I had intended to go to the Netherlands for the major Bosch exhibition, but cleverly didn't think to book my gallery ticket in advance: by the time I got round to it, they had sold out for the dates I was there. I therefore decided to take the opportunity to pop over to Haarlem instead and check out the Frans Hal's museum, following the plan I made eight years ago when I was last in Amsterdam.
From Schipol, you can get a train to Amsterdam Sloterdijk, where you change for Haarlem. There are plenty of ticket machines taking card and cash (Maestro incurs no extra charge, but Visa and MasterCard means and extra €0.50). You also pay an extra €1 for the single use chip card, as they clearly want you to buy Amsterdam's equivalent to the Oystercard. With that single-use option, I paid €5.70 on my Visa for a single to Amsterdam Central, then a further €8.50 for a return to Haarlem from Amsterdam Sloterdijk.
I didn't see any trains for my destination, then noticed signs in Dutch with both 'Haarlem' and a picture of a bus. The rail replacement buses can be found by going out of the station, walk all the way past the end of the building, until you see some stairs on your left. Go down those and the buses are to the right. By train, it should be a 19 minute journey from Amsterdam Centraal to Haarlem. By bus from Amsterdam Sloterdijk, we reached Haarlem' main station in 21 minutes.
Frans Hals Museum
After mentally banging my head against the wall when I realised Bosch had sold out, Frans Hals was the first alternative that sprung to mind. I was worried it would be too small, leaving me to wallow in internal recriminations about wasting a plane ticket. The opening times (11:00-17:00) increased that worry.
However, after reading some glowing TripAdvisor reviews and confirming the gallery had some Judith Leyster, I made my decision. It was the right one. After a 30 minute walk, I got there just after they opened, leaving just as the doors were being closed. There is more than enough on display to keep your interest for the full 6 hours (they only open 12:00-17:00 on Sunday, so go earlier in the week).
The €12.50 price includes a good audio guide, which you can alternatively download as an app. It requires a connection, for which the museum has free WiFi: the question therefore comes down to your phone battery. As the audio guide is free, you might as well use that. Also, bring a €1 coin for the lockers: the mechanism returns it after unlocking.
Along with the usual audioguide process of keying in numbers for relevant paintings, you can also learn more about the history of the building (501 to about 516). Several of the rooms are covered, indicated by the number appearing on a door frame. The story of the museum's history intertwines with a number of the paintings, as there are several group portraits of hospital and orphanage regents. The building has connections to both.
When I was there, the museum was running an exhibition right up my street, all about focusing in on detail. The title - 'I Spy With My Little Eye' - made it sound like a dumbed down children's activity, but fortunately it was nothing of the sort, crammed with cerebral content. All around the gallery, there were snippets of text by a respected art critic (Wieteke van Zeil) highlighting unusual poses, paraphernalia, people and the like. That from a few sentences to a full page discussion.
The exhibition goes into particular depth on a work by Jan van Scorel, 'The Baptism of Christ', with multiple versions, short videos on the underdrawing, comparative works and an interview with the restorers describing what they uncovered. For example, several figures had been overpainted in the past, some of which could be retrieved, but others had to remain hidden. That same introductory piece quoted a statistic that art gallery visitors spend a mere 9 seconds on average looking at a painting. I'd be interested to know the source, as 9 seconds sounds quite low, but I guess it is an average.
There is an introductory video for Frans Hals too at the entrance, presented across an impressive 67 screens, but it's all in Dutch. He unsurprisingly takes a starring role in his eponymous museum, but he isn't the overwhelming presence you might expect. Hals is only in a handful of rooms, most importantly room 14. This is easily the most engaging display in the whole museum, featuring lots of huge group portraits of civic guards by Hals.
What caught my attention about these Hals masterpieces was the 'spark of life' present in the expressions and body language of his figures. That's a quality I've long found important in art, as well as poetry and indeed part of the reason I enjoy BJJ. I got very pretentious about it a few years ago, when a university friend who is part of the creative writing department asked me to teach a seminar combining martial arts and poetry.
