Thursday, November 14, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: The Schiller Hotelier

watercolor by Hallie Cohen
The Schiller hotel is located in Amsterdam’s center at Rembrandtplein 28. Frits Schiller (1886-1971) the son of the George Schiller, a brewer who founded the original, built the current structure, along with his two siblings, Hein and Elsa in 1912. He was a painter known as “the greatest hotelier amongst painters and the greatest painter amongst hoteliers.” The Schiller became a hot spot during the l920’s. The hotel was Amsterdam’s version of The Algonquin. Many artists, who were Frits’s friends, hung out in the portrait gallery of the brasserie.Today, the neon sign with its NH Schiller Hotel at the top over the dark hulk of the structure hangs somnolently, one of a number of buildings that now grace the city’s skyline. Amsterdam has, of course, been the home of the greatest of Dutch painters and it's hard to remember that there were students and masters who nobody ever knew. For many of these painters, art was simply an avocation. Frits was an example of an artist who moonlighted and not just to make ends meet. He straddled the world of art and commerce, though today his name is something you're more likely to see when you're staring out of a window than in studying the attribution on a work in the Rijksmuseum. Shortly before Frits's death in l971, the Schiller family sold the hotel and today it's known as the NH Amsterdam Schiller.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Tarkovsky at the Eye Filmmuseum

photograph by Hallie Cohen
You may remember Andrei Tarkovsky as the creator of the first Solaris (1972) based upon the Stanislav Lem science fiction classic. Steven Soderbergh’s version from 2002 is the one most American audiences are familiar with. Tarkovsky’s adaptation is a brooding movie and like much of the director’s work difficult to watch due to his signature style which involved the dispensing away with classic narrative devices. It’s no wonder he was beloved by the greats of the modern cinema, Antonioni, Fellini and Kurosawa. Bergman praised him for understanding “life as a dream.” There are some very old and almost anachronistic things about Amsterdam (like hookers displaying themselves in windowed closets) but the current Tarkovsky exhibit at the Eye Filmmuseum is an example of how advanced the culture of this capital can be. This homage is an omnibus show in every sense of the word. Scenes from great works  are displayed on curved screens throughout the gallery and there’s a vertiginous centrifugal effect in seeing all these powerful films in a majestic ballet with each other. A scene from Andrei Rublev (1966), based on the life of the 15thcentury icon painter, is juxtaposed with a cut from Solaris. From the purely film historical point of view there’s footage of Orson Welles presenting Tarkovsky and Bresson best director awards at Cannes in l983 and there's one particularly affecting old-fashioned telegram to Tarkovsky (who died at the age of 54 in l986) from Fellini in 1978, when the Russian moviemaker took ill. “Un abbracio et un grand auguri,” were Fellini's words. Tarkovsky said, “Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer,’ the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting a barrier between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” The English writer Geoffrey Dyer devoted a whole book just to Stalker entitled Zona. The very ambition of the current show at the Eye is a paean to the breadth of Tarkovsky’s own project. He rejected the socialist realist dogma of the Stalin era, but he’s a little like early Marx since the subject is the alienation of man from the culture in which he lives. He once said, “There is no deeper more mysterious and more critical mystery than the mystery of our existence.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Het Rembranthuis

photograph by Francis Levy
Rembrandt was foreclosed on the house he bought on Jordenbreestraat 4 for 13,000 guilders. Today the premises have been preserved as a museum. He lived there from 1639-58 with his wife Saskia who died soon after the birth of his son Titus. He'd been doing pretty well to buy that place since the average working man at the time only made about 300 guilders a year. When you visit the house today you can see the etching studio where he employed his genius for spontaneous chiascuoro drawing, his two painting studios with their Northern light where he mixed pigments and linseed oil on a stone tablet, the small office where he handled his everyday affairs and the actual space where he conducted his business affairs (he was an art dealer who at one point had both Michelangelos and Titians in his collection). Interestingly one of the ways that the original dwelling has been re-configured is through the inventory taken at the time of the foreclosure. Thus, the house reeks of the humanity for which the famed painter is famous. He triumphed and also lost everything there. The mistress he took after the death of his wife also lived in one of the rooms and when you visit you get to see the kitchen with the hearth and even the tiny bed on which his housekeeper slept. Every element of the house poses questions about art and life which are also answered—which you might say is one of the very characteristics of Rembrandt’s art. Speaking of humanity, The Doelen is the oldest hotel in Amsterdam and it was in one of its third floor suites, which can still be rented, that "The Night Watch" was painted.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Postmodern Industrialism

