Den Haag is for Art

On Christmas Day, I missed my way, and found myself in the city known around the world as “The Hague”, and fondly called “Den Haag” by the Dutch. That unplanned visit meant I had to revisit the city properly. So, after paying upfront for this revisit by reading a bit for my next week’s exam, I returned to Den Haag alongside the usual suspects. This time, we didn’t just go strolling aimlessly like we did in the previous cities. We went on what some Nigerians would call “point and kill”, visiting pre-planned locations, and it was all about the beauty of art.

To many persons outside the Netherlands, The Hague is mainly known for being the host city of the International Court of Justice. This court occupies a building called the “Peace Palace”, an elegant pre-modern building dedicated to helping the world avoid meaningless conflicts, as long as concerned parties agree to come before it. However, Den Haag has a lot more than this building. While doing online checks for places to visit, I realised the Dutch are very wicked people. “Wicked” in the sense that they have no mercy for tourists’ wallets, purses and bank accounts. There are enough attractions in this city to wreck Oliver Twist’s finances. We had to settle on just three sites.

Our first stop was at the Madurodam, a theme park that showcases virtually “all of the Netherlands” in a miniature scale. The tour began with a six-minute documentary informing visitors about the roots of this park. George Maduro was a Dutch military officer during the second world war. After the Netherlands was overrun by the German war machine, he joined the resistance, was later arrested, released, rearrested, moved to a German prison, then a concentration camp, and died before the Americans liberated his country. After his death, his parents built Madurodam as a memorial for their lost son, ensuring that each person that comes to this beautiful park would remember the Dutchman who gave his life for his country.

Madurodam presents iconic buildings and cities of the Netherlands in a one-to-twenty-five scale. Earlier, I said the “Peace Palace” is an elegant building. I didn’t get to visit the building “physically”, but I know exactly how it looks, each window, each blade of grass, because it exists in Madurodam. The civil engineering feats of the Dutch are well represented here, highlighting their battles with nature, in a country perpetually facing the risk of flooding. Trains, cars, and trucks move around the park, indicating the country’s transport system. At Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, some planes stay parked on the tarmac, while others taxi around the runway. The park also showcases the Dutch oil and gas industry and its dependence on renewable energy, especially through wind turbines. For many centuries, wind energy has driven productivity in this country that also has the headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell. It was nostalgic to see adults setting free the playful child in them as they immersed themselves in the engaging activities in the park. Here, you feel like Gulliver at Lilliput.

From Madurodam, we moved to the Escher Museum, a building showcasing the artworks of a very talented Dutch artist. His drawings make one wonder if it’s fair for one person to be that talented. Escher was a master of illusions, using his pencil to produce the logically impossible, yet visibly sensible. The three floors in this museum house hundreds of his works, spanning a career that blended art with mathematics. Like Da Vinci, the painter cum scientist, Escher applied principles of mathematical geometry in creating exquisite designs. Some of these mathematical concepts were applied intuitively, while some others came from wilful study of geometry and ideas from mathematicians of his time. Ordinarily, I am not a sentimental appreciator of art, but when you stand before over a hundred innately beautiful works of art, every spell of nonchalance becomes broken. Let me just say Escher’s works were enthralling.

After Escher’s spell, our next stop was at the Mauritshuis Museum. This museum houses paintings from around 1400 – 1800AD. We began with an ongoing exhibition of paintings loaned from England’s Buckingham Palace. The twenty-two paintings in this collection, from different masters of the art of brushes and colours, show the lives and times of the people of those eras. From the nobility to the peasantry, to street brawls, the paintings depict something about life—eras may change, but the basics remain the same. I took a picture of a painting, “A Village Revel” by Jan Steen, because it reminded me of life today. In this painting, just outside a brothel, people are fighting, some are screaming. Yet in this chaos, one man calmly sits to fill his pipe, not bothered by the fighting around him, while a philosopher carries a lantern in search of an honest person within this brawl.

When our eyes had gotten enough of the Dutch-painted, British-owned collection, we proceeded upstairs to see the museum’s permanent collection, an assortment of almost eight hundred paintings. We moved through the rooms housing paintings, many valued at millions of dollars, with security cameras and definitely, alarm systems, waiting for the foolish thief or irresponsible defacer. Just looking at the paintings was enough to calm growling stomachs that had been deprived of breakfast and lunch. One very fascinating painting by Willem van Haecht pictured a painter’s studio with more than twenty-five paintings displayed inside it. We were amazed at the creativity in painting that number of different paintings within a painting.

Finally, we got to the Museum’s prized jewel, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, a 1665 painting by Johannes Vermeer, one the Dutch’s most famous painters, and a contemporary of Rembrandt. Unlike other paintings that merely have a line on the ground indicating the space to be given by onlookers, this painting has a physical barricade to keep people from getting too close. This Vermeer painting provided a climax for a day of art appreciation. It was now past 6pm local time, so we located the nearest KFC outlet to reward our empty stomachs with large servings of a very unhealthy meal.

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