Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

A Day of Art in Paris

It was with deep sadness that I had to forgo the museums on my first trip to Paris. I didn’t know enough about buying advance tickets, and since I only had one day in the city on that trip, I wanted to make the most of it with free and quick events. This time, I put three museums on my must-do list. You’ve already read about the Arts Forains, but my other two museum forays were more typical. Not the Louvre, but the less well known and therefore less crowded Musée d’Orsay and L’Orangerie. I managed to get a discount buying a combo ticket and WOW was it ever worth it!


I was using City Mapper to find my way around Paris and the route from my Airbnb to the museum didn’t involve the nearest metro station, but rather a bus stop across the river. It’s a beautiful walk through the gardens and over the bridge. Although it is not the famous lock bridge, the sides are still lined with padlocks in many colors and street vendors hang out selling more locks as well as balloons and ice cream.

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My first impression on entering the Musée d’Orsay was that even the building was a work of art. The central arena looks like a beautiful baroque train station, and there are many floors and side rooms filled with some of the most amazing art you’ll ever see.

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During my visit, there was a temporary exhibit of Baltic artists. I slid from these rooms into halls and halls of displayed paintings. The main floor is covered in white marble and bronze statues. I saw more Rodin than I ever thought I would and realized that other than his famous sculpture of “The Thinker” and the larger work from which it derives, “The Gates of Hell” (below), I don’t actually care for his work. I also can’t find any reasonable discussion of why he felt the need to use fig leaves this late into the modern art movement.

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I discovered some artists I didn’t even know about like Gustave Moreau who’s painting Galatée (below) completely captivated me.

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Many of the classical artists in the ground floor created stunning details to the point where one could spend a long time finding each hidden treasure. Room sized paintings with dozens of people had near photo realism on each face. Getting up close to these just unfolded more and more details to delight the eye. I got lost in Paul Chenavard’s Divine Tragedy (below) for a long while. It’s 4m high and 5 across (13x16ft more or less) and is chock full of tiny little details and insane imagery. Apparently people hated it when it came out, but I loved it. Reading more about the symbolism just made me love it more.

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I was so entranced by the main floor that I almost forgot the reason I came, to see the impressionists!

My First Impression?

I went on a quest following the signs and found Renoir (not pictured) and Monet (below) then stumbled across the museum restaurant. It wasn’t yet time for a snack, so I paused just long enough to take a photo from the back side of the clock before moving on.

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Finally, I found it. Impressionism and neo-impressionism.  I love impressionism. I knew I thought fondly of Monet, but somehow I forgot how much I really enjoy it. Books and online photos cannot live up to seeing these beautiful works in person.

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Neo-impressionism was a real delight as well.  While the paintings on the first floor captured even the tiniest details in the smallest focus, impressionist paintings just become meaningless blobs of color the closer you get, and it’s only when you step away there is a picture. The picture is made in your mind as a way to make sense of these random dots. Not only do I love the colors and the movement implied by the direction of the bush strokes, but I love the idea that these images only exist in my brain and not in the canvas.

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I took pictures mainly of things that stood out to me at the time or that I want to read more about later. I think I found some new favorite artists too: Georges Seurat, Henri-Edmond Cross (above 2), and Paul Signac (below) were all featured but Signac stole my heart! I actually returned to these paintings for a second look before leaving for the day. I spent a tremendous amount of time with them, changing my perspective by moving closer and farther and side to side. The texture of the paint alone is captivating, but the effect of the whole is pure magic.

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Chat Noir

Still searching for van Gogh I stumbled into a display about the Chat Noir Theater. I am sure you, like I, have seen the Chat Noir poster on t-shirts, hip bags and other products without realizing where it came from. The Cabaret was quite eccentric, filled with art works and strange objects of interest. Musicians like Debussy and Satie would come and play the piano sometimes. The main attraction, however, was the shadow theater.

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Cut out figures made first from cardboard and later from zinc were back-lit to create silhouettes. The host would tell the story as the figures moved on set, often improvising commentary to include current political and social witticisms. The mechanism for the productions became extremely complex over time, and the Cabaret was famous for these elaborate, and above all entertaining shadow plays. The museum tells the whole story of the art form and displays some of the more interesting figures used in the performances.

Vincent at Last

20180706_124406I finally found my way to the van Gogh. I have loved him since I first saw his distinctive style, and came to love him more when I learned we shared a bit of atypical neurology. I planned on going to his museum in Amsterdam, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see his works in Paris, too.