Amsterdam at Night (photo: Francis Levy)
If there was any doubt about Amsterdam’s credentials, just look at the scenery when you drive in from Schiphol Airport. Yes, London is still the center of world banking, but take note of the post- modernist Baker & McKenzie and Deloitte buildings. Hardcore Denim is the name of one the companies that has a tower heralding its product. But this is not some hydrocarbon complex in New Jersey with its green pools of toxic waste. The Dutch are a paean to the new techno age of wealth preservation; after all they were the first boys on the block and drove a pretty hard bargain as colonists in places like Indonesia (a la the Dutch East India Company). Now everything about Amsterdam and Holland is clean and new and in places where productivity occurs, almost surgically antiseptic. The only requirement is profitability. Profit is the ghost that lingers in the background of a society that provides social entitlement in a capitalist context. In fact, Amsterdam in contrast to its Scandinavian counterparts is a relatively deregulated society. Capitalism and Freedom was the title of the tome by the supply side economist Milton Friedman. Does that explain the hustle and bustle where there’s not only one of the few remaining Red Light districts in Europe, but also tastefully designed sex shops all over the city (which are a far cry from the seedy establishments selling dildos and lingerie on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan) and, of course, legalized pot. Back in the day New Amsterdam was a rip-off from the its eponymous model, but no one would ever consider modern day Amsterdam a rip-off of New York. You have a lot of places offering New York Pizza but that’s as far as it goes.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: 101

When you think of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, the Red Light District (De Wallen), and Anne Frank’s House all come to mind. The trio which represent art, sex and humanity are strange bedfellows. The sites which attract tourism are always telling, but what is it that visitors seek in this European capital? What’s the attraction? Rembrandt, half-undressed women seated in windows or a famous victim of the Holocaust? Canals run through the city like Boulevard Haussmann and Oxford Street in Paris and London. They’re lined with picturesque three and four story dwellings whose warm lighted interiors are tantalizingly out of reach to the tourist. The port city is the bastion of the freedoms that long derived from mercantilism, an ethos predicated upon the facilitation of commerce in all its forms. Prostitution and marijuana both taboo in most major capitals are legal in Amsterdam. Amsterdam’s freedom is legislated yet it's hard to grasp. The furor over the renovation of The Rijksmuseum, portrayed in the film about the project, reminsicent in some ways of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, gives some sense of undercurrents which belie Amsterdam's surface of tolerance and equanimity. The city has some qualities that are reminiscent of Scandinavia, but the language may be telling. It’s more guttural and lacks the lilting sound of say Swedish. There’s a brusqueness that’s neither reminiscent of Nordic aloofness nor southern European ebullience. Disinhibition doesn’t adequately describe a populace who can appear reserved and even buttoned up to a casual observer. Amsterdam is like a permissive though domineering parent. Its liberties exemplify a controlled economics experiment whose data, after centuries, has yet to be analyzed. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stop Behaving Like An Animal

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve been around enough people who behave like animals that you don’t need any more pets? Devoted animals are nice and indeed they may possess extraordinary intuitive traits. On the other hand, with the exception of television famed talking horse, Mister Ed, animals can’t talk back. So, you're never going to know what they’re really thinking. Either it was nothing or is there a possibility that like the classic l9th century servant character who bows and scrapes for the crumbs they receive, they’re laughing behind their master’s backs? Of course, it’s less possible that animals are hypocrites, out of some say bovine Les Liaisons Dangereurses than that they’re adorable, cute and clueless. Unless that cockroach in the corner is Gregor Samsa, in other  words, a human whose been metamorphosed, then it’s just an insect foraging for food and yes capable of running like hell when its antennae detect an ominous shadow. When you look at the animal world it’s a little like entering one of those gated communities in Florida that have manners and mores all their own.You could take the “when in Rome” philosophy, but are you going to get down on all fours and bark like a slave in an S&M loop in order to get a feeling for the existence of a particular class of canine havenot? Are animals the oppressed of the earth, misunderstood creatures whose fates lay at the whim of their owners or the A.S.P.C.A.? Yes, but little good is going to occur if you free all the prisoners from their jails and in this case let all the lions and tigers out of their cages at the zoo?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Your Save the World Campaign

Earth from Apollo 17
Have you ever taken matters into your own hands and decided that you were going to really do something, about the state of things, that is? Right there and then you were going to plant your stake in the ground, if only it were to do one thing that turned the tide against a wave of empathy, regression or destruction. Most times you get an impulse, but you lose your mojo. Some other day you say. Tomorrow you'll put your version of the Ninety-five Theses up on the church of humanity’s door. Tomorrow comes and of course there are the bills, your child has a fever and you get one of those  notices generated by computers which are ill-equipped to answer the fine points of your questions. But then there's that one moment you've been waiting for. You have gone around the corner to get a cup of coffee and that first gulp tastes good and boom, on the heels of the caffeine rush you realize you're going to do something even though you have no idea what it is. And you’re right. Effortlessly a thought comes to your mind. Why hadn’t you ever considered something so simple before. It’s a small thing, but if the world’s 7.53 billion people all contributed one simple helpful act, something as small as picking a cigarette butt off the street, then the planet would be a better place. In your case, it turns out to be what you’re not going to do, which is to get angry at someone in your life for being who they are. You're going to force yourself to be glad they’re them. Your revelation, homegrown truth or simple realization, is you wouldn’t want them to be any different.