Inspiration in Amsterdam
I head to museums hoping for insights and ideas, to be shaken or enlightened. Sometimes I find solace in pretty art, and sometimes I leave riveted with the unexpected, perhaps challenged to think way outside my box. That’s what happened a few weeks ago in Amsterdam. I had booked a night and a day on my return home from Tanzania, hoping to slow down the toll of international travel, and planned to walk over to the museum district. I wanted to see The Van Gogh Museum, and friends said I should also check out The Rijksmuseum.
I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s color, his bold brush strokes you can only see standing in front of the work, and the energy bursting out of his paintings, but I was limited in what I knew about him. I had no idea that almost all his work was done in ten years from 1880 to 1890, and that he had almost no formal training. His early work surprised me, and compelled me. Take a look at “The Cottage, 1885”.
Dark, moody, rich in feeling. And get this, he was actually turned off by what The French Impressionists were doing with color. Five years into his ten year career he moved to Paris, briefly lived with his brother Theo, an art dealer, and was introduced to the likes of Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and Camille Pissarro. And his work took a radical change. Place and who you hang out with matter. Every piece of work we know of Van Gogh’s was painted from 1886 to 1890. He experiemented with color and with how he painted, and in turn, profoundly affected peers and the future of painting.
My next stop, The Rijksmuseum, shook me. I have never paid much attention to 17th century Dutch paintings. They seemed like so many stuffy portraits of aristrocratric families. I had seen a Rembrandt or two as a child at Chicago’s Art Institute, but the subject matter never grabbed me. Wow, have I been missing something. Take a look at “The Jewish Bride”. http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-216?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=
The subjects rise beautifully out of the rich, dark background. In person, the application of paint gives the light areas a shimmering quality that sparkles and separates it even further from the background. The same is true with “Maria Trip”, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-597?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=
She also rises up and out, and the detail work in her white shawl is hard to imagine. Almost four hundred years ago. No wonder Rembrandt was in high demand as a portrait artist. He also revolutionized portraits by bringing in motion to his subjects. Consider “The Night Watch” as an example. (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nieuwsenagenda/nachtwacht-ontrafeld?lang=en) A blank canvas, a brush, and paint.
And I was not finished being wowed. Johannes Vermeer, also from the 17th century finished me off. He painted everyday workers, and his treatment of gentle light, and subtle color blends was both peotic and breathtaking. The use of subtle color is hard to see away from the source, but the quality of incoming daylight is still easy to see. Have a look at “The Kitchen Maid” (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-A-2344?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=) and “Woman Reading a Letter” (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-C-251?lang=en&context_space=&context_id=).
I left both museums estactic and moved. In the case of Rembrandt and Vermeer it was not the subject matter as much as their use of light and color. Photographically all three painters have a great deal to teach me. Van Gogh’s celebration of wild color and interesting perspectives encourage me to push boundaries. The Dutch painters made me think of a comment Sam Abell made to me years ago when I was printing for his retrospective, The Photographic Life. Sam often wanted his subjects to rise out of the darkness in the background. It was a beautiful idea, a photographic aesthetic that has a lot of power. Vermeer’s use of daylight gently filling a room and his subject, together with his attention to the blending and shifting of gentle color palettes speaks so importantly to paying attention to the foundation of light.
Books about Van Gogh and Vermeer sit in front of me now in the studio. Paging through them during breaks will keep me swimming in reminders, encouragement, and new ideas.