Seeing the van Gogh up close was amazing. The paintings are roped off, but they are not hidden behind glass and the “stand behind this line” marker is less than a foot from the painting. It’s possible to stand at the edge and see the detail of texture and brush stroke. I felt only slightly bad doing so as everyone wanted to take pictures of the whole painting and being up close put me in the way. The museum rope was much closer that the camera ideal range and so while I tried not to walk in front of anyone about to shoot, I was not about to give up my chance to see the details so people could take photos that look the same as any print. Yes of course I took photos too, but I also took up close detail photos.

I don’t know if other people feel the way about the color blue that Vincent and I do. I can’t get enough of his blue blue skies, most especially when combined with the golden hay of a late summer field. One that particularly struck me was a simple painting of farmer’s napping called “La Meridienne” (below).

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The blue and gold are so stunning that the simplicity of the subject matter is almost irrelevant. I looked it up when I got home and discovered that van Gogh copied it from a pastel work by Jean Francis Millet (below). It’s obvious that it is an homage, but the difference in the style is amazing.

La Méridienne - Jean-François Millet - Museum of Fine Arts,Boston

Van Gogh created it while he was in the asylum. He often copied artists he admired while he was learning to paint (although in the beginning he tried to copy their style as well). While incarcerated he went through another phase of copying, but more frequently by adding his own unique colors and brush style. I think he copied more from Millet than any other artist.

Polychromatic Rainbow

Another seasonal exhibit at the museum was a display on polychromatic statues. While most statues from history have come to us as plain white marble or unadorned bronze castings (this turns out to be wrong, but the perception remains), there was a brief but vibrant period in three dimensional art to include more color. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the high-brow art scholars all considered color in statues to be very low-brow. Imagine how you feel about cheap porcelain dolls mass produced and badly painted being displayed as art? They felt that way about any statue or sculpture that did not maintain monochromatic purity. Of course color in sculpture existed, but it was just crass popular entertainment for the uncultured lower classes.

Then in the 19th century, some artists got the notion to challenge this rigid class system and began to explore the world of polychromatic statues with renewed fervor. The two styles were natural, made by combining natural materials of different colors such as colored stones or differently hued metals, and artificial, made by painting or lacquering the finished product. The results were absolutely amazing. I was possibly more entranced by these rooms than anything else in the museum.

While the painted statues were beautifully executed, I was more interested in the natural style. The amount of effort and planning it must have taken to combine various types of stones, and then blend those with cast metals! Artists had to collaborate to make such works as very few could work the stones and metal with equal skill.

I was struck by the fact that this was also the only place in the museum I encountered African faces. Some incredible works in the polychrome display were of a man from Sudan (not pictured) and a woman from Algeria (above). They were depicted in poses of joy and power with clothing styles that reflected wealth.

Two of my favorite pieces include a miniature of a woman at her embroidery frame which used stained glass as the tapestry she was creating:

And a larger than life statue of a woman that combined a wide range of colored stones including a richly marbled agate to make the pattern of her dress, as well as lapis lazuli and malachite to make her belt.

As the movement of mixed media and 3-D color persisted, it moved away from a mimic of classical and renaissance styles and began to explore symbolism.

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Ceramics became more popular, allowing for colorful glazes. There was even a brief flirtation with incorporating this polychromatic art into building exteriors in the form of architectural ceramics.

Finally, the display drew to a close with the most dramatic end result of the movement by setting Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and Hans Bellmer’s “The Doll”. Both incorporate materials in an unusual and even extreme way. Degas statue is primarily bronze, but includes real horse hair, a real corset, wax coated ballet shoes, and a cotton skirt. At the time it was considered to be quite the edge of the envelope in terms of modern art.

While the dancer is no longer unsettling to modern viewers, I think “The Doll” will always be creepy. It’s also mixed media: wood, papier mâché, real socks, shoes and hair. Degas was an impressionist, but Bellmer was firmly surrealist, and his disturbingly erotic imagery was an act of defiance against the Nazis in 1931 Berlin when he created this work.

