Maria Sibylla Merian and The Golden Age

Wednesday 24th August, 2016

We moved to Reyer Anslostraat in Oud-West this morning in a black taxi van. Jon is in Italy. The French doors at the rear of our apartment open to a very small garden and a rise of apartments all with rear facing French doors that look onto us. Privacy comes at a modicum in Amsterdam. The children rattle around inside, overly loud, not used to enclosure; high-density living. I’ve left the back doors open regardless to let in fresh air, to scare away the energy of previous tenants. Ikea mattresses and kitchen stuff arrived. I need to buy second hand kitchenware from now on as it’s all getting too expensive. I just had to buy the basics brand new. We explored Vondelpark after unpacking our stuff. We’re very fortunate that its at the end of our street. 

Jon’s friend came along and actually managed to get into a mammoth fight with some fifteen year old teenage boys who were sitting on the adventure playground smoking pot. I couldn’t believe it. He told them off and asked them to move on, but he did it in such a hostile way. He pushed one of them. The kid pushed back. Then they got into a full-scale punch-on in front of my children and others. Someone called the police who arrived on bikes just as we were leaving. Allan is unhinged. He’s a devoted pot smoker himself, so it’s very hypocritical. It was totally surreal.

As well as reading Bourgeois diaries and interviews I’m currently also reading about the life of Maria Sibylla Merian who resided in Amsterdam during the Golden Age. In Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd writes that in the seventeenth century Amsterdam was the centre of world trade. Ships frequently arrived at the docks from the south seas laden with produce such as oranges, cocoa, salt, pepper, other spices, as well as new specimens of plants and animals from the new world. (I will soon visit the Oost-Indisch Huis, which was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, built in the early seventeenth century). Indeed, Amsterdam was a very cosmopolitan city during the Golden Age, a great place to make a living, which is what Merian undertook to do having left her native Germany to raise her two daughter’s solo. In Amsterdam Merian drew many herbs and flowers from the new world, as well as portraits of her many upper middle class patrons.

During that period, Frederik Ruysch in addition to his occupations as physician, collector and anatomical artist, oversaw the creation of Hortus Medicus, a medical botanical garden or plague garden. As the trade ships brought more and more shoots and seeds they were planted in this idiosyncratic garden, which I will also visit soon. Todd eloquently writes: ‘It’s neat landscape melded diverse purposes: scientific, commercial, aesthetic, spectacular. It provided a classroom for doctors, a marketplace for those seeking remedies, inspiration for artists looking for new shapes, and satisfaction for visitors wanting to marvel at a stalk of American aloe (so tall it required its own fold-out page in the garden catalogue). To stand in the center of the circle of flowers, plots laid out in curved rows, paths radiating in every direction, was to witness as careful a display as the cabinets of curiosities. Layers and layers of colors underscored the sense of being at the vortex of things (Todd, 2007: p133-4).’ Apparently, another exotic garden was planted at Agnes Block manor. At the request of Block, Merian painted eighteen botanical portraits from her garden. As Merian’s list of patrons grew she moved to a new house on Kerkstraat, which she referred to as the ‘rose house.’ I will try to ride by on my way to visit Hortus Botannicus next week.

Todd writes that Merian discovered a much more liberal society for women in Amsterdam than in her native Nuremberg where witch burning was only just being abolished. It apparently ended a hundred years prior in the Netherlands. Todd writes: ‘Women could run businesses, reclaim property brought into a marriage, move relatively easily from one community to the next, serve as and train apprentices, belong to certain guilds, launch paternity suits. Their ability to support themselves financially was much less dependent on their marital state. In some places, like Friesland, they could vote (Todd, 2007, p.138). Merian therefore found herself surrounded by women artists working as professionals, which would have no doubt inspired her. This history of liberalness for women here in Amsterdam is inspiring. I hope that this historical root print of women’s liberation has become imbedded in the culture and been allowed to fully blossom here. 

In her book Todd documents Merian’s life and travels to the ‘new world’ to observe and depict the process of metamorphosis in insects. Todd’s emphasis on the connection between the psyche and the concept of metamorphosis interests me, as well as the notion that metamorphosis has metaphorical potential. She writes: “Metamorphosis has a strong grip on our psyche, from Ovid’s vivid descriptions of arms spreading to branches, throats turning to stone, to Kafka’s Gregor waking to find himself a beetle. One of the first ways children understand nature and how it functions (a cacoon in a jam jar is a staple of elementary classrooms), metamorphosis has metaphorical potential that is strong and easy to grasp. It is a process integral to the way we perceive ourselves and our ability to change our lives’ (Todd, 2007, p.11). It brings to my mind the lyrical and erotic description of a metamorphosis given by Angela Carter in her short story The Tigers Bride, in which the female protagonist transforms into a tigress: ‘And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur (Carter, year, p.75).’ To shape shift, to commune with the natural world. This is my work. I will do it through poetry and prose writing. I will go on reading all of Angela Carter and more Mariner Warner too. (It is my intention to get through reading the boxes of books I’ve shipped here, taken from my collection at home).

Jon says that Amsterdam might be undergoing another minor renaissance in the early twenty first century because of the occurrence of Brexit and the mass exodus of companies from London to Amsterdam, as well as other important European capitals with good tax breaks, such as Berlin, Frankfurt, and Leipzig. He says that the property market is exorbitant here and on the up. It also feels like quite a safe place to raise a family, which is appealing. Amsterdam has the feeling of a big village, rather than a thriving city, but it is still sophisticated, albeit kind of not so hipster. (Melbourne seems to be is far more progressed in terms of street fashion and coffee culture for instance). The combination of the bike culture, low population, which is just under a million, and the fact that everyone speaks English, makes Amsterdam an enticing destination for expats. Also, according to various studies I’ve read children are happiest in the Netherlands. Apparently, there is a liberal attitude to parenting here, a sense of respectfulness towards children that is fostered widely. I guess we will find out when the children start school next week.