The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

* * *

The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

* * *

The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

* * *

This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

* * *

Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

* * *

6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe❤

 

Link to my review on the Greenbox Museum’s Website!

Hi everyone!

It’s been quite a busy day. After posting about Mediamatic I explored Amsterdam Noord. In fact, I just got back from the Eye Film Museum and Cinema. What an incredible place!

Just wanted to share some quick and exciting news. In April I wrote a piece on the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. I was happy to see my review listed on their website under ‘press.’ Take a look. And while you’re at it, explore the Greenbox website. It’s a fantastic resource if you’re interested in Saudi Arabian art, and aren’t sure where to begin.

Many thanks to the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudia Arabia!

xoxo, Chloe❤

Soot-O-Mat (Mediamatic- Amsterdam)

Hey all!

Hope your May is treating you well. I’ve been cramming like crazy for my final exams and papers and wishing I had more time to explore during my last few weeks here in Amsterdam. I also just found out that my thesis prospectus was accepted (!!!) I am going to be researching the Dutch Cobra artists, so I am trying to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible while I still have the entire Stedelijk library at my disposal.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time for fun this past month! A couple weeks ago I went to one of the coolest spots in Amsterdam, Mediamatic. Mediamatic is an unconventional exhibition space that combines technology and biology with visual art.  When I went, I took a look at the current exhibitions, but Mediamatic is also known for its greenhouse, and for hosting lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Today I am going to talk about Soot-O-Mat, created by Dr. Špela Petriča.

Here is a photograph of Soot-O-Mat:

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At first glance, it looks like a series of copper wires attached to lamp shades and whirring boxes, all balanced on a rolling cart.

But now, take a closer look at the lampshade, specifically what is on the base of it.

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That tiny little speck is actually the muscle of a mussel, isolated from the rest of the creature. It is still pulsing, slowly but steadily. Attached to the muscle is a thin strand, which is in turn connected to the mechanism beside the lampshade. As the muscle pulses, the mechanism makes an imprint along the length of the cylinder. Note how most of the imprint curves around the lampshade in a smooth line, yet tiny spikes interrupt the lines every few centimeters. These spikes represent the pulse of the muscle.

After a time, a pattern forms on the lampshade. Take a look:

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Soot-O-Mat epitomizes the mission of Mediamatic: to combine the biological and the technological to create art. But that is not all this work does. I would like to propose my own interpretation of this work, one that is deeply subjective, and may not be in line with your own thoughts. Keep your own interpretations in mind while you follow my train of thought.

When I look at Soot-O-Mat, I am highly aware of the concept of size, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems odd that such a tiny object, a mussel’s muscle, provides the energy to power so much machinery. Secondly, it seems strange that the effect of so much equipment would be so minor- a little blip on a line, a dip in a curve.

Perhaps the strangest sensation that I am filled with, however, is meaninglessness. We are given an aesthetic object, a lampshade, decorated with a mildly interesting pattern. Yet we are also forced to view the mechanism as well. The viewer sees the machinery, its size and complexity, and the energy source: a living thing. Or if one wants to be technical, a body part that used to be part of a living thing. When confronted with this complex system, the final product looks trite. What’s the point of killing a living thing, isolating its muscle and strapping it to a mass of wires if the result is going to be an unwieldy, easily replaceable lampshade?

That question, I believe, is what Dr. Špela Petrič was trying to  get viewers to ask. Soot-O-Mat points out the strangeness of using animals to create consumer goods. A leather jacket doesn’t look like a cow. A billiard ball or piano key made from ivory doesn’t look like the tusk of an elephant. When using shampoo and conditioner, we are completely displaced from the animals that the product may have been tested on. But what if you could see the cow being slaughtered, the elephant shot, or the guinea pig coated in pink liquid? Would you still want to buy those products? In showcasing the process of making, in addition to the final, purchasable object, Dr. Špela Petrič forces the viewer to see the abuse of an animal for human consumption. Perhaps not all viewers would have the same response, but I was left wondering why this was even necessary, when there are so many other ways to make a lampshade look pretty, that don’t utilize a living thing.

