A party cake for the Schouwburgplein

Images: Urban embellishment in Rotterdam since 1940 is the title of a forthcoming book, written by Siebe Thissen, which deals with the reconstruction in Rotterdam and the important role that visual art played in it. The book provides a history - from 1940 to the present day - of art in the public space of Rotterdam, especially from the perspective of the artist who wants to influence the (reconstruction) construction, the appearance and the appearance of the city. Thissen describes in detail the commotion, the actions, the ambitions and the successes that ultimately determined the relationship between art and the city. Below is a sneak preview of Chapter 6, 'The Presie Group'.

Culture of 'do it yourself'
In 1970, the Amsterdam artist André Volten had made a special contribution to the Rotterdam sculpture collection. As part of the C70 city event, he designed a Communication column: an 8 meter high, hollow, steel cylinder, made up of three parts, and painted with a rust-brown menie. The column was placed directly in front of Central Station and witnessed a new view of the city. Volten had created a sanctuary where residents, beat bands, action groups and cultural institutions could leave pamphlets, wall papers, posters and graffiti slogans without a permit. The artwork confirmed developments that had taken hold of the city center: mostly clandestine drawing, liming and pasting. The Communication column was the first official medium for this 'do-it-yourself' culture. New technological finds, including the felt-tip pen, the spray can, the stencil machine and the screen printing, made it possible to provide the city with messages, texts, signs and images without being asked.

To do justice to the broad palette of public expressions, Volten had built his creation on three floors: “Below everything may be written down, if necessary against Mayor Thomassen. I also thought of all possible pop groups and the working youth who want to make something known. ”The middle section was intended for cultural programming, for example announcements of exhibitions at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen or events at the Doelen. He intended the top for local football news, "so that everyone can see which matches are being played". For the inside of the column, Volten had put his hope in beautiful photography. Artists and writers were fascinated by the description and pasting of walls. That attention had come from Paris, where students, artists and activists had discovered the street and the wall as a mass medium.

“But no matter how hip the sculpture was, the artwork
was the basis for a major riot ”

An offer
Viewed against this background, the Communication column for the Central Station a real contemporary sculpture that intervened in a current urban dynamic. In the context of the event Communication 1970 (C70) was the 10 meter high column financed by the Bouwcentrum and built by construction companies such as Van Eesteren, Braat and Molyn. But no matter how hip the sculpture was, the artwork was based on a riot of size. During previous city events, artists were like Ahoy 1950 en E55 still good at designating a place where they were allowed to show their arts, on the eve of C70 they demanded an autonomous role in the city. Anton Fibbe accepted this demand. The director of C70 dreamed of "colorful small-scale movement in the city center" and thought that art should not be missing. Then the organization brought in Ton Frenken. This lawyer and artist had earned his spurs in 1967 as the organizer of a very successful exhibition about Jeroen Bosch in the Centraal Noord-Brabants Museum in Den Bosch. Frenken was given 200.000 guilder and the organization hoped that he would be able to recruit sponsors for a major art event during C70.

Frenken called his manifestation in the making Proposal and 28 invited Dutch and Belgian artists to make a design for the Schouwburgplein. Among the participants were Marinus Boezem, Jan Dibbets, André Volten, Panamarenko, Marcel Broodthaers, Peter Struycken, Bob Bonies and Carel Visser, as well as local stars, such as Woody van Amen, Wim Gijzen and Toni Burgering. Because notions such as 'participation' and 'democratization' are of paramount importance to the city council and the management of C70 the Rotterdam public should make a choice from the best proposal for the square. The artists went to work energetically, made sketch proposals and then models. Apart from a few nice urban design proposals, however, many submissions put a heavy burden on the comprehension of the public. Marinus Boezem argued for "a very large bag of cleaning cotton" in the middle of the square. Toni Burgering came with a sketch on which an 112 meter high Saturn rocket was drawn. Wim Gijzen wanted a 'cow meadow' with ditches and real, grazing cows. Others dreamed of an 25-meter-high kitchen staircase, a cheerful series of inflatable sculptures, or even a football field, equipped with loudspeakers, so that "every day, at an announced time, twice a quarter of an hour the sounds of a football match can be heard in the city".

