The Kralingen failure

Siebe Thissen Lecture during 10 year Art Route Kralingen-Crooswijk, Gallery Deelen Art, Kralingen, 15.10.2016

The art in Kralingen is doing well. The Kralingen-Crooswijk Art Route is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month and the catalog of the party program offers an impressive overview of studios and galleries. That is beautiful. But that momentum is hardly visible in the public space. Kralingen has until now only been poorly provided with art. Well, Kralingen has its own classics - think of the Julianavaas (1909) from Simon Miedema on the Vijverlaan, the Frog or salamander fountain (1928) from Jan Hooykaas, and the Pelican (1948) by Johan van Berkel, both in the Kralingse Bos. But with a few exceptions, there are no good examples of contemporary visual art. And that is remarkable.

Because if Rotterdam has delivered one special achievement in the field of visual art, then it is the realization of its fabulous collection of artworks in public space, spared together since 1940, when the city was suddenly saddled with the largest public space in the Netherlands. . Although many works of art have already disappeared from the street scene, today the experienced walker can still view around a thousand works of art in streets, public gardens and in squares. That art offensive started shortly after the bombing of 14 in May 1940. The merciless emptiness had to be filled in again, of course, but also citizens, entrepreneurs, architects, officials and artists understood that the new Rotterdam had to express emotions related to the war and the loss of the city, togetherness, solidarity and longing for the future. And did art not offer a unique opportunity for this? Yes, Rotterdam thought so.

That city collection, nowadays the leader in the Netherlands and Europe, was fully developed thanks to a number of growth spurs. The first convulsion occurred between September 1940 and April 1942. Alderman Lourens de Groot took the initiative in what was referred to in the newspapers as the 'art supply of 1940': many dozens of artists - who had often lost their studio in the blazing sea - were called in to cheer up the battered city with sculptures, murals, decorative ironwork, signposting and colorful posters. A second wave took place between 1945 and 1968, when retailers' associations, banks, insurance companies and large companies such as Pakhuismeesteren, Shell and Unilever donated images to their offices, warehouses, factories and the city. A third phase was introduced in 1960 by the so-called percentage regulation, a municipal regulation that made it possible to spend one percent of the construction costs of municipal buildings on urban decoration through works of art.

A fourth offensive - although small-scale, but with great ambitions - also started in 1960. This activity was preceded by the establishment of the Urban Embellishment Commission, a small team of experts and art collectors who were allowed to purchase works of art with an international image for the city. These new works of art should also be placed in green, park-like environments, the Commission found, which showed great interest in the unique landscape of the Kralingse Bos. But the attempt to expand the city collection to Kralingen resulted in a riot, culminating in the so-called 'Picasso fiasco' in the 1960 years. The defeat that the municipality of Rotterdam suffered in Kralingen, rumbled for years and prevented Kralingen from acquiring a sculpture garden of international allure. I would like to take you to the 'Kralingen Fiasco' tonight.

It started on 28 April 1960. On that day, the municipal council agreed to a proposal from the College van B and W to pay a substantial sum each year into 'a fund for the purchase of art objects for the purpose of urbanization'. The action was prompted by a growing resentment with regard to the wandering policy of the Herrijzend Rotterdam Foundation. This club of Rotterdam notables and benefactors had made efforts to donate war and resistance monuments to the city since the liberation. Among other things, the foundation realized it with private resources Monument for all fallen (1957) on Stadhuisplein, made by the Amsterdam sculptor and resistance fighter Mari Andriessen, but also the sculpture Il grande miracolo (1958) op Zuid, a creation of the Italian sculptor Marino Marini, and the sculpture Unbroken resistance (1964) from Hubert van Lith on the Westersingel. But behind the scenes the members rolled in a row on the street. A majority, for example, felt that 'there was now enough room for maneuver to accommodate new trends in art and its foreign representatives'. Their plea for more traditional expressions of art in public spaces led to irritation among opponents who favored modernism, including the harbor baron and art collector Ludo Pieters. He was a fanatic member of the foundation's board against all traditionalism and provincialism. For example, he found that Unbroken Resistance "would not be out of place in a small French provincial town after the war of 1870." But 'in the Rotterdam of the 20 century there is no place for such a monument'. The bookkeeping of the foundation also appeared somewhat shadowy. When the alderman for art affairs, the socialist and former resistance fighter Dries van der Vlerk, the College proposed to generously subsidize Herrijzend Rotterdam, buddy was full. After all, the alderman himself was the chairman of the club.

