Art Thieves


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July 24th 2019
Published: July 25th 2019
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It’s been feeling a bit warm here in our cosy little apartment over the past couple of days. We didn’t think this was our imagination, and this was confirmed when our host Paul came knocking on the door late yesterday afternoon armed with an evaporative cooler. He told us that we’ve landed here in the middle of a serious heatwave and that some experts are predicting that the day after tomorrow, when it’s currently forecast to be 36C, could break the record for Amsterdam’s hottest ever day. He looked a bit frazzled.

We head off towards this morning’s destination which is the Van Gogh Museum. It does seem fairly warm even by our Aussie standards, and a few Amsterdamers we pass look like they might be at serious risk of melting into the footpath. I had to work hard to convince Issy that we should include Amsterdam on our itinerary; she thought it would be too cold. I don’t think she’s thinking that now. The ornamental pond in the square in front of the Rijksmuseum is completely surrounded by frazzled looking Amsterdamers sitting around the edge with their feet in the water, and some of the younger brigade have even taken things a step further and fully immersed themselves. It‘s only a bit after 9am. I suspect there might be carnage here in the middle of the day when the battle to find a spot to dip your feet into really hots up. Maybe we should come back then; it might be quite entertaining.

The Van Gogh Museum opened in 1973 and houses the world’s largest collection of the great artist’s works. As is usually the case when we visit art museums I quickly discover that I know virtually nothing other than a few very cursory facts about the artist. He only really started painting when he was 27, but once he started there was no stopping him. He churned out more than two thousand artworks in the next ten years, including 860 oil paintings, most which were produced in the last two years of his life. He lived most of his life in France, and had a particular attraction to the simple rural life which often featured in his paintings. In common with a lot of great artists, he was scarcely recognised during his lifetime, and lived most of his life in poverty. He did a lot of self portraits, mainly because he couldn’t afford to pay for expensive French models. He was clearly a tortured soul. He was friends with Gaugin, and invited the French artist to come and stay with him at his small house in rural France. After two months they had a massive argument, and when Gaugin left, Van Gogh chased him with a razor. Van Gogh was delirious, and when he couldn’t catch Gaugin he used the razor to slice off his own ear. He had a tortured love life as well including a failed relationship with an ex-prostitute who he tried to “save”. When things all got too much he committed himself to an asylum where he kept painting from behind the barred windows of his room. He was eventually released but ended up shooting himself with a revolver, and died two days later with his brother and greatest supporter and confidante Theo by his side.

The museum is very large and is on three levels, with a temporary exhibition on his sunflower works in a separate connected building. His works have a very distinctive style even to my unartistic eye, with lots of small brushstrokes in different colours very close to each other which then seem to blend together when viewed from a distance. He painted five sunflower pieces altogether and these are now housed in five different galleries around the world including this one. The sunflower works exhibition includes a lot of detail on what’s being done to restore the sunflower painting that’s housed here, and shows the stark difference between what the experts think the colours looked like originally and what they look like now. This is clearly a massive issue. Van Gogh‘s paintings are only from the late 19th century, so presumably this is a much bigger issue for much older paintings such as some of Rembrandt’s 17th century masterpieces.

The Museum’s been the subject of two famous robberies. In 1991 twenty paintings were stolen by four thieves, two of whom were museum guards, in what remains the biggest art theft in The Netherlands since World War II. When we were in Paris a few years ago I seem to remember hearing about the Mona Lisa being stolen by one of the guards at the Louvre, so I think there might be a bit of a theme going here. Being an art museum guard would seem to be the ideal job if you had any aspirations to be an art thief. I wonder how art museum’s screen potential employees. “Do you plan on stealing any of our famous masterpieces” might seem like an obvious interview question, but I’m not sure that would be the most reliable method for weeding out candidates with questionable intentions. The 1991 thieves didn’t get too far. All the painting were recovered from an abandoned car within about half an hour, and all four thieves ended up in jail for six or seven years. Two paintings were also stolen in 2002 and were only found in 2016 in Naples. I wonder what art thieves might hope to get out of stealing famous masterpieces. I would have thought the whole art world would be on the lookout for them, so presumably you could only sell them to someone who would be happy to keep them hidden away; I don’t think you could hang them on the wall in your living room for all to see, which would then seem to me to rather defeat the purpose of having them in the first place. I think I must be missing something here.

As we leave I can’t get Don McLean’s “Vincent” out of my head, and I break into song as we walk through the park back to the apartment. Issy says that she really enjoyed the Museum, even more than the Rijksmuseum, but if the pained look on her face is anything to go by I suspect that my perhaps slightly non-melodic tones might be starting to detract from her experience just a tad.

I read yesterday that The Netherlands has very recently introduced a law making it illegal to use your phone while you’re riding your bike. If what we’ve observed during the last week is anything to go by, someone forgot to tell the cyclists about this. In fact if you’d just jetted in here from Mars you could be forgiven for thinking that using your phone while riding here was compulsory. Maybe it’s the same deal as with coffee shops. While these are all over the place here, I’ve also read that smoking pot here isn’t actually legal; it’s just that no one bothers doing anything to you if you do decide to puff away on a few joints. I wonder how many other laws here aren’t enforced, and begin to wonder why they bother making laws here at all. Presumably they think it’s worth their while trying to get armed robbers and axe murderers off the streets, but I wonder where they draw the line between the laws they think are worth enforcing and all the rest. I think I might be overthinking things again.

Issy says it’s too hot to do anything else, so she goes back to the apartment to cool off while I head to the Royal Palace, which is on Dam Square in the middle of Amsterdam. The Palace was originally built as a Town Hall and was opened in 1655. It was converted into a Palace in the early 1800s, and is currently used by the Dutch monarchy for entertaining, official functions during state visits, and official receptions. It is very impressive, with lots of large high ceilinged hallways full of marble statues. The Palace’s displays put a heavy emphasis on the key role that the early Dutch explorers and cartographers played in mapping the world.

Issy says she’s not sure there will be a lot of Japanese restaurants at our next two destinations, so she says we need to go back to the one we went to a few nights ago so she can satisfy her cravings before a period of enforced withdrawal. We arrive to find that the restaurant is open every day except Wednesday; today is Wednesday. I manage to catch her before she collapses onto the footpath, and fortunately we are able to track down another Japanese eatery not too far away before her tremors get too severe.


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27th July 2019
Rijksmuseum gardens

Heat wave
Lovely in the heat
28th July 2019
Rijksmuseum gardens

The Heat
It certainly was hot, and people seemed to be doing anything they could to get cool!

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