Fly me to the moon!

Let me play among the stars…


In the night of June 20 to 21, 1969, my father woke me and my sister up in the middle of the night. This was in Holland, were nothing much exciting ever happened. We wondered what it was about as we were shepherded into my parents’ bedroom, the only place in the house that had a television. Grainy images and crackling noises came out of the black and white Philips TV set, you know the one, with a V-shaped antenna on top. My father pointed to the screen and said: “they have just set foot on the moon…”.


It was impossible to fully understand what was happening in that moment but all I thought about was Jules Verne’s wonderful book “From the Earth to the Moon” that I had devoured. I was 9 years old. I understood the book was science fiction and written a century earlier but it was so credible that it did not surprise me that it became reality on that day.


Now every other billionaire dabbles in space exploration but then it was the domain of powerful nations, super human effort and unmeasurable amounts of money. Shocked into the Space Race by the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, the USA vowed to put-a-man-on-the-moon before the end of the decade. And so they did.


The moon has always played an important role in my life and imagination. On the great plains of Africa around the Equator, the moon is enormous and luminous, shining so much light that you can read a book in the middle of the night.


Back to that night of June 20, 1969. It was the beginning on an era of thrilling sentences: “The Eagle has landed”, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Or later during the Apollo 13 mission: “Houston, we have a problem” (in fact it is “Houston we have had a problem”). I use the latter ALL THE TIME in the present tense! The poise, the concentration and nerves that were needed at the Mission Control Center in Houston during the Apollo 13 Mission was epic. You wonder about a Mission with “13” as its number…


As a child I would lay awake at night agonizing about the expanding universe and eternity, feeling extremely little and unimportant. But the image of EARTHRISE viewed from the Apollo 11 lunar orbit prior to landing was strangely comforting and as close as I will ever get to a feeling of the divine.


Fly me to the Moon had become a reality in the 1960’s and Frank’s smooth voice is here for eternity to remind us, the ultimate version sung by Sinatra was arranged by Quincy Jones for Count Basie. A cassette (!) recording of relevant songs to accompany a flight to the Moon was played during the Apollo 10 Mission, besides “Going Back to Houston” and “Moonlight Serenade”, “Fly me to the Moon” was the first song ever played in outer space. Talk about cool, from the coolest singer of all times.

The moon was now a physical part of the human world…


What was good about 2016?

Art, art & art: exceptional art shows!


Exceptional art exhibitions around the world faced down ugly politics…

jbosch6Panels of the “Visions of the Hereafter” by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1505-1515

During the traditional “feel good” New Year’s Concert in Vienna on the first day of the year, I want to remember  what inspired me in 2016, rather than what depressed me. Without a doubt three exceptional art shows (amongst many more) spring to mind!

First, the Hieronymus Bosch show in the painter’s hometown of ‘s Hertogenbosch in Holland. Every Bosch painting demands hours of attention, an impossible task at a very busy show, and it is nearly impossible to fathom how a man living in a provincial town in Holland in the late 15th century could have had such fantastical and  unparalleled visions of, well: everything!

I was most intrigued by the last polyptych in the exhibit, the mysterious “Visions of the Hereafter”, as shown above with in the middle the panel of the “Ascent of the Blessed”. The most puzzling thing was the way the backsides of the panels that were painted in mysterious splatters, one orange red, the other black… Jackson Pollock would have appreciated. I could find nothing on these back panels, what they mean, they seem very deliberate…most intriguing…

Second, the Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918 show in my favorite New York museum: the Neue Galerie! These near life size portraits, shown close to the “Woman in Gold” portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer were phenomenal. Amongst them, an earlier portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the only woman he painted twice.

klimt6Portraits of Elisabeth Lederer, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Mäda Primavesi

Thirdly, the Sir Lawrence (Laurens) Alma-Tadema show in the picturesque capital of Friesland: Leeuwarden, in Holland. Proud to be of Friesian descent, it was a joy to drive with my mother over the longest dyke in Holland in a magical wintery landscape to the Fries Museum. Why is the show there? Well, Alma-Tadema was born in 1836 in Friesland, that quaint province of Holland famous for the oldest Planetarium in the world (in Franeker), friesian cows, the 11-town skating race (weather permits) and courageous resistance during WWII!

atmoses“The Finding of Moses”, 1904 – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

This show is phenomenal and will go on to Vienna and London, the town where Alma-Tadema became one of the most celebrated painters of the late nineteenth century. His historical and orientalist paintings were highly appreciated and fetched enormous prices. What makes his painting enduring is their historical accuracy and evocative atmosphere of life in ancient times. Every detail of hair styles, robes, furniture, objects and architecture was historically accurate, to a point that Alma-Tadema’s paintings were templates for the set and wardrobe designs of most famous Hollywood peplum movies!

In the show you see scenes from these films projected above the paintings that inspired the art directors of the films the Ten Commandments, the Last Days of Pompei, Quo Vadis, Exodus and Gladiator!

It turns out that the young Gustav Klimt was very inspired by Alma-Tadema’s paintings!

klimtalmatleft: Alma-Tadema “Venus Esquilina”, 1877 – right: Klimt “Roman Women’s Bath” 1890

Much will be written about the year 2016, with all it’s momentous twists and turns, but luckily (judging by the huge crowds) ART is still the universal language of the human race!