Soot-O-Mat is not a PSA about crustacean abuse. In this interpretation, it stands for something greater, for questioning the use of animals in all kinds of aesthetic objects. Are we not an advanced enough species, Dr. Špela Petrič seems to ask, that we can’t make beautiful things without costing lives?

With all that in mind, another part of me wonders if this work could also be a celebration of the power yielded by the smallest of things. A mussel is already tiny. A muscle of a mussel is even tinier. If I saw it on the beach i wouldn’t notice it, and would walk right by as I picked up shells for my growing shell-necklace collection. Soot-O-Mat illustrates the great power of life by juxtaposing a small yet powerful creature with an unwieldy manmade contraption. The fact that such a small thing can even influence the motion of heavy metals is astounding. When viewed together, one cannot help but be in awe of life.

Let me know what you think about Soot-O-Mat! Should biological and technological art be analyzed according to the same standards as paintings and sculptures? Is there a non-vegan interpretation of this work? (I’m not vegan, but I began to feel like one the longer I thought about Soot-O-Mat…) I’m curious about other people’s thoughts, as this was a very unique post for me.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe❤

 

Hindeloopen Painting (Hindeloopen- Friesland)

Greetingz

I hope all is well! My Monday is going wonderfully, considering the fact that it’s a Monday in the third week of April, and it’s a rainy 48 degrees outside. I’m so happy because tomorrow is King’s Night, and Wednesday is King’s Day! During those 24 hours I will be celebrating the King’s birthday, and the entire country is invited. That means 24 hours of people dressed in Orange- the color of the House of Orange-Nassau- partying and reveling in the streets.

What better way to celebrate the King’s birthday than by writing about one of the most special places in the Netherlands?! Today I’m going to tell you about Hindeloopen, a tiny town of less than 900 inhabitants in the north of the Netherlands. The town is one of eleven towns in the province of Friesland, and is famous for its unique style of painting. A few weeks ago I visited Hindeloopen and stayed in a charming bed-and-breakfast. During the day, my friend and I surveyed all the cheese we could stomach, explored the harbor, and popped into the only two museums in the entire town. One was a fascinating museum about ice-skating in Friesland. The other? The Museum of Hindeloopen. I paid special attention to the exhibit on Hindeloopen painting. Take a look at the photos I took!

A beautiful painted plate:

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Tray decorated with an image of the Dutch navy:

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Another beautiful plate!

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I believe this is a fire screen:

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As you can see, this genre is highly stylized. Each work looks like it is part of a collection. The colors used on decorative objects are mostly red, green, and blue. This style was popularized several hundred years ago, when wealthy Dutch maritime traders decorated their homes with elaborately carved furniture decorated with this style of painting. An exhibition in Paris in the 19th century spread the painting of Hindeloopen to the center of the art world, where it became sought-after to a niche market. Today, tourists come from all across the world to purchase their own piece of Hindeloopen art. I bought my family some presents, and a lovely green box for my shelf.

The artwork of Hindeloopen might seem old-fashioned. After all, its history is documented in the town’s museum. But the style is still very much alive in the daily lives of Hindelooopen’s inhabitants.

Here’s a sign that hung outside one family home. Gerke, Penny, Elaine and Duncan have no idea just how famous they are:

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Here is an interior of a shop that sells hand-painted items in the traditional style. Note the variety of objects that are painted. In Hindeloopen, if it’s wooden and is more than a centimeter wide, it is probably painted. Consider that a rule of thumb:

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Hangers! Stools! Candelabras! Desks! Trays! Chairs! Plates! Frames! Wall-hangings with seemingly no function!

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Barrels! Cabinets! Bowls! Trunks! Boxes! Pots! Bells! Tiny shelving units! More oddly-shaped objects with seemingly no function!

And here I am, standing in a pair of clogs that are painted in Hindeloopen fashion. Please pardon my half-closed eyes. During my trip I managed to contract the Plague (really just a 101 degree fever) and was not particularly camera-ready.

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I hope you enjoyed this post! I found it nice to write about something different for a change. It’s a good reminder that art can be found in all different places- not just museums and galleries. It’s also a reminder that art is often functional. In fact, for most of history, art WAS functional. Religious art, pottery, and the art of Hindeloopen are some wonderful examples of art that is not meant to be hung on a wall. Keep your eyes out for art in functional places. You might be surprised how beautiful a cabinet can be…

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe❤

 

Banksy: Laugh Now (Museum of Contemporary Art-Amsterdam)

Hey guys!

Last weekend my parents visited me in Amsterdam, and I was so happy to take them around and show them all my favorite artistic spots. But I was even more happy to explore the Moco with them, because it opened only a few days before they arrived! The Moco (Museum of Contemporary Art)  is the latest addition to the bustling museums in Museumplein, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. It is also another in a continuing stream of museums around the world that devote themselves to late modern and contemporary art- a difficult feat, as museums are typically retrospective spaces in which temporality is presented chronologically. Museums have to adjust their historical perspective to allow contemporary works to be seen. I will save my discussion about the shift in museum culture for another day, but keep this in mind while I discuss the Banksy exhibit at the Moco.

Here is the exterior of this absolutely beautiful building.

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And here is the placard that hangs on the gate outside the museum. It is also repeated on merchandise throughout the museum shop. I bought a t-shirt with this phrase on it, and have been walking around feeling 75% cool and 25% obnoxious.

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* * *

The first work that caught my eye was The Key to Making Great Art (2004), made from spray paint on canvas.

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The Key to Making Great Art is a wonderful visual pun. The phrase on the canvas reads: “the key to making great art is all in the composition.” However, the layout of this phrase cuts off the word ‘composition,’ effectively enacting poor composition. It is a cheeky commentary on the rules of design. Who says what makes ‘great’ composition? And what happens when your composition doesn’t fit these standards?

* * *

I also found Crude Oil Jerry (2004) very humorous.

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In this work, Banksy has taken an existing painting, likely purchased from a second-hand store, and painted over it the motif of Jerry from the children’s cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The original painting features an idyllic landscape. Houses are tucked away behind verdant trees and boats sit peacefully in the still water. The brushstrokes are light and frothy, lending this painting a gentle air. It looks like a painting by John Constable or one of the Hudson River School artists.  Cartoon Jerry, however, has been painted in thick, smooth slabs of paint. He sits on a tree branch in the foreground with a match and lighter fluid in his paws and a frighteningly enthusiastic smile on his face.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very funny for the viewer. It is not every day we see a pyromaniac cartoon character traipse over a beautiful landscape. But I believe Banksy was after something more than comedic anachronism. In painting over a traditional, existing work, Banksy makes a statement about the western art canon, and what we define as “traditional.” This statement is mirrored by the figure of Jerry starting a fire. When he drops the match, the landscape will go up in flames, consuming the little boat, the tiny houses, and all the green shrubs that are visual markers of an elitist, euro-centric art canon. These two acts: painting over an existing scene, and depicting the scene on the verge of destruction, very clearly articulate Banksy’s views on traditionalism and privilege. He obviously sees this impressionistic style of landscape painting as indicative of wealth and euro-centric traditionalism that he wishes to destroy with an image- Jerry- who is universally recognized and enjoyed. In this sense, Crude Oil Jerry is more accessible than the original painting.

While accessibility of the arts is one of my major interests (hence, the existence of Canvas And Crumpets), its focus in this work contradicts the prices of Banksy’s works and their presence in a museum that charges €12,50 for adults and €10,00 for students. Now, for Museumplein, that is not a steep fee. The Stedelijk next door charges €15,00 for adults. The Rijksmuseum charges €17,50. I understand that museums need to charge money because they need to pay their overhead costs- it is a business, after all. But all of that seems very contradictory to Banksy’s critique of the western art canon and inaccessibility in the art world… On the flip side, Banksy does need to make money too. Spray paint and rent money don’t fall from the sky. It is an interesting paradox. How can a street artist keep his cred when he goes global and starts making big money?

* * *

This work is entitled Kids on Guns (2003).