The Institute did understand that a significant act could be expected from it. Already in 1957, Van der Vlerk had written to the College that 'it had been private individuals who witnessed great civic responsibility that had given the impetus to the urban embellishment of Rotterdam'. No word of that was lied to. Since the liberation, dozens of new monuments and sculptures had come into existence and put Rotterdam nationally and internationally on the map as a city of statues. The re-established business community had scattered with money. The Bijenkorf donated The destroyed city by Ossip Zadkine (1953) and a sculpture by Naum Gabo (1957) for the new location on the Coolsingel. Brick manufacturers realized Henry Moore's Wall Relief No.1 (1955) in the facade of the Bouwcentrum on the Weena. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. According to the alderman, it was now up to the College and "the municipal authorities had a moral obligation to keep the town going and to provide the necessary resources for it."

And that also happened. In 1960, the new art councilor Nancy Zeelenberg put an end to the dominance of Herrijzend Rotterdam with the foundation of the Stadverfraaiing Fund. She confirmed an annual grant of 50.000 guilder, but also demanded a professionalization of the art policy, so that no more money was wasted on occasional monuments. She also wanted more control over finances and called for the purchase of 'images of exceptional quality'. However, the College still had a motive. There was growing doubt about the way in which urban development took place. Were the modern architecture and the design of the public space not responsible for a too businesslike, too strict, too cold and bare new Rotterdam? Perhaps' truly monumental images' could break through Rotterdam's sleek modernity, the College hoped: 'Although the business-planned structure of the city has its own beauty of clean, clear lines,' Zeelenberg wrote, 'but by applying aesthetic accents and playful interruptions [by artists], the city gets a lighter, cultural touch, which places modern building in a happy light and deprives it of its excessive rigor '. Art was therefore expected to be able to correct the New Objectivity.

To achieve that ambitious goal, the alderman advocated a small committee of advisers "who could match a pronounced progressive attitude with a great expertise in the field of sculpture." Because the city authorities realized that 'the brilliant start of the Rotterdam image collection' was due to 'a businessman of exceptional size'. This sizeable businessman was Gerrit van der Wal, director of the Bijenkorf from 1940 to 1957. Van der Wal was an avid art collector and donor of the sculptures of Zadkine and Naum Gabo on behalf of the retail group. At 1960 he worked in numerous advisory positions and supervisory board positions in Dutch business and was appointed 'special adviser' to the municipality of Rotterdam three years earlier. He also expressed his willingness to join the select group of experts from the Urban Embellishment Commission. The Commission also caught another large fish. That was Piet Sanders, lawyer, adviser to the Dutch government and appointed to 1959 as a professor at the Dutch Economic College - the precursor of Erasmus University. Sanders was considered one of the largest art collectors in the Netherlands. With the director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Coert Ebbinge Wubben, the troika was complete. The Board was pleased: 'Quality is finally guaranteed, because they all know the market and the prices. Above all, they have close personal ties and contacts with the sculptors. The municipality did, however, add a number of supervisory officials to the club, including the directors of the Municipal Works and Urban Development departments. The daily handiwork was left to Ben Weehuizen, official of the Art Affairs department.

Among the first images that were purchased was l'Homme qui marche (1907) by Auguste Rodin. The statue was shown during the sculpture exhibition of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen during the Floriade of 1960. It turned out that 'the moving man' was for sale. In March 1961, the statue was bought at the Musée Rodin in Paris for 46.000 guilder, a bargain for 'a work of such great art-historical significance', people thought. Because no suitable place could be found in the city yet, the statue was temporarily stored on the terrace on the garden side of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. In the fall of 1963, the sculpture was joined here by the sculpture La grande musicienne (1938), made by the French sculptor Henri Laurens. This statue was purchased in the Louise Leiris gallery in Paris for a price that also fit in nicely with the annual budget of the Commission. The sculpture was intended for the new De Doelen concert hall. But because the building was still in scaffolding, the statue was temporarily parked in the museum garden. It was not until well into the 1960 years that the images became visible on the street.