Lunch

After three or four hours of museum, I was both tired and hungry. Art may be a feast for the eyes but it does not fill the stomach. There aren’t a lot of lunch choices near the museum so I decided to go ahead and try the 5th floor restaurant. It is a bit pricey as expected for a tourist attraction eatery, but the food was excellent, living up to the standard of French cuisine I cherish. I had a ricotta and spinach ravioli with Gorgonzola sauce, walnuts and chives. Heavenly. Plus a glass of my favorite French wine: viognier, and a lovely cafe creme for afters. Like most French food, I thought the portion looked small when it arrived, but it turned out to be quite generous and incredibly rich. I think the meal was about 24€, so not bank breaking, but definitely a luxury.

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I got distracted on the way back down from the restaurant, checked in on Signac again as well as discovering a whole set of rooms I missed on my first trip through which had yet more paintings of enormous size as well as some furniture on display for it’s elegant design. I stared rather longingly at the beds on display, and didn’t leave until 3:30 I spent a total of five and half hours in the museum and no more than one hour at the restaurant. I still didn’t see everything on display.

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Lilies at L’Orangierie

The heat wave that gripped Europe during the summer was in full force by the time I stepped outside, and the simple walk from d’Orsay to l’Orangerie was a far more hot and sweaty affair than I would have hoped. Even with the climate control needed to protect the paintings, the museums were struggling to keep up with the combination of extreme summer weather and high season crowds. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant relief to step inside once more.

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L’Orangerie is famous for being the permanent home of Monet’s “Water Lilies”, a series of paintings that I have enjoyed as long as I can remember. It’s one of my mother’s favorites and we’ve had small versions around, or I’ve had replicas pointed out to me whenever we passed one by for my whole life. They are beautiful, but I did not understand the true scale of the work until I stepped into the first of the two viewing rooms that afternoon.

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The Water Lilies are huge! Two giant rooms of huge panels. It’s like drowning in Monet. The panels look a bit like the backdrop for a play in community theater where you just want to suggest a like pond and Willow trees in the moonlight but don’t care about details. I know Monet was making some statements about the nature of realism and symbolism in art, but … it still reminds me of a theater set.20180706_174842

I did the stereotypical museum thing and just sat with the art. In part, I was grateful for a rest after all the walking I’d done that day, but mostly, I just wanted to bask. There is no way photos or even films can capture the feeling of raw art, especially when it’s that big. The rooms were packed with people, some sitting as I was to take in the art, some taking photos and selfies, some just taking a break.

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It’s easy to be judgy when we see people at famous landmarks or museums just sitting on the phone, but I can tell you that it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s nice to just narrow your focus back to a screen or a page. I also used my phone to take notes about my experiences and feelings, and to share those feelings with my friends on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t feel like having the phone detracted from my experience at the museum. Sure, I could have used a notebook for notes, a regular camera for photos, and a book to decompress, and a music player, and… you get the idea?

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When the sheer amazing wonder shock started to fade a little, I got up and began to examine the canvases up close. Like all impressionism, the closer you get, the less it looks like anything but blobs of color. It’s still fascinating to me to see the texture and shapes at work and watch the optical illusion as you move from the close to the far and the blobs resolve into the magical dance of light on water and floating flowers.

More than Monet

Although the Water Lilies are the star of the museum, they are not it’s only occupants, and after a good long while, I headed on to the other rooms where I encountered a plethora of abstract art. I respect art, even the art I don’t understand because I think it’s all part of the process of learning and exploring what it means to be a sentient, self aware being in an infinite universe. I don’t like abstract art.

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Abstract impressionism is no exception. I love impressionism and neo-impressionism and just hours before I had that love reaffirmed in the d’Orsay. L’Orangerie hosted the next stage of abstract impressionism. While impressionism seeks to deconstruct the notion of reality by using color and shapes to suggest forms, abstraction casts aside all pretense of shapes or images in favor of “feelings”. It just does not speak to me. Impressionism is an illusion. It looks like a familiar or real image, but is actually nothing. Abstract… is actually nothing and looks like nothing. I can stare at a Mark Rothko (above) or a Jackson Pollock (below) all day and not “feel” anything, but one glance at Paul Signac will steal my heart.

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The good news is, this was a temporary exhibition at the museum, and it’s already gone. The non-Monet portion of the building changes. I lucked out at d’Orsay with a temporary exhibition I found enchanting, so I can’t be too upset the summer show at l’Orangerie was not to my taste. I did look around and read several of the informative panels, and I found one of the rare women artists of the time was featured, Helen Frankenthaler (below). I read about how influential she was on the art movement and wanted so much to like her work, but abstract expressionism still makes no sense to me… even knowing that’s kind of the point.

