Taking Breaks is Good for Productivity, Right?

Since I got back from Amsterdam I have mostly been in my room, writing my dissertation and work placement report. I am so glad that they’re done, I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I did not want to spend my last weeks in London only doing work, so I made sure to take breaks and do as many things as I could.

First, I went to see King Lear at the Globe with my friend Susan. I’m really happy that this trip has got me interested in Shakespeare. The show is their touring production and it was awesome. Despite being a tragedy it had some really funny scenes and the actor that played King Lear was brilliant.


That day I found out that Susan had not been to the British Museum (What?!). She was leaving soon, so one morning I played tour guide and took Susan and Keiko through the highlights at the British Museum. Nerdy-fun!


Next, I went to Bath with the girls and we had lots of fun exploring the Roman Baths, checking out the Jane Austen center and enjoying the Georgian architecture. I posted a ton of pics from that already so here is a bonus.


Writing in calligraphy at the Jane Austen Center with a ridiculously large feather quill. That night we said goodbye to Susan and the next day to Nekteria. I miss them both dearly, London wouldn’t have been the same without them.

I had a great time at the Art Party at the ICA, advocating for art education in the UK. Lots of performances including a satire of the new education secretary. This is Bob and Roberta Smith, the mastermind behind the movement, onstage.


Of course lots of what I’ve been doing involves museum visits. I saw the Making Colour exhibition at the National Gallery and it was brilliant. They went through how each color is made, how it’s changed over the centuries, and even had a section to contribute to their research on color perception. My favorite painting in the exhibition was this one.


Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer. That blue is brilliant in person. It is made with the ultramarine pigment coming from lapis lazuli, a stone found only in the mountains of Afghanistan. It’s a pigment more expensive than gold and Italian Renaissance patrons would pay extra to honor the virgin with this specific color. 

I went to check out a very wet and rainy Notting Hill Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. The rain didn’t stop people from dancing.


So much color at this festival!

Another day I went to check out the Churchill War Rooms. They were a set of offices and rooms built underground during World War II and it is from these that Churchill and the war cabinet ran most of the war. They were built to protect the team from the blitz and have a thick later of steel reinforced concrete but engineers knew it wouldn’t have survived a direct hit. Luckily, the Germans never struck it. After the war, the rooms were closed and not reopened for nearly forty years. Now they have a museum of Churchill attached and survive to tell the story of how the Allies won.


The map room with some very realistic wax figures. I thought of my dad a lot while visiting these rooms, I think he would have really enjoyed them.

It’s the centenary of WWI and the Tower of London is commemorating the soldiers that lost their lives by filling the moat with ceramic poppies.


The results are pretty impressive.

I couldn’t leave London without a visit to the famous Borough Market for lunch.


Too much good food to show pics of!

Then I went to Tate Modern to try the permanent displays again and to see their Matisse Cut-out’s exhibition. I still think their permanent displays are dreadful with awkward pairings and text far too advanced for most visitors but the exhibition was very well done.


This is one of Matisse’s cut-outs. He started with paper cut-outs as a way to play with different compositions before he painted them but eventually started making them as works in their own right. The paper is painted, cut into shapes and pasted onto a background, often as large as a wall.

The next day I went to the Imperial War Museum, which recently reopened after major renovations. They had things on WWII, the modern war in Iraq, secret government organizations like MI5, war on the homefront and the Holocaust but the thing I found most interesting was their WWI galleries, which were given a full overhaul for this year’s centenary.


They had a mock trench with shadows of soldiers projected on the walls that was kind of eerie.


I found this wartime PSA entertaining. I wonder what a feminist reading of this would be like.

On the same day for a very different mood I went to visit the state rooms at Buckingham Palace, which are only open for a few weeks every year. They are dripping in gilding and have jaw-droppingly impressive decorations. They also had a great exhibition on royal childhood that included the queen’s Girl Guide badges. No pictures inside, so I only have this image of the back. image

The size of this palace is absolutely ridiculous.

The next morning I was excited to head to Kew Gardens, which are the Royal Botanic Gardens and home to Kew Palace, a favorite of Mad King George and his family. They were beautiful to walk through all day and with the bulk of my school work done, walking around the gardens was the perfect way to begin to de-stress.


