Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Holland - The Netherlands - Part 1

Windmills of the mind.....



Windmills (or rather Wind Turbines) at Enkhuizen haven, the IJsselmeer behind.


Only half the Kingdom of the Netherlands is more than one metre above sea level, and eighteen per cent of its surface area is water. With a population of nearly seventeen million the number of people per square kilometre of land is nearly five hundred, which puts it up close to Bangladesh and South Korea in the population density stakes.....




Low Country: Lelystad from the Houtribdijk

It was not always so.  The Dutch Golden Age, in the 17th century, saw economic growth with the Dutch East and West India Companies creating colonies and trading posts across the globe; settlements included New Amsterdam in North America and the Cape Colony in South Africa; art and science flourished.  But after the boom came something of a bust, and from Napoleon to Hitler, despite being a constitutional monarchy since 1815 and a parliamentary democracy since 1848, the Netherlands have had their share of troubles.


Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with bleaching grounds, 1670 - 1675

The population of The Netherlands has almost quadrupled in the last hundred years, and perhaps this has driven the extraordinary developments in land reclamation and modernisation. Despite the crowded nature of the country, it is one of the world's ten leading exporting countries and food production is its largest industry. Rotterdam is the busiest port in Europe. In addition The Netherlands is the only country which has an action plan to cope with rising sea levels due to global warming. It has a golden past, but is also thinking ahead.



View of Delft, 1660 - 1661, Johannes Vermeer

In the centre of the administrative capital, The Hague, imaginative new buildings dwarf the bars and restaurants around the Plein....







But the great conurbations are all well and good; for the moment I yearn for the sense of space that was caught by those masters of the landscape.  




Meindert Hobbema, Wooded Landscape with Cottages, 1665


Meindert Hobbema's The Avenue at Middelharnis is one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, London, with its extraordinary symmetry and depth.   His pictures teem with life, from people tending their gardens, to riders with their dogs, but all human activity is secondary to the immensity of the sky and the growth of the trees.  Hobbema was apparently a pupil of his friend, Jacob van Ruisdael, but the influence of the latter's uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael is also noticeable in his work.



Salomon van Ruysdael, River Landscape with Ferry, 1649

It must have been comparatively easy to walk out of Amsterdam, or Utrecht, or Leiden, and find views of rural scenes in that Golden Age. Today, apart from urbanisation, there are 139,295 kilometres of roads in the Netherlands, as well as 3,013 kilometres of rail track.  There are said to be nine million cars (and eighteen million bicycles) in the country, so finding a quiet spot is a test of initiative - but it is not impossible.....  



Church and Windmill at Loenen aan de Vecht




With so little variation in topography (the highest point in The Netherlands is little over three hundred metres above sea level) and the absence of true forest (the last original natural woods were felled in 1871) it is not easy to find an interesting landscape. Heathland, meadows, mud flats, farmlands and non-native plantations are the order of the day, but still the great painters of the past created memorable images.....



Landscape with Two Oaks, Jan van Goyen, 1641

And their more modern followers have not done so badly either.....



Lake near Loosdrecht, Willem Roelofs, 1887

Which is not far from where I find this....



Loosdrecht Lakes

And, less conventionally, this....






What has saved the landscape of The Netherlands is the presence of water.  It is everywhere, in one shape or form or another - canal, river, lake, rain, snow, ice..... Reflections of the sky in Leiden brighten the place and also add space and air.....








Elsewhere the shimmering gleam of large expanses of water and sky unite to create a feeling of liberation.....







Though there is little doubt that the addition of a mill, in this case by a one of the great modern Dutch masters, makes for a better composition.....





Oostzijdse Mill along the Gein River, 1903, Piet Mondrian

This has been a fascinating journey, in part beyond my expectations.  Initially I wanted to see where Rembrandt walked, and sketched, but in this I was thwarted by the modern world.  However, the streets of old Leiden where Rembrandt grew up are still quiet and evocative of the past......  Some of the houses like these around the Pieterskerk were where the original Pilgrim Fathers settled, escaping religious persecution in England.  From Leiden some of them, including an ancestor of Barack Obama, set sail on the Speedwell, in July 1620, to meet with the Mayflower in Plymouth before attempting to cross the Atlantic (the Speedwell had to be abandoned in Dartmouth).







In wandering across the IJsselmeer, and driving down toward Utrecht, I also came across another surprise.  A slightly dated Italian TCI guide book mentioned, in a footnote, that the village of Laren contained a small art gallery in the former home of an American couple, William and Anna Singer. Here they had built a villa, which they called Wild Swans, in 1911, and, with inheritance from his father's Pittsburgh steelworks, he started collecting paintings of the Hague School and contemporary Dutch artists.  







I was in for a further surprise, however.  With car parks overflowing and a buzzing crowd in the foyer, I was not to find the works of Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig (1866 - 1915), who painted the village pond nearby, and his contemporaries....



The Koesweerd Pond, Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig

But a major exhibition dedicated solely to the life and work of Leo Gestel (1881 - 1941) who, together with Piet Mondrian, was one of the most prominent Dutch Modernists.







Gestel spent time in Paris, and in Majorca, Germany, Italy and Flanders, and he experimented with pointillism, fauvism, cubism and futurism (among other -isms!) Several of his works depict Dutch landscapes, some in summery Cezanne-like colour....






Others in monochrome, in keeping with the current season....







But others are portraits, dazzling in their colours....




This was a surprise indeed.  We had come a long way from the Golden Age, and my intention to find and emulate the early masters had come unstuck.  It was time to withdraw, and to rest a while within the warmth and depth of a Dutch interior.  Just down the road, unnervingly on the Brink (which I am relieved to learn means the village green) we found Cafe t' Bonte Paard (The Spotted Horse), where thick pea soup and dark beer smoothed over the wrinkles of post-modernism.  







Meanwhile, out on the IJsselmeer, those windmills are still turning, patiently waiting for the next master.....







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