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Closing Up

I was trying to time my departure to get a few minutes in the Monet rooms right before closing time, hoping to get a few wide shots that weren’t full of sweaty tourists, but I discovered that they take closing time very very seriously. A good 15 minutes before the end of business, the museum security started shooing everyone out of the rooms, and would not let me into the second Monet room at all! I could have easily taken photos and been out in 5, but I was barred from entering. I am glad that I spent a goodly amount of time in each room before I went to the abstract exhibit, or I would have been very sad indeed. As it was, I only missed out on photo ops and I’ve already noted photos cannot do it justice. Be warned, however, the museum starts booting people out 15 minutes before “closing” so if you haven’t seen it all, or like me you want that last photo, get in a little earlier than you think is necessary.

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The Best Hot Chocolate

Angelina’s isn’t a museum, but they are artists. Chocolate artists. I wasn’t sure about the idea of drinking hot chocolate in the summer, but I read so much about this little cafe, and it was close to the museum, so I decided to stop in on my way out to the metro. I had a hard time deciding because the reviews for everything were so good, but in the end, my chocoholic side won out. It was so entirely worth it. Probably the most expensive hot cocoa I’ve ever had, but it was rich, thick, delicious, choco-gasm inducing and very generous. I could have shared this pot with another person. I could not have had a whole pot and any kind of dessert without exploding.

No mere “cocoa”, this beverage is mostly melted chocolate with milk and cream and more whipped cream on the side, you know, in case it isn’t creamy enough. It pours more like syrup than milk. I sat in the shade and welcome air conditioning sipping my chocolate bliss, mixing cup after cup with various amounts of cream for effect. Despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten since lunch, I left Angelina’s full and happy.


The weather in Korea is turning cool. It’s even gotten below freezing a few nights this week! It’s almost hard to remember hating the hot weather so much when I’m curling up with my heated mattress pad and fluffy blankie. The hot chocolate here isn’t a patch on Angelina’s but my memories will keep me warm. I hope you enjoyed this foray into the art world with me. For those who can’t make it to the museums, a little walk thru tour. For those who have never thought of going before, I hope I’ve given you cause to reconsider. As always, thanks for reading! 

Speelklok Museum: Fads in Music Tech?

They say travel should expand your horizons and change your way of thinking about the world and while I had other experiences like that this summer, for some reason, the Speelklok Museum stands out among them. Do you ever think about how recent changes in technology are impacting your generation differently than people in the past? Well, it may not be as different as you think. Turns out we’ve been having a music technology revolution for at least 150 years, maybe longer.


When I arrived to buy my tickets, I was told about all three different options for exploring the museum that were included in my entry fee: the music tour, solo exploration, and the “Expedition”. I didn’t really know what to expect out of the museum and I could only see a few exhibits in the waiting area. One was this blatantly-racist-but-normal-at-the-time automaton duet. Insert a coin in the slot and the show begins as the robots play a little jazz tune. It’s not a recording with puppets, the machine actually creates the music.

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This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). For reference, the phonograph was invented in 1877 and the first commercial record player was released in 1895.

The Music Tour: Hearing History

The music tour is unique not only because you get a guide to explain things, but because that guide will also activate several of the devices that are otherwise stationary and silent in the museum. Since it’s all about the music, hearing is believing. Music may be a universal language, but Dutch is not. Thankfully our guide was gracious enough to give the relevant information in both Dutch and English.

Speelklock means “musical clock” and that is where the tour began. Although the earliest example of a musical clock is from 1598, the ones we looked at were very advanced members of the species popular in the 1750s. We visited first a white room with many such elaborate clocks on display.

20180726_144259The guide explained a bit about the history of early self playing music starting with bells and pipes. Bells were the first and “easiest”, if that can be applied to such complex machinery. A metal cylinder like that in a music box was used to orchestrate a series of springs and levers to tap small bells of different tones. There was only one length of note and it resulted in some very un-nuanced music, but the Victorians loved gadgets sooo much that owning such a marvel in one’s home was a real status symbol. They were incredibly expensive and very fine. The only way to change the song was to change the cylinder inside.

Pipes were close behind bells, although they were even more expensive and complicated, since they relied on a vacuum seal and bellows system to pump air through the pipes. It did allow for a slightly nicer sound since the length of individual notes could be shortened and lengthened in the program.

