We took the city tram to the Portuguese Synagogue and Jewish Museum. In order to survive the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, many Sephardic Jews renounced Judaism and became Christians. Those who were discovered practicing Judaism secretly or refused to renounce were burned at the stake. Many survivors fled to Amsterdam, a religiously tolerant city and people. In 1675 these refugees built the Portuguese Synagogue and lived peacefully until World War II. Those Portuguese/Dutch Jews who survived the holocaust returned to the city and continue to practice their religion there today. The synagogue is a humble, rustic place illuminated only by candlelight from hanging chandeliers and candelabra. There is sand on the floors to dampen the sound of footsteps during the service. The Jewish museum is across the street. It is very modernized and houses a children’s school, the synagogue and many informative exhibits and audio lectures that educate visitors about the history, practices and high holidays of the Jewish people. There was nothing maudlin or depressing about either place, rather they were inspiring examples of a persecuted people’s will to not only survive but flourish wherever they go.
Early today we went to the Van Gogh Museum. When we visited in 2009 one wing was devoted to the work of Odilon Redon, one of my favorite Surrealist artists. There was a jazz quartet giving a concert in the main entry hall. In 2013 it’s all Van Gogh with a sprinkling of contemporaries here and there. A new acquisition was being added to the collection and the director was being interviewed by the media. I was sitting close by and suddenly a camera and microphone were stuck in my face. I was asked a few questions about my opinion of the painting and it’s authenticity, (as if I were an expert on the work of Van Gogh, which I’m not, and had anything of value to add). I tried my best not to sound like an idiot.
The museum is full of interactive displays about Van Gogh’s materials and techniques and a good deal of information on his life. Contrary to many people’s perception, Van Gogh was not an untrained artist. He studied privately with teachers, went briefly to the Academy Julien in Paris and independently studied the techniques of the great masters. He was a terrific draughtsman and had a well thought out concept of light and motion developed over years. It has been speculated that his madness at the end of his life was the result of exposure to toxic paints and thinners. He did try to kill himself by drinking turpentine. After that incident he voluntarily checked himself into the clinic/ asylum at St. Paul where he painted his remarkable Iris’ and some of what I consider to be his best landscapes. All ages, nationalities, and levels of exposure to art respond emotionally to Van Gogh’s paintings. It’s not the hype, it’s real. He poured his life into his canvases and we can all feel it.
I’m reminded of a line in Lust For Life. Gaugin says, derisively, ‘Vincent, you paint too fast.’ Vincent replies, ‘You look too fast.’
It is amazing how universally his paintings move people.