Rotterdam art city

by Paul van de Laar Review 'Images. Urban embellishment in Rotterdam since 1940 'during the book presentation, 01.06.2016
Aad Hoogendoorn

Nowhere else is there as much art as in Rotterdam. According to art critic Rutger Pontzen in de Volkskrant in 2011. That is yet another entry point than opening with Rotterdam as a city without art. Rotterdammers grew up with works of art in public space. After the bombing of 14 May 1940, Rotterdam got so much public space and it had to be filled. The images in the city are therefore inextricably linked to the history of post-war Rotterdam. If you hold the work of Siebe Thissen in your hands, this immediately leads to two reactions: strange that it was not written before, which immediately follows: good that it is there and what a rich book it is in new thoughts, and beautiful footage. How different do you see Rotterdam now?

I count this work by Siebe directly among the most important works in urban history. An important addition to everything that has been written about reconstruction so far. The book also teaches you to look at today's Rotterdam with different eyes. Siebe takes an essayistic approach and shows how Rotterdam managed to acquire the images. Thanks to the beautiful illustrations, they are actually visual stories, with many new insights and personal reflections. I give a good example. We always think that artists were valued so much after the war because they were in the resistance and worked underground. Nothing could be further from the truth: art life and the art trade experienced an unprecedented boom during the war. Few artists avoided incorporation into the Kultuurkamer and many turned out to be willing to make 'healthy' art. The work is full of this kind of critical reflections, in which Rotterdam and its artistic climate are described in a symbiotic relationship. But there are also beautiful and striking portraits of Louis van Roode; no other artist from the reconstruction was able to leave such a mark on the visual culture of Rotterdam. Or Gust Romijn, an artist of international allure who enriched Rotterdam with his idiosyncratic, but still powerful design language.

We celebrate the reconstruction and then we would like to reflect on the men who made Rotterdam great and who also endeavored to give Rotterdam a cultural prestige. Social Democrats and progressive liberals took the lead in this. Leading entrepreneurs with social democratic sympathies then interfered intensively in the reconstruction of the city. Art was part of that. So there had to be an art policy, and Rotterdam had to lead the way. I quote from Siebe's book:

“If the new Rotterdam is to become a good Rotterdam, the visual artist must be recognized and engaged as an indispensable collaborator (…) Just think about how a rewarding and interesting site is open here for facade decoration, the application of facing bricks, signboards, wrought-iron work, etc. emblems relating to the profession or business carried on. [In construction projects] let's make a permanent place for commissions for visual artists. A lot can be achieved here with a small percentage (…) ”


The reconstruction promoted attention for the visual arts, but a substantial impulse was needed in terms of content. Siebe rightly pays a lot of attention to the role of alderman for Education and People Development, AJ van der Vlerk. He sought cultural and social renewal and saw a greater role for local government through the Rotterdam Art Foundation. Siebe writes appreciably of him: "Was there ever a member of the College more enthusiastic than the attendant magistrate, who stumbled across poor Dutch with so much verve put forward his ideas that the city council should believe in it?"

Siebe shows that Rotterdam thrives if we have an art policy with vision in this city. It can be contrary and that also happened in full. At the end of the sixties, a period of prosperity began for the Rotterdam cultural sector. The cultural life of Rotterdam received a tremendous boost, particularly under the direction of Adriaan van der Staay of the Kunststichting. He ensured that Rotterdam became more international. He was one of the initiators of Poetry International and the International Film Festival and shortly before his departure he promoted Rotterdam as an architecture city. There was also a downside, because thanks to its successes, the art policy was increasingly embedded in official structures and consultative bodies; the urbanization of cultural life as it is called. Civil servants became the 'cultural capitalists' with a 'state treaty'. Aldermen and officials were increasingly provoking resentment, such as with Hans Abelman. Artists embraced the criticism that Rob Wentholt had expressed with his Inner City Experience on a materialistic culture, aimed at the liveability of the big cities and environmental pollution. Wentholt had shown his fellow citizens why their city did not meet expectations. It was up to the cultural sector to shape the immaterial content of the new city. In other words, art had to remove the abuses of the reconstruction. The PressNota from 1969 expressed this with the motto: "Rotterdam is doing well, but nobody is wondering how Rotterdammers are doing."

According to Siebe, Wentholt and Pressienota marked the end of a consensus culture. But the inciting artists eventually also became civil servants. Jan Riezenkamp is actually the first alderman (almost twenty years later) after Van der Vlerk to come up with a new personal vision on the arts. It was time for a personal vision, he thought, because no comprehensive art memorandum had been published since his appointment as alderman (since 1974). And he was right about that. Riezenkamp had now taken the initiative with a stimulating and political vision. Many readers will undoubtedly have been disturbed by the sanctuary that Riezenkamp put forward and his plea for a non-capitalist image of man. In this memorandum he made cultural policy the use of welfare policy, an instrument to help the socialist welfare state on its way. Van der Staay called the left-wing turnaround at the town hall disastrous for an ambitious, international cultural program. He completely disagreed with the cultural views of the new left and had great difficulty with the PvdA's know-it-all and its 'half-baked self-overestimation'. In the late XNUMXs he had already gained experience with a left-wing cultural policy in Amsterdam. According to him, this looked a lot like 'old pastors' who were rigid and straight in teaching and only interested in left-wing correctness. Van der Staay felt that the new ideologues misused the art sector to solve the big city problems; art as a welfare product. 'Social problems that the municipal services cannot solve are placed in the hands of the artist.' In a review of the eventful period, Van der Staay speaks of 'political barbarism'.

From the XNUMXs onwards, austerity government steps back and there is room again for new initiators outside the government's patronage. For example, since the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, the share of corporate and private funding in the total financing of the art sector has increased significantly. That in itself is not wrong, because the book shows that the sculpture collection is so strong precisely because it moves with the times: from private patronage, via government patronage to an intermediate form that in turn leaves room for a hybrid intermediate form. In conclusion, Siebe also writes:

“That city collection is therefore not the result of a conspiracy of the art lobby, a rigid government policy or unbridled city marketing, but rather testifies to a widely shared social desire to speak in the public domain about emptiness, the status of the city and chauvinism. The Rotterdam sculpture collection may not have been based on a grand plan, but the collection took shape as an unexpected windfall in a city that had to rebuild itself. ”

The new cultural advice was presented today. Hopefully many are relieved, maybe even happy. Rotterdam cannot do without a strong cultural sector and history also teaches that it is good that there are occasional strong aldermen who stand up for the arts. That may be contrary; Experience shows that too. But of course Rotterdam only really thrives if art and culture do not receive attention exclusively because it belongs to a profile of the 21th-century city. I would like to recall the statement by art critic Wim Wagener during the opening of Boijmans in 1949. "Art is the chair you sit on and the plate from which you eat".