The Bow

Essay: The Merchant Navy Monument

Unlike the preparations for the monument at the Dam (in Amsterdam), the history of the development of the ‘National Monument for the Merchant Navy’ was one which took place in public*. The people chose the form of the contest, and as was also the case with the Monument 1813-1863, this led to a difference of opinion.
The initiative for a monument that was intended to serve as a memorial to the 3400 on board the Dutch Merchant Navy fleet ships who died during the Second World War dates back to 1947. The concept was born in Rotterdam shipping industry circles. The necessary funds were obtained from part of the proceeds from the Amsterdam ‘square centimetre campaign’. Shipowners also raised money. A ‘Foundation for the National Monument for the Merchant Navy’ was set up, and a work committee was formed under the chairmanship of the shipowner A. Veder. The committee held a closed contest among the sculptors Carasso, Couzijn, Reyers and Roosenburg, and the architects Boks and Peutz. Judges were appointed, and Veder was the chairman. The rest of the panel of judges was made up of two museum directors, a sculptor, an architect and the director of the Rotterdam Urban Development department. An agreement that the monument would be located in Rotterdam had already been reached at an earlier stage in consultation with the National Monuments Commission for War Memorials. In 1949, the municipality had designated a plot of land for the monument in the Leuvehaven. The artists were faced with a complicated assignment. This was to ‘depict the personal and material sacrifices our merchant navy made during its service with the allied forces, while also portraying the courage and the sense of duty they displayed, and show that the reward for this was liberation.’ Another important condition was that the monument had to be clear and comprehensible, and that it must be visible from the city (Coolsingel) as well as from the river.

In July 1952, the judges reached a decision. They believed that the first prize should be awarded for the design ‘Ruggegraat’ by Reyers, the second should go to ‘Doorvaren’ by Couzijn and third to ‘De Boeg’ by Carasso. The judges felt that Reyers’ design, a tall construction in which parts of a ship’s skeleton were recognisable, possessed the most balance between form and concept; they viewed it as being ‘both a sign as well as portrayal of the concept’. According to the judges, the design was impressive in ‘its evocativeness since the shapes – all of which are related to the setting of water and ships – possess such clear and specific traits, that they immediately captivate the viewer’.
Abstract and composed of several open shapes, Couzijn’s design was too one-sided in terms of its content according to the judges. Although it appealed to strong emotional values, the judges felt there was too much accent on downfall, and not enough on resurrection. The judges had the following to say about Carasso’s design (a tall metal tower which had the appearance of a ship’s bow when viewed from the front): ‘beautiful in terms of form, yet too lacking in content’.
The designs were exhibited at the Schielandhuis in Rotterdam. It quickly became apparent that many were not in agreement with the judges’ choice. Those in shipping circles were not very taken with the ‘Ruggegraat’ by Reyers. In September 1952, the Contact-commissie van officieren en andere zeelieden (contact committee of officers and other mariners)’, the Nederlandse Redersvereniging (Dutch Shipowners Association), and the Princess Margriet Fund all protested. All three organisations objected to the fact that the winning design did not have an instant appeal, and that ‘it wasn’t comprehensible without further explanation’. The protests from the board of the Princess Margriet Fund in particular provide good insight into the expectations for the monument which prevailed amongst those who were very invested in the reasons behind the monument.

This protest read as follows:
Since the liberation, the Princess Margriet Fund has maintained contact with the families whose husbands, fathers or sons lost their lives whilst working for the Merchant Navy fleet during the last World War. It is from these families that the Princess Margriet Fund derives the right to protest the design for a monument in Rotterdam, a design that cannot appeal to the mariner’s wife. Where the lack of a grave usually leads to painful suffering, a monument that speaks to the imagination of those left behind would hold great meaning. We therefore appeal to you to create a monument that will also convince the widows, children and parents of mariners of the appreciation for the sacrifices these brave men made for the Merchant Navy.

Reyers’ design not only meets with the criticism of the parties directly involved. Art connoisseurs and critics also had objections, albeit of a completely different nature. In the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant of 5 August 1952, an anonymous employee stood up as the spokesman, speaking on behalf of this group. He found the celebrated design unacceptable, and described the design in words such as ‘contrived symbolism’, and a ‘vague object’. In his view, the design was ‘the clear demonstration of the impossibility of arriving at a satisfying, let alone successful, result.’ The author was referring here to the complex assignment the artists had been given: the expression of a number of feelings, comprehensibility and visibility were, in his eyes, difficult to unite in a single design. This complex of requirements could only be expressed in a group of figures, he believed. However, this alternative would not have been able to satisfy the ‘visibility-from-a-distance’ requirement. He was most intrigued personally by the design submitted by Couzijn; he found that the freest and most inspired approach. The editorial art staff of Trouw and the Rotterdam edition of Het Parool expressed their views in similar words. De Tijd did not adopt a clear point of view, yet did regret that the designs of Couzijn and Reyers ‘required so much explanation in order to be understood’.
The executive committee ultimately made the decision. On 28 October 1952, the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant printed the most important lines of a communiqué that the committee had drawn up together with the judges after conferring with them once again. Their choice had not fallen on Reyers, nor on Couzijn, but instead, on Carasso:
the Committee can fully approve of the fact that, in arriving at their decision, the judges first took the aesthetic significance into consideration before reviewing the general comprehensibility. The Committee allowed the requirement of general comprehensibility to weigh heavily in its own consideration, and believes that the design’s theme, ‘Boeg (Bow)’, satisfies this criterion.

One aspect that remained problematic was that, in the view of many, the design was lacking too much in content. During the course of 1953, during consultations between the artist and a building committee that had been formed, the decision was made to expand the monument by adding a group of figures. This would be placed at the foot of the tower, and portray ‘urgency, solidarity and rescue’. Incidentally, it would be many years yet before Carasso and the building committee were able to agree on the figure group.

In 1956, the 45-metre high frame onto which aluminium plates were affixed was finally completed. It was towed from the Rotterdam Drydock Company – where it had been built – to the Leuvehaven where it was mounted onto a concrete base. On 10 April 1957, De Boeg was unveiled by Princess Margriet. She pulled on an engine-room telegraph, which caused the curtain to fall away, revealing a text at the base of the monument: ‘Zij hielden koers (They stayed on course)’. At the time, the figure group had yet not been completed. This was not added to the monument until 15 July 1965; a ceremony was not held in honour of the occasion.

From: Schoonheid, welzijn, kwaliteit. Kunstbeleid en verantwoording na 1945
(Beauty, Welfare, Quality. Art Policy and its Legitimization after 1945) Warna Oosterbaan Martinius

© 2005 dbnl / Warna Oosterbaan Martinius

*These events were reconstructed on the basis of reports published in the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant and the Nieuwe Rotterdammer, primarily from the years 1952 and 1953. A subject index at the Rotterdam Municipal Archives was also used.
Other sources include Bos 1975 and Nieuwenhuis-Verveen 1972.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015