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 of the department store’s new building at the Coolsingel. It is the largest Constructivist piece of art ever placed in public space.

The installation of the sculpture also signalled the completion of the new Bijenkorf building, a design by the German-American architect Marcel Breuer. The bombing of the city in 1940 had made it possible to recreate the Coolsingel’s western building line, widening the road and thus better accommodating modern traffic. Cornelius van Traa (who headed the Committee for Town Development and Postwar Reconstruction) had formulated an urban design plan with a series of ‘projecting volumes’, giving the Coolsingel a changing, ‘double’ building line. However, the architect of the Bijenkorf had designed a rectangular box and was of the opinion that the effect of a projecting structure could also be achieved with a large sculpture. Gabo’s sculpture was located at the place where Van Traa and the Committee had stipulated that an additional volume be built as an urban planning feature, projecting from the facade of the department store. Nelly van Doesburg, whom the managing director of the Bijenkorf Van der Wal had consulted about art acquisitions for the Rotterdam store, had proposed the constructivist Naum Gabo. In early June 1954 Van der Wal visited the Russian émigré in London and invited him for a short visit to Holland. The outcome was a commission for a facade sculpture measuring 20 by 12 metres, and 4 metres deep.

Three months later, a model of Gabo’s first design arrived in Rotterdam: an organic construction, with four triangular, linear shapes around it. Although everyone was enthusiastic, Van Traa and his Committee turned it down, because, in their opinion, the facade relief was unable to evoke the required volume. They believed that the projecting structure could only be achieved by architectural means. However, time was pressing for the reconstruction of the Coolsingel and the Committee, in its desire to hurry along the completion of the Bijenkorf, in November 1954 gave its approval for a commission of a free-standing sculpture to fill in the rhythm of the building line.

Gabo was delighted with the new commission, which he found extremely difficult, but at the same time the biggest challenge of his career. During operations, he and Van der Wal kept up a correspondence, with the artist reporting in detail on his progress. Initially Gabo had designed a tower construction, with a kind of ‘collar’, which was supported by an arch resting on the ground. Having ensured that the tower would not need extra support, he omitted the collar from the final model. The main part was a more detailed variation on the design (not executed) for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, of 1952. In October 1955 Gabo had that model sent over to Holland. The Bijenkorf management approved it immediately, and in December Rotterdam city council also gave its approval. In January 1956 Gabo described to the British art historian Herbert Read how he had arrived at his (untitled) Bijenkorf sculpture: ‘The organic structure in the world of plants provided for me the solution for the new conception which I needed. In particular, I felt it was there that I had to look for a solution of my structural problem and once this principle became evident to me, the image of the whole sculpture evolved out of it naturally. I conceived it as a tree, the trunk, the roots and the branches…’

The design – an elegant tower comprising four double ribs twisting upwards through 90 degrees to fuse together at the top and containing a web-like construction – was to be made in steel (stainless) and bronze; it was mounted on a concrete pedestal clad with black marble. N.V. Hollandia in Krimpen aan de IJssel was entrusted with production of the sculpture. But first the stability of the model was tested at the TNO (Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research) in Delft and in the wind tunnels of the National Aviation Laboratory. Gabo was extremely suspicious about the execution of the sculpture and wrangled for months with the Bijenkorf about the right to supervise it. He regularly visited the Netherlands during the production period.
There had been no clear arrangement about the artist’s remuneration. Van der Wal had hinted early on at modest amount for the design, because production would certainly not be cheap. The idea was to pay Gabo for the hours he had spent on the work and, although he had initially agreed, he later changed his mind. He had received 15,000 dollars for the design of the facade sculpture and the two scale models, and wanted at least the equivalent for completion of the project. In the end, at the insistence of Sandberg, the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, he accepted the offered 10,000 dollars. The Bijenkorf sculpture was to be the prime work in the artist’s oeuvre.

On 21 May 1957 (the annual Rotterdam Reconstruction Day) the sculpture was unveiled by the mayor, Van Walsum. Gabo stated that it represented the fortitude and energy of the Dutch. Among the city’s inhabitans the sculpture was soon dubbed ‘the tree’, ‘the flower’ and, in particular, ‘the thing’. Starlings evidently also saw this acme of Constructivist sculpture as a tree. They congregated there in swarms in the winter and deposited a slippery layer of droppings on it. Within a year ‘the thing’ was in scaffolding. It was cleaned up to coincide with an exhibition of Gabo’s work at Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in 1958, and at the same time the joints of the ribs were replaced to prevent internal corrosion. Scaffolding was once more in place in 1960, when the sculpture underwent thorough refurbishing and cleaning. However, in the spring of 1960 the tarpaulin covering the scaffolding caught fire and the sculpture burned for ten minutes. That restoration proved more costly than the original production. Nevertheless, after considerable hesitation, the Bijenkorf decided to have the work restored – partly because of its fame at home and abroad. The Bijenkorf Constructivist sculpture is discussed by all the leading critics and featured in all the standard works on modern art. Moreover, it is seen as a high point in Gabo’s oeuvre. Years of neglect have left the sculpture in poor condition. In addition, major changes in the urban situation have meant that its original effect has been lost.

Els Brinkman

Hammer, M. and C. Lodder, Constructing Modernity. The art & career of Naum Gabo, New Haven/London 2000. / Nash, S.A. and J. Merkert (publ.), Naum Gabo. Sechzig Jahre Konstruktivismus, München 1986.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015