1946-1963: Edy de Wilde

Towards a museum of modern art…

In July 1946 the 26 year lawyer Edy de Wilde (1919-2005) took over as the first post-war director of the Van Abbemuseum. Inspired by the optimistic-progressive  atmosphere of the reconstruction period and the ambition to make Eindhoven an urban centre of industry and technology, the municipality was determined to make the museum a more cultural impetus. Thus De Wilde had a fundamentally different position than his predecessor. Nevertheless he had difficulties to realize his artistic plans. Initially the resistance to his involvement with modern art was considerable.

Edy de Wilde, 1962Edy de Wilde, 1962

Actually De Wilde established the foundations of the collection. In doing so he largely ignored the prewar collection, a total of roughly 70 paintings by predominantly Dutch artists. De Wilde considered it incomplete and of an inadequate quality. Times had changed in an artistic sense and in terms of appreciation. From the late forties on, the policy of the museum would become more and more identified with classic modern art and the contemporary avant-garde. In addition to this De Wilde underscored with that harsh judgment the fact that a new status for the museum would require a different vision as well as financial commitments. Though De Wilde’s original aim was to form a broad collection of modern Dutch art, this was adjusted in 1951. In his now  famous speech to the municipal council he then advocated the internationalization of the collection, with Expressionism as specialisation. Only in this way could the Van Abbemuseum set itself off from other Dutch museums. (1).

Installation view collection presentation 1957.Installation view collection presentation 1957.

In pursuing that objective De Wilde had the support of the Advisory Committee, which was re-appointed in 1949 and included old members as A.M. Hammacher (Director Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller) and H. Jaffé (Curator Stedelijk Museum). Less harmonious was the relationship with the Supervisory Board, which appeared to advocate the idea of a collection that would also include ancient art. The conflict reached its peak when this committee in 1951 voted to withdraw support for De Wilde’s policy because of the ‘one-sided’ acquisitions of modern art (2). Eventually the conflict was settled by the mayor and aldermen, but it was not until 1955 that an official statement defined the acquisition policy of the museum as being solely focused on modern art (3). After this a new Supervisory Board was also appointed that supported the artistic plans of De Wilde on the basis of conviction.

The development of modern art, De Wilde, 23-02-1949The development of modern art, De Wilde, 23-02-1949

Acquisitions: the completion of the core collection and more …

The acquisition of ‘Hommage à Apollinaire’ (1912) by Marc Chagall in 1952 can be seen as the starting point for the formation of the ‘core collection’: a small group of paintings, representative for the developments of Expressionism and Cubism (4). The collection of Cubist paintings had not been an option prior to this, but the acquisition of Hommage à Apollinaire brought that into the field of vision. Not only is this painting a highlight in the oeuvre of Chagall, but it can also be regarded as a key work within the collection. Within a very brief period of time De Wilde managed to collect a considerable number of modern classical masterpieces for his core collection, including paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque and Juan Gris.

However, the acquisition of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femme en vert’ (1909) led to public commotion, especially because of the sum of € 51,731 (114,000 guilders)(5). Nevertheless, early 1954 the municipal council allocated an extra credit in order to bring about the completion of the core collection and to finance the acquisition of Femme en vert. This was also the first proof that De Wildes cautious maneuvers – involving both a firm standpoint and a good sense of the local political situation – were beginning to yield results. De Wilde emphasized the fact that modern art was controversial, the museum was faced with a responsibility to mediate. (6).

Pablo Picasso, Femme en vert, 1909. Photo: Peter CoxPablo Picasso, Femme en vert, 1909. Photo: Peter Cox

As the core collection was beginning to take shape, De Wilde directed his attention to  the formation of a ‘transitional group’ between the core collection and contemporary art. This group also stands out by way of its high quality (including paintings by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Max Beckmann and Joan Miró). De Wilde didn’t neglected his great passion, the contemporary French painting. The lyrical-expressive work of Jean Bazaine became a ‘specialité de la maison’. Also paintings were acquired of Roger Bissière, Alfred Manessier and Serge Poliakoff. Art from Paris appeared to be setting the norm in the art world. From 1950 it was vitalized to an increasing extent by non-French artists. With acquisitions in the second half of the ’50s (including Antonio Saura, Hans Hartung and Pierre Alechinsky) the collection took a broader scope. In addition to works from the realm of Abstract Expressionism, also paintings were acquired by artists who led the way to Matter Art (Jean Dubuffet and Antoni Tapies).

Jean Bazaine and Edy de Wilde (right) during the opening of solo exhibition 1958. Photo: Martien CoppensJean Bazaine and Edy de Wilde (right) during the opening of solo exhibition 1958. Photo: Martien Coppens

With the collection of Dutch art, a solid foundation of mainly prewar art was formed (i.e. Charley Toorop, Henry Chabot and Piet Mondrian), while from the mid fifties onward, contemporary Dutch art was introduced (i.e Corneille, Karel Appel and Jaap Wagemaker). The guideline throughout all those years of acquiring foreign as well as Dutch art was the idea that only limitation and distinct choices could led to a consistent collection.

Exhibitions

As far as the exhibition policy was concerned De Wilde took an equally gradual approach (7). Though the controversial exhibition Modern Masters(1947) formed a major exception, most of the exhibitions held prior to 1950 included only the work of Dutch artists. After that the exhibition policy became more international in scope. With group exhibitions as Modern French Religious Art (1951) and 11 contemporaries in Paris (1953) the leading French art was first introduced. That perspective was further refined on the basis of solo exhibitions.

De Wilde also organized solo exhibitions of important artists in the collection, including Carel Willink (1949), Herman Kruyder (1952), Raoul Dufy, Alfred Manessier (1955), Roger Bissière, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger (1957), Jean Bazaine (1958), Jean Dubuffet (1960), Karel Appel and Corneille (1961). Special mention should also be given to the group exhibitions dedicated to the artistic developments in Paris and London (i.e.  Kompas I and Kompas II). This series would be continued by De Wilde’s successor Jean Leering. That also applied to the group exhibitions dedicated to Brabant artists, held from 1953 onwards.

Installation View Kompas I (1961) with work by Jean DubuffetInstallation View Kompas I (1961) with work by Jean Dubuffet

In 1963 De Wilde was appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. When he left the museum had lost its provincial identity and had become one of the leading museums of the Netherlands. The number of visitors had multiplied by seven since his appointment, but De Wilde himself was the first to put this increase into perspective. It was not the public, but the art which came first, as he stated on taking leave of the museum in August 1963: “For art is not the beautiful object for sheer enjoyment, but it is the reaction of the artist to the world around him. He gives that world a face, and he makes that world visible. If the museum succeeds in giving the artwork that chance, it has fulfilled its task“(8)).

Notes

  1. Inleiding, gehouden door Mr. E.L.L. de Wilde op 18 October 1951 voor de leden van de Gemeenteraad, de Commissie van Toezicht en de Culturele Raad
  2. Brief Commissie van Toezicht aan het College van B&W, 16-10-1951
  3. Verordening op het Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum der Gemeente Eindhoven, 31-05-1955
  4. Besluit aankoop Marc Chagall ‘Hommage à Apollinaire’ College van B&W, 31-03-1952
  5. Brief Marc Chagall naar aanleiding van aankoop, 30-01-1952
  6. Commentaren aankoop Picasso
  7. Brief E. de Wilde aan burgemeester H.A.M.T. Kolfschoten, 20-12-1955
  8. Afscheidstoespraak E. de Wilde voor de Eindhovense Museumkring, 29-08-1963