As a very small child I stood in a bombed-out railway station and the images of twisted girders and rubble-strewn surroundings have never left me. The city was reduced to a cemetery with the remaining buildings providing their own headstones – and so it was in Rotterdam in 1940, bombed by the Nazis and later by the British. Today it gets harder to find people who can relate in such times.
The current exhibition, Boijmans in the War – Art in the Destroyed City, at the Museum Boijmans van Beunigen is the result of a massive effort to explain a morally problematic time. This wonderfully curated exhibition traces the life and times of the museum itself. It includes the pre-war years but mostly the years during the occupation, from the German bomb raid of that razed the historic city centre when the Rotterdam streets were piled high with collapsed buildings, not to speak of the dead.
For the museum the German occupation brought its special issues. The director, Dirk Hannema, sought to steer the collection to safety and entered into a Faustian pact with the occupiers – during the war he mounted no less than forty-four exhibitions. The most valuable works were stored underground, including Rembrandt’s Night Watch, rolled up like a builder’s tarpaulin. Between 1939-41 Hannema also bought Hans van Meegeren’s forged paintings, convinced they were by Vermeer. Hitler, forever seeking glory, sent art experts to buy works for his planned Führer’s Museum in Linz – many of the art treasures had been bought at ridiculously low prices or looted and confiscated from Jewish families only to cross into Germany in nebulous transactions. But Hannema paid the price for his pact with the devil – at the end of the war he was tried and condemned to the worst internment camp for collaborators where his job was to empty the camp’s latrines.
The museum has undertaken this heroic task to establish the provenance of works and return them to their rightful owners or their descendants. It wanted to create transparency about some of the less palatable events, of dubious art transactions and acquisitions and the painfully drawn-out period of restitution. I was amazed to see that one of the most precious works was discovered in Kiev as late as 2004.
The exhibition includes film of the bombings as well as of the liberation, letters, paintings, documents, wonderful watercolour sketches by Marius Richters, so alive that you can almost feel the artist, covered in dust, as he sits working among the ruins. There are architectural statues and ornaments saved from the ruins, in other words it is an all-engulfing experience and a timely reminder – although seen through the lens of just one museum – that we should never again descend into such collective madness. An exhibition of rare importance – not to be missed. Astrid Burchardt 25th October 2018
Boijmans in the War. Art in the Destroyed City continues until 27th January
The museum has published a new book to coincide with the exhibition. Entitled A CONTROVERSIAL PAST it describes the creation of the museum but concentrates on events directly before, during and after the Second World War. A review and details of the book can be seen here