Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam. Early morning visit to beat the crowd and spend a few hours in my favorite museum … with my favorite painting, Jan Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid (or some call it the Milkmaid).
By 10 am I was finally standing in front of this amazing painting. Listening to the detailed audio description (I love audio tours .. they keep me informed and keep me isolated from the rest of the crowd … alone with the art in the room) .. and amazed by the new Audio Multimedia Tour contained in the iPod hanging around my neck. Visuals on the iPod, X-ray shots of the painting revealing hidden images, hidden intentions, secret of Vermeer.
It’s 1:00 pm and I am suddenly hungry. This museum is a labyrinth of hallways and rooms weaving in and out of each other. But eventually I find my way to the main floor, the cafe where I am politely ushered to a seat at a long table, next to a couple that is deeply immersed in a conversation in Dutch. I order and sit in silence. A young woman sits across from me, orders in perfect English. ‘American’ I think. “No, I’m from Austria, Vienna.” She is clearly more interested in her texting. My food arrives. Great salad. Great tea. The young woman has a brief conversation with the couple, in Dutch, or German, I’m not sure. Only thing I understand is that the husband does lectures on 17th Century Dutch Art. The young woman leaves. I’m about to leave. The husband and wife are about to leave.
I keep thinking to myself, “Mark, are you going to travel all through Europe, through Southeast Asia, travel around the entire world and never initiate a conversation with a stranger? What’s the matter with you?”
In a moment of courage, “I heard you say you teach 17th Century Dutch Art?” and the ice is broken. And in the next ten minutes I get the entire history of this museum and why it took so long to renovate and graphic depictions of what it was like when it was first built, how it was totally modified (and painted all white on the interior which is actually brick) in the 1930s, how the huge atrium where we are sitting used to be consumed by a large concrete edifice that contained more rooms, four stories high. And my head is reeling and I am suddenly so grateful for these unplanned moments in my life.
Mr. Joosen then informs me that he has been teaching 17th Century Dutch Art for the past 30 years. Many time in this museum. I’m not sure what to say. I have an expert next to me and have no idea what to say. “So, what’s your favorite Dutch painting” is the best I can do. Feels like a really stupid question. Like asking an actor, “what have I seen you in?” And I’m sure Mr. Joosen (first name is Toon) is going to mention some obscure painting that I have never heard of and I’ll find myself nodding my head like I understand. “The Threatened Swan”, he says. And I, with great relief, whip out my iPhone and whip through all the pictures I just took in the museum until I come upon “The Threatened Swan”. This is perhaps one of the most powerful paintings in the whole Dutch Collection.
“Did you know this is a political painting?” And Toon Joosen then precedes to point out why the swan is a symbol of Dutch national resistance. “And what about my favorite painting, The Kitchen Maid by Vermeer?” I ask innocently. I’m confident that there is no political symbolism in this innocent painting of a maid pouring milk into a bowl. “It’s not political”, Toon assures me, “it’s religious. This is a very powerful religious statement by Jan Vermeer. Especially in the 17th century when you were not allowed to paint religious symbols.”
Now I am suddenly aware of how little I know. Suddenly aware of how little I have even explored the history or philosophy or meaning of my favorite painting. I’ve visited it every year, in this museum, for the past ten years. And what do I know about it? Nothing.
“What about what they say on the audio tour”, I ask, hoping for some reprieve from my state of innocence. Toon waves away my question with a look of disgust and sympathy. “Nothing, it means nothing. The surface, only the surface. What people want to hear … but not the truth.” And then, in great detail he examines my recent photo of The Kitchen Maid and explains: The bread (crosses on the bread, the cross, forbidden in 17th century, but there it is), the milk into water (mixing of the secular and the sacred), the heater on the floor (the soul, warmth and passion of the Christ), the hook on the wall (where, through X-rays you can see there was once a calendar, now painted over … the purity of Vermeer’s faith ‘painted’ over man’s attempt to organize the world). “And the woman” I asked hopefully. “Who is she?” “She, as every woman is, is Christianity itself. At the center. Pouring the richness of life into a bowl that can contain it. With bread for everyone. The glow of the heavenly Father lighting her way through the broken glass.”
Be careful who you sit next to at lunch. They may ignore you. They may irritate you. They may change your life. Or they may open a door that you didn’t even know existed and allow you to see a part of your world in a new light.