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Here, Banksy uses spray paint on canvas to depict two small children standing on top of a mountain of guns. They seem blissfully ignorant of the ground beneath their feet. The little boy clutches a teddy bear. The girl holds a red balloon in the shape of a heart above their heads. The two look at each other. We cannot see what they are saying, or what their faces are revealing, because they are silhouetted against the white sky.

The depiction of children amongst firearms is a common trope used to make a statement about violence. Children represent innocence. They are a reminder that we were all once children, who didn’t believe in the causes that lead people to kill each other today. Children are not inherently racist, colonizing jerks driven by thirst for oil, and a simultaneous desire to keep those different from us, away. These are learned behaviors. Depicting children amongst firearms- reminders of the violence that plagues this planet- is a call for peace.

Seeing these two figures above the mountain of guns makes me feel like everything going on is, well, silly. Obviously police brutality, terrorism, and the aftermath of colonialism are nothing to laugh at. But when you see children amongst the mess, you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. How did we go from clutching teddy bears to holding guns?  Banksy seems to be asking the same question.

* * *

In Four Monkeys (2001), Banksy utilizes his usual medium of choice-spray paint- to make yet another statement about society.

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This image recalls for me the image of the monkey, dressed in a vest, trained to play the cymbal in old Vaudeville acts and movies. They also used to make, and still make, toys commemorating this totally humane practice. Here’s a video, in case you never want to sleep again.

What this old practice points to is more than just animal cruelty. Mankind has always had a strange relationship with monkeys, perhaps because they are more similar to us than we care to think. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he was met with scorn by his fellow humans who believed they were too dignified to be at all related to such a primitive species. I find this rather funny, given that slavery and colonialism were paramount at the time of The Origin of Species’ publication. But that’s a separate rant.

Anyway, hearing that this ‘evil-lution’ business was proposing strong ties between man and monkey had a strange effect on people. They were eager to demonstrate just how stupid monkeys were, in order to separate themselves further from them. Thus, the monkey became a symbol of stupidity, simpleness, and primitivism. It was shown clapping a cymbal repeatedly, with a glazed look over its eyes, to prove to people that monkeys were only capable of simple tasks. (Unlike the human, who could enslave entire races of people. What a skill!)

What Banksy has done here, with Four Monkeys, is bring attention to the idea of human-supremism. These monkeys stand almost entirely upright. Their faces are turned down in a very human expression of sadness. The signs around their necks warn that their time in charge is coming. Even as someone who doesn’t think monkeys are stupid, that is a terrifying thought. After all, we have been raised to feel superior, because we are people, and have the most highly functioning brains of any species. With the exception of poaching laws in certain countries regarding endangered species, we kill all animals we deem tasty, dangerous, or inconvenient. We have assumed our role at the top of the food chain in an unsustainable way. The world is far too populated with humans to sustain us infinitely.

In Four Monkeys, Banksy reminds us that we are not the only beings on this planet smart enough to be ‘in charge.’ It is both frightening and humbling.

* * *

Lastly, here is a photograph of Girl with a Balloon Diptych (2005). This motif, created from spray paint on canvas, is one of Banksy’s most iconic images.

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Here I am, attempting to imitate the pose of the little girl with the balloon. Unfortunately I’m squinting and look more like a terrible ballerina than the little girl in Girl with a Balloon Diptych. 

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The little girl here is mostly silhouetted, though we can see her hair blowing in the wind and the hint of an eye. She stretches one arm upwards towards her escaped balloon. It has blown so far away that it is on another canvas, threatening to leave it through the top-right corner. This girl does not really reach for the balloon. If she were, she would be on her tip-toes, jumping, both hands reaching towards the sky. Her posture is much more stoic. She stands upright, calmly lifting one arm towards her flyaway balloon.

Her attitude towards the balloon is much more relaxed than one would imagine for a small child. The way she stands firmly on her feet, gazing up at the sky, indicates that she has come to terms with the fact that her balloon is gone. But her outstretched left arm reveals that she will never lose hope. It is a kind of calm, constant, peaceful hope that I would not expect to see in a little girl. Perhaps that is the most pure kind of hope; unwavering faith despite the appearance of failure.

