Summa: Diary (June 1-6, 2023)
‘It’s life; you better use it’ (Ai Weiwei).
June 1 (Thursday). London. 9.30 am: Those who’d wished to travel either yesterday or tomorrow (but couldn’t, due to strikes) were on the train to London today. Choc-o-block!
3.00 pm: China’s Hidden Century at the British Museum. Finding the entrance was a challenge. Inadequate signage (of which some staff were painfully aware) had me circling the outer circumference of the old Reading Room. The unspoken narrative of the exhibition is that Chinese drawing and painting took a nose dive in the 19th century. There were some excoriable examples of both. Photography was woefully under-represented as an art form. What I’d not appreciated before is how remarkably otherly and substantial European oil painting would’ve looked to a culture whose representational art was expressed through drawing, painting, and printing in ink on paper, for the most part.
I exited the museum through the hall displaying the museum’s collection of enormous Egyptian sculptures. These are among the broken remnants of a people who possessed enormous aesthetic vision, technical capability, and self assurance, and believed that their name and works would endure for all eternity. But, where are they now?
5.00 pm: I’ve an aversion to drinking bubble tea. When I was very young, I collected frog spawn and watched the tadpoles emerge before releasing them back into the pond. These two experiences must be kept apart. This is a non-negotiable. 7.00 pm: A family meal at a nouvelle-Chinese restaurant. Tasty, but unlike what I’d expected. The food had the same relationship to ‘authentic’ Chinese cooking as do those long, spindly-legged drawings of elephants — based upon a description by someone who’d known someone who’s known someone who’d actually see one — to their source.
June 2 (Friday). 10.00 am: Off to see the Ai Weiwei: Making Sense exhibition at the Design Museum. At one tube station on the way there was a evacuation alert, to which I responded dutifully. But no one else appeared to be walking to the exit. On enquiring, I was told this was the daily drill. ‘How many times can you cry wolf before customers ignore an alert that isn’t a drill?’ Thereafter, train delays, cancellations, and breakdowns made an ordinarily tortuous journey all the more so. This is travel in Broken Britain.
Weiwei’s work is at one and the same time conceptually taut, emotionally engaging, and exquisitely executed. It’s also both historical (materially so, where archaeological artefacts are incorporated and transformed) and contemporary. The lives of those long and more recently dead and silenced — the collective as well as anonymous individual — are evoked and remembered. Through broken remains of ceramic ware, unassembled Lego pieces, discarded teapot spouts, and ancient tools and weaponry, Weiwei reminds us that great empires and civilisations fracture and crumble to dust. As will our own, one day.
June 3 (Saturday). London to Holland. 10.00 am: Eurostarring. Long queues at passport control. (Ah! The benefits of Brexit.) The company staff were exemplary in their friendliness and practical assistance. 11.20 am: A late departure through long, dark, deep, and mobile signal-free tunnels under London; my children were above me, now.
As the train drew its line through Belgium, the names of Flanders, Waterloo, and Mons entered the Google map on my phone, infusing an otherwise undistinguished landscape with solemn historical resonance. In Holland, wind mills have given way to wind turbines since I was last here (35 years ago, on my honeymoon.)
I arrived Rotterdam and caught another train to Utrecht, where I stepped out into a Gay Pride festival. I wove my suitcase through the dense, rainbow-coloured crowds to the hotel, which was situated just beyond the cathedral.
My suite edged towards the aristocratically decadent. (‘Remember your roots, John!’) I’d not afford the likes of it in the UK, for sure.
In the evening, I ate out at an Indonesian restaurant called Blauw (the Dutch for ‘blue’), which was painted red: 18 dishes of meat, fish, vegetables, and rice served in little boats. I crowned the day with a vanilla ice cream, which was white (as anticipated).
June 4 (Sunday). 10.00 am: To Amsterdam. Before my assault upon the museums, I shared a delicious apple cake and coffee at a small side-street cafe (which also had red decor).
My –admittedly vague and uninformed — expectation was that Museum Rembrandthuis would be like Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon: not authentic in every aspect, but sufficiently ‘period’ to provide a convincing evocation. Instead, the house has been more or less gutted, and a swish museum installed. Given that the artist had sold most of his possessions in order to pay debts, few if any of the artefacts on display were those that he’d looked upon, handled, and painted. They were tokens of the real, rather.
I’d not before seen the dry-point print of an earlier fifth state of his ‘Christ Presented to the People’ or ‘Ecce Homo’ (c.1655), in which a group of eleven ‘groundlings’ look up at him from the base of the picture. In later states (there’re eight in all), Rembrandt scotched and replaced them with, first, a single and, then, a double architectural arch, so that the central group (above) receive more prominence. (However, you can still just make out their shadowy ‘ghosts’ against the wall.) I thought about how the practice of evolving a print image through successive states might be applied to sound composition.
Something I didn’t know before I entered his house: For several years (around 1642-4) — ‘The searching years’, according to the wall caption — Rembrandt painted far less and concentrated on history pieces for collectors and some landscape studies. During that interval, his mind was preoccupied with making a stylistic and technical shift that would launch him into his magisterial final period. There may be times in our own careers when relative unproductivity, together with greater thoughtful reflection, may be the best way forward.
