REGARDING THE neighbourhood, Rona does her homework too late. Arriving ahead of the agreed meeting time with the agency rep, she kills the spare time in a canalside bar. It’s a dirty, desolate place. Marine theme junk is festooned with cobwebs thick as ropes, the barman gives her a far from friendly onceover, posters on the wall carry violent slogans amidst clenched white fists. The window overlooks a pissoir, a metal structure which barely covers the groins of a steady stream of not so steady guys. She won’t be frequenting the local.
On the way to the apartment, her eye is caught by a street-level window suffused with a deep red glow and plush curtains; very stagey and late night for a Sunday afternoon. With new-in-town dumbness she is wondering what the curtains might conceal when a woman in complicated underwear parts them and smiles out. At her! Rona returns the smile and is raising a hand to wave when it clicks: she blushes, blinks, scurries round the corner, dragging her suitcase and shouldering her weighty hand luggage. In town half an hour and solicited by one of the world-famous hoertjes!
On a previous visit to the city she accidentally wandered into the blaring, glaring tacky sleaze of the official red light district, where everything from keyrings to roadside bollards resembled sexual organs and XXX had nothing to do with the Heroism, Steadfastness and Compassion proclaimed on the city’s coat of arms.
It wasn’t her intention to rent in the red light district. According to the map, she isn’t in it and these quiet little canalside alleys don’t match her memory of the triple X experience. Perhaps the woman – if it is a woman, could be a transvestite, transgender or the other, intermediate phase, is it travesty? – is a one-off, a free spirit who has set up in business off the beaten track? Her naivety only lasts as far as the crossroads: to the left is the church she was told to look out for, to the right, a stone’s throw from her door, an alley decked out with quaint but decidedly rosy-hued lanterns.
From the tiny cracked skylight in the tiny toilet under the eaves Rona sees, through grime-speckled glass, a purple door open onto an external staircase which appears to be suspended in mid-air. A woman in fur hat, wool coat, boots and a festive red scarf drags out a bag of rubbish, secures it between two large potted plants, pulls the door to, clicks down the stairs and out of sight.
Above the rooftops, the sky is an overloaded palette of steel, pewter and leaden hues which shift, swill, dissolve. Another level up, framed by a square window, a caged yellow bird hops from perch to perch.
Goldfinch! she exclaims, though she’s pretty sure it’s a canary.
The cage quivers. This is a shaky city, built on peat bog, embraced by canals. Developments for the new metro system are causing havoc with the foundations of buildings which date back to the Golden Age. Somewhere out of sight a high-pitched drill rips through the afternoon.
As she negotiates the rickety toilet seat, Rona tries to calculate angles of incidence from skylight to purple door or yellow bird. Which parts of her might be visible – knees, thighs, the lot?
The sleeping area of her apartment has room only for a double bed and two wonky bedside tables. A black blind covers the wide window. Even with the lights on the space is dark and the bed has a severe, wrought iron frame, better suited to bondage than relaxation.
She rolls up the blind. Damp grey light seeps in and a number of nearby windows now overlook her unmade bed and, as she had a quick kip after the agency girl pushed off on her bike, her undressed self. At one window a heavily-tattooed man paces to and fro, smoking a fat cigar, jawing down the phone and jabbing the air with his smoking finger. At another, a sumptuous African woman leans through the open casement and snaps dust out of a rug. How many windows overlook her bed?
When she asked about the neighbourhood, the very young, pretty but not very well-informed girl showed her on the map just how near and easy to find the red light district is.
I’m not actually wanting to find it, Rona said. Though it looks like I already have.
At this point the rep’s English deserted her and having got what she’d come for – the credit card payment and a whopping damage deposit – she made a hasty exit.
In a country known for an overabundance of sky, little is visible. At the front of the Benedictus apartment, named after the church and affording it an undeserved aura of tranquility, a massive church wall runs the length of the alley. Though it blocks out the sky, the wall has compensations: the soothing umbers and ochres of old brick, moss greens furring the mortar; and more to the point, no-one can see in.