This little girl’s hope has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on who is looking at her. When I see her, I think about my life, and the calmness and openness I want to approach it with. When someone else sees her, they might feel hope for the entire future of mankind. I believe that Banksy intended for this multiplicity of meanings. I love art that takes into consideration the experience of the viewer. In fact, I think Girl with a Balloon Diptych needs a viewer’s interpretation to be complete. Banksy’s works don’t just hang on a wall. They are conversations with people.

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Now, I’d like to leave you with a few works that I won’t analyze. See if you can draw your own conclusions about these works from what we have been discussing about Banksy and your own observations.

Top Left: Bomb Hugger (Not dated)

Top Right: Keep It Real (2003)

Bottom: Tortoise Helmet (2009)

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Speaking of hope, I hope you enjoyed this post! And I hope all is well and that, wherever you are, it’s warmer than where I am. It’s 48 degrees and I am NOT happy about it. Good thing I spend 80% of my time in museums😀

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe❤

Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia- Amsterdam

Goedenmiddag!

Today I am going to tell you about the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. This small museum is located in Leidseplein, in a larger office space down the street from a cluster of busy bars and clubs. I stood in front of “The Chicago Social Club” for a good ten minutes seriously pondering if a collection of contemporary Saudi art could be housed inside in some secret room (behind the bar..?) But no. If you intend to visit, walk down Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, beyond the mass of outdoor bars, toward a silver-doored office complex. You will absolutely not regret it. And here is why:

The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia is a gem; a sizable collection of fascinating Saudi art, each work with a unique story and connection to the collector/curator. I am not sure which to refer to him by, as his personal acquisition of each work would suggest that he is a collector. Yet his extensive and scholarly knowledge of Saudi Arabian history and contemporary politics/art, as well as his consideration of the viewer’s experience when viewing the work, reveals that he is undoubtedly a curator as well.

In a visit to a larger museum, there is little opportunity to interact with curators and gain first-hand information about the work beyond the wall placards and audioguide. Here, the curator walked me through the exhibit and engaged me in a dialogue about Saudi Arabian history, politics, and art. In this way, the experience was more like visiting a gallery, and yet none of these works are for sale. That is the wonderful paradox of the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia: it has the intimacy of a gallery and the dignified atmosphere of a museum.

Take a look at some of the impressive works and their stories. My analyses are a combination of what I learned from the curator of the museum and my own interpretations. Feel free to challenge me, or to add on to my thoughts.

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Here is a photograph called,  The Path, by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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The Path is actually a still photo of a video work of the same name. Both works depict a bridge in a south-western Saudi Arabian village. During a dreadful flood in 1982, villagers took refuge on this bridge. Tragically, the foundation of the bridge was unstable, and the flood caused the bridge to break, killing all of the people on it. In 2007, remnants of the bridge remained, reminding people of the tragedy that occurred over twenty years before. No one is certain why the bridge collapsed, but it was likely because the builders did not give it a proper foundation. This irresponsible decision likely also saved the (corrupt) construction company a lot of money.

Gharem visited the site of the collapse in 2007, and spray-painted the word ‘al siraat’ over and over again on the road. ‘Al-Siraat’ means ‘the path’ in arabic. This act was captured on camera in a video-installation. In this video, the child of a victim partakes in the spray-painting, which adds a greater tone of somberness to this already bitter work. You can watch the video here.

‘The path’ may very well refer to Islam. In the Islamic faith, ‘the path’ is the road Allah summons Muslims to take; a way of spiritual living outlined by Allah. By repeating the word’ al-siraat’ over and over again on this broken bridge, is Gharem suggesting that certain elements of his faith are broken? That following ‘the path’ may lead to death?