“With the exception of a few nice urban development proposals, many entries were drawn
however a heavy burden on the understanding of the public ”

A complete lack of sense of reality
Frenken was startled by the result. How on earth was he supposed to interest the business community in a bale of cotton or a cow pasture? On his first round with potential sponsors, he already received zero, because he was unable to show concrete proposals. Even after he had shown the models and drawings, there was no sponsorship. Almost without exception, the works were assessed by the business community as unrealistic, impracticable and too expensive. That view was shared by the responsible Alderman for Art Affairs, Jan van der Ploeg. According to him, the proposals testified "a complete lack of sense of reality". An alternative plan by the artists Woody van Amen, Jan van Munster and Ian Pieters also failed due to a lack of support. They wanted to "place a giant cake on Schouwburgplein, where all participating Rotterdam artists could do their work". The organization shrank back for the construction costs, which were estimated at 2 million guilders. But according to Van Amen, “they just didn't find a single ass. They wanted beautiful statues on the square and we came up with a party cake! " In the meantime, the riot dragged on. Frenken informed the artists that the planned manifestation Proposal merely consist of exhibiting models, because "after all we had asked artists to let their thoughts go about decorating the Schouwburgplein"; it was "never intended that visual artists deliver a definitive work". The artists involved reacted furiously and felt cheated. Eighteen of them, including all Rotterdam residents, withdrew from the company immediately. They also prohibited the organization from displaying their models and publishing a catalog of their work. Under great pressure, the authors of the planned catalog withdrew.


“The organization shied away from the construction costs, which were estimated at 2 million guilders.
But according to Van Amen "they just didn't like it"

The curtain is falling
Organized as an action group, the people of Rotterdam increased the pressure on Frenken and C70. Of the two-tonne working budget, Frenken is said to have already spent half on preparations and business trips. Proposal the activists thought, had become an outright mockery, an insult to art and artists. A group of thirty hurried artists called on Frenken, Fibbe and the Art Work Committee of C70 on 15 February 1970 to be held accountable in the Hamletzaal of the Rijnhotel. Adriaan van der Staay, director of the Rotterdam Art Foundation, still tried to mediate and promised the artists to reimburse the amount to two tons. The artists, however, rejected the gesture. After Piet Sanders of the Work Committee had remarked that "if the people of Rotterdam leave, the fun is over for us", not only did the curtain fall for Proposal, but also for Frenken. He was fired immediately. The reason for this was his lack of ability to communicate. "Man, I have noticed that you keep talking over your mouth," an annoyed Fibbe muttered to his art coordinator during the meeting. Frenken thought he had been wrongly sacrificed: "I am not only hired to approach the business world? Well, this is Rotterdam, you know, "he said when he left the meeting. After talking with a group of artists, the director of C70 reported that he had different expectations of the entire company. After all, he was a business man: “If I come around for 50.000 guilders, they say: What are you going to do with that? What! Don't you know that yet? But if I said: here you have a cycling round, 50.000 costs guilders, then they say: Okay. Well, doesn't the same also apply to art? "

The newspapers cited other reasons for the conflict. Frenken would not have realized enough that he was confronted in Rotterdam with "local artists who are known to be difficult, who do not say yes and amen to all kinds of proposals," The Telegraph. Nice, such a successful exhibition about Jeroen Bosch, the newspaper continued, "but living artists demand participation, participation, decision-making, you know". Rotterdam alderman Van der Ploeg placed the responsibility for the failure of the event with the artists themselves. While artists talked about participation and democracy, they had directed for a manifestation that did not tolerate participation. They left the company because they "feared the opinion of the public about their joke plans."

