Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.

I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.

They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.


Brussels

My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?

My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.

I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)

Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.

From upper left to bottom: Town Hall, King’s House, guild houses.

Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.

*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.

My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.

The spire in the center is Brussels City Hall

My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.

I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.

But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.

Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.

This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.


Bruges

The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.

When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.

Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.

I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.

Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.

Bruges Cathedral

The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.

The Belfry. Image by Graham Richter; licensed under CC BY 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.

Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.

Image by Elke Wetzig; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?

I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.

It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.

Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood. Image by Matt Hopkins; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.

I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?

My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)

This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).

The Cathedral is on the left, the Church of Our Lady is on the right

What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.


So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?

Amsterdam: the Beauty of Everyday Life

Amsterdam: the Beauty of Everyday Life

I arrived at my Airbnb late—almost midnight—after illegally riding the bus to the outskirts of the city.

I can never get used to these transport system where there are no turnstiles for the metro and where you cannot simply pay the busdriver. Instead, you must buy a ticket beforehand and validad it yourself. This makes the temptation to ride for free very difficult to resist, especially if it’s late and you don’t know where the ticket machines are. In Madrid or New York, if you try to ride a bus for free the driver will kick you off; and if you jump the turnstiles you can get a big fine. But in Amsterdam, you will only face consequences if the metro inspectors catch you. And what are the chances of that?

My Airbnb host was a relaxed fellow. I suspected that he enjoyed the free availability of marijuana in the city. In any case, he very kindly offered to lend me his museum pass, which allows any resident of the city to get into the museums for free. Unfortunately for me, I had foolishly planned ahead and bought my museum tickets online. The money was spent—and for nothing. This was the last time that I travelled responsibly.

It was a cold February night and I was hungry for dinner. The only place open was a kebab restaurant—not fast food, but genuine kebab. It was delicious. Biting into the spiced meat, I knew that Amsterdam was going to be a special place.

§

I woke up early the following morning and set off for the Van Gogh museum. Instead of riding illegally again, I decided that I would take the time to walk through the city. The weather was cold, grey, misty, and threatening rain. Despite the circumstances, however, and even though I hadn’t had breakfast, the city immediately caught my attention.

Amsterdam is among that small class of cities whose every avenue announces its identity. Even outside of the historic city center, it is impossible to forget that one is in Amsterdam. For one, there are the bicycles. There are thousands of them—hundreds of thousands. It is said that there are more bikes than people, and what I find online seems to confirm it: the population is around 820,000, while there are over 880,000 bikes. Why anyone would need more than one bicycle, I can hardly guess. Nonetheless it is an inspiring sight. Every corner of the city is crammed with pedalled contraptions; and there is more traffic on the bike lanes than on those for cars. But pedestrians have an extra worry when crossing the street.

The style of architecture is distinct, too. In the center there are the crow-stepped gables—creating the Netherlands’ distinctive skyline. Also distinctive is the use of brick. Everything seems to made of the baked clay blocks, giving the city a dark, brooding, and quasi-industrial feel. Certainly it is impossible to mistake a single street of Amsterdam for one in Madrid.

But perhaps the most distinctive touch of Amsterdam are the canals. Like much of the Netherlands, the city itself rests on what was previously swampland. The canals were used to redirect the water, thus making the land available to build on while providing convenient transportation within the city. The canals have also, historically, been useful in the city’s defense. The Stelling van Amsterdam is a system of forts surrounding the center, with low-lying ground that can be flooded to create a watery barrier too shallow for boats. Unfortunately for the Netherlands, this system of defence, however elegant, was rendered obsolete by advances in military technology—such as bombers.

Nowadays, the canals are mostly just pretty to look at. And they are plentiful. There are 165 canals, which is more than even Venice has; and well over a thousand bridges are needed to connect all the isles of land floating between them. Personally I found the constant presence of running water to be extremely charming. The canals make the whole city seem to breathe in the open air, counteracting the somewhat cramped aspect of the city’s narrow buildings.

The final result is a beguiling mixture: wide vistas and narrow alleys, crowded footbridges and bustling bike lanes, historic brick husks concealing modern interiors.

As I walked, listening to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread, I was lost in an aesthetic reverie—marvelling at every new perspective afforded to me. Each shop window and city street gained a strange significance, each one a kind of monument to past and present lives. The cold and the dark gave the city a melancholic hue; but it was a sweet sadness, the kind of sorrow one feels at all beauty, knowing that it is temporary. This, then, was my first and final impression of Amsterdam: the beauty of everyday life.

§

My first stop was the Van Gogh Museum.

Few museums dedicated solely to the art of one man can be ranked among the great museums of the world, but this is one of them. The institution is situated in a sleek, modern building in Museum Square. The museum received its collection—the largest in the world of Van Gogh’s works—from the artist’s family. After Vincent and his brother, Theo, passed away, his unsold work fell into the able hands of Theo’s widow, Johanna. She, in turn, left the collection to her son, named after his uncle, Vincent. The museum only opened its doors in 1973; before that, Van Gogh’s works were held and displayed in the state modern art museum, the Stedelijk.

No photographs are allowed inside the museum, which is likely a good thing, since otherwise there would be far too many selfie-takers clogging the halls. Thus, I will have to rely on my memory. On the ground floor there is a series of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. His oeuvre is particularly rich in self-portraits, perhaps because he was prone to melancholy self-examination, or perhaps because he simply could not afford other models. In any case, they are milestones in the history of art: an attempt at introspection whose nearest literary equivalent is, perhaps, Montaigne’s Essays. When the portraits are arranged chronologically, one can see the progression in his style, from lumpy forms of dull browns and greys, to bright blues and yellows in dashing lines. His best self-portraits achieve a mesmerizing stare about the eyes, comparable to the intensity in Michelangelo’s David.