It is, of course, possible, but I do not think that this is what Gharem is trying to say. It seems too easy a jump to make- too simple and graphic a metaphor. I believe that Gharem is pointing out a flaw in the mentality of his people, not in religion. Perhaps he is saying that the basic tenets of Islam are being lost beneath religious politics and modernization. After all, it is written: “Serve God…and do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands posses: for God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” [4:36] Respect for human life is a basic principle of Islam. There is nothing less Muslim than the tragedy of 1982, as it was the consequence of corruption in the construction firm that built the unstable bridge. After all, it is much cheaper to build a shallow bridge than a properly stabilized one. The moment that saving money becomes more important than protecting human lives, there is something deeply wrong. In this way, I believe that Gharem is calling for a return to ‘Al-Sitaar.’ His people have wandered off the path, and he is directing them back.

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This is Pedestrian Crossing, also by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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Pedestrian Crossing depicts the iconographic image of the plane flying into the World Trade Center. On the viewer’s left is a curved yellow road meant to represent the same metaphorical Path described in The Path.

In this work, stamps are the medium, but not to create a print. Usually, stamps are used to imprint an image or text in ink on a sheet of paper. Here, the stamps themselves are used, their rubber corners lined up to one another to form a larger image. Note how most of the work uses arabic-lettered stamps, but the body of the Twin Towers utilizes latin letters.

It is important to note that 15 of the 19 hijackers associated with the 9/11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem seems to be grappling with the fact that several of his countrymen were responsible for the attacks. The Towers and the Path are depicted starkly, with clean, straight lines delineating one form from the next. They float in a gray vacuum, forcing focus onto the motifs of the buildings and the plane. Such a graphic representation forces the event to be seen, and begs for it to be discussed. Pedestrian Crossing does not get bogged down in aesthetics or emotions. It puts forth the facts: two buildings were struck, thousands died, and the majority of those responsible were Saudi Arabian. By forcing the facts onto the table, Gharem demands viewers to face what has happened. He wants them to talk about how such a thing could happen, how a basic principle of Islam- respect for human life- could be forgotten.

Again, Gharem is not attacking his own faith. Rather, he is questioning the general mentality of his country that has engendered extremist groups whose warped version of Islam abandons its true, peaceful intentions. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem exposes this twisted mentality, and calls for a discussion about confronting extremism in Saudi Arabia.

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 Cardiac Illumination, by Ahmed Mater (2007) approaches the subject of Islam in a very different way.

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Mater uses gold leaf, pomegranate, tea, ink, and x-ray to create this illuminated ‘page’ of the Quran. It is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet this page is not book-size. It is over a meter tall and reads more like a painting than a book.

I find this work fascinating because it rides the fine line between profanity and sacrality. In the Islamic faith, figurative representations are prohibited. Contrary to popular belief,  figurative Islamic art does exist outside the Mosque. However, such a thing is sacrilegious in religious spaces, because the only image of Allah is The Word, printed in the Quran. And so, the use of x-rays as decoration on an imagined page of the Quran is questionable. An x-ray, by definition, is a depiction of the human form. At the same time, it is a scientific scan, rather than an actively painted or drawn estimation of the human body. Furthermore, an x-ray only depicts bones. It leaves out all of the elements that make a figure resemble a figure, like muscle, skin, hair- a face! What is an x-ray more than a series of eerie white lines arranged around a spine?

So why, then, did Mater choose to include these controversial x-rays in his work? It can not be just to provide a loophole to a rule in his faith. I think it has something to do with the pureness and liberty of faith. Having faith is an act of baring one’s soul, and opening it up to light. For many, prayer is an act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and seeking peace of mind. A skeleton is a very literal translation of this concept.

Furthermore, skeletons look more or less the same, while individual people with faces and clothing are distinguishable. By depicting x-rays of human bones, perhaps Mater also suggests that we are all the same to a higher being. Skin color, social status, daily stresses and problems are stripped away in the eyes of Allah (or the Jesus Christ, or God… is it really any different in any other faith?) The fact that one is just as loved as everyone else is a very comforting thought to many who are unsatisfied with their present conditions on earth.

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Lastly, I would like to show you Yellow Cow Products, also by Ahmed Mater (2007).

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The yellow cow is part of a story in the Quran in which Moses tells several Israelites to slaughter a yellow cow and perform several rituals with it. In doing so, they will find out who has committed a dreadful murder. It has taken on a role as a motif that is highly recognizable as a part of Islamic faith.

