Across Northern Europe: A second thought on museums in Amsterdam

You should never agree with yourself too often, at least that’s what I’m thinking today, so I’d like to mention a few museums that are worth all of our time. Some readers may remember an anti-museum post a little while ago, though more readers may have stopped reading after that one and are missing out on this mea culpa.

There are plenty of very good museums in Amsterdam, but the three I visited were Van Gogh’s, Rembrandt’s, and Anne Frank’s. Museums dedicated to one person tend to be really interesting; Picasso’s museo in Barcelona may be my favorite anywhere with work spanning from his childhood to old age.

But in Holland’s capital I first stopped into Van Gogh’s temple with work spanning seven of the ten short years he worked. In contrast to my experience with Picasso, I came away from Van Gogh’s museum with less awe rather than more. The work we always see from Van Gogh (Starry Night, the sunflowers, the self portraits) hews to a familiar and wonderful style. But a fuller sampling of his work revealed a scattershot, groping attempt to find that style. One portrait looked like a rough Rembrandt, many like so-so Seurats. But they also helped you understand the steps he took to reach his own iconic style. Most striking to me was Pietà (naar Delacroix), a painting of Mary and Jesus with a pallet so identical to Starry Night that it had to be put to canvas with the same physical paint (both were completed in 1889 but that’s as far as my scholarship goes on this one).

A couple canals away is Rembrandt’s house, where the master lived for two decades before creditors came calling. There are only a couple Rembrandt paintings here, but dozens of his etchings are on display and many are amazing. The various rooms of his multi-story house have been restored to approximate the furnishings he knew but it has a slightly sterile, fake feel. At one point a security guard started fiddling with the painting tools in the studio, underscoring that the original items are long lost. Still, the studio where most of Rembrandt’s work was created is inspiring. The light in the room has the soft, flattering quality of his portraits.

Another excellent display is at the entry, where a broken vase and other items sit just below a painting of the same items. Comparing the vase and the painting reveals the hyper-reality of the art and also the natural imperfection of the pottery which you might otherwise hold against the painter rather than the sculptor.

If you’re walking through Amsterdam and see a thick line snaking around the corner, you’re probably at Anne Frank’s House. It was after 8pm when Sabrina and I got there but the line persisted. Better a line than an over-stuffed museum.

“I feel really bad being German here,” Sabrina said. I tried to commiserate by mentioning the War Crimes Museum in Vietnam.

Still, I thought I’d make the most of her presence by using her as a translator but we were both surprised to learn the diary is written in Dutch rather than German. Anne was just four when the family moved to Amsterdam, it was another seven years before they went into hiding.

The first most striking thing about the Frank house is how big it is. Most Amsterdamers would be happy to have an apartment as big as the secret annex. Most Amsterdamers, of course, don’t share their flat with seven others without leaving for five years. When we’re talking about experiences as horrific as the Franks we’re apt to think of it as an unmitigated hell, but the relative spaciousness of the annex is maybe an example of our narrow conception of hell (and/or the way its been presented to us in film and story). Regardless, it didn’t have to be small to be awful.

It was a pleasant, wet night in Amsterdam when they closed the museum on us. Sabrina sat on the back of her bike and I peddled hard up the little canal inclines, proud to keep the bike upright with someone on the back. I flew to Copenhagen the next morning and I’m no Tony Bennett so I took my heart with me. But the airline must have been more sentimental, cause they left my bag in Amsterdam.


Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer
  11. Two to a bed in Bruges
  12. A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.