Well, no-one in the church. Where it meets the crossroads, another batch of windows faces her own. At street level, glass-fronted on two sides, is the office-cum-waiting room of the brothel, devoid of charm or comfort; functional as an autorepair shop. Two men fall out on to the street, throwing punches and insults, circling each other in a belligerent ring-a-rosy. Rona doesn’t understand the language but the tone translates: a hike in decibels, sudden roars, eruptions of plosives. Both men are stocky, shaven-headed and stubble-chinned. Passersby efficiently skirt the disturbance: kids on bikes, women laden with groceries, backpackers in search of ‘coffee bars’ and crash pads, and a string of solo men, hands in pockets, checking out the window displays.
Two floors up are more of the big plain, purposeful windows. For four hundred years furniture has been hoisted up exterior walls and swung through open casements. Still is: a sturdy hook swings on the other side of the glass.
She can see straight onto somebody else’s rumpled bed. A pair of red stilettos pokes through the downie; an empty bottle stands on the bedside table, double-cupped by a red bra. Otherwise the room is stark, clinical, the light harsh, the kind you might want for deep cleaning, for routing things out of corners. The open door leads to a shadowy hallway.
She can see a man and woman eating lunch. The bread is round and golden brown, the cheese creamy with a burnt orange rind, the crockery blue. The room is warmly lit, its furnishings earth-toned. The woman pours wine into the man’s glass, her gaze trained on the ruby flow between the bottle neck and the lip of the glass.
The Kitchenmaid! Rona exclaims but quickly reverts to irritation. Peace and privacy are what she paid for – and paid over the odds – only to find herself in a triple X satellite, and overlooked in every direction. She reminds herself that even in nicer parts of town, Amsterdammers have always overlooked each other, had an eye pressed to the glass, an ear to the wall.
The drilling persists. Carefully Rona edges down the stairs. The treads are so shallow she has to turn sideways, the staircase so narrow that an overweight person could get stuck. Have bodies ever been winched up and slung in the windows? What about coffins? Could you get a coffin down these stairs? As she passes the apartment below, a warm fug of incense and the canned laughter of a gameshow oozes into the stairwell. No name on the door, just a cutesy little sticker of a magic mushroom. Well, what did she expect, Van Gogh sunflowers?
The queue for the Rijksmuseum, still under reconstruction, stretches out of the gate and round the corner. It has begun to rain. Umbrellas are up, hoods pulled down, a cold wind blows. Like a packed-to-capacity car park, in order for people to enter, some have to leave but Rona, having paid in advance for a museum pass, can fast track. At the cloakroom, she is asked to deposit bag as well as coat, so, pen and notebook in hand, reading glasses on a chain around her neck, in she goes.
She has rationed herself to six paintings. No Rembrandts. Though the self portraits can get to her like little else, they’re not why she’s here. Besides, the Rembrandt room is chockablock, an echo-chamber of coughs and shuffles, no proper place for thought.
Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch (On loan from the Mauritshaus). The Dutch title, Het Putterje ,as the wall card explains, comes from the bird’s trick of being able to collect water with a bucket the size of a thimble. Clever bird.
The painting is breathtaking in its simplicity. Just a bird on a feeder attached to a pale wall, paint applied freely with a loaded brush, gold flash on the one visible wing the strongest note of colour. The soft contours of its body, angle of the head suggest movement, vitality but in spite of his teacher’s dictum: Follow life, Fabritius is more likely to have based it on a stuffed specimen than a live finch.
Trompe l’oeil? F’s illusion of real bird perched high in room also symbolic attempt ( by Rem-brandt’s pupil) to bring dead back to life?
A fine chain tethering the bird’s leg to the wall bar hangs in a loose arc. Rona needs to put on her glasses to see it clearly. In public, the tools of her trade make her self-conscious. She takes notes too quickly, shielding scribbles with an arm like a kid writing a Strictly Private! diary. Not that what she’s writing is intended, eventually, to be private. Far from it. She’s hoping to spread facts, opinions, theories and queries to as wide a readership as possible.