“Living artists demand participation, participation,
you know. ”


A strange and contradictory people
Only critic Bertus Schmidt from The Free People published a balanced evaluation: art and participation are simply difficult to combine. “Artists [are] a weird, unruly people, always in opposition, unmanageable and full of twists. The objects they designed [for the Schouwburgplein] are proof of that. They only wanted to make a playful contribution to a playful manifestation. They have given free rein to their imagination; have not sought to create a work of art that will defy the ages; only want to brighten up the city in an exuberant way. And that doesn't work. In a country where everything is arranged and where everyone knows exactly which path to take, it is not possible. What do you do with a bale of cotton or a giant trampler or a Schouwburgplein where cows graze? Then the citizen gets angry. He feels cheated and starts talking about money being wasted. And the artists throw their hole in the manger and think: burst! The democratization of art then sounds like a curse. "

Forbidden to stick
In the aftermath of the all-around affair Proposal the organization of C70 felt compelled to make something out of art. André Volten was among the ten artists who had not withdrawn from the company. He had made a model of the for the Schouwburgplein Communication column. This was not only an object that looked feasible and realistic, the organization thought, it also anticipated the growing public resentment towards the limping and pasting of posters in the city and could easily be sponsored by construction companies. The execution took place under the auspices of the Bouwcentrum, one of the tractors of C70. Less than two months after the ups and downs Proposal the column already adorned the station square and C70 offered the work to the municipality. Although the image had noble aspirations, the use of the column turned out differently.

The municipality thought that the column could only be used for city marketing and tourism. Festival organizers - such as the Holland Pop Festival in the Kralingse Bos - placed their posters on the entire column and not just in the segment that Volten had reserved for them. City residents at night used the tower as a public urinal. The municipality also changed the rust-brown lead of the column into cheerful colors. In the summer of 1970, placards were even hung on the column: “Forbidden to stick”. The artist was furious - his artwork was openly humiliated daily. His dissatisfaction led to questions in the city council. Less than six months after completion, Volten realized that his motives might have been too utopian. Chalk and paste was not so easy to discipline: “Communication is a buzzword, but it remains an unattainable desire. I only wanted to provide opportunities to communicate with each other. Well, it might be better on the walls than on this thing ”.


"Liming and sticking was not so easy to discipline"


Since the failure of Proposal angry Rotterdam artists focused on all artistic expressions that could be associated with C70. In a protest letter to the BenW College, Jan van Munster, Mathieu Ficheroux, Woody van Amen, Wim Gijzen and Gust Romijn criticized the purchase of 'status symbols' such as the Communication column while there would be no money for their entries for the Schouwburgplein. They also acted against the intended purchase of Sylvette, an artwork from Picasso. The organization of C70 had announced that it would donate the work, which would cost three tons, to the municipality. "So there is more than enough money for art," the artists said with annoyance. Moreover, it was "an inferior Picasso," they thought, because the statue was to be made by the Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar. The Rotterdam Sylvette was therefore no more than "a plastic enlargement of a part of Picasso's paintings". Critic Bertus Schmidt thought there was a petty action. Sylvette was authentic because Nesjar had legitimately acquired the rights to the design. Moreover, it was common practice for artists not to make their work themselves, but to send their models to foundries who then enlarge it. "The same happened with Zadkine's statue."

According to Schmidt, the first contacts with Picasso and Nesjar were made by Willem Sandberg on behalf of the Bouwcentrum. And the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam had already played such an important role in acquiring exceptional images for Rotterdam. Should the works of Zadkine, Gabo, Calder and Rodin then also be narrowly dismissed as status symbols? "Now that it is possible to get something from Picasso in our city, we should not be childish," wrote Schmidt. The critic found just as childish an action by André Volten. While Volten himself was the subject of discussion, he had visited Sandberg in a snoop to persuade him to give negative advice about Picasso. "Mr. Sandberg has been talking to him all night to convince him to the contrary." According to Schmidt, the entire company smelled of envy. "If the choice was made for one of the five protesting artists, who will protest again?" Despite the squabbling, both works of art were realized and included in the municipal collection.

Cover_CBK_DEF2Images: Urban embellishment in Rotterdam since 1940 is published by Siebe Thissen Japanese Sam Books and becomes festively presented on 1 June 2016. The publication was partly thanks to CBK Rotterdam.




Publication date: 03 / 05 / 2016