There was the palm house.


And a beautiful water lily house.


And then I got to climb to the top of this 10 story pagoda built in the 1700s as a garden “folly”.


They had a section called the barefoot walk. You took your shows off and walked through a trail of different textures including rocks, tree stumps, logs, wood chips, water, sand, and mud. Walking through mud feels strangely freeing.


What remains of Kew Palace. This is where George III stayed when he was mad with porphyria and where he and Queen Charlotte raised their 15 (yes 15!) children.


Of course there were tons of flowers but I think these bright colored ones were my favorites.

After Kew, I went home to make the final edits to my dissertation and complete the appendices for my work placement report and I finished everything that night. All that’s left is getting them bound and turning them in, which feels amazing. It was a great feeling to wake up to on my birthday, August 30th. That day I baked apple pie and brownies, went to my last salsa class in London, and then went to my friend Oat’s apartment. We’ve gotten really close this year and he offered to host a party to celebrate my birthday and give everyone from our course a chance to take a break from writing and get together.


Being surrounded by friends and laughter was the perfect way to spend the night.


Of course, there was singing and candle-blowing to finish it all off.

The next morning, free from deadlines, I went to spend the day in Oxford. It ‘s a quiet little university town filled with old buildings and tiny streets and I really enjoyed walking around.

I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is really quirky and old school in terms on its displays.

I also stopped at the Ashmolean, the first museum in England, which has had a modern facelift and is a joy to walk around.


At Oxford University itself, I went to the Bodleian Library. It’s a medieval library with books so important that some of them are chained to the shelves. It was a whole room of that wonderful old book smell. It is also Hogwarts library in the movies.

My last stop was the Divinity School, which is this single room. The architecture is beautiful and to think they wasted it by using it for exams. Randomly, it was the infirmary in the first Potter movie.

After all of that sightseeing in the UK, I wanted something new. I dropped my dissertation off at the binders and headed for Dublin. I explored a bit yesterday but now the trip really begins.

Amsterdam: The City of Live and Let Live

When I got to Amsterdam at the beginning of August I was beyond ready for a break. I got there on a sunny Monday afternoon and everything went pretty smoothly. After settling into my hostel and grabbing lunch, I headed for the Rijksmuseum, which was conveniently a two minute walk away. The Rijksmuseum houses the Netherlands national collection, which includes masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age, one of my favorite periods in Art History. It reopened this year after a ten-year long renovation. I got to explore it with my friend Oat, who was on his last day in Amsterdam and we had a great time.

The building itself was beautiful with a modern, marble center connecting to an older, neo-gothic building with lots of brickwork. The original building was designed to showcase one particular painting, which is at the end of their treasures gallery.

Each alcove in the treasures gallery has several paintings by artists like Frans Hal, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Johannes Vermeer, and of course Rembrandt van Rijn, so much wonderful Rembrandt! At the big room at the end of the gallery is this.


Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, also known as Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It is Rembrandt’s most famous work and possibly the most famous work of art ever to come out of the Netherlands. It is definitely worth seeing it in person. First of all it’s huge. It is a group portrait but done in a very unconventional way as he shows the group in action, preparing for a parade. It has dramatic chiaroscuro, which refers to the contrast of light and shadow. This combined with dirt got it nicknamed The Night Watch but cleaning shows us it’s just in shadow. The foreshortening of Captain Cocq’s hand as he reaches out towards the viewer from the center of the painting draws you right in. The glowing girl running in the midground has always fascinated me. Her purpose is still not entirely clear to historians but she is likely some sort of allegory. The chicken hanging from her waist may be a reference to Captian Cocq (cock in English). Each man would have paid to have his face included and some of them may have been annoyed to have their faces in shadow but it makes for a dynamic composition that remains one of the best group portraits ever made.

The Rijksmuseum currently has an artist intervention called Art is Therapy that Oat and I really enjoyed looking at it. Giant Post-Its provide alternative interpretations of the works that focus on using them as a means of therapy. The malady is listed in bold at the bottom. Some of them suggest knowing art historical facts is unimportant, potentially creating controversy and not all visitors were happy with them. I found them thought-provoking, often funny, and was glad to look at things in a new way. This label went with a painting of a maid at work and suggests that day to day work shouldn’t upset us but be celebrated.