The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet

Next, the visitor ascends the stairs to enter the main collection. The exhibit begins with some of Van Gogh’s influences. One of the most important of these was Jean-François Millet, a French social realist who often painted rural scenes. Van Gogh was himself a passionate believer in painting from life; and in his early years especially he was fascinated by poverty and peasant ways. Many of his early sketches (which are on display) are of workers in a field or townspeople attending a mass. Van Gogh got a relatively late start in the craft (27, which is good news for the rest of us) and his early work displays no technical brilliance, to say the least. But it does show, if my eye may judge, a keen emotional sensitivity to the world around him, especially to the toil, drudgery, and misery of life. There is nothing in his work that can be called frivolous.

I came well prepared, since I had just finished reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters (highly recommended). You may imagine, then, how much of a treat it was to see the artist’s work laid out chronologically after I had worked my way through his life. Again, what most strikes the viewer about Van Gogh’s early work is its lack of color. He seems to have had almost no interest in pigment. This is epitomized in his early masterwork, The Potato Eaters. He shows us a scene of peasants eating a humble meal. It is not an inspiring sight. The men and women have heavy, almost simian features, reminiscent of Goya’s black paintings (though I do not think Van Gogh ever saw them). The oil lamp illuminates the hovel with a sickly light, which reinforces the ill and withered look of the painting’s subject. Van Gogh shows us an ugly truth, horridly naked, and yet made monumental in its composition.

The Potato Eaters

Vincent’s style underwent a dramatic change when, after enduring years of isolated poverty and estrangement with his family, he moved in with his brother, Theo, in his Paris apartment. Theo was an art dealer, and Paris the art capital of the world, so Vincent was well-positioned to take stock of the dominant artistic currents of his time. In Paris he saw the work of modern masters like Monet, Seurat, and Cezanne, and befriended many other prominent artists (most famously Gauguin, who later came to stay with Vincent until they had a quarrel). The most immediate consequence of this exposure was Vincent’s discovery of color. Compared to his earlier work, the paintings he started to produce were bright and joyful, though still burning with intensity.

I would also like to add a curiosity I learned on my visit: that Van Gogh was enamored of Japanese art. Like many artists of the time, he collected Japanese prints. He even went to far as to copy them, producing his own versions of works by Hiroshige. His copies, though lacking the lightness and clean execution of the original, are well done. And he even went so far as to write Japanese all around the border of the painting (though I don’t know if it is proper Japanese, since I do not think he could read the language).

Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s years in Paris are some of his worst documented, since he was living with his brother and so had no need to write him letters. Nevertheless, it is clear that the artist was busy practicing his craft. The Van Gogh museum even has a study that he made of an object (I remember it was a small statue of an animal, but I cannot remember which). Van Gogh’s distinctively heavy brushstrokes also begin to make their emergence at this stage. In another room, a recreating of one of his paintings is on display under a microscope, so that the visitor can see the swirling textures of the master’s paint up close. This habit of daubing on pigment in glooping quantities caused his paintings to have an almost sculptural feel, something that no poster or print can capture.

The Yellow House

After two years Van Gogh left Paris for more the amiable climate of southern France. Here is when his real mature period begins. While his early works tend to focus on humans in action, his mature style was more focused on scenes: buildings, rooms, landscapes. One painting which epitomizes the change is The Yellow House, depicting the building in which he rented an apartment with the naive hope of turning it into an artists’ colony. Far from the center of focus, the people in the work are anonymous shadows, only serving to illustrate the city street that is his main focus. Van Gogh also painted his room. Here the painter’s expressionism is especially obvious. The perspective is warped; it is not quite believable as a space. But the bold yellows and light blues convey a sense of joyfulness and peace, which is nevertheless somewhat belied by the faint whiff of poverty one senses from looking at the barely furnished room.

But Van Gogh’s most famous painting from this period is likely the Sunflowers. Van Gogh made multiple versions of this painting; the most famous of these is at the museum. It is a masterpiece. The painting has the strong and instantly memorable visual impact of the best graphic design. Yet it is better than any design, of course. With his thick and skillful dabs of paint, Van Gogh makes the sunflowers almost tactile. Though more abstract and more beautiful than any real sunflower, one almost feels that she can reach into the painting and grab one. But the emotional effect of the painting goes far beyond its obvious visual properties. As in all of Van Gogh’s best work, the dominant feeling is joy, immense joy, struggling with and overcoming equally intense feelings of despair. During his stay at the Yellow House, Gauguin created a valuable image (also at the museum) of Van Gogh at work on the sunflowers.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers

Needless to say his dreams of founding an artists’ colony failed. Van Gogh was hardly the figure to command a movement, not least because he was tetchy and unyielding. For example, he constantly clashed with Gauguin over the necessity of drawing from nature. Gauguin believed in letting the artist’s imagination run wild, free of constraint, but Van Gogh insisted that great art only resulted from close observation. In any case, their falling out had as much to do with Van Gogh’s worsening mental state as with his opinions. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh attempted to attack him with a razor; later this same night was when Van Gogh famously severed his ear.

This led to Van Gogh’s hospitalization and eventual suicide—and also to the most productive and extraordinary phase of his career. It is still unclear what ailment plagued the artist in his final years. His lifestyle—smoking and drinking heavily, frequenting prostitutes and possibly contracting syphilis, eating scantily and sleeping sporadically—no doubt contributed. The museum has a display of various hypotheses: Freudian theories of repression, bipolar disorder, sunstroke, digitalis poisoning. Likely we will never know for certain. Whatever the explanation, Van Gogh struggled heroically with his worsening condition, creating an oeuvre that rivals any in the history of art.

Almond Blossoms

One of these remarkable late paintings is his Almond Blossoms. The twisted branch of an almost tree in bloom stretches across the canvas. Beyond is the blue sky, as if the viewer is below and looking up at the boughs. It is a painting of extraordinary calm. One wonders how a man recently admitted into an asylum could conjure such a tranquil image of nature in its simple beauty. And here, once again, we see the artist’s talent for reproducing the emotional effect of nature, rather than nature herself. For the painting is impossible to mistake with a photograph; the brush marks are visible, the flowers are not finely detailed. Yet the painting gives the sense of lying on grass, looking up at an almost tree—the cool breeze, the gentle sun, the fresh smell of spring—better than any photograph can.