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I’m going to keep calling these “programs” because that is the word the museum used to describe the different types of devices used to impart the directions to the machines. Over the decades they changed form, but always used a series of bumps and holes rather like early computer punch-cards.. The first use of such a cylinder used to program music was in the church carillons in the mid 1500’s. I sure as heck didn’t know that the idea of programming music was that old, did you?

Many of these early musical clocks also included some simple form of animation. The one we watched had a progression of figures parading through the fields showing the phases of life and inevitability of death… there’s a reason it’s called “Victorian Gothic”.

Kids and Their Newfangled Gadgets

My first real clue that I have spent my life seeing time and history all wrong came a few steps to the left as our guide began to explain the rapid change in music technology. The cylinder, which had been used consistently since 1550 to create musical programs was suddenly replaced by the disc in 1885. Cylinders were heavy, difficult to make, and expensive. Plus, most people had to have them professionally changed out in order to listen to new songs. With a disc, much less material was needed and production could be streamlined by simply stamping each flat disc with it’s musical program. Much cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use.

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But what do you do with your cylinder collection? No worries! The modern wonder of technology created a crossover player with a space for both! What about that new gramophone recording? No problem! Your technological crossover music machine comes equipped with a clockwork organ and a gramophone speaker! Maybe you had a similar device? I know we had a record player with a tape deck… and later a boom box with a tape deck and CD player… and later a CD walk-man that played both .wav and Mp3 discs. And now, a Bluetooth Gramophone? Turns out that fad is more than 100 years older than I realized.

Much like the record to tape to CD to MP3 transition, the musical programme revolution of the 1800’s wasn’t over. The next step? PAPER! The lightest, cheapest and above all longest musical program yet. With paper, you could have a much larger music collection and you could play longer pieces of music, or multiple pieces on a single program. Plus you could print words on paper, giving rise not only to the player piano, but to the world’s first “karaoke”. Friends and family could gather round the player piano and modern favorites would play from the paper program which would display the lyrics in a moving scroll as the music played, allowing those with imperfect memories to sing along. Yes, that’s really how they used it back in 1925. Although it started in early 1900, the paper roll player piano was the height of home entertainment from about 1920-1930 when the stock market crash combined with the rise of other musical technology wiped it out. Talk about a fast fad.

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During this time, our old friend the cylinder program achieved some continued use in miniature. Not only in the form of teeny tiny pocket sized music boxes, but most especially inside automata cleverly shaped like people or animals that would come to life and perform to some piece of music. These automata captivated the people of the Edwardian era and were almost as short lived as Edward himself. We got to see a nightingale in a cage (yes, made of real nightingale), an acrobat atop a ladder, a rabbit emerging from a paper cabbage, and a rather singularly Dutch representation of the painter Van Gogh painting his famous “Sunflowers”.

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The guide kindly led me back after the tour so that I could see it in action and as Vincent’s arm moves the brush across the canvas to the music, the sunflowers begin to spin as his eyes go wide in representation of the hallucinations he was thought to have.

Clockwork Organs & Orchestrions

Book music put out from reader - Gavioli & Cie fairground organ - rear left - Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport 2012

The music tour continued into pipe organs and dance hall organs. Starting in the late 1800s, the pipe organs used the cylinder method, though often wooden instead of metal. Organ grinders were so called because they had to turn a crank to operate a kind of bellows to keep the cylinder turning and the air passing through the pipes. Earlier pipe organs were displayed on the street and at festivals and often involved theatrical stories and sing-a-long musical numbers to keep the audience engaged with the limited cylinder length.

By 1892, the pipe organs too had converted to paper, although instead of a paper roll, they used a “book” made of cardboard and folded in a zig-zag fashion so that it unfolded into one long piece with all the convenience of a paper roll, but made of a far sturdier material that would withstand the abuse of outdoor performances and travel better than flimsy paper.

Street organs remained popular in the Netherlands until the street organ ban in WWII. They have never really made a comeback, but are still enjoyed as a novelty from time to time. Many of the most fantastic designs were made between 1910 and 1925 including the “Gouden Limonarie” and “The Arab”.

The final segment of the music tour was the orchestrions. These were not merely seeking to produce music from a single instrument, but rather to imitate an entire orchestra. The earliest of these machines was created in 1805. They were fairly limited to the number and type of instruments at first, but quickly expanded to encompass brass, woodwind, and percussion, delighting and astonishing audiences everywhere.

