According to Naum Gabo, the three-dimensional construction that has flanked De Bijenkorf department store since 1957 was an ‘ideological contribution to Constructivism’. This is related to the level of integration between the sculpture and the architecture, the transparency of the space defined by the sculpture and the impression of weightlessness in a sculpture of this format and weight (approximately 40,000 kilos).
The work dates from a period in which Gabo’s early abstract-geometric constructions had made way for more organic constructions. Gabo explained to the art historian Herbert Read that the sculpture was inspired by organic structures found in plants (Herbert Read, Gabo, Rotterdam 1958, unpaginated). The gradual changes in direction within the sculpture suggest movement.
Gabo saw the sculpture’s base as the roots that anchor the organism firmly in the ground. The two blocks of concrete, clad with black marble, form the equivalent of a trunk from which emerge eight metal branches that meet at the top. The darker finer core represents the foliage.
In accordance with the principles of Constructivism, the sculpture occupies the maximum area with the minimum mass.
The initiative to site a monumental public sculpture by Naum Gabo in Rotterdam was taken in 1953 by the director of De Bijenkorf, Mr G. van der Wal. He was an art lover with progressive tastes. He later sat on the advisory committee for the Fonds Stadsverfraaiing (Urban Improvements).
De Bijenkorf planned to build a new department store to replace the partially bombed old store on the Blaak. The architect Marcel Breuer was invited to design a new building on the Coolsingel within the city’s redevelopment master plan. The plan called for a projecting element on the façade of the building on this site on the Coolsingel to act as a counterweight to the steps on the Beursplein. However, Breuer refused to design such a projecting element within his rectangular building. Following discussions between the client, the architect and the city council a solution was found: a permanent, monumental sculpture would fill the role.
In 1956 Naum Gabo said that he saw the commission as “A challenge, because the siting of a sculpture of such dimensions in the infancy of the art form is without precedent; a challenge because it will open up the possibility of applying the constructive element within sculpture to social life. It will demonstrate its worth and so contribute to a renewed introduction of sculpture as an integrated element within architecture.” [From: Metaalplastiek voor een warenhuis in Rotterdam, Museumjournaal, October 1956, p.33].
All parties were pleased with the result. Even the designer of the master plan, Cornelis van Traa, who had reservations early on, later recognised the sculpture’s importance and agreed that it fitted within the city.
1890 - 1977
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Naum Gabo (1890-1977) was one of the pioneers of modern sculpture. Instead of wood, stone and bronze he used new industrial materials such as acrylic glass and plastics. In his abstract, spatial constructions, mass and volume ‘the cornerstones of traditional sculpture’, made way for transparency and an apparent weightlessness. A truly modern feature of Gabo’s work is that he was inspired not by nature but by concepts from the exact sciences.
Gabo is usually counted among the Russian Constructivists, however he spent relatively little time in Russia. In 1910 Gabo moved to Munich where he studied medicine and then engineering. In this period he discovered art, attended classes with the famous art historian Heinrich Wölfflin and made trips to Italy and Paris.
He produced his first sculptures at the beginning of the First World War when he was living in Norway with his brother, the sculptor Antoine Pevsner. Following the Russian Revolution the two brothers returned to their native Russia in April 1917, where they became involved with the Russian Constructivists. In contrast to the more political Vladimir Tatlin, both brothers remained devoted to the art work as in independent aesthetic object. In their Realistic Manifesto, which they pasted around the streets of Moscow in 1920, they stated that “the realisation of our perception of the world in the form of space and time is the only aim of our pictorial and plastic art”.
Around 1922 Gabo left Russian and lived successively in Berlin, Paris and England. Gabo was universally regarded as an important innovator in sculpture and enjoyed a successful international career. In 1946 he immigrated to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1977.
When the Bijenkorf department store presented Ossip Zadkine’s The Destroyed City to Rotterdam in 1953, it was a Dutch ‘first’: a large, modern work of sculpture in an urban public space. Four years later, the Bijenkorf made another important contribution. This time it was the 25-metre construction by the Russian-born artist Naum Gabo in front
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