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A recurring image in the media and literature is that of the ‘questionable’ artist who, having chosen the wrong side during World War Two, saw his career go up in smoke when branded as a collaborator afterwards. Cultural historian Claartje Wesselink's PhD research now shows the reality wasn't quite so black and white.

Claartje Wesselink
Source: Claartje Wesselink

For instance, the painter Pyke Koch, a man of fascist and national socialist sympathies during the Second World War, was already back in the spotlight during the post-war reconstruction period.

During World War Two, artists were required to register with the so-called Chamber of Culture. Those who didn’t, were prohibited from practising their profession. Jewish artists were barred from registration. After the War, the Chamber of Culture became a symbol of artistic collaboration with the Germans. Yet not everyone who registered with the Chamber was a collaborator.

From concealment to explicit disclosure

Anyone branded as having been on the wrong side during the War had a tough time afterwards. This was no different for artists. 'However, when someone’s art was deemed to form an essential part of the Dutch artistic canon, a "suspect" past could be overlooked', Wesselink explains. 'Museum directors, art critics, scholars and other leading figures in the art world then lent their influence to make such artists "acceptable" to the wider public. In the 1950s, this mostly came down to concealing the facts, but in subsequent decades an artist's past would be explicitly disclosed. In these cases, moral condemnation of the artist went hand in hand with aesthetic appreciation of his work, and that combination attracted audiences like a magnet.' 

Shared memories

In her study, Wesselink not only tells the story of visual artists who chose the wrong side and their art works, but also of Dutch society and its views on the Second World War through the years. She illuminates the role that art played in the collective processes of remembrance, repression and coming to terms with the legacy of the War. 'After all, an art work isn't just an aesthetic object; it's also a vehicle for ever-changing shared memories and an ever-shifting shared identity. And it is impossible to separate that from our appreciation for art and how we interpret it', Wesselink emphasises.

Publication details

Claartje Wesselink: Kunstenaars van de Kultuurkamer. Geschiedenis en herinnering ('Artists of the Chamber of Culture. History and memory'). Supervisor: Professor F.P.I.M. van Vree. Co-supervisor: Professor R. van der Laarse.

Time and location

The PhD thesis defence ceremony will take place on Friday, 28 March at 13:00.  
Location: UvA Auditorium, Singel 411, Amsterdam.