No matter how slender the sculptures of Kees Timmer (Zaandam, 1903 - Rotterdam, 1978) are, elegant like the giraffe and deer legs from his famous animal paintings, they can take a beating. Initially trained as a painter, Timmer became a sculptor after the war and visited the studio of Naum Gabo in 1955 with journalist Dolf Welling. He was then busy with his iconic sculpture for the Bijenkorf and delegated his workers with a pointer how the bends should go in constructivist plastic. Only on the return trip, in the car, did Timmer tell Welling that the bends were too brutal for the welds. He was right. Not long after completion, the statue would be restored.

That did not apply to Timmer's own icon: the Phoenix, which he delivered four years later for the Post-CS building. But although he could not learn anything technically from Gabo, he would still have been impressed by his radical abstract constructivism. His own sculptures also become more abstract in 1964 when he makes two completely abstract images of steel, one in Rotterdam and one in Amsterdam. The Rotterdam sculpture is a horizontal branch of intersecting tubes, delivered in the Spaanse Polder, now without trace. He made the Amsterdam image for the Electro Technische School in Overamstel. And that is even more than its counterpart from the Spanish Polder, a symbol of resurrection: more vertical, lighter, and even more heroic - a bit like that Phoenix. He combines vertics and diagonals as an expression of movement and optimism. High and graceful, it marks the opening of the new school building, where it remains for a few decades to recall the momentum of reconstruction.

There was no money for bronze, so the statue is delivered in steel with a lick of bronze paint. It fitted nicely into the courtyard of the new school building, which, with its window units, enhances the spaciousness of the work. The content of the picture also suited education. Timmer was involved and even walked along for a few months to come to school, in order to arrive at his design. The press saw that and referred to the Amsterdam image as "An inspiring masterpiece" and "A jumble of electricity pipes connected by sockets". Other media held it a bit more general as a reference to energies, physical processes, lines or rays that move and cross. Students could see something of their studies, solidified in steel, in the form of a triumphant gesture. They concluded that three vertical forms will be the school's three disciplines.

And the picture provided inspiration: the students (who had already spontaneously laid the foundation stone for the building) devised a stunt and immediately made their own construction, made of waste and metal, also rising high. They baptized their sculpture "teacher driven to despair." They fraternally stand side by side. The unveiling received a lot of attention and Timmer must have enjoyed it, although there is little joy in the photos that appeared during the unveiling in the media: Kees Timmer posing in front of the tube plastic - angry, grim, or perhaps only deadly, a man in a raincoat and hat and a dark look.


Lost generation

Because strict and gloomy is how the artist has been typed throughout his life. "Timmer went through life as an underpaid worker with a gloomy view of existence. There was every reason for this in the pre-war crisis years. But it was still a mess for artists even in rising Rotterdam, "Says Dolf Welling. "They asked for a social function, for creative work in the new building and they made prints because they were also affordable for the common man. But society had no message to them. Assignments were not numerous and always economical. (...) The cultural atmosphere in Rotterdam did not end there either. Until the sixties, there was a lot of artistic potential in Café Pardoel, but some alcoholic euphoria. "

It was actually howling, Welling concludes, and although Timmer was not a regular at Pardoel, his negative view was also his. What played a role was that he decided to become an artist in a difficult time. He took some lessons in the late 1920s and shortly thereafter the depression broke out. It was poverty trump. Many young artists saw opportunities after the war, but he was already in his forties and lacked the sense of affiliation with the new impetus. As an artist, he has never been a young dog, he felt like he belonged to a lost generation. One piece of art from those early years has remained known, says Jeroen Giltaij years later in a catalog of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen: a painting of a spider monkey, "displayed diagonally (...) a black, expressive thing. "

That was a significant start. Because according to Giltaij this expression could never come from his teachers, it already came from Timmer himself. And the theme, the animal, would remain his most important subject, depicted as a caged counterpart of man. In 1950, at the invitation of the Prince Bernard Fund, Timmer was allowed to make a trip to the Kruger Park in South Africa where he saw free animals. He said he would rather see animals than people, and depicts them as a cautionary commentary on the increasingly tighter and more businesslike world. With his melancholic paintings he wants to remind people that in that turbulent last century they forgot their natural origins in their pursuit of prosperity, technology, always higher and better. He also made drawings, lithographs, zincographs and linocuts. But it was the murals and sculptures in which he showed a grand gesture, not afraid of bulky dimensions. Timmer was gloomy, but he had humor - and so was his job. “A contemplative man, rich in original, unusual thoughts, and with a humor of his own, but the opposite of a success seeker,” said one of the memoriams when he died in 1978 in his beloved Rotterdam.

A city under construction

Timmer said he did not sell much work, who once said that one of his customers who bought a beautiful animal from him hung in the corridor on closer inspection. She couldn't stand to see it too much. Yet Timmer was not unknown, had contacts and received assignments. Especially in Rotterdam there was a need for art with the many new buildings. Timmer started making murals in the late 1940s, recognizable and mindful of the client. In a children's hospital, little patients had a view of long rows of elegant deer and giraffes from their beds. He painted similar scenes in the fifties in canteens, schools, a reading room of the Schielandshuis, a travel agency.

Timmer thought art had to become a people's possession, in such a way that he built four cars for a parade of the 5 May celebration of 1955 in Rotterdam. His theme was the construction of the port city: sea shipping, a lighthouse, ships, a transshipment company but also, remarkably enough, a giraffe - "belongs to the transshipment company", Timmer explained to the surprised journalist who came to see in a completely chaotic studio full of carpenters.

