Art Below Sea Level


Detail from The Night Watch, Rembrandt, 1642

by Eric D. Lehman

Whoever decided to keep the most art per square mile anywhere in the world below sea level had a singular faith in human civilization. I mention this to my wife Amy while on a boat tour around Amsterdam with German tourists, a Greek family, and several Buddhist monks in yellow robes. A spry elderly couple reads the English tour voice-over that included this statistic. “Today we’ll be peeling back the layers of history…” We pass under bridge after bridge, low to the water, peering at the black-painted brick town houses through the glass roof.

The Dutch have pumped lakes and swamps with windmill power to create farmland for hundreds of years, and today remain one of our best hopes for solutions to sea-level rise. At the same time building your entire nation below sea level held back by dikes, no matter how technologically advanced, seems to me to be a little overconfident. Nature has proved time and time again that it is in charge, not humans, and this land could be one of the first casualties when the ice caps melt. All these beautiful buildings and people, all this energy and craft, and all this irreplaceable art.

My own confidence in both human beings and in myself has been shattered over the past couple years. A day in an art museum usually cheers me up, lets me forget about mere politics, and sometimes even my own personal troubles. Sometimes, it helps me move through them. Really paying attention to art is an act of mindfulness, and when combined with a processing of that attention through poetry, fiction, or essays, can trigger the creative urge, which always makes me feel less anxious, more human. It is also good to step away from the stressful public world of my job and writing career and become just another anonymous art lover.

At the Rijksmuseum before it opens, Amy and I wait with a collection of Chinese and English tourists, while morning bicycles speed by. Once inside, we wander the high central hall amongst the Old Masters. I stop in front of a wonderful painting of white asparagus, so crisp you could bite into the stalks four hundred years later. “Look at the details,” she tells me. I study the dogs in Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters by Hendrik Avercamp and the eyes of the men in Militia Company of District XI by Franz Hals. I notice the decay of the fruit, the violence done to the animals. Amy has written a poem about Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and I read it now in front of the huge canvas; it zooms my attention on the little girl and her chicken and the captain’s outstretched hand in a way that works better than the best criticism. Art is not only a self-help book. It builds on itself, inspires more art, continues this strange pursuit of civilization, ennobles us beyond our silly little fears and desires.

Why then, do we treat it so casually? We keep books in the rainforest, jewelry in the Sahara, and skyscrapers on earthquake faults. Every day we put priceless art at risk of natural disaster seemingly without fear. In another room, Amy draws my attention to the individually knitted woolen hats of Dutch whalers, found on their skeletons years after they died. Their deaths, and lives, have been transformed into something finer by their handiwork. We can see the scope of human existence, but without the dread of immediacy.

We visit five art museums in Amsterdam before taking a smooth, clean train to The Hague. The crashing waves of the North Sea are just over the horizon. We walk through a misty rain to the tram, and after some confusion at Central Station, take the train to The Hague. Once there, we descend below water level to the lobby of the Maritshuis, where windows look out into the gray and yellow pond like we are in an aquarium. Again, the supreme confidence of this architectural decision shocks me. I am reminded of Memphis, the city in pharaonic Egypt protected by dikes. Everything went well until the political and economic situation degraded; then, the dikes were not maintained and one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world disappeared beneath the mud.

The Maritshuis is a small museum, but it features many masterpieces, including The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Vermeer, and The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Both were recently made famous for English-speakers by books of the same names; new vectors for appreciation of these works. Then again, we might appreciate the nearby medieval painting of the beheading of John the Baptist for its rich colors, but also (and more likely) for its connection with the story in the Bible. Vermeer’s View of Delft that strikes me as the most luminous masterpiece, lit from within with the sun of the past. Amy says it is the way he painted the sky. “The tiny strokes conglomerate in the same way that Monet does,” she says. The Goldfinch is simpler, but the bird’s courage while being enslaved is one of the most profound statements on the dignity of animals I have ever seen. Could that be the answer? Is all this art below sea level simply an act of defiance in the face of mortality?

The Goldfinch itself survived the Delft explosion that killed its creator, Fabritius, and destroyed most of his other paintings. But what about those lost masterpieces? Fabritius might have been one of history’s greatest painters had he lived, and had his work survived. Imagine all the art lost to history, from books by Suetonius to sculptures by Phidias. Like human beings, works of art are temporary, transitory, doomed. But as if to challenge that thought, across the hall, I see Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, or rather stare at the man in the far back of the painting, who looks directly at me, holds my eye, four hundred years later. Nearby, Rembrandt’s young self-portrait is arrogant and hopeful, while a later one is dissolute and tragic. There is no despair in his face, but resignation to the vicissitudes of life, and the inevitability of death. Now near the end of life he knows. Resignation or defiance? Or are those the same thing?

We visit two art museums in The Hague and two more in Rotterdam. So much development here: skyscrapers, office parks, museums, suburban developments. They are trusting in the power of civilization to keep them safe, to keep all the money, this art, these lives, from the deluge. As we head inland, sliding through the countryside on a silent train, rain spatters the tracks and roads and canals set higher than the fields. Each house seems surrounded by a moat. It seems as if the buildings could drown any second, that no flat land could defeat the awesome power of earth’s most life-giving and death-dealing substance. And yet, this might be the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, integrating humans seamlessly into their terrain.

We reach the small village of Otterlo, and immediately walk along the sidewalks and bike paths into the Hoge Veluwe National Park. Our destination is the Kröller Muller, the ninth art museum on our list. The building itself is a fantasy – understated modernism, with glass and white brick opening into the forest. Inside is an Odilon-Redon exhibit and dozens and dozens of Van Goghs. After a late afternoon lunch, we walk into the sculpture gardens, over thirty meters above sea level, sheltered from the first waves of disaster, at least. Tall silvered trees sway back and forth; leaves rustle and chatter in the wind. We walk along a sandy forest path, surprised at each turn by small Buddhas and half-sunken walls. Then, at the top of a small rise, we come upon a rusted metal sculpture, like huge flower emerging from the earth. We walk through the giant iron leaves, stand in the center, and stare up at the empty blue sky.

About the Author:

Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of ParisHomegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at