In BJJ, resistance is an important part of what distinguishes it from many other martial arts, as well as what makes it fun. Without that key element of resistance, BJJ would lose much of its appeal: the challenge would be gone, the progression wouldn't exist and the techniques would ossify. Poetry needs it too, in order to make the words jump off the page and grab you (they need technical skill too, I should add: the lack of formal craft is what puts me off 99% of poetry, and my snobbery increased the longer I studied poetry at uni).
In art, that spark of life is in painters like Hals. Frank Frazetta is another good example. The faces of their subjects are alive, for want of a better word. It isn't that they're hyper-realistic, it's something in the expression, the angle of their arm, the twist of their mouth. There are lots of paintings where it doesn't look as if the person depicted has anything behind their eyes. I've never seen that happen in a Hals portrait.
Room 14 also has some civic guard portraits by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (at least, that's how it was written on the info boards, but the audioguide just used his forename once). Van Haarlem pops up quite often throughout the museum: my favourite was the satisfyingly ambiguous (if that isn't an oxymoron) 'Monk touching a nun'. It is the motivation behind that touch which results in the ambiguity. At first glance, it's another example of a pervy monk, fondling a nun in an example of the debauched church. However, when you look at their expressions, neither of them seem in the least interested in anything carnal. That's where a second interpretation comes in. According to --INSERT LEGEND--, a nun was accused of being pregnant. To test her guilt, a monk squeezed her breast to see if she lactated. Indeed she did, but miraculously it was wine rather than milk, proving her innocence. That means the wine next to the ecclesiastical pair has a double meaning too, either the proof of this interpretation, or merely the accoutrements of the disresolute couple getting their sin on.
Along with Cornelis, there are numerous other major Haarlem artists. Many of them I either hadn't heard of before, like Johannes Verspronck, or did know but only very little, like Maarten van Heemskeerck. There were also two I had certainly heard of before. The aforementioned Judith Leyster was a rare example of a successful pre-20th century female painter. The other is Pieter Saenredam, famous for his austere church interiors. The architectural precision excites the same part of my brain that takes so much pleasure in producing spreadsheets, so he feels like a very Protestant artist.
My favourite art is Flemish and Dutch. That automatically puts the Rijksmuseum near the top of my 'best art galleries' list, as it has a great collection of both. You can get your €17.50 ticket online if you want to avoid the queues, though as I arrived just before opening at 9am (hours are 09:00-17:00 every day), they weren't long anyway. Be aware that the entrance is in the corridor where the bikes cycle through, where there are two revolving doors on the right.
The lockers here do not return coins, unlike the Frans Hals Museum, but they take a €0.50 coin, so aren't expensive. Keep hold of your tickets. Mine were checked twice, first in the entrance portico (it had a big banner with 'catwalk' on it, so I thought it was a separate exhibition at first), then again by the archway past the lockers, leading into the medieval section.
The audio guide is superb. To call it an audio guide is too limited, as it fully lives up to being sold as a multimedia guide. There are frequent and useful videos (showing underdrawings, zooming in on details, even demonstrating how the figures depicted in sculpture might move), along with detailed visual, audio and text directions for the numerous 90 and 45 minute tours you can select. There is also the usual type in a number and get more info option, which is split into up to three sections. First, a rundown of the painting/object, then a briefer examination of a detail, and finally a talk by an expert (at least most of the time, there was at least one example of a visitor's thoughts, but she had an interesting perspective to share on 'The Jewish Bride'). The guide comes as a free app for your phone (WiFi at the Rijksmuseum is fast and free), or you can pay €5 for a handset if you want to conserve battery.
The 1661 Rembrandt self portrait, with its virtuoso turban that achieves such perfection in the minimum of brush strokes, is still the picture I most associate with him. It was the cover of some old magazine my father had years ago, which served as my introduction to art when I was around 11 or 12. It was one of those where you had a big binder and got a new magazine in the series each week or month. Masters of Art, something like that.