Mauritshaus built w slave gold from Brazil. Check date of construction.
Bird chained to feeder a form of social comment or neutral observation?
Beautiful, isn’t it? Beautiful and sad.
A tall man in a tatty, slate grey outfit stands beside her. Straggly grey hair, watery grey eyes. A smell of drink off him. Cognac.
All beautiful things are sad.
I could look at it all day, Rona says, but the gallery is only open for another two hours …
So you must make the most of your time. Feast on the many pleasures of the collection.
Too many for one day.
And you are not only here for pleasure, he says evenly, eyeing her notebook.
It’s always good to talk to another art lover, she says.
Ah, no. I am not art lover. Well, I go now. Goodbye.
He turns on his heel, crumpled coat swishing, leaves her to the Goldfinch. Her gaze slides from the bird to the wedge of shadow behind it.
When an Italian study group floods the room with expansive syllables, Rona goes in search of Gerrit Dou’s An Interior with Young Violinist (On loan from National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). A young man sits holding his violin. By today’s standards, it looks out of proportion. The violinist looks straight at the viewer, his expression a compelling mix of optimism and wistfulness. Surrounded by symbols of learning – books, a globe – and licentiousness – overturned flagon, pisspot – and the accoutrements of a gentleman – spurs on boots, a cloak and sword hanging behind him – he still has the mien of a humble lad who doesn’t know how he’s found himself in such cultivated surroundings. Dou, the fastidious, dust-defying Dou, painted this epitomy of harmony, peaen to wordly pursuits, hymn to optimistic endeavour when he was twenty four.
Is Dou the model? Same gaze, soft cheeks, girlish mouth, youthful seriousness. See self portraits. Trace use of musical instrument as sexual reference in visual arts.
Check history of violin, dimensions.
The violinist sits near the window. Anyone passing could have seen him – Dou, it must be Dou – striking a pose. The soft low light entering the room suggests water nearby.
Check location of Dou’s studio.
She glances around. No sign of the guy in grey. Just as well. In Gabriel Metsu’s The Sick Child (On loan from the Steengracht, The Hague), a child sits on a woman’s knee. Though there is great tenderness in the woman’s encompassing attitude, the child’s pose is awkward, as if she is uncomfortable but can’t summon up enough energy to adjust her gangly limbs and bony buttocks.
Wan child, worried woman. Though bold primary colours feature in the clothes, these only emphasise the child’s sickly pallor, the deep shadows around eyes fixed far beyond the viewer, the moment. Beautiful. And sad.
Woman too old to be mother? Hair going grey. Grandmother, nanny, neighbour?
On the surface, Pieter de Hooch’s work, A Mother’s Duty, has less emotional pull, is more a marvel of perspective and compositional detail. In the right foreground – and the painting splits down the middle – is an ordinary, domestic scene: a mother checking her child’s hair for nits. Art historians have suggested a moral message implicit in the action – combing a child’s head for sins as well as nits – but Rona is not convinced, not even by the reference to duty in the title.
People not individual enough, figures studies, stock poses. De H has put his creative energy elsewhere.
On the left, through an open door, in front of which a dog sits, entranced, we move through another room and, via an open window, to the world outside: trees in bloom; sunlight. Domesticity gives way to the draw of beyond.
De H died in madhouse. Dreams split down the middle?
I think de Hooch hit the wall running.
We’re on the same path. By coincidence or design.
I don’t read anything into coincidence, Rona snips.
Ah, but coincidence might read something into you … I wanted to tell you
my theory about this Pieter de Hooch: When a man gets too caught up in domestic interiors he has to open a door.
He has open a door and step outside. Or inside. But step somewhere else. The door de Hooch opened didn’t lead to better things.
Are you sure?