He also started his wire plastics around 1955, a technique in which you saw the unparalleled lines that also gave his painting such powerful compositions and elegance. These qualities can also be seen in the mosaic he made for the police station next to Marconiplein: a stylized cat and man, so large and emblematic that you almost forget the police station behind. In addition, Timmer responded to his view that with art in public spaces you must ensure that the quick gaze of passers-by must also be able to capture an image. That required a simplification that appeared in his known Phoenix from 1959, a stylized wire plastic, to be seen afterwards as a harbinger of his Giraffes from 1964. This tubular plastic par excellence showed that Timmer was always looking for the utmost simplicity. It has been compared with posters and even with shorthand, as he reduced forms to their core, inward, to the essence. A curious but full of masterpiece of simplification.

From a technical point of view, he may have learned nothing from Gabo, but in terms of content it would still have been of influence, just as he brought modern art to Rotterdam, since Timmer also comes to such abstract constructions a few years later. His images that he makes around the time of this Amsterdam image are about line, emptiness, form, movement. In other words: he took all modernist sculptural issues around construction with him. The linear lines of the image from Amsterdam are clearly Timmer's handwriting, although that extreme abstraction has only been a short period in his oeuvre. Afterwards he returned to the visible reality, to the animal in relation to the human world.


Had he had more careers with larger paintings or more self-promotion? No, Marianne Vermeijden answers her own question in a review in NRC Handelsblad, “Because Kees Timmer was a difficult, grumpy man, full of suspicion, cynical even, and against the 'evil world', which he treated with few illusions but with subtle humor.. ” Memoriams often call him underestimated when he died in 1978: as an 'animal painter' he was less popular when abstract art was rampant.

But even though Timmer felt misunderstood, you might wonder if that feeling was right. His city of Rotterdam honored him by giving him the Chabot Prize in 1966 and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen saw and sees him as one of the most important post-war Rotterdam painters, gave him three exhibitions and purchased much of his work. It has dozens of prints, eight drawings, six paintings, including some of his late self-portraits, carefully composed, dramatic representations of a weathered head. Rough and unshaven, desolate but also friendly, as if he actually belonged to a different world than we do. His image of a reclusive personality was fed by such portraits. But who knows. Gerard Reve, for example, did not believe that grumpy image, and saw in his work precisely that of a lonely toiler who sought consolation with nature.

He also had quite a few assignments in the public space. And although he was regarded as a more animal-like painter as more conservative than younger abstract-working artists, it is precisely his exterior images that are non-figurative. Only his legacy in public space is declining considerably. Rotterdam, the city where he has been most active, still has a geometric concrete sculpture on a schoolyard - a dog to climb on - two mosaics and a wire plastic. The Phoenix has been restored and, after being away for a few years, is back on the stairs of the Postgebouw next to the station.

His murals have mostly disappeared. And Rotterdam has no example of his purely abstract work, his attempt to get into the heart of constructivism. But that recently changed. Jan Fokker, former director of the Electro Technische School in Amsterdam, knew that the building was being demolished and that the sculpture was therefore in the danger zone. He researched Amsterdam and Rotterdam, looking for parties and ideas to give the image a second life in a good way. Via Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and Sculpture International Rotterdam he came to the Center for Visual Arts Rotterdam, who knew that Timmer's other abstract plastic had disappeared from 1964, and that knew about the redesign of the slope on Noordereiland. Jan Fokker has saved the image: they decide that it can be placed on the Noordereiland.

To the North Island

In the meantime in all conversations, and research into Timmer's oeuvre, the image of good Rotterdam use is already getting a new nickname in Rotterdam: Giraffes. The three forms are reminiscent of this, with their bony legs crossing each other. An appropriate name for an image of an animal painter. The Giraffes get a new home base on the Noordereiland, in the middle of the Maas, between the ships. The image is refurbished and the brown paint layer is restored to a shade that matches the original color but also contrasts well with the green environment.

Because it is now in a different place (Rotterdam park instead of Amsterdam school) it also acquires a different meaning. Don't just remember the Giraffes there on the ships with giraffe from his floats from 1955 (also without a trace), the style fits in with the harbor scene. The constructivist style, the ship's steel, the climbing of basic forms, that was an expression of the reconstruction. As Gabo portrayed as a tapered form, Timmer did that in animal forms, legs against each other, with the tension of an animal body that can also be the tension of electricity, energy, and energy.

Although the image was made for the Electro Technische School at the time, in a way that represented the energy and beta studies there, it is also abstract. With abstract art it is possible to give the work new meanings. The nickname Giraffes shows that just like the abstract image of Gabo The flower is mentioned and has been part of a discussion to convert it into a Guest Worker Monument. This way Timmer's image can also get a new meaning in a new environment. Because when Timmer made this, he could not yet know that the constructivist visual language would remain a Rotterdam visual language, to be seen in this environment. On Feijenoorde Island you can see that in the tower of Nicolaas Dings, between all memories of port work and industry. In the Afrikaander district it appears in the guest worker monument of Hans van Bentem, like a Rotterdam Eiffel tower.

Constructivism, that is the visual language of Zuid, where Timmers Giraffes to connect. It fits between De Hef on one side, towards Feijenoord, and the bridges and ships on the other, towards the Maas and the center. There it can still be a legitimate reflection on the city: that we must go further but not forget the human dimension. Because somewhere in all that hardness of lines and steel there is also something soft, animal like, the giraffes, as a reminder of the natural side of the human world.


Sandra Smets is an art historian and writes for NRC Handelsblad, among others.