Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts — a personal favorite — and cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt House and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.

Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”

This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.

Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.

m5x00046_9Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

Human figures, so creepy, so astonishing

For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.

For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.

These bodies — from the gorgeous to the gruesome; the hyper-realistic to the freakily figurative — comprise the knockout exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” at The Met Breuer, through July 22.

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The old and the new, juxtaposed.

“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.

The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.

My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.

Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.

Below is part of the population crowding the best show I’ve seen since the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met last summer:

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Detail from “The Whistlers” (2005), a sculpture by Tip Toland. Jarringly realistic, profound and whimsical. Just look at that face.
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In “The Digger” (1857), is this skinless man shoveling his own grave? In the background, an especially grisly crucifixion from medieval Germany.
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Faces from the ages: Center is the ethereal “Mask of Hanako, Type E” by Auguste Rodin (1911). At right is “Self,” a frozen-blood self-portrait by Marc Quinn (2006).
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“Housewife” (1969-1970) by Duane Hanson. Commentary that is both witty and withering, this snapshot of quotidian, housebound tedium is a diorama of depression.
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“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. A porcelain monstrosity that’s actually pretty hilarious depending on your mood and/or critical perspective. (I think the consensus is that it’s hideous.)
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“To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll” (2016) by Goshka Macuga, a speaking, moving android that pontificates with chilling verisimilitude about life, death and global concerns for 38 minutes. Eerie and mouth-agape mesmerizing, he’s the spiky, intellectual counterpoint to Disney’s anodyne animatronics.
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“Self-Portrait with Sculpture” by John De Andrea, 1980. These are not real people. The frontal view is firmly R-rated, the tableau slightly disturbing and thought-stirring and so true-to-life, it makes you start. (Can you name the extremely famous painting in the background, left? It’s a beautiful juxtaposition with the sculpture. Answer: “Pygmalion and Galatea.)
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I don’t know who this is, or who made him. But he emanates a special brand of banal magnificence.

Budapest or bust. (Likely the latter.)

With no travel planned for the near future, an empty, aimless feeling kicks in, and I’m like: Now what? My wanderlust is muscular. The urge to move pulls hard. I would like to hit the road — or, more accurately, the air — and be transported to a new land with new people, new sights, new food, new thrills.

Today I was aroused by a travel story about Budapest on The New York Times web site. “36 Hours in Budapest” unfurls a highlight reel of things to see and do in the Hungarian capital in a brisk day and a half, from famed thermal baths to a burgeoning modern art scene; from brand-new, extremely well-stocked artisanal bars to Michelin-rated eateries. I’m revved about all of it.

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Budapest. Perhaps. Or not.

I almost hopped a plane to Budapest a few years ago. In fact, I wrote in a December blog entry: “I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip.”

Bite my tongue.

Yet maybe Budapest is a bust. Then again, that article sheds entrancing light on what it calls “a regional powerhouse in terms of art, design and cuisine, home to a dynamic fashion scene and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the former Eastern Bloc.”

Cool. But it’s so much pie in the sky. I won’t be going to Hungary any time soon. Funds aren’t robust and it’s rather short notice. I curse the Times article for enticing me, like a mouse to cheddar in a trap. Fiends.

My brother pointed me toward a $300 round-trip flight to Paris in October on budget-friendly Norwegian Air. That’s amazing. But it’s also seven months away, and I went to Paris for the fifth time a little over two years ago. I need something more novel and less trodden. (Anyway, I’ll always have Paris.)

In my December blog, which echoes this one in its anatomization of pesky wanderlust, I mulled where I might travel next:

“Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm. … I’m picky. Some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.”

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Amsterdam wants me.

Ireland seems increasingly attractive. A reader nudged me toward Northern Europe (I forget what country exactly, perhaps Norway). I prefer a place where I have to wear a light jacket. Amsterdam, though I’ve done it a couple times, intrigues. (I never tire of the Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh Museum. Or those, um, fragrant cafes.)

Then again, Budapest. It beckons, quietly if firmly, no matter how much I know it won’t happen. I recently returned from an eventful stretch in Chicago, so it’s time to relax, sit still for a while.

That’s a tall order. Sitting still is not my style, unless it’s during a nine-hour flight to Wherever-land, soaring to the next adventure, not a little intoxicated on the fumes of giddiness.

Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style

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View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.

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My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.

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Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.
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Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.
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Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.
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Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.
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Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.
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Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.
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The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.
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The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.

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He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

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Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.

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Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.

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The strange lure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s red-haired muse

Toulouse-Lautrec, the supreme dwarf artist of late 19th-century France, created my current favorite painting, a moody, sullen portrait of a downcast prostitute titled “A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge.” The woman, standing/slumping, face in a clenched-jaw profile as if looking stage left at nothing in particular, is the Rosa La Rouge of the title, and she is a sight to behold: beset, bedraggled, strangely beautiful.

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“A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge” 1886-87 at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

I recently saw the medium-sized but imposing painting in its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — my third visit in a short period of time. It might be the outstanding canvas for me at a museum so clogged, so Louvre-esque crammed, with modern masterpieces it makes your head twirl. Lautrec isn’t my favorite painter, but this is my favorite painting by him.

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Barnes Foundation, one of a zillion art-jammed rooms.

Like so many great works of art, something ineffable defines the portrait of Rosa (Lautrec painted several pictures of her in varying poses and moods). She’s just there, her white blouse loosely buttoned, lank red hair pulled back but shagged out in front, mouth tight (is that lipstick?), eyes completely obscured. She’s like a specter, a little petulant, maybe resentful, not entirely pleased to be there. She looks almost bratty, and scandalously young.

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Another portrait of Rosa.

She probably had good reason to cling to a sour mood. Life was surely hard — she was also a laundress — though posing for one of your johns may have been a smidge better than sleeping with him. Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis, which, it’s said, he contracted from Rosa.

My appreciation for “Rosa La Rouge” — the rouge is for her red hair, of course — is hardly unique. The picture is a verifiable masterstroke and it’s one of the most reproduced paintings in the Barnes gift shop (I got a nifty bookmark of lovely, enigmatic Rosa). Google it and it pops up like crazy — a repetitious gallery of Rosa in various shades of reproductive quality. (I took the picture of the painting on this page at the Barnes last month.)

But while the image is abundant, almost nothing is written about its subject. What I’ve noted here is all I know about Rosa and her life. On canvas, she’s enshrined in mystery, maybe incensed, maybe indifferent, glancing determinedly away from our enthralled gaze.