02 October 2006

in training

One of the things I love about going to new places is putting something I learned in school into context finally. When I was at university, I had a job in the art history library, showing slides for the art lectures. I got to peek in on American architecture history, French impressionists, and Dutch Renaissance painters. The last one was full of paintings of these huge, low landscapes, often more sky than land, showing fields of perfect flatness edged with a few buildings or distant church spires. The class was taught by an archetype of an art history professor- frizzy brown hair streaked with gray, lots of autumnal tweedy clothes, and perpetually late, but when she spoke about these paintings, I wanted to see these landscapes, imagining this curiously pastoral place like none I'd seen before. Growing up in Vermont meant a farm of rolling hills to me, and these were all sky and just a little strip of carefully sectioned land.

So imagine my thrill at finding that the train ride I have to take every time I go work in Holland passes through these very fields that were being painted so many centuries ago. The names- Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, are all the names I read while preparing the slides, and in spite of the incredible Dutch population density, the views are still there today. After changing to the southbound train at 's-Hertogenbosch, it's farms and tiny villages the rest of the way to my destination, punctuated even with a few windmills. Last week some kind of floral crop was blooming, so we whizzed past patches of flaming orange and chartreuse, and in between, the carpet-smooth pastures were dotted with cows and sheep. Unlike the wild scruffiness of Icelandic sheep, the Dutch ones are lozenge-smooth and almost all white. For some reason the people in that area are also fond of that peculiar breed of useless horse, the mini. Space may be limited there but I still cannot understand the reason to own such a creature. All the labor and expense of a full-sized horse and you can't ride it.

I've tried to explain this particular breed of glee at finally BEING there to people in Iceland and others I've met on the road, and it seems that only fellow Americans can understand it. So much of American education is devoted to Stuff That Happened in Europe, and it's very difficult to really grasp it without an idea of what the landscape feels like, how the cities are, and the character of these countries. There's only so much you can get out of a slide as you sit in a dark New England auditorium thinking about the chicken nuggets you just had for lunch in the dining hall. Still, I have to hand it to these professors who managed to make these landscapes and experiences so interesting that I wanted to see them for myself, and that when I finally did, I remembered so much of those dark hours years ago.

Ship sighting: The train trip also crosses the Rhine, which hums with shipping activity. Just below the train bridge there's even a little On Time III-style ferry that crosses this massive river.


cK said...

I've never really considered the possibility of stumbling upon the landscapes from landscape paintings. They exist in fact, yes, but in a strange way they seem to me almost more distinct and pinned to a time than, say, a portrait or building.

Buildings have clear physical addresses, and styles of interior architecture and clothing are reproduced in historical villages, movies, festivals, etc. But a landscape is almost forever untouchable. The world is so large, and what are the chances that we might pass through Utrecht and even recall that its land had been represented so well in so-and-so's painting?

Cool experience. The Holland gig continues to pay dividends.

lufra said...

i want to put some images on my blog, on the right side, but i'm not able...can u help me please?
(sorry for my english!!!)

ECS said...

cK- I absolutely agree that it's harder to strip away the layers of history on a landscape, but it's something I've been able to do as long as I can remember. I grew up riding horses in the woods of Vermont, and at times when it was just the sound of the animals and birds rustling in the woods, the horse's muted hoofbeats, and my own breathing, it could have easily been 300 years ago. This is actually part of why I studied art history in college, to make it easier to do this sort of time-travelling wherever I go. Definitely makes travel much more enriching!

The Lone Coyote said...

I hear you. I cannot wait to get to Europe someday to see all the stuff I loved in art history classes. The trippy thing about being on the West Coast is interacting with people who have never been to the Northeast and cannot wait for the day when they get to go to Boston and New York and see all the things they learned about in school. It's all relative I suppose.

The Prima said...

I just have to say: The last photo you posted (of a boat) was taken by "philg", the person whose photo articles and online galleries inspired me to buy a manual camera and learn how to use it. He used to contribute to a site called photo.net.

It turns out he has a very interesting life and website (example: he owns airplanes!). check him out at:

ECS said...

Hi E- I guess it IS all about perspective! I don't think about the east coast being a destination of desire for people in the States much, although there have been plenty of people here that say, "ahh Vermont... I've ALWAYS wanted to go there". I hope you get the chance to see these European places soon, and if you do, choose Icelandair so I can see you!

Plo- I had no idea that guy was so significant! I just did an image search and his was the best illustration for the post. Now that I see he's @mit.edu, things make a bit more sense.