Afterwards, Oat and I walked along some of Amsterdam’s beautiful canals before saying goodbye. Then I wandered around and got a feel for the city, which moves at a really nice pace, relaxed but not boring.

I started the next day at the Van Gogh Museum, which is the most popular museum in the Netherlands. I was glad I had bought a Museumkaart, which got me into most museums free without having to wait on long lines.

Obviously, the museum is dedicated to the work of Vincent van Gogh, an expressionist artist known for his use of color and energetic brushstrokes. I learned a lot more about his life than I knew before and was glad that they were frank about his struggles with mental illness without attributing all of his creativity to it. They also talked extensively about his pigments and used more science than you usually see in art museums.


They had many of his most famous works including The Potato Eaters and Bedroom in Arles but the one that really stuck with me was an early work from his art school years called Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette. Usually you hear about Van Gogh as very sensitive and often teetering on the edge but this work shows that he had a humorous side. It was most likely a joke to mock his teacher for making the class paint skeletons over and over.

Then I headed for the famous Flower Market, known for being filled with tulips. To be honest I was kind of underwhelmed because it was more tulips bulbs and wooden flowers than real blossoms. 

But I did discover that this wonderful two-tone tulip variety is called the Princess Irene.

I also got an awesome snack, which is their version of a grilled cheese sandwich. Cheese in the Netherlands is amazing. Gouda and Edam are just so good.


Seriously, we do cheese wrong in America. I have never seen so many wheels of cheese in my life.

Then I went on a great walking tour of the city and learned random facts. Apparently there are more bikes in the Netherlands than people and they really are good at riding. I saw one woman with three kids attached to her bike and yet she was completely in control. Also there is a layer of bikes at the bottom of the Amsterdam canals because, despite loving them the Dutch think it is hilarious to throw other people’s bikes in the water when drunk. Apparently nearly the entire population of the Netherlands speaks fluent English because they love American television. Another random one is that weed is not the only legal drug in Amsterdam, you can buy hallucinogenic truffles and a host of other things because their philosophy is that as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, who cares?

After grabbing some traditional Dutch food for dinner, I waited on line for 90 minutes to get into the Anne Frank House. It is small but worth the wait to see the annex where Anne and 7 others hid during WWII. I’ve read her diary three times and it was kind of haunting to see the space. They also gave a lot of information about the brave people to helped them in hiding.

http://s3.amazonaws.com/static2.postcrossing.com/postcard/medium/0241167afbbca9afed58a97fe2284434.jpgThe stairs to the Secret Annex were hidden behind a bookcase.

I started the next day off with a very different flavor at the Stedelijk Museum, which is home to an amazing collection of modern and contemporary art.

This huge wall painting was designed by Sol LeWitt, one of my favorite modern artists. He wrote meticulous instructions for pieces that can be carried out anywhere and designed this colorful wall specifically for the Stedelijk’s permanent collection. The also had a fantastic exhibition of diverse works from the collection of Martijn and Jeannette Saunders that I spent almost two hours going through. 

After grabbing some lunch I headed to the Museum at Rembrandt House.

This is the very expensive house Rembrandt purchased at the height of his career and where he made some of his most famous etchings and paintings. He was terrible at managing money and lost it when he went bankrupt towards the end of his life but the house has been saved and has the best collection of Rembrandt etchings in the world.

The Three Trees is one of Rembrandt’s most famous etchings. This is a terrible image of it but prints at meant to be examined up close and very slowly anyway. What you can tell from this is that Rembrandt managed to take what sounds like a humble subject and turn it into something with a near monumental feel. He is especially known for the atmospheric effects he was able to create by playing with how much extra ink he left on the copper plate when printing. You can see that in the sky here.

They had an etching workshop there using plastic plates, drypoint needles, and an old-fashioned printing press. I was really excited to do some hands on activities in a room that Rembrandt and his students likely worked in. It’s no comparison to his but it was fun.

