1936-1946: W.J.A. Visser


As the first director Dr. Wouter Visser (1904-2002) assumed his duties in February 1936. In formulating his museum policy he would be assessed by a committee of external experts. An important role played the so-called Advisory Committee, which already was formed in October 1933 and was comprised of D. Hannema (Director of the Rotterdam Museum Boymans) C.W.H. Baard (until 1936 director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) and his successor D.C. Röell. In addition in 1936 a Supervisory Board was appointed, which included the founder Henri van Abbe (1).

W.J.A. Visser. Photo: rkdW.J.A. Visser. Photo: rkd

Trained as a medievalist Dr. Wouter Visser (1904-2002) started after the opening exhibition ‘Contemporary Dutch Art‘(2) an ambitious program (3). Although the Van Abbemuseum is a municipal museum, that didn’t  mean that artists from Eindhoven or Noord-Brabant were to be preferred. The exhibition gave with its 185 paintings and drawings and 22 sculptures (representing nearly one hundred artists) a complete overview of the then current modern art. After the opening exhibition Visser started preparations for a second major exhibition – dedicated to the Belgian contemporary painting and sculpture – which was showed in 1937 (4).

Installation view Contemporary Dutch Art 1936Installation view Contemporary Dutch Art 1936

With solo exhibitions of Matthieu Wiegman (1936), Toon Kelder (1937), Kees van Dongen and Jan Sluyters (1938) and group exhibitions devoted to the Bergense School (1939) and the Groningen artist group De Ploeg (1940), Visser elaborated on the initial exhibition. In retrospect Visser stressed that the “modern policy”  evoked resistance in Eindhoven: “Some were not at all pleased. They wanted a quiet, local museum with a local collection, which was always open to visitors. “(5). Although the emphasis of the exhibition policy was on the national and international contemporary art, Visser however did not excluded ancient art. Thus, in 1936 a blockbuster exhibition of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish and Italian paintings from the collection of Katz was organised. In the preface of the catalog Visser elegantly verbalized why an exhibition of ancient art was held in a museum of modern art: “because the eternal and spiritual values of this art can not grow old” (6).

Exhibition poster 'Fa. Katz te Dieren' 1936-1937Exhibition poster 'Fa. Katz te Dieren' 1936-1937

With a varied program of tours, lectures and art history courses Visser tried to support the exhibitions to reach different audiences and to increase the number of visitors. To increase the budget of the museum also a Friends of the Museum Association was established. That the educational and documentary tasks of the museum were important, made Visser clear in 1937 with the establishment of the Library.


With the funds set aside by Henri van Abbe 26 paintings of artists such as Carel Willink, Jan Sluyters, Wim Schuhmacher and Dirk Nijland were acquired for the opening exhibition of the museum. All of these paintings came from Van Abbe’s private collection. From the opening exhibition paintings were once again acquired, 13 in all, by Charles Eyck, Leo Gestel and Gerard Röling and others. The role of external advisers evidently came to an end after this, the responsibility for the selection of  works was taken over by Visser and the Supervisory Board. Visser’s  proposal to collect paintings of the most important representatives of contemporary movements was adopted, but the number of acquisitions nevertheless began to decline sharply in 1937. Gaps in the collection were also filled by loans from other collections. And so even during the 1930s, there was a concern for coherent acquisition and exhibition policies that would reflect contemporary artistic developments, despite the absence of the more avant-garde tendencies. (7). In that respect the solo exhibition by Theo van Doesburg in 1936 did constitute an exception.

The museum on the practical level

Although Visser elaborated an ambitious program after the opening, the museum was confronted on the practical level with increasing difficulties after 1938. The lack of adequate human and financial resources became particulary detrimental. Visser himself was only appointed for two days a week, also worked as an archivist and from 1939 onwards combined these jobs with a teaching position as well. In addition to Visser only a caretaker was employed, who in practice also acted as a guard and exhibition standbuilder. There were also problems with the display of nudes. With the memorandum about the “moral standards of the display of art at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum” (8) Visser tried to take away the resistance in the ‘prudish South’. Although without much success. Because the municipality needed the space also late 1938 the museum closed for six months. Gradually the museum faded into regional isolation.

Exhibition poster ‘huisvrouwen worden vindingrijk’, 1943 (coll. ned. inst. oorlogsdocumentatie)Exhibition poster ‘huisvrouwen worden vindingrijk’, 1943 (coll. ned. inst. oorlogsdocumentatie)

The situation became worse when the occupation began. Planned exhibitions were cancelled. Museum Kempenland (specializing in local history) and later the air-raid protection service were housed at the museum. In order to reduce the risk of bomb strikes the glass roof was covered with green paint, something which must have made the exhibition of paintings rather difficult. Visser seems to have carried out his work with increasing reluctance. Because he had no desire to hold an exhibition of the NSB (Dutch national socialist movement) he resigned in Februari 1942. Visser’s  successors were J.P.G. Peeters and L. Vrijdag. The museum would then increasingly become a platform for propaganda exhibitions. After the liberation Visser was appointed director again, yet this did not last long : in 1946 he accepted a post as director of the Rijksmonumentenzorg (the ‘National Trust’of the Netherlands).


  1. Jaarverslag Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum 1936-1937
  2. Tent. cat. Hedendaagsche Nederlandsche Kunst , 1936
  3. Nota ‘Tentoonstellingen in het Stedelijk Van Abbe-museum te Eindhoven’, ongedateerd [1937]. VAM Beheersarchief 1936-1979, inv. nr. 58
  4. Tent. cat. Hedendaagsche Belgische schilder- en beeldhouwkunst, 1936
  5. Eindhovens Dagblad, 10-05-1969
  6. Voorwoord‘,  Tent. cat. Tentoonstelling van 16de en 17de eeuwsche Hollandsche, Vlaamsche en Italiaansche schilderijen uit de collectie der Fa. Katz te Dieren, 1936-1937
  7. Nota ‘Aankoop van schilderijen ten behoeve van het Stedelijk Van Abbe-Museum’, ongedateerd [1936-1937]. VAM Beheersarchief 1936-1979, inv. nr. 61
  8. Nota ‘Over de moreele normen bij het tentoonstellen van kunstvoorwerpen in het Stedelijk Van Abbe-Museum te Eindhoven’, ongedateerd [1937]. VAM Beheersarchief 1936-1937, inv. nr. 61

Suggestions for further reading:

  • R. Pingen, Dat Museum is een Mijnheer (Amsterdam : Artimo, 2005), pp. 2-56
  • M. Rijnders, De Verzameling van het Van Abbe, deel V : De periode W.J.A. Visser 1936-1942, in: Jong Holland, No. 3, 1999, pp. 48-53