Heroes: encounters with genius in the Netherlands

In a small act of defiance against TIME ITSELF disorganisation, I’m posting this a while after it stopped being really relevant. I won’t offer the usual apology, because the 12 Days of Christmas series massively increased my average posting frequency, thereby giving me  a free pass to be unproductive all January. Take that, self-imposed deadlines. But now, here are some post hoc cultural tidbits from my latest adventure.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Amsterdam with my mother. Before you decide that my family is weirdly liberal, it wasn’t that kind of trip – we were visiting my aunt, uncle and cousin, who live in a houseboat on the Amstel. This housing choice kills two birds with one stone: they’ve created a charmingly quirky home, and also cleverly circumvented the problem of What Will Happen to the Netherlands When The Oceans Rise Up. We spent much of our time looking at wildly varied objects of beauty in several museums, some of which I shall now expound upon for your reading pleasure.

All the madmen

Anyone who’s been in one of the rooms I’ve inhabited in the last five years will be aware of my borderline-unhealthy obsession with the art of Vincent Van Gogh. The obsession dates from my first visit to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum in 2011, so while I was in town I took the opportunity to drool over the newly refitted collection. I also spent some quality time in the dangerously tempting shop, and came away with a couple of mugs to add to my already extensive collection of vaguely useful memorabilia.

The museum is a lovely place to be, at least until the hordes of overexcited and/or bored schoolchildren arrive. It’s airy, calm and full of all the paintings you’ve heard of, plus a lot that you haven’t. The temporary exhibition compares Van Gogh’s career to Edvard Munch’s, and is particularly well-curated, although there’s something odd about lots of people spending a lovely day out looking at emotionally charged paintings produced by two artists renowned for their existential angst.

Scan 47

I don’t think there’s much really great art that hasn’t come at least partly out of great suffering, but Munch in particular had a real knack for smearing his pain viscerally across the canvas.

This site has pictures of some of the paired paintings, including each artist’s Starry Night.

Ashes to ashes

Later, we visited the Bowie Is exhibition (originally displayed at the V&A) in the Groninger Museum, halfway across the country. Quite by coincidence, Bowie died two days later, which made it all seem rather poignant. Thanks to the exhibition, I accidentally pre-empted the compulsory tribute-listening period after the artist’s death, since I had started on the back catalogue immediately after seeing the exhibition.

The museum had an impressive range of outfits, digital material and other oddments, with an audioguide that almost seamlessly played the right musical accompaniment to each exhibit. Sadly, the whole thing was somewhat let down by the decision to put the explanatory signs at waist height, in the dark, in font size 9, and then to let in twice as many people as there was space for.

Still, it was eye-opening. I had never quite realised how prolific and innovative Bowie was, and how he integrated everything – costumes, stage shows, videos, random mime performances – into a bizarre but somehow cohesive whole. Here are my favourite two discoveries from the exhibition:

  • David Bowie was a very tiny man and had feet about half the size of mine.
  • Kooks, a song I somehow entirely missed until this year, is fantastic, but so catchy that it’s been stuck in my head for a week and is threatening to drive me slowly insane.


 Oh, you pretty things

I’m currently attempting to whittle down the category of Jobs That Exist to a smaller subset of Jobs That I Think I Would Quite Like To Do. I had previously ousted “lucrative” from my list of criteria, thinking that I could pretty happily live on an average income. This all changed when we saw the Joris Laarman furniture exhibition, also at the Groninger Museum.

Inconveniently, I am now going to have to become either a merchant banker, a criminal, or Bill Gates. This radical change of direction is because I have realised that I need to kit out my house with Laarman’s creations and, although I couldn’t actually find prices anywhere, I suspect they don’t come cheap. He makes fantastic, organic-inspired furniture using techniques like 3D printing and robot arms, effectively taking Gaudi’s legacy and crossing it with The Future. It’s a combination of creative flair and technology that I’ve never seen before, but hope to see again. Preferably in my living room, every day.


That’s it for this week. Off I toddle back to normal life, awed by the wonders of human creativity, but perversely filled with despair over my own inability to recreate the awesome things I’ve seen. Such is human nature.

Zoe hair

Bonus picture: one awesome thing I have managed to recreate is this plaited crown, modelled here by my 7-year-old cousin Zoe.


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