Strike for Solidarity!

On February 25, 1941 an exceptional stand by outraged workers in Amsterdam against the Nazi occupation!


By early 1941 it became increasingly clear that the Nazi’s were determined to speed up their persecution of Jews and other people they deemed “undesirable”.


The outlawed Communist Party decided to call for a large scale strike in Amsterdam. On the evening of  February 24 a manifesto was prepared calling for a general strike. That manifesto writes: “STAAKT!!! STAAKT!!! STAAKT!!!” – STRIKE!!! STRIKE!!! STRIKE!!!”.


On February 25, 1941 Amsterdam came to a virtual standstill when the tram workers engaged in a general strike to show their solidarity for their fellow Jewish citizens.

The strike quickly spread to other cities, but was brutally countered the next day by the Nazi forces: 427 strikers were arrested, only 2 survived deportation and execution.


This general strike was the only one conducted during the war in any of the countries occupied by the Germans and an exceptional act of courage and solidarity.



A show of hands…

The very particular way the Italian painter Bronzino portrays hands….

Bronzino5Portrait of Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642)

I visited the charming exhibit “Florence: Portraits at the Medici Court” at the Musée Jacquemart André in Paris and was immediately drawn to several Bronzino portraits. By 1540, Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572)  was the leading artist and court painter in Florence to Cosimo I de’ Medici. His opulent yet restrained portraits of noble men, women and children are as vibrant and fascinating today as they must have been during his lifetime.

Bronzino9Portrait of Ludovico Capponi (1551)

The most striking thing is the way Bronzino depicts the hands of his sitters. He was ofcourse a “mannerist” painter and that style took Italy and the rest of Europe by storm in the mid 16th century.

Bronzino2Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni (1544-45)

Bronzino paints the hands in a very particular manner:  a large gap between the index and middle finger, a smaller gap between the ring finger and pink…this is quite an unnatural pose for a hand, what is he trying to say?

Bronzino8Portrait of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici (1560)

The positions of the hands are also intriguing, as if just lightly caressing the objects they hold or shield…what are they saying, are they just symbolizing the fact that those aristocratic hands were delicate and had never seen hard work? Or were the hands secret messengers?

probably 1550-5

Full title: Portrait of a Young Man Artist: Bronzino Date made: probably 1550-5 Source: Contact: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

The French art critic Hector Obalk made a short film shown at the exhibition about the difference in the way the Florentine painters painted hands, but I find the Bronzino “hands” the most fascinating.

Bronzino4Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi (1545)

The faces in the portraits are never smiling, always a little solemn and distant, the eyes gazing, mostly sideways, but sometimes fixing themselves at you, with a mixture of disdain and wariness…

bronzino3Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo as a Young Woman (1539)

These portraits never fail to amaze and enchant me, these people could just jump out of their frames and stand in the room with you, you can nearly smell the perfume on the women’s clothes and feel the touch of their hands…

bronzino7Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (1530–39)

“If the hands of time were hands that I could hold,
I’d keep them warm and in my hands,
They’d not turn cold!”

Lyrics “The Hands of Time” by Michel Legrand


Two Synagogues in “Mokum” in the Golden Age

How 17th century Amsterdam was the safest place to be for persecuted Jews…

2synaguogesGerrit Adriansz. Berckheyde – The two synagogues in Amsterdam c. 1680-85

A recent exhibition at the stunning Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam brought me face to face with this wonderful quiet cityscape depicting the two synagogues that were built in 17th century Amsterdam and still exist today.

The synagogue on the left belonged to the Ashkenazi Jews (completed in 1671), the one on the right to the Sephardic Jewish community (completed in 1675). The Amsterdam Sephardic community was one of the largest and richest Jewish communities in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age, and their very large synagogue reflected this.

BigSynagogueThe dedication of the Portuguese Synagogue in 1675

Amsterdam, colloquially called “Mokum” in Amsterdam slang (“Mokum” is Yiddish for “town”, derived from the Hebrew “makom”, which literally means “place”) was a safe haven for the persecuted Jewish communities throughout Europe. The sephardic Jews came mainly from Portugal and Spain, the Ashkenazim mainly from Poland.

imagesThe “Great” (Ashkenazim) Synagogue

Many of the new Ashkenazi immigrants were poor, contrary to their relatively wealthy Sephardic co-religionists. They were only allowed in Amsterdam because of the financial aid promised to them and other guarantees given to the Amsterdam city council by the Sephardic community, despite the religious and cultural differences between the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim and the Portuguese-speaking Sephardim.

EtchingEtching by Jan Luyken, “Kerk-Zeeden ende Gewoonten die huiden in gebruik zijn onder de Jooden” (Church rules and habits practised today by Jews) – Amsterdam – 1683.

Emanuel_de_Witte_002Emanuel de Witte – The interior of the “Esnoga” (Portuguese Synagogue) c. 1680

More on how Amsterdam colloquial language and consequently Dutch slang is peppered with Yiddish words in a later post!

De Mazzel!

(Amsterdam “speak” for Mazel Tov)