After that I wandered into a prostitution museum in the Red Light District. (They have museums for everything in the Netherlands: prostitution, sex, erotica, cheese, tulips, weed, and even diamonds. I did not go to all of them.) It was interesting and they showed both sides of the issue, with a heavy focus on the problem of human trafficking. I have no pictures of the red light district because photography is banned there to protect the women. It was kind of strange to walk around and see prostitutes in windows but I think the most surprising part was that most of them just looked kind of bored and were playing with their cell phones. That night I went on a crazy pub crawl in which they dispensed with the glasses and poured shots directly into your mouth. It was fun.

The next day, I left Amsterdam and headed for the Hague, the home to the Dutch government, which I care nothing about. I went to see Maurithuis. It is much smaller than the Rijksmuseum and it doesn’t have The Night Watch but just about every work in the building is a well known masterpiece. It had also just reopened after being closed for years.

This is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It is a small painting but so realistic that the bird looks as though it will chirp any minute. Fabritius’ skill is said to have rivaled Rembrandt’s but he died young in a gunpowder explosion in Delft. This painting inspired a recent novel by Donna Tart that I have been seeing everywhere and can’t wait to read (I’m so glad to have time for fun reading again).


One of few large works in the collection is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. An earlier group portrait from his first years in Amsterdam, the detail can take your breath away. Tulp shows the tendon of a recently executed criminal as his students look on, each with a unique expression and one looking directly out at the viewer. Chiaroscuro and foreshortening appear again here to stunning effect.

I was most excited to see Vermeer’s View of Delft. Vermeer is known for his paintings of women in domestic interiors as well as his amazing use of light. This is one of few exterior scenes he painted. I love the way the buildings reflect on the water. The detail is amazing and it is likely that Vermeer used a camera obscura, which would have projected the view outside onto his studio wall. Up close there are tiny white dots throughout that help to create the wonderful lighting effects.

I passed some of the time on the train after sketching from postcards.

Before heading back to Amsterdam, I stopped in Haarlem, a tiny city that has produced several great artists. The most famous one is Frans Hals, who has some of the most expressive brushstrokes ever set down on canvas that give his works a real liveliness. He painted mostly portraits and started playing with group portrait compositions before Rembrandt was even born.

These officers at the Frans Hals Museum really look like they’re having fun at their annual banquet.

I spent the evening wandering around the canals soaking up the atmosphere and sampling their popular street foods. Including stroopwafels, which are thin wafers filled with delicious gooey syrup, cones of hot fries to eat while you walk, and these strange croquettes.

They are filled with beef, veggies, and a potato puree and you buy them out of a vending machine. Shockingly, they taste pretty good.

I had to go back to the Rijksmuseum my last morning to see some of my favorites one more time and to do some sketching.

I could not leave Amsterdam without taking a boat ride down the canals. The guide was a funny Dutch guy who surprising got political and talked a lot about the Dutch world view. His main points were that the Dutch are business people, they don’t like drama, and they are extremely tolerant of most things. The tolerant atmosphere is probably what I like most about the city. The general idea is that if what you’re doing doesn’t hurt someone else, then go for it. In terms of drugs and prostitution they figure if people are going to do it anyway, you might as well legalize it and make it safer for all involved. I just really like the idea of to each his own.

I also got to see the unofficial emblem of Amsterdam up close.

Then I went to the Museum of the Canals on Oat’s recommendation and it was great in terms of interpretation. They used tons of technology with video, audio, projections, and even holograms but also the low tech version of someone to answer questions halfway through. I thought it was very well done, I definitely learned a few things, and I think I got a peak at what museums will be doing more of in the future.

My last museum stop was Our Lord in the Attic. It’s a canal house with a secret Catholic church in the attic. It was started in the 1600s, operated well into the 1800s, and still survives today. It is one of very few surviving schuilkerks and is funnily enough in the red light district. It’s a real hidden gem.

Before heading for the airport I got one last “snack”. Traditional Dutch pancakes with apples, powered sugar, and cinnamon ice cream. They are between a crepe and an American pancake in consistency and I like them better than both.