The final and most challenging orchestral section to make self-playing was the strings. In 1910 at the world’s Fair, the first self-player with a string section had it’s debut and was hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. It included three sets of violin strings which could be set to different pitches with different levers acting as mechanical fingers of the left hand and used a “bow” made of continuously circling horsehair that could be lowered and raised to play notes as the “right hand”. It was so inconceivable an achievement that some believed it to be magic until they could see the inner workings for themselves.

20180726_160915While the musical clock and player piano might find their way into any reasonably affluent household, the larger organs and orchestral players were reserved for the ultra wealthy and of course, the dance halls. During their height (again an incredibly brief time ending abruptly in 1930) these orchestrions were the darling of the day, drawing large crowds to dance halls to cut a rug to the mechanical orchestras and marvel at the wonders of modern technology. Because of the limited amount of musical numbers available to each machine, and because of the stunning but stationary artwork on the outside, audiences became bored with a single orchestrion quite quickly. (no, our attention spans weren’t any better a century ago no matter what your grandmother says) To keep the crowds coming, these huge machines were often built to be easily disassembled and moved to play a new dance hall every week. Early 20th century DJs played the precursor to EDM– MDM: Mechanical Dance Music.

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The Whitewashing of Buurkirk

When the music tour ended, I was left in a very thoughtful state as I set off to find the rest of the museum’s displays. After returning to some of the machines for a longer look, I found a staircase and went up. It was immediately clear that the museum was actually built into a disused cathedral. Post-travel research tells me this is the Buurkirk and is the largest and wealthiest of the parish cathedrals in Utrecht, having been built in the mid 10th century and suffering from 4 fires and rebuilds in less than 300 years.20180726_153235

It’s only a couple blocks away from St. Martin’s Cathedral, and you may wonder why any town needs so many churches so close together, but I believe St. Martin’s was at the time mainly operating as a monastic center (and a royal palace). Perhaps folks in town could come for masses, but parish churches would have been a bit less formal and also often offered the church space for use in the community during non-church times. I suspect that Buurkirk and the other nearby parish churches were a bit more like community centers and St. Martin’s was a bit more like a place you go for Easter and Christmas but otherwise leave to the clergy and nobility.

20180726_153758The walls, columns, arches, and decorative carvings are painted a crisp clean white except a few places where the original church artwork has been preserved and painted around. The whitewashing isn’t a result of secularism, however, but rather the work of the Protestant reformation which took over the church in 1586 and just hated all that ostentatious Catholic art. Buurkirk was actively used as a church until 1975 and it became the Speelklok Museum in 1984. Wandering among the displays and whitewashed arches, my mind was occupied with the impending massive shift in my perception of humans, time, and technology.

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The Expedition

At last, I found the “expedition” part I had been so curious from the moment I bought my ticket. I had been given a card and told it would be used for this segment of the museum. It was not the first time I encountered the idea and I’m still not sure why it exists since it would be just as easy for visitors to press a button to activate whatever the card does. It’s just one more thing to hold in my hands, or more accurately, fish out of my pocket every time I found one of the small silver slots in the wall with a little speaker on cord.

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Holding the palm sized speaker up to my ear, I could use the card to activate audio recordings (sadly, not the music machines themselves). The recordings included samples of the music as well as narration about the pieces on display. While some were a bit dry, there was a fun section where I seemed to be visiting a wealthy Victorian gentleman who had the very latest in musical clocks and self playing instruments he eagerly wanted to show off to me. Maybe I liked it so much because it reminded me of a friend who would talk about historical clocks and clockwork with almost the same level of enthusiasm.

Several of the expedition displays included information that the guide on the music tour had given, but I didn’t mind since often it was able to go into greater detail. For example, the fad of “player” instruments stretched well past the piano. The urge to amaze your friends with your musical talents extended to a number of other instruments like this “player trumpet”. Just blow?20180726_160857

Composing for Machines

Room after room of intricate, detailed clocks and devices ended in a small theater. While the card-activated recordings were played for me in English (the choice of language determined by the placement of holes in your card, haha, how clever, just like a music program) the theater had only one soundtrack and it was Dutch. Thankfully, a film of the English words played on a display that I could easily read.

The stage was occupied by a large number and variety of self playing instruments which were highlighted as the story moved to cover them. While some of the information was familiar from my guided tour, I was rather astonished to learn that composers like Mozart, Hadyn, Handel, and even Beethoven had composed music expressly for these wonderful self playing machines.

