Art and austerity

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

The men are in tweed with elbow patches, smoking cigars and stroking their beards. The women wear fur and extreme amounts of orange makeup. This is TEFAF, the annual Maastricht event founded in the 1980s and billing itself as ‘the world’s leading art and antiques fair’. One of this year’s main attractions: a Rembrandt dating from 1658.

‘Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo’ pictures an exotically dressed character who may or may not be a pirate. It could best be described as dark and moody, like most Dutch painting from the Golden Age. Dutch identity at the time was said to be characterised by austerity and modesty; fancy clothing and material goods were seen as objects of vanity, and as such, a no-no in polite society. And not much has changed: still today the Dutch express distaste for flashiness (those women in furs must be tourists, then).

Interestingly, however, many of the top painters of the time had lavish spending habits, including Rembrandt himself. He died exceedingly poor as a result, despite being one of the few Dutch Masters to enjoy popularity and success in his lifetime. He made good money painting landscapes, narratives and portraits (in his spare time he enjoyed painting himself pulling funny faces), but because they paid less he tended to avoid still-lifes (unless they involved dead birds and disembowelled corpses, which he appeared to relish).

Rembrandt’s artistic success, however, was offset by personal difficulties. Of his four children, three died as infants. Then his wife died, probably of tuberculosis, closely followed by his last remaining son. He then took his wife’s former nurse as a lover, but when this relationship soured he had to pay her alimony until he managed to have her committed to an asylum. Later, his second wife also died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, his expensive lifestyle combined with bad investments saw him plagued by financial troubles; he would bid on his own works to drive the price up, and had his students copy his works to be sold as originals. Despite these efforts, when he died he was buried, penniless, in a rented grave.

‘Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo’ was last traded in London in 2009 for around £20 million. Recent owners include a supermarket chain heir and a casino owner, both Americans. Whether the piece will remain in the Netherlands after this TEFAF is yet to be seen – but given the €34 million asking price and that famed Dutch austerity, it would seem unlikely.

Banking bliss

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

If you’ve ever played the computer game Age of Empires – that’s the sort of geek I am – you’ll know that the Dutch are always bankers. And I for one – hold on to your hats – love Dutch banks. Oh, how I adore and treasure them. Now that I’ve made the switch to Britain’s eternally backwards Lloyds TSB, I appreciate what I had with ABN AMRO. It was one of those oh-so-innocent, hassle-free, low-maintenance relationships. I never had to call. No nagging letters arrived in the post. We rarely had to see each other in person. In fact, we essentially ignored one another for four glorious years of blissful obliviousness.

Sure, there was that time when they rejected my credit card application but approved my partner’s, though I was making bucket loads more money (which wasn’t hard, since he wasn’t making any at all). But seen from the vantage point of the Stone Age of the Banking World (aka the UK), my long-dormant affection for the Dutch banking system has been reawakened. Generally speaking, I like things from England: steak and kidney pie, rugby, my parents, etc. But some things here should just be allowed to curl up and die. The enduring class system is one. Cheques are another.

Let me just reiterate that, in case you missed the key point. In Britain, they are still using cheques. CHEQUES. The first time I was presented with one, I had to ask my department secretary – who, incidentally, is herself a good 300 years old – what to do with it (‘But how does the paper get IN the computer?’). I couldn’t help but think back fondly on those innocent, carefree days with the über-modern ABN AMRO. While living in Maastricht, I did my master’s degree part time via distance learning with a British university. They demanded that I pay my tuition fees by cheque, so I paid a visit in person to my local Maastricht branch. The cashiers were as perplexed as I was. I was told to come back later so they could look for the manual, since no-one had asked for a cheque since 1983.

This pleasing propensity to drop the old and embrace the new is part of what makes the Netherlands known for innovation. And it’s almost enough for me to forgive ABN AMRO its hiccups with the wereldpas, which you can supposedly use in any ATM in the world. Except, of course, if it’s somewhere beyond the world-according-to-ABN AMRO, such as my home town in Australia. Or, you know, London. But no doubt the Brit banks are to blame for that. Somehow.