And so, its commercialization as a line of dairy products is a cheeky response to modernization and capitalism in Saudi Arabia. The yellow cow becomes a product that can be farmed, marketed, sold, bought, and ingested. Importantly: it can also go bad. After all, dairy products do have an expiration date. Mater writes on his blog about this work: “In the ‘yellow cow’ the world is ornate; its bright color is joyful. This glittering world implies that it is highly valuable, that it is all that you want, and all that you live for, but once it owned you (while thinking it owned you) you start to realize what a poor, shabby world it is. And you become a poor shabby human.”

I think this most interesting aspect of this quote is the concept that the world of the yellow cow owns you, rather than the other way around. This is the effect of capitalism, in Mater’s mind. It is a trap in which we are caught and tricked into thinking we have control, but in reality, we are slaves to the products we think we need. Capitalism, Mater says, has the ability to transform even the holiest of things- the yellow cow- into something that is churned (put intended) out to meet consumer demands.

At the bottom of the frame the words “ideologically free” are printed. This is a play on words, as some dairy products are “pesticide free,” and “homogenized” and “pasteurized.” Here what we are free from is not hormones, but any kind of ideology with a set of values and beliefs. Instead, we have been stripped of our individual ideologies in order to survive in an increasingly consumer society.

I think that this attack on consumerism can apply worldwide, but that it is specifically aimed here at Saudi Arabia, a country whose modernization in the past forty years has been uneven. Gharem’s The Path shows how modernization in small villages has been careless and haphazard. In central cities, however, Mater describes crowds of people snapping pictures of towers with their iPhones. Using the yellow cow, a symbol of the Islamic faith specifically, is a reminder to the people in Saudi Arabia of the entrapment of consumerism.

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I hope that you enjoyed this post. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was one of my favorite museums here in Amsterdam. I left feeling like I had learned a lot, but with even more questions than I started with. I look forward to doing further research about contemporary Saudi Arabian art. I am also doing research on conflict in Saudi Arabia for one of my courses here in Amsterdam, and I look forward to incorporating what I learned at the Greenbox into my paper.  It’s funny how things come together like that- I discovered a museum devoted to Saudi Arabian art the same week I chose Saudi Arabian modernization as a topic for my research.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for art that can add depth to other things that you are learning. It is fascinating to see how interconnected the world is.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe❤

The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood (Rijksmuseum- Amsterdam)

Hey everyone!

Today I am going to tell you about The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood, an anonymous painting that hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It was painted between 1490 and 1495, around 75 years after the events of the painting took place. I was immediately drawn to this painting because I found it’s form very intriguing. The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is split into two panels that depict the narrative of the great flood that occurred on November 19th, the Feast Day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. On the right, we see a badly damaged village, and on the left, the town of Dordrecht, which was thankfully spared. The two scenes are connected by the presence of rafts in the top left corner of the Dordrecht scene. The figures on these rafts represent survivors of the flood seeking refuge in Dordrecht.

I find this construction very interesting. The two panels represent two separate spaces, two spaces that could never be seen simultaneously with one pair of eyes. And yet they are linked by proximity, proximity that is visually represented through the role of the tiny raft in the top-left. This motif is what allows these panels to occupy the same space and temporality.

Here is a picture of “Elizabeth’s Day Flood” as it hangs in the Rijksmuseum.

And here are close-ups of each panel. The first picture represents the panel on the left, and the second, the panel on the right. Note the sense of calm in the first work, and the feeling of chaos that governs the second.

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Now I would like to point out several details in these two panels that construct the overarching narrative and reveal telling characteristics of late medieval/early Renaissance Dutch art.

This is a detail from the first panel.

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We see a man in black pants and a brown tunic carrying a heavy load on his back. He is entering the gates of the town. His steps look labored- note how both his knees are bent, perhaps under the weight of his bag. His feet are also turned inwards in a position that feels both wobbly and cautious. He could be struggling to walk, or even bowing in a gesture of humility, as he seeks refuge in Dordrecht from the flood.