On 1 January 1964, the annual payment was increased to 100.000 guilders, after the Urban Embellishment Commission had complained that the amount was far too small "to build up a high-level sculpture collection within a reasonable time." If the city wanted to acquire real monumental sculptures, it would have to be explored deeper. A year earlier, Piet Sanders had seen a monumental sculpture in the garden of the famous art collector and gallery owner Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in Paris that could not be released. The concrete colossus was 15 meters high and the design was based on a drawing by Picasso. The thing was made by the Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar. In 1958 he had started a partnership with Picasso by carrying out designs in a special concrete technique, developed by a manufacturer in Oslo. Under the surface of the concrete, Nesjar processed a layer of black pebbles. He then milled the lines of Picasso's design from the top layer of the concrete, so that a graphic composition of black pebbles became visible. According to Sanders, this concrete technique offered a unique opportunity to realize a very large, monumental sculpture in Rotterdam, a sculpture by Picasso, moreover, that was still payable. Moreover, Picasso itself would not demand a fee. The costs were estimated at such an 120.000 guilder, but it soon became apparent that that estimate was far too optimistic.

After Sanders also made the Commission enthusiastic, Secretary Ben Weehuizen contacted Carl Nesjar in Paris on 17 May 1963. A lively correspondence developed between the two, which became more and more friendly in nature. Weehuizen pointed to the Rotterdam plan to add monumental works to the entrances of the city, such as at Hoek van Holland, at the mouth of the Nieuwe Waterweg, and in the port area. Nesjar was excited and revealed to dream of "a monumental work of art, such as the statue of Ramses II at the Abu-Simbel temple on the Nile in Egypt." At the beginning of October 1963, Nesjar and Weehuizen visited the garden of Kahnweiler, where they found that the concrete sculpture 'would not be able to withstand [industrial] environments such as Europoort and the Nieuwe Waterweg', but needed a 'green, sloping terrain'.

On October 9, the Commission unanimously supported the Picasso / Nesjar project and promised the alderman that the future 22 meter-high artwork "would have a particularly interesting and monumental effect as a" sign "in the environment or landscape." One month later the alderman was informed that the Commission had just as unanimously opted for 'a vista in Kralingerhout, on the Plaszoom, just past the Plasmolen'. The alderman and the art affairs department confirmed that nothing stood in the way of an assignment for Nesjar. The sculptor called 'the park outside Rotterdam' an 'excellent location [...], truly beautiful' and promised to discuss photos of the location with Picasso. On 30 June 1964, the municipality formally requested the famous artist to perform a work by Nesjar based on his design in Kralingen. By return, Picasso sent the same letter back to the town hall, but not before he had scribbled 'Oui' on it in large letters.

And the Commission had to deal with that. With a 'Qui' from the great master. Couldn't an appointment be made with Picasso itself? No, Nesjar said, because Picasso rarely leaves his house and is averse to consultation. "Send him something from Dutch costume, he loves those things," the Norwegian sculptor suggested. There are no indications that such a package was actually sent to the South of France. The Commission was also somewhat disappointed that Picasso had not made a new model for Rotterdam, but that Nesjar wanted an existing design - after a drawing by Sylvette - to be carried out. Sylvette David was Picasso's legendary muse, a beautiful young woman he had already met in 1954 and acted as a model for drawings, paintings and small sculptures. The Commission consoled the idea that Picasso would have agreed nicely with a work for Kralingen. On October 5 1964 thanked Picasso in a letter on behalf of the municipality and told him to make the order known to the Rotterdam public.

Two days later the newspapers reported on a twenty-meter high concrete sculpture by Picasso that would be placed just past the mill on the Kralingse Plas. The work would depict a 'girl figure'. A number of newspapers also placed a photographic collage made by Carl Nesjar, in which his design and Picasso's 'Qui' were mounted. The commotion broke out on October 10. "Twenty meters is very high," sighed columnist Pieter Spreeuw in Het Vrije Volk (10 October 1964). "Shouldn't we be careful with the nice landscape around the Plas?" He wondered. A letter sent in the same newspaper criticized not only the height, but also the design of 'Miss Makes' - 'the deformed girl'. De Tijd / De Maasbode (22 October 1964) spoke sarcastically of 'a club of a memorial' that was supposed to function purely as 'a bait for tourists'. These comments were the prelude to a wave of negative publicity. The battle was led by the Oostergids (29 October 1964), a weekly news and advertising newspaper from the Wegelings Weekblad that was distributed door-to-door in the eastern part of Rotterdam (circulation: 156.000). Long before the rise of Liveable Rotterdam, the newspaper already had a populist signature. "We are not supposed to be opposing the municipality," wrote the editorial. 'We do, however, want to ensure that the conversation between Rotterdam administrators and citizens starts. We want to be a mouthpiece in a city where the problems are getting bigger and the communication between citizens and administrators becomes more difficult.