I forget how brilliant Vermeer is sometimes: yesterday reminded me. It isn't just his unmatched handling of light, but also the powerful narrative ambiguity. The glances exchanged in 'The Love Letter' are as evocative as a Hals or Jan Steen, while at the same time subtle and understated. Speaking of Steen, I tend to think his 'The Merry Family' isn't as stiffly moralising as some critics insist. The expressions on their faces aren't those of leering caricatures IMO, but a genuinely happy group who enjoy each other's company. Multiple messages, which Steen does a lot.
Gerard ter Borch's 'Gallant Conversation' is less prominently displayed than the others but it is a must see. Even more than usual, you need to be in front of the actual painting. Ter Borch was renowned for his magnificent rendering of satin. Unlike most paintings, it still looks real even if you put your face right up close to the paint. That's what I call craft, something I don't see in most work past about 1950 (massive generalisation, but meh, I still haven't found a place in my heart for modern art ;D).
I was pleased to take another look at Avercamp, one of my favourite artists, with lots of extra information. In most (all?) of the rooms at the Rijksmuseum, there are large cardboard sheets stacked in racks. These have one or more of the paintings in that room printed on both sides, festooned with captions. For painters that love their intricate detail, like Avercamp, this is an excellent resource. I was especially pleased to see a short book on Avercamp in the excellent Rijksmuseum shop: I've been looking for something to read on him for a while.
I then moved on past my comfort zone of 1450-1750. That period covers off the vast majority of what interests me about the Rijksmuseum, but as if to admonish me, right as I was quickly walking through the 19th century section, Goya popped up. He's one of the exceptions in my taste, as I love his work, despite his dates being 1746-1828. I also quite like the late 19th century, particularly the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Symbolists. There's a representative of the latter group at the Rijksmuseum, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (or at least, he has been connected to that group).
On an entirely different topic, there was some fascinating stuff about Dutch colonial history (e.g., in Surinam), plus the Dutch trading post on an artificial island (originally occupied by the Portuguese, until they were turfed out for proselytising) in pre-1853 Japan, a unique position for non-Japanese at the time. If you've read 'Samurai William', or you're a fan of Samurai Champloo, you'll be familiar with Dejima. In the museum, it's transliterated as Deshima.
Finally, I wanted to share an awesome depiction of my favourite Hindu goddess, Durga, housed in the Rijksmuseum's Asian Pavilion. Her name translates as 'invincible', because she's the toughest fighter in the whole Hindu pantheon, as far as I'm aware. The rest of the deities couldn't handle the buffalo demon Mahishasura, so sent Durga to do the job. He was pretty tough himself - she had to slay him multiple times because he kept changing form -but he was no match for Durga. Apologies in advance to any Hindus if I've garbled that reading. ;)
Before I left, there was a suitably small exhibition on Vermeer's famous 'Little Street' downstairs. Researchers have recently been able to pin down exactly which street he painted (it turns out it was right by a relative's house), so this room shows the painting alongside various maps and examples of similar painting (in Vermeer's case, the artist who comes closest to his work is probably Pieter de Hooch).
There was still time after the museum closed for a quick visit to something else. Typing 'museum' into my phone map revealed that Amsterdam had a Cheese Museum: I couldn't resist. It's basically a shop, but they have a little display downstairs (no cost). Best of all, loads of free cheese samples! Dutch cheese is a bit mild for my taste (my favourites tend to be British, especially stilton and extra mature cheddar), but they've got some interesting flavours at the AMC. I had hoped to pop down to a BJJ club in Amsterdam too, as I know there's a good Globetrotter-friendly school there, but wasn't able to make it this trip. Next time! :)
On my way back to the airport, it's worth noting that you should be careful which train you catch to Schipol: some apparently need a special supplement. It says it clearly on the train as you enter, plus they also announce it onboard. I'm not sure exactly what this supplement entails, as nobody has ever checked my tickets on a Dutch train. Also, with the single use tickets, it doesn't particularly matter if you walk through a turnstile without touching in and out: they never seem to be locked. Nevertheless, to be safe, I'd avoid getting on trains that need a supplement, stick to the normal ones. They're quite frequent to Schipol anyway.