Monday, July 4, 2016

Amsterdam National Maritime Museum

        Amsterdam is forever marked by its historic role as one of the most important ports in the world, an iconic Capital city both geographically and culturally defined by its intricate system of concentric canals. The Amsterdam National Maritime Museum not only celebrates the rich naval history of the Dutch, but also uncovers an important mutual relationship between naval transport and the arts. Unlike transportation museums that focus on the utilitarian components of ships, the National Maritime Museum—through a series of exhibitions featuring maps, yacht models, paintings, and ship decorations—cultivates an aesthetic understanding and appreciation of maritime history. It was without question, an insightful and welcoming new museum experience.

"Geographica" (1482)
        The first set of maritime objects at the museum features atlases and maps created by the Greco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy, in addition to those by other prominent Dutch cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries. As the museum’s oldest object, Ptolemy’s Geographica (1482) depicts his understanding of the world, which includes over ten thousand point locations on the earth. In this map, America was entirely missing, Southern Africa largely unknown, and Asia vaguely recognizable. Yet, the map was attractively colored and with its hierarchical aspects, drew attention to certain areas more than others. Geographica contributed to many voyages of discovery and established the reliability of maps of the world in addition to serving as an artistic masterpiece that illustrated the knowledge of the world that existed during classical antiquity. Later maps such as “Atlas Mayor ‘Great Atlas’” (1664)—one of the most comprehensive and finest atlases demanded by Europe’s elites at the time—became symbols of the Dutch Golden Age, when maritime trading and shipping flourished. Such maps represent European exploration during the 16th century and the hunger for more world information and power. As a whole, the Maritime Museum exhibited cartographical expertise as an art practice—something of paramount value for the Netherlands as a trading nation—and fits mapmaking into the larger context of economics, science, and trade.

"Battle of Gilbraltar" (1621)
Hans Savery the Elder's "Sea Monster" is seen on the bottom left corner
        Perhaps the most striking exhibit was a plethora of maritime landscapes by Dutch Golden Age painters.  Cornelis van Wieringen’s “Battle of Gibraltar” (1621), one of the largest paintings in the 17th century, depicts the Dutch and Spanish ships fighting in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dutch’s successful revolt against the Spanish in enemy territory. The painting purposefully portrays the Dutch victory in a grandiose style—numerous ships flying the Netherlands’ flag stand in triumph against the foreground of wreckage and background scattered with smoke. In another painting, Hans Savery the Elder paints a sea monster symbolizing the dangerous, unfamiliar sea and an endless series of treacherous waves that dance across the painting accompanied by grey, moody skies. With undaunted Dutch Navy ships sailing swiftly across the frame, we are reminded that the constant, inherent threat of the sea does not stop the Dutch from conquering new territory and celebrating its maritime expeditions. At its core, this painting seems to embody the ability to overcome natural (and supernatural) forces. Ludolf Backhuysen’s “The Warship Hollandia in Full Sail,” with its lively depiction of Dutch maritime might—a representation of ships banking gracefully in the water and Dutch flags blown to their full glory—leaves no doubt as to why this piece is considered one of the finest works of maritime painting in the 17th century. As maritime shipping generated exceptional wealth for the Dutch, painters dedicated their artistic careers to the painting of maritime subjects to celebrate and
"The Warship Hollandia in Full Sail" (1630)
honor the ships, sea, and weather. Collectively, the moods, feelings, and atmospheres exhibited in these Dutch Golden Age paintings serve as an example of the use of painting as a method to bolster national pride. Arguably, these works can also be perceived as illusionary—making not only the scenery appear more grand than it may actually be, but also inflating the perception of national pride. Thus, in showcasing the beauty of ship transport through distinct genres of paintings, the National Maritime Museum reflects art’s power to influence sociocultural perceptions of reality and pride.

Ornamentation on the Royal Barge
        Additionally, the museum reflects the maritime landscape’s connection to the arts through the grandeur of ship decorations. Such decorations, located throughout the stern, bow, and hull of a ship, were intricately carved and exemplify pure craftsmanship and raw beauty. Inspired by Biblical stories as well as Roman and Greek mythology, many feature carvings of figureheads, famous scenes, and depictions of the prosperity of ship crews. These symbolic carvings draw a link between the maritime world and religion—in a sea full of danger, it is important to recognize man’s insignificance and dependence on fate. The wooden decorations and ornamentations serve as a reminder that art can be derived essentially from maritime rituals. In this case, rituals representing the wealth, might, grace, and valor of shipmen are customarily celebrated.    
Overall, the National Maritime Museum of Amsterdam offers a unique way of understanding the history of the Netherlands and its people. The exhibitions work as a “ship’s compass” to guide visitors back to the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century through exposure to historical color atlases, surreal maritime paintings, ship decorations, and even a life-sized replica of the “Amsterdam,” an 18th-century cargo ship of the Dutch East India Company. The exhibits work hand in hand to expand the understanding and perception of the maritime landscape, from purely practical, utilitarian, and economically driven, to one more deeply rooted in tradition, aesthetic appreciation, and romanticism.
Colorful replica of the "Amsterdam" in front of the Maritime Museum

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