Even here, in the in-tact town of Dordrecht, the aftermath of this horrible natural disaster can be felt. The woman in a green dress, who pulls a young boy behind her, also appears to be heading to the city gates. Perhaps she, too, is seeking refuge from the storm. Note how her son has the proportions of a very small man. His face is mature, and his stance, upright. This is typical of Dutch depictions of the human form at this time. You may recognize similar man-children from other paintings of the 15th century. Once the renaissance is in full swing (a movement that was strong in the north as well as in Italy!) we begin to see age-appropriate depictions of children.

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Here is another detail from the first panel. In fact, this is the upper-left corner I mentioned before, where the rafts from a flooded village iconographically link this panel with the next.

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Pardon the glare. If anyone would like to buy me an expensive camera, this problem would be solved and I would also be eternally grateful.

Anyway.

This beautiful winding river is so beautifully Dutch. The river bends constantly, carving circles into the river bed. Bell towers can be seen in the distance, reminding the viewer of distant towns hit by the severe storm. Other buildings along the way are marked in gold leaf. I cannot read what they say but I assume they act as geographical markers, assigning various names to stone buildings. The raft in the corner is a tiny but vital element of this work, as it is the key to linking the two panels.

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Here is a detail from the right side of the left panel. You can see the frame on the viewer’s right.

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Note the figure in the top right. He is naked, and scuttling up a tree. This tiny detail adds a level of cheeky humor to the painting, while also revealing the extent of the consequences of the flood. I’m not really sure how this man managed to lose his clothing, but evidently conditions were bad enough that he felt the need to escape the water by climbing up a tree in his birthday suit.

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And now we move to the panel on the right. This panel depicts a village ravaged by the flood.

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The lack of perspective and proportion is quite comical in this fragment of Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood. Note the pig trying to swim to safety. It looks as if it is standing bolt upright in a vacuum. It is not blended into the scene in a realistic manner- but this is typical of a work painted before the Dutch Renaissance improved painterly techniques. With some suspended belief, one can view this animal as one of many swimming to safety.

There is also a rather bizarre looking dead body floating by in the water. His head looks strangely large given that he is meant to be BEHIND the figure with red pants. If he is behind, then the laws of perspective tell us that he should actually appear smaller. This is one of many disjointed elements of this painting that place it in the 1490s in the Netherlands. However, I find great success in his expression, which reads most definitely as ‘dead.’ His chalky pallor, closed eyes, and slightly agape mouth lend The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood an aura of death.

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Paintings of this time were extremely detailed, as they told non-linear narratives, and needed to contain different plot points within the same work.

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If you look closely, you can see a woman peering out from her door. Perhaps she is surveying conditions of the flood. The placard next to this painting explained that this woman had been left behind, but I do not think this is necessarily true. What this figure does do, though, is add to the sense of fear and uncertainty that envelops this panel. Doorways are transitionary spaces. For her to be frozen within the doorframe suggests that she, for some reason, is unsure about where she ought to be in space… inside her shelter? Or outside, moving towards higher ground?

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The last detail I’d like to show you is simultaneously the most gruesome and the most comical.

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Several animals drown in an unconvincing swirl of white brushstrokes, while a disembodied head floats by. Despite its strange, early attempts at perspective and proportions, this painting still manages to evoke desolation and desperation. The figure in the boat doesn’t even turn around to acknowledge that both people and animals are drowning in the water. Such circumstances would only come about if conditions were truly terrible.

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I hope that this analysis made you realize how interesting and involved a lot of old paintings can be. Many of my friends have mentioned that works from the 15th century are unaccessible and difficult to understand. In other cases, I have been told that such works are “only focused on religion” and “really boring.” But as you can see, The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is really anything but. It is both humorous and bleak, and is a wonderful example of the early stirrings of the Dutch Renaissance. Today, elements of this painting may seem a bit silly- like the man-child or the disembodied heads- but they are indicative of early attempts to place the human form in realistic space. In the next century, The Dutch Renaissance would flourish, and these attempts would turn into successes.

Today I am off to the Van Gogh Museum! More on that later. Until then!

 

xoxo, Chloe❤