No. Not yet … So if you’re not an art lover, why are you here?
It’s a free country. But I am interrupting your train of thought – can you say
‘tram’ of thought? – and spoiling your appreciation of Old Dutch Masters. Farewell.
For a big man he is light on his feet, and quick off the mark. Rona returns her attention to de Hooch, fixes on a diamond of sunlight thrown down on terra cotta floor tiles.
Find out more about de Hooch’s family life, mental illness etc.
The intensity of blue in the skirt and yellow in the bodice of the woman pouring milk in The Kitchenmaid hits her from across the room. Such concentration of colour. As if Vermeer distilled paint for the viewer to drink to the point of intoxication. Rona elbows through the crowds buzzing around Girl with a Pearl Earring (On loan from the Mauritshaus), which the film of the best-selling novel has turned into a Must-See. Read the book, seen the movie, Rona glances at the Girl in passing, finds her too bright, flat, too winning. And too familiar from bookjackets, cheap prints and hanging banners.
Effects of overexposure?
The Kitchenmaid has her eyes focussed on the creamy flow from the spout of an earthenware jug to a bowl. Self-contained, preoccupied, she does not in any way invite the viewer’s gaze. Caught in this ordinary domestic action, cool light from the window picking up forehead, cheekbone, wrist, bodice, cap, skirt, the maid with her workaday features and solid frame is as serene as any madonna. The skirt, tucked up to keep it clean or just a fashion statement of the period, is a deep pool of blue.
Porridge in bowl or was breakfast bread and milk?
Shamelessly, Rona hogs her standpoint. At arm’s length from the painting no-one can comfortably cut in front of her and politeness prevents people nudging her out of the way. The longer she contemplates the still, wholesome scene, the easier it becomes to ignore the bustle of the gallery and the progress of time until an attendant cuts sharply into her contemplation and announces that the gallery will close in twenty minutes.
In Jan Steen’s Woman at her Toilet the subject sits on her box bed and removes a red stocking. The garter mark on her leg is unmistakeable. Holding her skirt above the knee, she flashes a generous expanse of inner thigh. A dog, featured in other paintings by Steen, is curled up, asleep on the woman’s pillow. On the floor is a used chamber pot and a pair of the heeled, backless slippers often left lying around Old Dutch Masterpieces. Style and symbolism. The woman is engrossed in drawing the red stocking over her ankle. She gives no sense of being observed, or overlooked. Except, of course, by Steen. It’s a work of intense, voyeuristic intimacy.
Rona scribbles quickly, one eye on the attendant and the exodus of visitors:
If the dog does represent lust, if the word for stocking, kous, is a play on female genitalia, and ‘darning your stockings’ a euphemism for sex, if pisskous is another word for slut and for three hundred years this woman’s thighs were modestly covered by a white petticoat, it would be difficult not to interpret the scene as a representation of loose morals. And yet the woman is painted with such affection: her downcast face, framed by kisscurls, so gently absorbed in preparing for bed.Vulnerability rather than titillation.Who was model?
As she writes, Rona glances round, half-expecting the guy – seedy or dishevelled chic, she’s not sure what his look says – to reappear, breathe down her neck, venture another opinion but the room has been cleared and the guard is eager to usher her out.
Jan rakes in his pocket for the key to the street door, which he was sure he’d left open when he went to the corner shop. Once inside, he leaves the door on the latch. The intercom’s broken and he can’t be arsed going up and down the stairs all evening. He steps over the pile of junk mail. Further up the stair, a lock turns, a door bangs. The new woman is back already. Only been out for what, three hours, when she could have been chilling in a cafe, getting into the vibe.
Mostly the Benedictus does short rents; city breaks, dirty weekends. The tourists are in and out, mostly out. Plenty to keep them off the premises and out of his hair. But the dame who arrived early afternoon and woke him before he wanted to be woken seems to have other things in mind than entertainment. He heard her lugging a dead weight of a suitcase up the stairs, and when she unpacked, the thud of hardback books. He knows what books sound like: worked in an antiquarian bookshop for a bit but the fusty smell did his head in and the crusty old punters, fussing about foxing and torn title pages, browsing for hours then buying zilch – not his scene.
