Monday, July 4, 2016

A Blue Day in Delft

There comes a point in every trip when you realize you are ready to go home.  I found myself at that point Thursday in Delft.  For starters, it was raining all day, which I will take over sun just about any day (it's cold and wet but precludes me from worrying about an early death from skin cancer).  Then there was the fact that one of the families in the tile painting workshop I did included two "artists" (a mother who seemed to be a teacher and a daughter who was in college), and I swear the mom was overcompensating for something - like, you're on vacation, stop throwing the elements of art around and just paint the bloody tile!  Nobody needs you to prove that you know what you're talking about.  At the end of the workshop I went to find out about having it shipped to the States, and found out it would cost FORTY-FIVE EUROS. 
Let me take a short breather here to mention the fact that pretty much every museum I went to cost bank.  As in, ten to seventeen euros.  The first couple (Rijks and Van Gogh), I barely sneezed at it.  By the time I paid ten (payable only by card) to get into the Oude Kerk, I was using their facilities to take a huge dump as a way of justifying the cost (which amused me but made me realize - knowing as I did that this little revelation would make it into the blog at some point - that I may have been teaching teenage boys too long.  Or living overseas.  Or both).  By the time I got to Delft, the fact that admission to both the Old and New Churches was only four euros seemed like the best deal ever.  Then I got ahold of my senses, and I remembered that I've almost never paid admission to the Nelson or the Joslyn, and I felt a little horrified, but I guess if you come back from vacation with a lot of money you probably traveled wrong.
One of the Prinsenhof's interactive displays



Anywho, I was happy to get on the train to go back to Amsterdam, but I was also happy to get off the train in Delft.  I took two books with me when I moved to Korea the first time, and Girl With a Pearl Earring was one of them.  Vermeer has been one of my favorite artists since I first learned about him in an issue of Reader's Digest sometime in the 90's.  I loved the clarity of the light in his work, something that I've learned to appreciate even more as I've studied and taught art in the decades since.  Even though most of his works show simple daily scenes, there is something breathtakingly beautiful about them.  And Vermeer was from Delft, so Delft was my #1 place I wanted to see outside of Amsterdam.

Basically everything I knew about Delft comes courtesy of that book, which might be problematic for a history nerd like Time Lady, but since I care more about art and storytelling than history, we're good.  The main character's brother works for one of the tile factories, she goes to church, she shops in the markets and mentions skating on the canals.  All those things are still there to experience, but I was glad to come when I did, because 2016 was declared Delft's Year of Vermeer.  When I went to the Rijksmuseum I was disappointed to see that one of their Vermeer's was out on loan - to the Prinsenhof in Delft, as it turns out.  So I was planning to make that my first stop.

Sadly, when I got to the Prinsenhof at 9 that morning, I discovered that they didn't open until 11.  Luckily most points of interest in Delft are a short walk from each other, and the Oude Kerk was literally next door, so I started there instead.  True to my adventurous spirit of showing up and experiencing shit, I had done minimal research before getting there, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Vermeer was actually buried in the Oude Kerk.  His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, purchased a burial vault in the church, and when he died in debt at the age of 43, she had him buried in her vault.  Normally I don't get hung up on famous people's graves, but I admit I got a little teary-eyed, and wished I had flowers to leave.

Since the ticket included admission to the Nieuwe Kerk I figured that was the next logical step.  It's located on the central square, with city hall and the market, so I wandered through the stalls along the way, stopping for a fresh stroopwafel, and let me tell you, warm is really the only way to eat them.
I sat and sketched the nave of the church - I'm trying to do more drawing in my travel journal - but didn't really stay long.  The clock was ticking on toward 1:30, which is when I was told to show up to tour the Royal Delft factory before my tile workshop, so I wound through the marketplace and out the adjacent side of the square to visit the Vermeer Center.
I am a little ashamed to admit it, but the Vermeer Center was actually at the bottom of my list.  My third day in Amsterdam I visited the Rembrandt House Museum, and it blew my mind.  It was incredibly well-curated and had demonstrations in etching and paint mixing, not to mention it was in his ACTUAL HOUSE.  The Vermeer Center, on the other hand, is located in his rebuilt guild house, the St. Lucas Guild.  From what I gather, the actual home Vermeer lived in with his family either can't be pinpointed or no longer exists, but the guildhall makes a great second, and presents things in a distinctly different way than the Rembrandt House.  Rather than seeing the domestic side of his life, the museum focuses on a variety of aspects in his work - his use of light, whether or not he used a camera obscura, his guild mates - the name Fabritius tickled at my brain until I realized he'd painted The Goldfinch, and when I figured out it was up the tracks in the Hague, I started kicking myself for not thinking of him sooner.  It was all very interesting, but not quite on the same level as Rembrandt.