Wheatfield with Crows

Among the final paintings on display is Wheatfield with Crows. This is commonly said to be Van Gogh’s last completed painting—though no reliable record exists of it being so—and so critics are apt to see in it signs of depression. Certainly these are not difficult to find: the brooding, stormy sky; the windswept field; the black birds heralding death—and all in a style of extraordinary intensity. But to me this is not the work of a man tired with life, bent on leaving this world. Indeed, though it is hard to argue that the painting is happy, I still sense in it the same joy that one feels in Sunflowers: the awe in the face of a natural spectacle, the wonder at the basic scenes of everyday life. That the same man who painted this would, shortly later, shoot himself in a similar field, beggars my imagination.

Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, confinement, and eventual suicide form an essential part of his myth. No doubt he was dogged by a serious illness, which at times sent him into delusional fits. Yet it is very much disputable the role that Van Gogh’s mental illness—whatever its cause—played in his painting. Some have argued that it contributed to his creativity, giving him a unique vision. One can equally well argue that his art was a way of staying sane and fighting off his demons. Personally, I am averse to this modern tendency to diagnose everyone who seems odd, different, or eccentric with a mental disorder, equating different forms of genius with conditions or illnesses. Such diagnoses strip the individual of his agency, and even of his individuality. More importantly, post mortem diagnoses are impossible to prove.

This did it for the Van Gogh Museum. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most extraordinary museums that I have had the pleasure of visiting. Fortunately, another one was just around the corner. So after a quick sandwich in Bagels and Beans—a local chain, very tasty—I was on my way to Amsterdam’s other major museum: the Rijksmuseum.

§

The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum, comparable to Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid. Founded in 1800, the museum is located in a grand, palatial building—appropriately Dutch in design—right in the center of the city. In it can be found some of the finest examples of Dutch art, including many famous paintings by the Dutch Golden Age masters. It is a necessary visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of art.

Aside from a small collection of Asian and Medieval art, the museum’s collection really begins in force with the Renaissance. Here we see the beginning of portraiture as we know it: the attempt to capture the personality of one ordinary individual through a close concentration on their features. We see characters of various sorts—the proud, the crafty, the self-indulgent, the vain—at times ridiculous, yet rendered iconic through the painter’s brush. It is one of the great mysteries of art that it can transform the unique into the universal by emphasizing what is most unique. Perhaps this is because we are all different in the same ways.

The museum does not only contain paintings. There are also ornate chess-sets, statuettes, altarpieces, and even what were supposed to be unicorn horns (in reality, the tusks of narwhals). And there is a fascinating section devoted to colonial art—both art collected from, and inspired by, the Dutch colonization of the Indies. Here we find ornate cannon barrels, one with the head of a dragon, as well as small dioramas depicting colonial life. Also on display are delicate luxury items, such as furniture, candelabras, and mirrors—even an ornate harpsichord. Nearby are the 19th century paintings, among which are excellent examples of Dutch landscapes and portraits.

Yet the museum’s most valuable treasures are gathered together in the Gallery of Honor. And just as Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, occupies pride of place in the center of the Prado, so does Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch dominate the central gallery.

This painting is justly famous for its revolutionary take on a group portrait. Traditionally, a portrait of this kind—not of nobles, but of the local militia—was a formal and static affair, with the participants lines up in rows according to their rank. Rembrandt cracks this convention wide open with this work. Every person is individualized, and everyone is engaged in some sort of action. As a result the group portrait is full of bustle and even confusion, as each character is busy loading their riffle, having a chat, or gesticulating heroically. It is difficult to imagine this chaotic rabble of men marching in formation, but easy to imagine them relaxing in a pub. Only a master of portraiture such as Rembrandt could have put together such a marvelously memorable image out of such seemingly unpromising material. And if any evidence was needed of his technical ability, examine the foreshortening on the lieutenant’s spear in the foreground.

The Night Watch

Another, somewhat lesser-known master of the Dutch Golden Age was Jacob van Ruisdael, who was the preeminent landscape artist of the period. One might think that the Netherlands is an unpromising land for landscape painters, since the Dutch countryside is so flat and domesticated. But Ruisdael has shown us otherwise. Personally I find his use of color and texture mesmerizing: the fluffy clouds floating in the light blue, the varying greens of the trees and the dull browns of the dirt—it all comes together in such a way that the ordinary beauty of daily scenes emerges. I particularly like his Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede for its brooding, grey sky silhouetting a lonely windmill—perhaps an ironic comment on the force of technology as compared to that of nature.

Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede
The Milkmaid

My favorite painter of this period, and the one that most perfectly captures my impression of Dutch life, is Johannes Vermeer. Here we see something almost entirely new in the history of art. Rather than focus on the forces of nature, the royalty, aristocrats, or wealthy merchants, we have a focus on the most absolutely ordinary of daily, domestic scenes. The most famous example of this is The Milkmaid, which shows us a serving woman engaged in pouring milk. Again, it is the most typical and unromantic of gestures; and yet Vermeer, with his fine attention to daily, manages to imbue into this gesture an extreme pathos—an elemental poetry.

The Little Street

Another one of my favorites is The Little Street, which shows us a typical, middle-class street in the city of Delft. The buildings are in the homely, Dutch style, made with step-gabled roofs of brick, and they are a little bit worn by the weather. Inside Vermeer allows us to spy on a woman at work, washing clothes. Nearby, seated in a doorstep, another woman is sewing; while two children are searching for something (or playing a game?) underneath a bench. Again, the painting is poignant for its very ordinariness. Vermeer shows us the quiet nobility of these neighborhood scenes, normally taken for granted and yet necessary for life to go on. And in the process the artist has created an image more impressive than the full-length portrait of Napoleon, dressed in the most pompous of imperial outfits, in another gallery of the museum.