2.00 pm: Rijksmuseum. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) is presently encased a glass box surrounded by bespoke science and technology. (I recalled Agent Dale Cooper floating inside one in the first episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).) The painting, which is undergoing a radical restoration, is stretched without its frame. The uneven boundary of the paint and varnish, and the border of the sized canvas, are now visible. And astonishing sight, to my mind: the very edge of the painting.
4.00 pm: Vermeering. I’d secured a ticket for the final few hours on the last day of the extended exhibition. 28 of a mere 37 known and extant works by the artist were on display. You don’t need to have produced a large corpus of works to be recognised as an artist of great significance. But you do need to ensure that the majority of them are remarkable. And not all of them in this exhibition are. Girl Interrupted in her Music (c.1658-61) — and I say this with all due modesty and deference — is a failed painting, in comparison to what he was capable of at his best. Likewise, his A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals (c.1670). The images are inert, lacking the stillness, quietness, momentariness, and transcendence that characterises paintings such as Woman Reading a Letter (c.1633). I’d not be surprised if, in the future, these were proven to be by the hand of imitators.
‘Never before have so many Vermeers been brought together’. Likewise, assembling an unprecedented number of an artist’s work in one place doesn’t necessarily produce a remarkable exhibition. This one is a case in point. The discussion was limited, populist, and lacking in context and depth. For example, there was mention, but no explanation of, his use of the camera obscura. Here was an artist who painted men of science — a geographer and an astronomer — and adapted the science and technology of lenses and light projection in a manner that was unprecedented in the tradition of painting. The device was pivotal in the evolution of his work and establishing him as the truly remarkable artist that he remains. I wondered whether it ever crossed Vermeer’s mind that one day it might be possible to make the image of the world, which he saw inverted in his dark room, permanent by means other than painting.
Many of the exhibition attendees seemed more preoccupied with the issue of getting a good picture of a painting using the little ‘camera obscura’ that they held in their palm, and close enough to secure a selfie with it.
The homeward journey was marred by a computer failure at Amsterdam Centraal. For several hours, the station had no indication what trains were approaching or leaving the station. Eventually, the crowds of travellers that had amassed on the concourse were bundled, like fleeing refugees, in their hundreds onto the first available trains. I arrived back in Utrecht two hours later than planned.
June 5 (Monday). The museums were closed, so I took a one-hour circular trip on the canal, which runs through the city. It passes under a shopping mall at one point. Either side of the waterway are grassy banks and wild flowers. In the middle distance, high-rise buildings shone in the sunlight. The scene reminded me of 1960s’ architectural concept-visualisations of an idealised ‘future-world’.
An afternoon inside St Martin’s Cathedral and, then, beneath the square and Dom — to explore the archaeological remains. In 1674, the nave was destroyed by a fierce winter storm and never rebuilt. Ever since, the tower and main body have been separated edifices. The site of the dig dates back to the time of the Roman occupation, around AD 45. The foundations of the nave’s pillars are visible along with remnants of earlier churches and the nave, piled unceremoniously upon one another. At times, while walking through the dark with my torchlight, I felt as though I’d dived down to the submerged wreck of the Titanic.
June 6 (Tuesday). Holland to London. 10.30 am: After breakfast, I visited the Centraal Museum. It’s situated some 12 minutes away from the hotel, in a quiet part of the city. The website didn’t indicate that most of the galleries were closed for refurbishment. However, enough were accessible to make the excursion worthwhile. One housed the remains of a mediaeval ship and another, a recreation of Dick Bruna’s studio. He was an illustrator most well-known for his children’s-book character Miffy.
While the original studio had been situated elsewhere, the furnishings, equipment, materials, and memorabilia on the walls and surfaces of the museum’s attic room were authentic. The installation gave the impression that he’d just popped out momentarily for either a coffee or a bicycle ride. Bruna was still associatively ‘present’ amid the artefacts. I wished the Rembrandthuis had possessed some of this spirit. Bruna had been in Paris at the end of the 1940s and met with Picasso, Matisse, Léger, and Mondrian. His illustrative style reflects the pared-down essentialist sensibility, compositional clarity, and colouration of de Stijl.
12.45 pm: I took the train from Utrecht to Rotterdam. 1.30 pm: At he Eurostar terminal: a tale of two sharp objects. 1. In my suitcase, there was a sheaved fruit knife that was just a little longer than the prescribed limit for travel; Over 6 cm length, knives are potentially lethal weapons. But at 5.5 cm, they’re a danger only to apples and pears.
2. As I reached into my rucksack to pull-out a sturdy, glass, water flask, the top section sheared-off and cut deep into my thumb. As at the Crucifixion, water and blood poured forth together. A fellow traveller dived in with alcohol to cleanse, and a tissue to stem the flow of, the wound. On board the Eurostar, one of the Train Managers versed in first aid bound my ailing thumb. ‘It’s only a flesh wound! … I’ve had worse!’, I boasted.