The editorial staff received 'hundreds of letters against Picasso's totem pole', according to the front page, and printed sixty in the newspaper. The discontent splashed from the pages: "We don't want that mess," "If it has to come - then dynamite underneath," "Concrete?" Should have kept those German bunkers nice - much cheaper ',' Fortunately the Kralingse Bos is nice and soggy ',' Picasso says Qui, but I say no ',' I am a woman of 37 years, but I have never been so monstrous seen a female figure '-' an insult to the girls', 'Put the thing in Hoek van Holland on a dune top, with a lookout tower and a restaurant in its head'. The opposing voices were scarce: "Kralingen has once again been compromised in his honor - Kralingers always count themselves among the exalted people", "Picasso is a genius!", "Let's admit that we don't have a cent for culture", "The world wants to be cheated, so let's cheat on her." The intended work of art was even used during a riot of Rotterdam fishmongers. The municipal fish auction on Westkousdijk would be closed because a flood defense had to be installed and the auction was also not profitable. But the shortage was only 40.000 guilders, a trader grumbled, "certainly now that we know that the municipality wants to set aside half a million for a huge block of concrete," referring to the image of Picasso.

The Kralingen District Council was overwhelmed by the events. The district councils were set up in 1947 and in fact functioned as early precursors of the later districts. The council was not amused that it had not been involved in decision-making and complained to the alderman. Alderman Zeelenberg - held responsible in public opinion for the 'Picasso fiasco' - demanded an explanation from the Art Affairs department. Cees' t Hart, the department head, sputtered that the district council had indeed passed, "because one cannot expect a majority here to think progressively in the field of the visual arts." On November 19, the College van B and W announced that they would like to reconsider the location of the Kralingse Bos.
In the meantime, Nesjar continued to work unabatedly on his models and inquired in Rotterdam about newspaper articles that he would like to add to his archive. Weehuizen cautiously reported that there had been 'many negative reactions' to the news, but he expected that the opponents could still be convinced. The artist would rather hurry with his models, the official thought, because they were desperately needed 'to warm up the opponents'.

On December 10 the protest took a new turn. Sixteen artists from Rotterdam had united in an action group and in an address at the city council they protested against the purchase - they thought the statue was a 'status symbol'. On the contrary, the city should support local artists, for example by investing money in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, which is almost unable to purchase anything from its fellow citizens. For the Kralingse Bos, the activists also had an alternative: "A large light pole with the name of Picasso in neon letters." The image was, after all, "such an expression of status that an inseparable link between the name of the master and the city must be considered." The artists formed a beautiful cross-section of the artistic environment of those days. Among them were Woody van Amen (who still has a studio in Kralingen), and artists who are no longer among us, including Mathieu Ficheroux, Henk de Vos, Huib Noorlander, Hans Verwey, Jakob Zekveld and the anarchist graphic artist Wim Motz .

Even after Nesjar had shown models in Rotterdam, made construction calculations, carried out wind tests, and even released a series of balloons in the Kralingse Bos to show the size and scale of the image to committee members and officials, there was no prospect of it a tilting opinion. While the town hall already wanted to talk to the Commission about the design of the sculpture and the intended location, Nesjar reported by letter that he was working as a possessed person and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. On 8 August 1964, the head of the Art Affairs department wrote to the Urban Embellishment Commission: "The project has become a source of great concern. I understand that this concern is shared by a number of committee members. The care concerns the sculpture itself and the location '. He asked the Commission to reconsider the monumental status of the statue. Because was it actually a real Picasso? Was Picasso's hand sufficiently visible in the image? Shouldn't the flat, non-dynamic backside of the image really be considered an artistic flaw? Couldn't such a statue be better placed in front of a building? And did not detonate the enormous concrete construction 'with the purity of the Kralinger wood created in an almost natural way'? He concluded his letter with: "I do not want to ask you to give up the project [but] I am convinced that once a better location is found, the project is viable [...] I conclude that such a sculpture is better in the new city ​​quarters [on Rotterdam-Zuid] fits [...] Also, a different scale needs to be considered '. It is clear that the official felt the hot breath of alderman Zeelenberg in his neck.