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Wait wait, I hear the music history majors cry, they were alive in the 18th century, late 1700’s composers. I thought you said these machines were popular in the 19th and 20th century! Yes, I did and the museum did mainly focus on these later inventions, but remember the original carillon use of the cylinder program is from 1550. The human operated pipe organ was a popular instrument for composition during the Baroque era. Although Classical era composers like those mentioned above rarely wrote for the traditional pipe organ, some were interested in the abilities of the clockwork organ which was becoming more and more available by the mid 1700’s. Available at least to the reasonably affluent, and that’s who paid composers after all.Freule-open-bewerkt-930x620

The film at the museum said that because the clockwork organ could play combinations of notes not possible by human hands, the composers of the day felt drawn to compose unique and challenging works. Other sources I have since found seem to think that some of the composers disdained the tinny sounding miniature organs and only accepted the commissions for composition out of economic necessity. Either way, I was captivated by the notion because not only were these unique works designed exclusively for a machine to do what a human could not, the composers were actually present during the creation of the cylinder programs and could make adjustments to the timing and length of notes (the most nuance possible for the machines at the time) giving us the most accurate representation of the musical result they themselves envisioned for each piece.

Below is one of the pieces by Hadyn composed for the mechanical organ. Although it was recorded at the Speelklock Museum, it’s not my recording, I found it on Youtube by a Swedish Instrumental Band called Wintergaten. I especially like this video because you can see the organ working as it plays. You can find recordings of other compositions for clockwork organs on Youtube as well: here are a few for Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although most of the videos are not as visually captivating as Wintergaten’s, it’s still interesting to hear these unique mechanical compositions

What Is New Under the Sun?

What started out as a mildly amusing side trip turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my summer. Before the invention of self-playing instruments there was no way to hear music without a musician, just as before the invention of the motion picture, there was no way to see a play without actors. It was a revolution in human culture and it happened a lot earlier than I realized.

In a very short amount of time from roughly 1750 to 1930 the culture is constantly demanding and creating new and improved technology. From about 1850-1920, the changes were happening so fast that your home music player would become obsolete almost as soon as you bought it. Meanwhile, in my head, I always pictured the fast transition of music playback to be the one from LP to MP3 that took place between 1965 (the release of the 8-track cassette deck) and 2001 (the release of the iPod).Related imageAnd just like our parents (maybe grandparents), people living in the 1860-1930 range complained that each new development was destroying music, culture, and maybe even the very fabric of society. However will we maintain social standards when people can just listen to music in their home instead of getting dressed up and attending a performance in polite society!?

I admit, I am a little flummoxed trying to imagine a world where music isn’t just there when I want it (and when I don’t, elevators everywhere). We are hardly ever without music. In our earbuds, in our cars, in every shop and most restaurants there is music. I’m listening to music while I write this. I struggle to imagine a world where the only music is that you can make yourself or pay a large number of people with expensive instruments to make for you. The invention of musicianless music is, I believe, an actual moment of deep cultural change on par with the printing press or the assembly line. However, past that huge conceptual change in our relationship with music, the trappings, the delivery systems, those are only small changes, and not as significant or original as we like to believe.

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The mechanics might be different, but none of it is new: karaoke, the drum machine, samplers, auto-tuning. It was all there 100-400 years ago in a different form. The more I learn about history, the more it looks like we’ve been reliving the same cycles over and over with smaller and faster machines each time. I don’t find this thought depressing. It makes me look at the progression of time as more of a gradually progressing spiral than a straight line. Yes, it’s a repetitive cycle, but each cycle changes slightly. We’re still moving forward just not at the breakneck speed that the “get off my lawn” crowd would have us believe. Every so often we get a really big “ah-ha” change that sweeps us on to the next series of small change cycles.

So the next time someone says something like “kids these days” or heaven forfend “Millenials are killing everything”, just remember that Mozart programmed music in binary code for a machine to play over 200 years ago. Change is the only constant.


The Speelklok Museum in Utrecht was not the only place this summer that made me reach inside my brain and rearrange the way I look at things, but it was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most compact of such experiences. As I stated my intention is that these stories have no order or thematic relationship to my experiences this summer. Non-linear felt intuitively like a good way to go and after reconstructing these memories and thoughts I start to see why. Sometimes we have to step away from the linear narrative to see the bigger picture. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll return for more stories as they come.