Even if you just went to look at the art, the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibit on its experiences during World War II would be more than worth it: a Picasso cubist still life, a Matisse odalisque, several Klees, and German Expressionists including Max Beckmann’s famous double portrait with his wife painting in Amsterdam during the war. But there is so much more to the exhibit than that: a soul searching examination of the many dimensions of the Museum during the war, beginning with a chronology complete with photographs that show, among other things, Nazi marches right on the Museum Square with the Concertgebouw in the background:
The Museum supported German immigrant and Jewish artists before and during the war, including commissioning work from them, as well as “degenerate” avant garde artists throughout this period, and immediately after the war. Curator Willem Sandberg foresaw the need to protect art in wartime when he visited Spain after the German attack on Guernica. The Stedeljk began construction of a bunker at Castricum in the dunes to stow away treasures even before the Nazi invasion. Eventually, this bunker held more than 500 collections, both public and private. Because some of the latter were from Jewish owners, records were deliberately not kept to avoid seizure by Nazi authorities, which led to complex issues of ownership after the war.
Sandberg concocted an exhibit on “City and Country” so that he could travel on a “study trip” to Germany in 1941 and gather information for the Resistance, as well as commission photographs from independent artists (including Jewish Emmy Andriesse, part of the Underground Camera group) including those of power stations and other potential targets. This was one of only two propaganda-style exhibits at the Stedelijk during the war. I should mention that the Museum’s one Jewish employee was dismissed, but over protest.
Because he had helped to organize the March 1943 bombing of the Population Registry (which enabled the Nazis to locate Jewish citizens), Sandberg was on the “wanted” list and had to remain in hiding for the rest of the war. A respected graphic artist himself, he created a series of books titled “Typographical Experiments.” This one, with apparently random letters, signifies the names of each of his comrades who were caught and executed by the Nazis.
Something I learned in researching this post is that the large tiles in the Waterlooplein Metro Station are done in Sandberg’s typography, especially appropriate/ironic since much of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed to build the Metro.
The room devoted to questions of provenance is fascinating — asking which paintings legitimately belong to the Museum and which are in question, which means the case is submitted to a specially appointed body which adjudicates them. Some of the dossiers are available for Museum visitors to peruse and draw their own conclusions.
Many stories are told in that room, but let one stand for the others. Here’s a modest but pleasing little painting, Pears Packed in a Glass Preserving Jar, by Sal Meijer. What’s most unusual about it is a part of a typed label which remains on its back, “Goudst—.” What does this mean? Unlike some other significant Jewish art collectors and dealers in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker was a native of that city. He was among the most important dealers of Old Master paintings between the wars, if not the most important. He fled Holland by ship to England along with his family just after the Nazi invasion, leaving behind an immense collection of priceless art in his gallery in the care of his employees. In a ghastly irony, Goudstikker fell on the ship to Liverpool and died of a broken neck. However, he did have in his possession the notebook in which all of his acquisitions were noted, which became the basis of the biggest effort to recover art by a Dutch Jewish family after the war.
Within days of the dealer’s death, Hermann Goering and a Nazi banker had managed to pay the gallery employees off. They acquired virtually the whole collection for a tiny fraction of its value — over the strenuous objections of Goudstikker’s widow. (The exhibit doesn’t point this out, but restitution of this collection only happened in 2006, after an investigative journalist published a book on the subject and the scandal became ever more public.) However, research showed that this particular painting was returned to Goudstikker’s widow in a timely way, and she sold it to the Stedelijk Museum, so it was not in the controversial group.
All in all, this is a sobering but also engaging exhibit that illuminates the many aspects of the museum’s relationship to the occupying power and the situation it created in Amsterdam during the war years. While I’m sure some people will come forward with other versions of the truth, the Museum deserves credit for putting this information before the public just before the 70th anniversary of Liberation.