In a word, I found in the Rijksmuseum what I had also found in the Van Gogh Museum, and indeed in the city itself—a celebration of the beauty of everyday life.

§

My next destination was Amsterdam’s infamous Red-Light District. This is so-called because of the red lighting used to advertise a prostitute’s service at night. The area is famous, not only for the working women displaying themselves in shop windows, but also for the many peripheral sex-related businesses: sex shops, sex shows, and even a museum of prostitution (which was what I decided to visit).

Ironically, perhaps, the red-light district in Amsterdam is in the most historic and beautiful part of the city. Canals criss-cross this side of town in a circular pattern, making all foot-travel a labyrinth of alleys, narrow streets, and foot-bridges. Hardly a street goes by that does not reveal another picturesque view of the city. It was a clear February afternoon, with the blue sky gradually turning pink in the sunset, and shadows gradually extending across the canals. I was there before dinner, so the area was fairly quiet. Indeed, apart from a few signs, it was difficult to know that I was even in a red-light district. No scantily clad women graced the windows overlooking the street. This meant that I could take pictures without fear. From what I hear, the women get angry when people photograph them, and may even leave their perch in violent pursuit.

Before I relate what I learned in the Museum of Prostitution, I wish first to cover another of Amsterdam’s famous markets: marijuana. Now, you may be surprised to learn that marijuana is not legal in the city; it is decriminalized—or tolerated, in other words. The result is the same, however: a visitor may consume weed without fear of the police, and even buy small quantities with impunity. This is normally done in “coffee” shops. I did not visit one of these during my stay—I was traveling alone, so it didn’t seem like a good idea—but I have heard ample stories of friends smoking too much, or eating too much of an edible, and repenting afterwards. Well, maybe next time.

The Museum of Prostitution is dedicated to Amsterdam’s other great vice: sex. It is right in the center of the red-light district, in a space that was formerly used by call girls. The ticket came with an audioguide, in my case narrated by a Russian sex worker. The museum itself is designed to replicate the spaces used in these circumstances, complete with bathrooms, beds, and chains. I learned some interesting facts along the way. The standard deal is to pay €50 until the man finishes—which normally takes less than 10 minutes. A working girl makes more money with a faster turnover, you see. The guide also told us about some of the dangers that prostitutes face, even in a highly regulated industry like Amsterdam’s, as well as some amusing stories about customers. Really, the most striking thing about the museum was how un-sexy the experience is made to seem, for both client and purveyor.

I especially appreciated the information about prostitution throughout the world. In most of the United States it is absolutely illegal. In Spain, it is decriminalized to be a prostitute, but pimping is illegal. In France it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it—a curious situation. In Amsterdam it is highly regulated, with a certain number of legal permits. Window prostitutes only constitute a moderate portion of the business in the country, with street walkers, sex clubs, and escort services rounding out the rest of the market. I have heard people say that STD testing is mandatory, but this is not actually true—though I am sure that many prostitutes regularly get tested, and condom use is universal.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in legal protections, the industry is still rife with problems. Prostitutes are far more likely to suffer abuse or rape. And since prostitution is still illegal in much of the world, and in any case there is a lot of money to be made by unscrupulous people, human trafficking, especially of underage girls, is still a serious problem. This has led to some crackdowns by the authorities. Coffee shops have not escaped this legal limbo, either, since although it is not illegal to buy or possess marijuana in small quantities, it is illegal to grow or buy it in large quantities—which leads one to wonder where these coffee shops get their supplies.

Though I was not inspired to try it for myself, I left the museum greatly impressed by the huge and so often ignored role that the world’s oldest profession has played, and still plays, in society. To pick a relevant example, Van Gogh was a dedicated patron of brothels. At one point he decided to live with a prostitute and her young child—despite the protests of his family and friends—and after his self-inflicted wound to the ear, he delivered the severed appendage to a local prostitute. And this story is just one of millions.

Sex work has been a constant presence in the history of every nation; yet this indecorous profession has consistently been pushed into the shadows. It is something we prefer to ignore, even if we all know it exists. Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think that the Dutch approach is far better than American prudishness. If we simply admit that, one way or another, sex work will continue to exist, we can install the necessary safeguards to make it safe for its practitioners. Pretending it does not exist only serves those who prey on the vulnerable.

§

I only had a long weekend to spend on this trip; and I had decided, perhaps too ambitiously, to visit both Amsterdam and Brussels in the three full days I had available. This meant that, after my long day exploring the treasures of Amsterdam, I had to catch a train the following afternoon. Only the morning remained to see more of this enchanting city.

I decided that my time was best spent in renting a bicycle. Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world; and if you want to see the city from the perspective of a native, this is the only way to do it. So I trekked from my Airbnb to Centraal Station (listening to Frankenstein on audiobook, whose dark gothic tone did not quite match the bourgeois beauty of the city), deposited my big orange backpack in a luggage locker (they are located beyond the train turnstiles), and rented a bike from a place called MacBike (no relation to Apple).

It was a simple contraption with a few gears and decently working brakes. Somehow, while I was adjusting the seat for my overlong legs, I cut myself in my palm. It did not hurt at all; in fact I didn’t notice until after several minutes of riding; but it bled quite a bit and the scar lasted for months. Thus I bloodily made my way into the city. I was quite nervous at first. My riding skills are reasonable, but I felt intimidated by the rules of the road. I had never signalled, passed on the outside lane, stopped at a stop sign, or dealt with intersections on a bike. And I can hardly do those things in a car in any case. But once I got my biking legs back, I felt marvelous as I drifted down the historic city streets.

Bicycles are one of the most extraordinary inventions our species has blundered upon, and I think many cities could be vastly improved by following Amsterdam’s example and relying more on bike transport. They require no fuel except the food you eat, are fast enough to quickly navigate most city centers, need little space to store, produce no pollution, and as an added bonus promote healthiness and well-being. I remember watching a presentation by Bill Nye while I was in high school in which he told us that bicycles are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to man. They are also quite relaxing and enjoyable.

