Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum & The Second World War

27 Feb - 31 May 2015

Henri Matisse
Odalisque, 1921
27 February - 31 May 2015

In the year of the 70th anniversary commemorations of Dutch liberation, the Stedelijk presents The Stedelijk Museum in the Second World War. The presentation is structured around work from the museum collection, accompanied by unique, previously unseen visual material. The results of the Stedelijk’s provenance research are also included, clearly presented and placed within a context. The exhibition brings together five fascinating storylines.

The exhibition Stedelijk in the war is based on recent research into the provenance of artworks conducted by the museum. What emerged were moving stories of collectors and artists, many of whom were Jewish, who were coerced into parting from their works of art. The research also brought to light stories about the transfer of the Stedelijk collection to a huge bunker in the dunes near Castricum (together with almost 500 collections including that of the Royal Family, the heirs of Van Gogh and many Jewish collectors) and art gifted to the museum by Jewish collectors and artists after the war. Another fascinating tale tells of the museum’s involvement in helping to recuperate stolen art after by the ‘Monuments Men’ after Holland was liberated. These incredible narratives are told through a presentation including a selection of famous and lesser-known works from the collection, alongside archival material and documentation.

The exhibition opens with Jewish artists, collectors, and dealers who were forced to flee their homeland after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The Nazis had declared their art entartet, or “degenerate”. Willem Sandberg, then a curator, and Stedelijk director David Röell supported these immigrants by purchasing and commissioning artworks from them. For example, the museum bought work—including pieces by Paul Klee—from art dealer Herbert Tannenbaum who, with his family and gallery, found asylum in Amsterdam in 1937. In 1938, Sandberg commissioned Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten to design a canopy to hang above the grand staircase. In 1937, while Hitler’s Entartete Kunst exhibition traveled Germany to be derided by the German people, the Stedelijk embraced modern art, staging exhibits such as Abstracte Kunst (1938) and Parijse Schilders (1939).

After witnessing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War during a trip to Spain in 1938, Willem Sandberg immediately set about building a huge bunker in the dunes near Castricum. With this, the Stedelijk was the first Dutch museum to have a bunker. Before too long, other museums came seeking help: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the Rijksmuseum (for a time, the bunker, a.k.a. “the vault” provided refuge for Rembrandt’s rolled-up Night Watch), the Frans Hals Museum, and the Lakenhal. The bunker also safeguarded the collections of private collectors including Van Gogh’s heirs and several Jewish collectors. Over 500 collections were eventually transferred to the bunker for safekeeping. After the war, in gratitude for the museum’s help, several collectors made spectacular gifts to the Stedelijk collection, including a work by Van Gogh and one by Kokoschka.

Between 1940 and 1945, the historic buildings on Museumplein were occupied by the Nazis; the square also held German bunkers. Other Dutch museums had been forced to close or were requisitioned as hospitals but the Stedelijk was open “as usual”.

In 1943, under German occupation, the Stedelijk was coerced into holding two propagandist exhibitions: Kunstenaars zien den Arbeidsdienst and De Jeugdherberg van morgen. But the museum also staged small resistance of its own by programming more patriotic themes such as Stad en land (1942), and quietly supporting those artists that had refused to join the Kultuurkamer (Reichs Chamber of Culture), and were thus deprived of their means of livelihood. Another example of resistance is the fashion presentation 150 jaar mode (1942). The poster prominently features the word moffen, a derogatory term for Germans, but had to be removed soon after the opening.

The Stedelijk also gave considerable amount of gallery spaces to the artists’ associations affiliated with the museum. Prior to the war, both Röell and Sandberg had sought to break ties with these associations (which blocked their aim of turning the Stedelijk into a museum for modern and contemporary art) but now they embraced them. As many of these artists were registered with the Chamber of Culture and their work had to be publicly exhibited, they presented a more palatable option to far worse German alternatives.

Sandberg used his design skills to forge

identity papers for fellow resistance members, and helped prepare the attack on the Amsterdam Central Civic Registry Office on

March 27, 1943. His co-dissidents, including artist Gerrit van der Veen, were captured and executed by firing squad. Sandberg evaded arrest, but was forced to spend the remainder of the war in hiding. It was during this time that he developed his Experimenta typografica, a series of unique graphic design experiments that, even today, is considered among the highlights of the Stedelijk Museum.

Sandberg, now the Stedelijk director, devoted one of the first exhibitions after liberation to the clandestine prints of his late friend, Werkman. In 1946, he hosted the exhibit Piet Mondrian, celebrating modern art’s outright triumph over the Nazi regime. The presentation included Victory Boogie Woogie, Mondrian’s unfinished ode to the end of the war. Sandberg, who was unable to buy the painting, had a copy made; for many years, it graced the walls of his office, as a vibrant symbol of freedom. The copy is still in the Stedelijk collection.

After the liberation, the Stedelijk was also involved in the international recuperation of looted art; Hans Jaffé, vice director under Sandberg, was a “Monuments Man” for two years. Sandberg also presided on various commissions for the design of many war monuments throughout the country.

After the war, returning artworks to their rightful owners proved an almost insurmountable problem partly because, in attempting to protect Jewish collectors, Sandberg had deliberately kept sparse records of what belonged to whom in the bunker. Many collectors never returned and, in the chaos after May 5, 1945, the origins of artworks that ended up in the collection were shrouded in mystery for decades.

Like many other Dutch museums, the Stedelijk has conducted in-depth research as part of the national research project “Museum Acquisitions since 1933.” The screening identified 16 works that may not belong in the museum either because they were sold by collectors under duress or left behind in the museum after the war. Among them are works by Kandinsky, Matisse, and Jan Toorop.

For some works, the heirs are now known, and the Stedelijk, together with the City of Amsterdam (the current owner), will submit these cases to the Dutch Restitution Committee to come to the right solution for the future of these works.

In the exhibition, the often tragic stories behind these works are told through gallery texts, short films, and archival documents unearthed after years of research. The presentation also includes several pieces that entered the collection under circumstances as yet unknown, a reminder that, for museums like the Stedelijk, the World War II era remains an unfinished chapter.

For more information about the Dutch national research project, click here.

The exhibition is being curated by Margriet Schavemaker, curator and Head of Research and Publications at the Stedelijk Museum, in cooperation with Margreeth Soeting, art historical researcher at the Stedelijk and Gregor Langfeld, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Tags: Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian