Guest curator Sandra Smets is collecting stories and tips from relatives about art and artists who lived and worked in Rotterdam during the Second World War. The study will result in a book, an historical city map, and a presentation in the Rotterdam depot.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has a lot of art from the war period and the years immediately before and after it. That art largely disappeared from view after 1945, as if it had little relevance for art history. The museum thinks the opposite is true and is now studying that period.
Art historian and guest curator Sandra Smets is studying the many gaps in the story of art and artists in Rotterdam during the Second World War. This week, the museum has opened the lines and hopes to come into contact with survivors and relatives who have something to tell about all this. But other tips are also welcome. Smets is in search of clandestine art, of Jewish Rotterdammers in the world of art and kitchen table artists who captured the pain of war on paper but kept the results to themselves. The study, entitled Art and life among the ruins will result in a publication, a presentation in the depot building, and an historical city map. The museum will literally map what the art world in Rotterdam looked like during the occupation – which artists lived where, what their meeting places were, which galleries were active, and where the occupier developed cultural propaganda.
Uncomfortable flourishing of the art world
Five dark years. Artistic stagnation. Waiting until the art world returned to life. And to blossom once the liberation had taken place. This is the image that exists of the art world during the Second World War. If you look at the biographies of artists who lived in the thirties and forties, you often see a gap of five years. As if the occupation put things on pause. But that is a misconception. For during the preparations in 2018 for the exhibition Boijmans in the war. Art in the destroyed city, Smets and the museum discovered that the opposite was true. In fact, the art world grew enormously in Rotterdam, the intended port city of the Third Reich – not after the war, but during it. And that is a luxury that, in retrospect, felt uncomfortable.
But not all the growth was thanks to the occupier. After the bombing, an artistic commissions policy was implemented in the emergency shops, and this was a municipal matter. But subsequently it transpired that the occupier had a keen cultural interest and considerably increased art funding. That blossoming also contained the seed for the post-war artistic life. While the art produced during the war still contained many concepts – artistic and political – from the Interbellum. That makes this a crucial period in modern art history, a pivotal point between two eras.
During the Second World War, the art life in Rotterdam did not temporarily come to a halt, as many think, but instead actually blossomed. That caused a complicated situation, full of dilemmas and contradictions. As a publication from that era suggested: on the ruins blossomed the art. And in the background, the horrors of war continued. Sandra Smets, art historian and guest curator, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
The study contains a number of significant questions. It is, for example, striking that female artists were active in the thirties and in the first years of the war, but disappeared from the picture after 1942. Why?How did Rotterdam artists get through those years? How did their work develop? How did they deal with the changing world around them? What does their work say about the period before, during and after the war? And it is also unclear what role artists played in the resistance.
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