As you can tell from this paean to bicycles, I was having a splendid time. But it was difficult to navigate the city, since I couldn’t follow any maps on my phone while I was riding. After several wrong turns and detours, then, I found my way to Vondelpark, a very pretty green space with twisting paths for walking and biking, and a little pond running down the center.

As I rode through this park, I had one of those surreal moments when one seems to be seeing oneself from a distance. I had heard of people visiting Amsterdam and renting bikes back when I was in high school, but never did I imagine that I might do the same thing myself one day. Yet here I was, less than ten years after graduating high school, pedaling around in this beautiful foreign city before my train left to Belgium—another place I never imagined that I would visit. It seemed too good to be true, like I was living somebody else’s life. This was an irrational reaction, since it is not as if biking in Amsterdam is objectively more pleasurable than biking in, say, my old university. What made it special was that, throughout the years, I had unconsciously invested the experience with an exotic, unreachable quality; and now I was finding that, far from unreachable, it was the easiest thing in the world.

In an hour I had arrived back in the train station. It was to be my last glimpse of the city before my ride to Belgium. The experience only confirmed what was, from the start, my constant impression of Amsterdam: the appreciation of ordinary pleasures, the celebration of daily beauty, the quiet contentment with the simple things in life. It is a city of high culture but of little pretense, of hard work yet of an easygoing attitude. I hope to return someday.

Images of Salamanca

Images of Salamanca

There is a legend that, if you see the frog on the façade of the old university building, you are destined to return to Salamanca. Well, I saw the frog on my first trip, three years ago. And sure enough I returned.

Salamanca is without doubt one of the best daytrips from Madrid. Like so many places in Spain, it is extremely photogenic. Here is the evidence.

The passage surrounding the magnificent Plaza Mayor
The plaza
The famed Casa de las Conchas. It is a municipal library now.
From the Casa’s courtyard you can see the Church of the Holy Spirit.
The façade of the old university building.
Can you find the frog?
The old library.
My brother contemplating the anatomy of a lizard.
The main altar of the old cathedral. We took the tour of the Ieronimus tower—highly recommended.
The cathedral’s roof.
The view from the upper floor. It is difficult to capture the sense of vertigo in a photograph.
My friend Holden and my brother.
The old Roman Bridge in the distance, spanning the river Tórmes
The astronaut floating in the façade of the New Cathedral.
We stumbled upon a wedding.
The Roman Bridge, with the cathedral in the distance.
The Casa Lis, an Art Deco museum that we visited. It’s lovely, but no photos are allowed.
A section from El Cielo de Salamanca, a fresco of the zodiac painted on a semi-dome in the Escuela Menores. It’s a stunning work, and free to visit.
The Convento de San Esteban, with is impressive plateresque façade.
The central cloister of the convent.
A very old and a very big book.
The convent church.

Images of Peñalara

Images of Peñalara

Recently I revisited Peñalara—the biggest mountain in Madrid’s Guadarrama range. I had already been to the mountain four times, but never before in the dead of winter. I doubted that there would be any snow at all. But I was wrong. The landscape was completely covered with snow and ice, smoothed slick by the wind. Rebe and I tried to climb to the peak, but we couldn’t even get halfway. The ground was too slippery, the wind too strong, and the fog too dense.

But it was still a lovely time. As a New Yorker, I sometimes find myself yearning for a proper winter in Spain. Going to the mountains gave me a taste of the cold without my having to live in it. It’s a perfect daytrip from Madrid. The only negative aspect was that, this time, I had to pay almost 30 euros round-trip to get there. Rebe, on the other hand, traveled for free, since it was included in her youth metro pass. Oh, the lost dreams of youth.

The train to Los Cotos. Tickets must be bought in advance.
Rebe in the pines
The author in a knit wool hat
Many families come to go sledding
Skiers and serious hikers were also in attendance
A refuge from the snow

Images of Sevilla

Images of Sevilla

Recently I returned to Sevilla for the third time, to show my brother the enchanting city. (For my original post, click here.) I used the opportunity to take pictures with my new camera.

Our first stop was the Plaza de España, a place so attractive that anyone with any camera can take a fine photo.

The plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American exposition to showcase the wonders of Spain. The architectural style is a cross between Spanish Baroque and Neo-Mudéjar. Along the semi-circular building there are nooks with ceramic images of every Spanish province, accompanied by illustrations of important events in Spain’s history. Running parallel to the building is a little moat in which you can rent a boat and paddle about.

Next we went to the Alcázar—Seville’s Moorish palace. Curiously, the most famous part of the palace was not built under Muslim rule, but under the Christian king Peter (alternatively called “the cruel” or “the just”). He employed Muslim workmen to construct a kind of homage to the Alhambra in Granada. Later kings added to the palace, and maintained the large and lush garden surrounding the building complex.

The lion guarding the entrance
An inner courtyard, where the Dorn scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed
The ceiling from the Hall of Ambassadors
A detail from a doorway
Fish in the pond behind the palace
The cistern under the palace
A structure in the gardens

After the Alcázar, we went to Seville’s famous cathedral—one of the biggest in the world.

The underside of Christopher Colombus’s tomb
The enormous, and enormously detailed, main altar

Nextdoor to the cathedral is the famous Archivo General de las Indias (General Archive of the Indies). The building was designed by Juan de Herrera (also respondible for El Escorial and the palace in Aranjuez) in the 16th century, to be used by the merchant guild, it was later converted to be the central storehouse of documents pertaining to Spanish colonization. As such, it is now a repository of immense value to historians, and was thus included in Seville’s UNESCO designation.

The building itself is stately and restrained, consisting of two stories around a central courtyard. Every wall is lined with binders on glass-covered shelves, containing millions upon millions of pages.

The building also contains some delightful paintings by Murillo.

Because went in December, outside the cathedral the streets were full of stalls selling nativity figurines.

Our next stop was new for me: the Monasterio de la Cartuja (Carthusian Monastery, or charterhouse). This is an old religous complex, located across the Guadarrama River, that was also used to manufacture ceramics—which explains the conical chimneys that stick up all around the central religious buildings.

More recently the center has been converted into a modern art museum. It was completely free to visit. Outside, in the courtyard, a band was playing rock music (with the volume turned up a bit too loud) while children danced on the grass.

Some of the permanent artworks (see below) were charming. But the temporary exhibition spaces (housed in the empty church and among ornate graves) were extremely disappointing—self-important post-modernism at its worst.

The Tower of Seville, the tallest building in the city, as reflected in a pool near the monastery

After this, we crossed the Guadarrama River again, and went to see Setas de Sevilla (“Mushrooms of Seville”)—enormous, bulbous wooden figures that sprout from the center of the city. These were constructed in 2011, and have succeeded in becoming one of the city’s most distinctive sights.

Later, we decided to visit the Basilica of Macarena, which is famous for housing the Virgen de la Macarena. This is a wooden devotional figure, considered the patroness of bullfighters, widely known through the Catholic country.

On the way there, we dipped into another church, where we witnessed another wooden Virgin playing its role in worship. Congregants lined up to kiss the Virgin’s hand, after which a young man would patiently rub away the saliva with a rag, thus preparing the hand to bless the next devotee.

The Virgin of the Macarena did not disappoint. She is ensconced high in the altar, looking omnipotent and tragic. But the dedicated believer can go behind the altar and ascend some stairs, to examine the blessed figure up close.

Our final stop was a flamenco show in the center of town. As usual, I loved every minute of it. Seville never disappoints.

2019: New Years Resolutions

2019: New Years Resolutions

In manifold ways 2018 was an excellent year. I traveled to places I never expected to see, I read books that had long been on my list, and in general I had a great time. In fact, I did so many things that I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. And my major resolution is to put even more effort into my writing this year.

So, without further ago, here is an incomplete list of the places I visited that I still need to write about:

  • Amsterdam
  • Athens
  • Boston
  • Bruges
  • Brussels
  • Chartres
  • Dublin
  • Lisbon
  • Ourense
  • Padua
  • Paris
  • Reykjavik
  • San Francisco
  • Tenerife
  • Venice

One of my resolutions is to brush up on math. I hope, first, to read about Greek mathematics, and even to see if I can penetrate a few works of Archimedes (highly unlikely). I also have a calculus textbook that I hope to use to revive my atrophying abilities (equally improbable).

Meanwhile, I have typically immoderate and unrealistic reading goals. Some hefty existentialist tomes have been weighing me down: books by Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Husserl, to name just three. There are also many classic French writers I have yet to read: Pascal, Balzac, Stendhal, Le Rouchefoucault… And then there are some ponderous and interminable history books that I are in my sights.

I should stop myself here, since I will have to eat all of these words. One thing I can be certain of, though, is that I will neither diet nor exercise.

Happy New Years!

Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit

Historic Hudson Homes: Kykuit
John D. Rockefeller Sr.

By common consent, the richest man in modern history was John D. Rockefeller. At his peak he was worth at least three times more than the world’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos—over $300 billion to Bezos’s $112 billion. In a world before income taxes or antitrust laws, it was possible to amass fortunes which (one hopes) would be impossible today. Strangely, however, this living embodiment of Mammon did not have extravagant tastes. To the contrary, for a man of such unlimited resources Rockefeller was known for his simple, even puritanical, ways. According to Ron Chernow, a recent biographer, Rockefeller had a habit of buying homes and keeping the original decoration, even if it was absurdly out of keeping with his own taste, just to avoid an unnecessary expense.

Thus when John decided to buy a property near his brother William’s estate (Rockwood), near the Hudson River, he simply stayed in the pre-existing houses. (William’s Rockwood mansion has since been torn down, but the property has been transformed into a wonderful park.) The spot Rockefeller chose occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson; it is named Kykuit from the Dutch word kijkuit, which means “lookout.” Likely enough Rockefeller would have been satisfied indefinitely with a fairly modest dwelling, had not his loyal son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to take charge of a manor house to be built for his father.

Junior and his wife, Abby Aldrich, set to work on an ambitious, architecturally eclectic design. They worried about every detail, as they knew how exacting and finicky the paterfamilias could be; the planning and construction took six painstaking years; the couple even took the precaution of sleeping in every room in the house, just to be sure that it was perfect. Nevertheless, John the father was unsatisfied; and he could not conceal his dissatisfaction. He was disturbed, for example, that the servants’ door was right underneath his bedroom window, so he could hear it clapping all day. Eventually (and doubtless to his son’s dismay) Rockefeller concluded that the house needed to be completely remodeled; and thus the current, Classical Revival form of the house came into being.

(An amateur landscape designer, Rockefeller was also dissatisfied with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, whom you may remember as the designer of Central Park. Senior decided to do the landscaping himself.)

As in Sunnyside, tours are given by the Historic Hudson Valley. But you cannot go directly to the Kykuit property. To visit, you must buy a ticket in the gift shop of Philipsburg Manor, another historic site (a 17th century farm) in Sleepy Hollow, right across from the Cemetery. After you sign up for a tour, you board a small bus, which transports you on the 10 minute ride to the property. A cheesy informational audio clip plays during the trip, giving some brief background information about the family and the property. This sets the scene for the tour guide. I have, incidentally, heard that the content of the tour can vary significantly depending on the guide’s interests.

As the bus rolls in, through the gates and beyond the walls—passing by a “play house” still used by the Rockefeller family (many of whom still live somewhere on the massive estate)—one gets a sense of the private, exclusive, and isolated world inhabited by the world’s richest man. Widely known and, for a time, almost universally hated, Rockefeller needed to create his own refuge. My favorite detail was the tunnel underneath the mansion that was used to make deliveries without disturbing Rockefeller’s rest.Kykuit_facade

The bus deposited us in front of the house, near an impressive Oceanus fountain, copied from a fountain in Florence. Ivy crawls up the stone facade, all the way up to the neoclassical tympanum. An eagle crowns the top, displaying the family crest. From there the guide led us up onto the porch, where two strikingly modern statues stand flanking the doorway. This is a constant feature in Kykuit: the juxtaposition between classic and contemporary tastes. John D. Rockefeller himself had very little taste in art, conservative or otherwise; his son, Junior, was enamored of the past—Greek, Medieval, even classical Chinese. Meanwhile, Junior’s wife, Abby, and his son, Nelson, were important patrons of modern art. Thus the house is an, at times, uneasy incorporation of these divergent tastes.kykuit_side

As a case in point, there are beautiful examples of Chinese porcelain on display throughout the house, protected by plexiglass cases. (The guide explained the glass was installed to protect them from playing children.) In a room used by Nelson Rockefeller there is also the vice-presidential flag, commemorating his term under Gerald Ford. Nelson wanted to be president himself, and he had the experience to do it—he was the governor of New york from 1959-72—but according to Ron Chernow, his divorce made him an unpalatable candidate. (How times have changed!) There were also portraits of the Rockefellers, and a phenomenal bust of the bald, decrepit, and yet mesmerizing John D. Rockefeller Senior—whom I was excited to meet, since I had just read a book about him.

After this, our guide led us into the gardens. The most notable feature of these are the modernist statues scattered about—gruesome metal bodies amid neat hedgerows. Unsurprising for such a commanding spot, the view is excellent. On a tolerably clear day you can see all the way to Manhattan from the back porch. I imagined lounging on an easy chair, sipping some very posh drink—for some reason a mint julep comes to mind—and contemplating the Hudson. But of course the Rockefellers were Baptist stock, and teetotallers all, so the drink is pure fantasy. Beyond view (and beyond the scope of the tour) was the reversible nine-hole golf course that Rockefeller used with Baptist scrupulousness; after God and Mammon, golf was his top priority. Likely Rockefeller Senior would have been shocked and appalled by the massive modernist statue (resembling an alien squid) that was airdropped by helicopter into place on the property during his grandson’s tenure.

Then we made our way inside to visit the art gallery in the basement. This includes original works by many modern artist, the most famous being Andy Warhol; but the best works on display are undoubtedly the Picasso tapestries. These were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, to be made by Madame de la Baume Dürrbach, for the purpose of making his works easier to display. The biggest of these tapestries was a copy of Guernica, now on display at the United Nations building. Of the ones in this private gallery, my favorite is of Picasso’s Three Musicians (the original hangs in the MoMA). Even when I toured Kykuit as a child, tired, hungry, and very bored with all this old-people nonsense, I was impressed that a person could have Picassos in his basement; and my opinion has not changed.

To speed through the tour somewhat, we eventually boarded the bus again to go back to Philipsburg Manor. However, we did stop at the stables on the way back, which was filled with antique horse carriages and old luxury automobiles. In addition to being an avid golfer, you see, Rockefeller Senior also loved to go riding in his carriage and, in later life, to take fast drives in his fancy cars. (A strange detail from the biography is that, in later life, the upright and conservative Rockefeller would grope women during these rides. He was a man of many contradictions.)

This fairly well sums up my visit to Kykuit. It is an impressive place—six floors, forty rooms, and twenty bedrooms. Even so, considering Rockefeller’s vast fortune, and considering the kinds of monstrous mansions that other rich families—most notoriously the Vanderbilts—built for themselves, it is a restrained edifice. One can see the old Baptist tastes coming through, even amid all this wealth and splendor. Even so, I cannot imagine living in such a private world, so far removed from pesky neighbors and city noise. But the Rockefellers apparently had no trouble house; Nelson Rockefeller lived in it up until his death in 1979, when it was donated for use as a museum.

Before ending this post, I should also mention two nearby Rockefeller monuments.

The first is the Union Church. This is one of two non-denominational churches (the other being Riverside Church in Manhattan) commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is an attractive and modest building, made of cut stone with a steeply slanting roof. Though the church does have an active congregation, most of the time its main use is as a tourist attraction, also administered by Historic Hudson Valley. The church is notable for its stained glass. The rose window was designed by the modernist pioneer Henri Matisse; according to the guide (I was the only one on the “tour”), it was the last work the artist ever completed. It is a simple, abstract pattern, yet subtly interesting to look at. More memorable, however, is the series of stained-glass windows completed by Marc Chagall, using Biblical scenes to commemorate deceased members of the Rockefeller family. Though I am normally not greatly fond of Chagall’s work, I must say that the strong, simple colors of Chagall’s windows created a pleasant atmosphere—if not exactly profoundly religious.

Stone Barns

The second is Stone Barns, a center for sustainable agriculture established by David Rockefeller (Junior’s youngest son). (Sharing the Rockefeller talent for long life, David passed away just last year, at the age of 101.) The center lies on the edge of the Rockefeller State Park, alongside Bedford Road, surrounded on all sides by rolling farmland; in fact, the park’s paths extend into the property, making it a lovely place to stroll about. The buildings of the complex are completed in a style reminiscent of Union Church, as well as of the Cloisters museum in Manhattan: deep-grey cut stone. The farm is dedicated to growing high-quality produce and livestock without using anything “artificial.” Some of its products are served in the famous Blue Hill restaurant on the property—a place so absurdly fancy and expensive that, judging by the way things are going, I doubt I will ever get an opportunity to try. The menu, which costs $258 per person, consists of many different courses of artisanal dishes using esoteric ingredients. I have bought cheaper transatlantic plane tickets.

