Jake Starkey explores Amsterdam


My first visit to Amsterdam is not something you would call a cultural success. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I think it can be best described by our Prime Minister, David Cameron: it was a “typical student experience”. Being let loose around Europe at the age of 17 was like being handed the keys to the sweetshop. Except this shop contained no sweets, instead stocking copious amounts of sex and drugs.

At this point in life, I had little interest in Art, having not yet experienced the joys of first and second year Art History at the University of St Andrews. My only previous contact with art galleries had been through my parents, who, although having my best interests at heart (probably), dragged me round many galleries and museums at home and in Italy during my early childhood. In retrospect, it made me the fine, cultured young man I am today. But at the time, it was the last thing I wanted to be doing. So, as it turns out, I missed a hell of a lot of what was on offer in Amsterdam in my previous visit. After the four days (which had hazily merged into one) were over, we had covered only about a ten metre radius from the hostel. We were all blissfully unaware of the Anne Frank Museum, the Van Gogh Museum and the like. Even the Heineken Museum, which we set off in pursuit of on three consecutive days, remained unvisited.

Thus, when I found out my girlfriend had an internship in Holland and would be living in Haarlem, a town about 15 miles outside of Amsterdam, I was utterly thrilled. After all, there is nothing like the prospect of a holiday abroad to keep the spark in a long distance relationship. Part of the conditions of my visit was that I would have to keep myself occupied for a couple of days. As I was visiting my dear girlfriend, but mainly because I had little money (the recession hit me hard over the summer), visiting the Red Light District for two all day sessions was well out of the equation. Therefore, I settled on a visit to the Rijksmuseum.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, I didn’t actually visit the actual Rijksmuseum. I found out upon my arrival the main building of the Rijksmuseum was under renovation and restoration and I would be restricted to viewing what the Philips Wing had to offer. I wasn’t too displeased with this to be perfectly honest as I had decided to save money on trams and walk from Amsterdam Centraal to the museum. After various detours and wrong turns I arrived at my destination and was more excited for the air conditioned rooms than any art on show. It wasn’t all bad, I was promised to see “400 masterpieces [that] give an impressive picture of the miracle of the Dutch Golden Age”. Even though I thought they might have been overstating it ever so slightly, I eagerly paid my €12.50. After walking through the rooms containing very informative but rather dull displays on Dutch history and doll’s houses, I reached the second floor hoping to find the utopia of Dutch art I was searching for.

Some of the paintings found on the second floor were true gems. Comparing the works of Frans Hals and his loose brushstrokes with the exquisitely detailed still life works of lesser known artists such as Floris van Dijck and Balthasar van der Ast kept me occupied for quite some time. The genre scenes of Vermeer and Steen were also a highlight as they were invariably rather amusing. Although more famous for his Girl With a Pearl Earring, Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid is also a glorious work, as are some of his still life paintings. Rembrandt is promoted throughout the museum with at least three rooms dedicated to his works and life story. Yet I was most keen to see his piece de resistance: The Nightwatch, which had almost its own room dedicated to its viewing. The title of this work was given erroneously; the scene is not actually taking place at night, just in a dark location lit by light entering from the left of the canvas which brilliantly illuminates the militiamen, especially Captain Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Van Ruytenburch in the centre of the piece. Although a great spectacle I feel the room does not quite do the work justice by housing this colossal, old painting in a clean and modern room. Something just didn’t feel right. It also doesn’t help that the original was trimmed by about two feet to fit it on a wall, which makes it seem slightly out of proportion. But the painting is still truly a masterpiece and has done well to survive a knife and acid attacks over the years. There was also a lot of information surrounding it and I came out of the room feeling wiser and worldlier for the experience.


The Night Watch


Although it was disappointing that most of the museum was shut (sadly it was my fault I did not check the times), the Philips Wing was still well worth the visit. Once renovations have been completed to the main building I shall definitely be making a return. And on that note, you can all contemplate the massive restraint I’ve shown by not using puns like “it was a Rijk rip-off” or a “Rijk hike to get there”. I hope you are grateful. And having partaken in my one cultural activity for the week, I strolled in the sunset and had myself a typical student experience.


Jake Starkey

Image credit – Wikimedia