In the meantime, committee members visited other works by Picasso / Nesjar - one in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, just given as a gift by Mrs. Sandberg, and one in Kristinehamn in Sweden. After some deliberation, it was decided to definitively reject the Kralingse Bos as a location, to formulate a criticism of the design and to ask Picasso to consider new locations. Exit Kralingen. At the end of November 1965, two and a half years after the first contacts with Nesjar, alderman Zeelenberg reported to a reporter: "We have listened to the voice of the people." And so the arrival of Sylvette, 'the girl from Picasso', prevented from going to the Kralingerhout. Zeelenberg said that the municipality would consult with Picasso about a new location and about a new design.

Nesjar was put on hold and was disappointed. On 4 January 1966 he sent committee secretary Ben Weehuizen a desperate New Year's greeting: "Do you think we will make it in 1966?" After having been silent for a long time, Weehuizen did not express anything until 25 April 1966: 'Dear Carl, the end of the company is in sight. We have not been able to convince the Commission [...] The Commission only agrees to an assignment if Picasso itself comes to Rotterdam and chooses a location itself [...] But since the start of the project it is clear to the Commission that Picasso does not intend to you can visit Rotterdam [...] So there is now a 'no' and there is no way back '. Weehuizen concluded the letter with the comment that he was really sorry - the sculptor had become a friend. An annoyed Nesjar replied that he found the entire Rotterdam company "quite bizarre and regrettable" and added a demand for financial compensation. On 13 July 1966, Picasso was formally informed by the town hall of the cancellation of the project. Naturally, Picasso did not hear anything.

Nesjar felt cheated. That was not unjustified. The municipality of Rotterdam had invited him to make a design in 1963. And the Urban Embellishment Commission had nominated him for his craftsmanship and his sculpture on the Kahnweiler estate in Paris. Now the city moaned that Picasso was unreachable, did not want to come to Rotterdam and Nesjar's adaptations of Picasso's designs were no good. To save the face, the town hall seemed to put Nesjar away like a charlatan who played nicely with the Picasso brand name. Here, in the 'Kralingen fiasco', the myth of the 'fake Picasso' was born. For years, the hurting Norwegian artist would bombard the municipality with letters asking for compensation. He also threatened with legal action.

That compensation did not follow until the winter of 1969-1970. Piet Sanders, the 'discoverer' of Nesjar, had meanwhile also taken a seat on the Working Committee of C70. C70 - or Communication 1970 - should become a major urban event that had to surpass earlier manifestations such as Ahoy 1950 and E55 in ambition and charisma. Art was also high on the agenda. Without informing his colleagues from the Urban Embellishment Commission, Sanders had the C70 management purchase the Sylvette from Picasso and Nesjar. It seems that Sanders still had something to do with the sculptor.

The new Sylvette was a smaller model of seven meters and should be placed in front of the Bouwcentrum on the Weena. A major riot again developed. Artists' protests (with the same protagonists as in 1964), heated municipal debates and furious newspaper columns were followed by an implosion of the entire C70 art program. In newspapers and magazines Sylvette denounced as a 'pseudo-Picasso', a 'would-be Picasso', a 'non-authentic Picasso' and an 'imitated Picasso'. The image was your pure scam, according to NRC critic Cees Doelman (16 January 1970): 'First Picasso imitates himself and then his sketch is imitated again by an architect. Picasso then issues a statement of agreement. And of course everything for a nice fee '. I'm not going to bother you tonight with the second part of the Picasso soap - I described that in my book Sculptures. Urban embellishment in Rotterdam since 1940 (2016). Eventually Rotterdam got the girl from Picasso, a little one Sylvette, and today she stands perky for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen on the Westersingel. Nesjar was able to enjoy his sweet revenge for a long time. He died last year at the age of 95.

Since the 'Picasso fiasco', the Kralingse Bos has been a no go area for the visual arts. Also an attempt by the American artist George Rickey to get his kinetic image with the rotating rectangles placed in the Forest (now on the Binnenwegplein) stranded in 1970 on fear of officials for the revenge of Kralingen. Only with the arrival of it Holland Pop Monument in 2013, a sculpture by the Kralingian artist John Blaak, another work of art was added to the Forest. Even now, the City Development Department opposed the placement, but thanks to the efforts of district councilors and a lobby of neighborhood residents, the pop monument was nevertheless realized. The moral of this story: art rarely follows a straight path. Because art, dancer Josephine Baker once said, "art is an elastic form of love, very elastic."

Related artwork

Sylvette (1970) Pablo Picasso & Carl Nesjar