Historic Hudson Homes: Sunnyside

Historic Hudson Homes: Sunnyside

Washington Irving haunts my corner of Westchester like a beneficent ghoul. As a quintessential New Yorker, and the first American writer to gain international prominence, he left monuments to his memory scattered about everywhere. In my native town of Sleepy Hollow, he is inescapable: our municipal statue, our high school football team, and our most famous landmark, the cemetery—not to mention postcards, ghost tours, haunted hayrides, and all our other identifying symbols. Irving was clearly a generous person, as he donated his own name to the town next door, Irvington, where his house still remains as a tourist attraction.

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Washington Irving

In the grand scheme of the universe, Sunnyside is quite close to my own domicile. Yet when, like me, you lack a car; and also, like myself, you enjoy walking places, the journey can take a long while. Luckily the walk there is very pleasant, since Sunnyside is right next to the Aqueduct trail that extends from NYC all the way to Croton. The path took me through the heart of Tarrytown, across Route 9, and then past Lyndhurst mansion—another historic Hudson home, an extravagant neo-gothic castle once owned by Jay Gould. After that I passed by a large property owned by the Belvedere Family Community (otherwise known as Unificationists), who have chosen this picturesque spot to bring about world peace.  

By the time I reached Sunnyside I was tired and very sweaty. But paying customers, even smelly ones, are seldom turned away. Sunnyside is run by the Historic Hudson Valley, an organization which administers several other sites along the river (such as the subject of my next post, Kykuit). To visit you must sign up for a guided tour, which you do in the gift shop (as you are conveniently surrounded by overpriced books and paraphernalia); the price is a little more then $20. As I waited for the tour to start, I was tempted to buy a copy of Irving’s History of New York, his breakthrough piece of social satire; but I remembered I already have a copy on my Kindle. For all its social ills, technology does occasionally save us from gift-shop prices.

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An artist’s rendering

In minutes, the tour commenced. Our pleasant guide, who was dressed in period costume, took us to our first stop: a ripe old sycamore tree, planted in the heart of the property. It has been growing there since 1776—respectably middle-aged for a tree but not exactly venerable. Our guide then directed our attention to the property itself. Apparently Irving was an amateur gardener and landscape designer, and helped to mold his property according to his romantic tastes. Here there are no French gardens, with neat hedgerows and grid-like walking paths, but something more akin to the English Gardens in Munich: a blend of planning and nature.

Of course, the property was originally much nicer, since it extended all the way to the Hudson River. But when the Hudson Line railroad was completed in 1849, it cut off his property from the water; and I cannot imagine the country-loving writer had much affection for the noisy, screeching, fuming locomotives chugging before his windows. Even today, the whooshing of the Metro-North disturbs the peace of this hitherto isolated spot. In fairness, the Metro-North has compensated by naming a few of their train cars after the famous writer and his creations—Headless Horseman, Knickerbocker, Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle, and so on. I should also note that the observant rider on the Hudson Line can catch a glimpse of Sunnyside between the Irvington and Tarrytown stations, somewhat south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

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The West Façade. Photo by Beyond My Ken; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The building of Sunnyside itself is arrestingly modest—indeed, hardly bigger than my own suburban home. Its exterior bears the whimsical and fanciful humor of its maker. Most obvious is the Dutch stepped-gable, which shows how fascinated Irving was with the original Dutch inhabitants of this region. (His most famous characters, and even his own pseudonym, Knickerbocker, bear testimony to this interest.) On the river-facing side of the house he put the date 1656—a date which only roughly corresponds to the first cottages build on this land by Dutch settlers (in the 1690s), and which shows Irving’s love for mixing fact and fiction heedlessly together (as he did in his history of New York and his biography of Columbus). And last we come to the so-called Spanish tower, whose sharply swooping roof is modeled after Spanish golden age architecture (such as the El Escorial). Irving, you see, spent a good many years in Spain as the American ambassador (I cannot even escape him here!), so he was naturally interested in Iberian architectural styles.

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The Spanish Tower. Photo by Beyond My Ken; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

My memory of the interior is necessarily more vague, since you cannot take pictures. In any case, there are few surprises—a study filled with books, a living room with a piano for social events, a bedroom (where Irving happened to die), and so on. My favorite object on display was a little watercolor, apparently by Irving himself, depicting his legendary meeting, as a boy, with his namesake George Washington. (According to our guide, it cannot be determined whether this meeting actually took place.)

Irving had little more than twenty years to enjoy his cottage, from its construction in 1835 to his own demise (he died of a heart attack in the bedroom upstairs) in 1859; and this was interrupted by his long stay in Spain. Though he chose the spot for its picturesque isolation, considering it a kind of writerly escape from the noise of Manhattan, he seldom had peace: besides the railroads, he had to contend with many visitors, both invited and uninvited. If we had to look for a modern parallel to the fame Irving enjoyed, we would have to choose a figure such as Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. Both he and his house were a sort of American monument, gracing the covers of magazines and attracting tourists. Besides this public attention, the bachelor Irving shared his house with his brother Peter, and Peter’s daughters, whom had fallen on hard times. Irving’s very presence transformed this country escape into a center of American culture.

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Washington Irving meeting George Washington

There is little more to add. After Washington’s death the family lived on in the house for several generations, only finally parting with it in 1945. For its preservation we must thank a man who is quickly becoming one of the heroes of this blog: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bought up the house and turned it into a museum. For any lovers of literature or history in the Hudson Valley, it is well worth a visit.

NY Museums: The Cloisters

NY Museums: The Cloisters

Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.

Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.

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John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.

Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.

It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.

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The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)

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As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.

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Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)

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Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.

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Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.

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What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?

This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.

I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.

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So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.

NY Museums: MoMA

NY Museums: MoMA

I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.

Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.

Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.

Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.

Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.

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Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.

While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.

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Starry Night Over the Rhône

The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.

Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.

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However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.

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In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)

 

The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.

Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.

Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.

It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.

Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.

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An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?

Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.

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A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.

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Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.

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I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.

But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.

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I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.

As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?

pollock_moma

The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.

If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.

This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.