By the time I left, the Prinsenhof was finally open.  The exhibit around The Little Street was very informative and interactive - they even had a small Escape Room set up - and I really didn't give a crap.  I wanted to see the painting, so I kind of noticed what I was walking past, but kept walking.  Honestly, I don't consider myself a great scholar, and I'd be surprised if anyone else did, but I know how to appreciate a painting.

When I was in my IB workshop one of the other teachers mentioned that they didn't think the Prinsenhof was that great, and when you think in the context of the Rijksmuseum and - presumably - the Mauritshuis (which houses Girl with a Pearl Earring, as well as the aforementioned Goldfinch), I suppose it doesn't come out on top.  It doesn't have a collection to compete with them.  Where I think it really shines, though, was in the quality of its presentation.  Since I was going to the Royal Delft factory next, I looked at their exhibit on Delftware, which included technology and multimedia presentations, as well as the giant vase pictured above which you were encouraged to decorate with your own designs, although most people just signed their name.  I enjoyed testing my instincts (because I didn't bother reading most of the labels) about the values of different pieces, and designed a vase with one of their tech presentations.  I honestly don't remember anything that engaging in any of the other museums I went to (other than the Rembrandthuis, because it was seriously my favorite thing. 
After a decently long walk through the drizzle, I made it to my final stop, the Royal Delft factory.  I'm sure most people have seen ceramics painted with shades of blue.  I grew up seeing my grandparents' blue willow china when I went to visit them, and ended up inheriting it when the family got together to clean out the house after my grandma's death.  Although the Blue Willow pattern isn't Dutch, iw was traders from the Netherlands who introduced this aesthetic to the West from China, to the point where I think Delftware is more famous than Ming vases.  What I found most interesting on the tour, though, was their architectural ceramics showroom - it was not Delft blue, because porcelain is not strong enough to use for architecture elements (unless I'm mistaken - I'm not a potter by any means, so I may have that wrong, but from what I remember during my ceramics classes, porcelain is much more fragile than most other clays) but I found it had a lot more variety and creativity in it than the Delftware.
After the tour I was able to start the tile workshop.  I'd already seen a painter at work and realized the way they apply the pattern was very similar to the way we did it for the tiles we'd painted in Istanbul.at Les Arts Turcs - charcoal was applied to the porcelain through a stencil and the design was painted directly over it.  Any remaining charcoal burns off in the kiln.  Every piece of Delftware is created with two small brushes - one that has a couple of long hairs sticking forward to paint lines and a short stubby one to fill in areas of tone.  When you're looking at a single tile or a vase, that's okay, but there were other pieces, like a reproduction of The Night Watch, that were much larger.
Try to imagine painting all of those tiles with two small brushes!  The size is similar to the original, but I'm pretty sure Rembrandt painted parts of his masterpiece with bigger brushes.  Royal Delft does reproductions of Vermeer as well, and The Little Street was available for us to paint, but I went for a more traditional windmill scene.  And after I painted the hell out of that windmill, I painted some badass tulips and a little cat.  I would not have made a very good tile painter - you were definitely supposed to paint ONLY what had been designed and not make any little personal touches.  Since I'm not, I slayed with my personal touches.  And because I'd worked so hard and made it so personal, I had to fight not to cry a little when I realized I wasn't going to get to keep it, since there was no way I could pay 45 euros - more than the workshop and the tour combined - to get it sent to my parents' house.  And I guess that's okay - after all, I broke my Turkish tile.  You don't really get to keep anything but your experiences...even friendships don't come with a guarantee...but all the same, if I were doing the whole trip over again, I'd go to Delft on the first day, so that I could remember Fabritius and go back for him and my tile at the end.

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