chose to obscure their femininity and mask entirely their sexuality. This may have everything –or absolutely nothing– to do with his well-known rejections, now the stuff of legend. But it did set the tone for my late morning and early afternoon meandering, which was cut in two by the museum’s monthly fire drill. [I found it amazing how orderly and polite everyone was as they patiently descended the various staircases towards the exit.]
But yeah, Van Gogh and women. Besides Head of a Woman from 1885, many of Vincent’s women are either caricatures –like his largely failed experiment, The Potato Eaters, a study of Dutch peasants, on display in the permanent collection—or stoic matronly depictions. The opposite seems to be the case with his contemporaries like Paul Gauguin and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Gauguin, who I got hooked on when I first visited here in 1992, is probably best known for his studies of Polynesian women and Toulouse-Lautrec for his renderings of Parisiennes who worked at night. TL’s fans will appreciate the inclusion of his Young Woman at Table, Poudre de Riz, who is rendered wonderfully pale by the rice powder that was the day’s make-up de jour.
The museum dusted off the Van Gogh’s simple but vibrant park scene, People Walking in a Park, Paris 1886, to provide some of that perspective. It’s a serene landscape, whose intrigue is magnified by the recent confirmation that Van Gogh painted it over a portrait.
Van Gogh’s Park View and Other Works is on display through 08 January 2006. Open daily 10-18:00, Friday 10:00-22:00. Admission: 10 euro. Paulus Potterstraat 7,
Amsterdam. Easily accessible via the #2 and #5 trams from the Central Station. Rijksmuseum stop.
I hadn’t been to Amsterdam in 13 years. Then, nobody believed that I didn’t even set foot in a coffee shop to sample some Thai stick or puff on a big Senegalese or Jamaican spleef. This time, the thought barely occurred to me; I was more interested in whiling away a few days losing myself in the late autumn landscapes of the city, browsing a few museums and bookshops, and jotting notes into my new moleskine while ducking into cafes –real cafes— to briefly escape the chill. I like the sense of freedom that comes with no set itinerary, no must-see list. With no real work on my plate, that suited these three days nicely.
Like Paris or London, Amsterdam is a walker’s paradise, even without a guidebook or a guide that will accompany you on a tour of the red light district or help you retrace Rembrandt’s footsteps. There are more canals than in Venice, restaurants and pubs with roots in virtually every corner of the globe, and lots of bikes. More than 700,000, roughly one per resident. It’s a stunning mix of the 17th and 21st centuries, but its thinking is definitely of the forward variety. It’s known for its tolerance of everything from pot smoking to prostitution and for an acceptance of all cultures and creeds. Extremely open to visitors, its people are welcoming, and arguably among the most attractive in northern Europe.
All things considered, a lovely urban landscape. Almost the loveliest.