His bed is directly beneath the Benedictus bedroom and sleep – deep close to comatose or shallow and dream-filled – is pretty much his favourite pastime. Sex is okay now and again and if he has a thing for one of the neighbourhood girls, there’s always somebody owes him a favour.
From the Benedictus there’s usually plenty of bump and grind, though by the time tourists get back from a night on the town, they’re mostly too spaced for a fuckathon. Once past the post, a nightcap maybe, final trip to the pisser then out for the count. That’s what the Benedictus is for.
He turns up the gas fire and unpacks his supplies from the corner shop: tea and coffee, pizza and cookies, tobacco and papers, a bottle of Jack. When the phone rings he’s skinning up.
Yeah, he says. Been shopping, man.
He does some weighing and bagging in the kitchen area, behind a bead screen on which the Virgin of Guadalupe shakes and rattles and separates into a thousand painted pieces. He likes his business. Keeps his own hours, doesn’t need to leave the house to make a living or have a social life.
Dirk and Otto accept a shot of Jack, make short work of a joint and are ready to split in less than fifteen minutes. Earlier in the day they were tearing strips off each other but apart from a bruise or two are happy clappy again. They didn’t
say and Jan
ask but with these guys money and girls are always the cause of a quarrel. Good to get them sorted early, know they won’t be back at the door for a bit.
His phone rings again.
Yeah, got the goodies. See you in ten.
He channel surfs. Are Brits only interested in quiz shows, ballroom dancing
and old guys in fast cars?
The lights in the church across the way are on and two tall, arched windows glow softly. In one, a knight in armour defends the Christian faith. In the other, a virtuous woman casts her eyes heavenwards. Rona finds the muted colours of the stained glass reassuring, a soothing counterpoint to the sudden spills of noise on the street: brash laughter, the waspy buzz of scooters careering down the narrow alley, the fracas of broken glass.
Maritsa straightens the bed, throws the beat-up red stilettos into the pile at the bottom of the wardrobe, picks out an electric blue pair which go nicely with the new black and blue basque. She snorts a couple of fat lines and fixes herself a vodka and blue Bols. Likes to be colour-coordinated. Still a bit of time to enjoy the high before her first customer.
Across the way Jan is sprawled on the sofa, as per usual. Dirk and Otto are settling up, closing their wallets. Lazily Jan rouses himself to see them out, floppy hair falling into his eyes. Maritsa likes Jan. Cute, passive, easy to please.
The lights are on in the Benedictus. Not everybody’s cup of tea, sharing a stair with Jan. Not as if the cops leave him alone all the time and he’s far from fussy about who he does business with. Earlier in the day, the new girl was hanging around the alley, checking out the competition. Doesn’t look like much but Maritsa’s walked past plenty off-duty girls on the street. Wigs, makeup, accessories, where would they all be without the tricks of their trade?
What she doesn’t get is all those big boring-looking books stacked up on the nice dining table Maritsa would like to get her hands on. If she had a table like that, she’d throw a dinner party, cook up a storm. What good are books around here? And backing off from the window like that, perching on a stool by the frigging cooker with your specs dangling on a chain like an old schoolmarm? The whole point of windows is to see. And be seen. To advantage.
Maritsa switches on the UV, transforming her room to a cave of dark light. The blue basque throbs like a clutch of electric eels. Her skin takes on a deep, blemish-free tan. Her fingernails glow like stars. She downs her drink, adjusts her stockings. Her first customer, a regular, is on his way. Dodgy but pays over the odds. Amongst other things, he likes a bit of costume drama. Golden Age caps and gowns. Millstone collars. Along with a snifter of cognac. Only drinks cognac. Maybe she’ll leave the blinds open. Let the new girl see what she’s up against.