Zadkine and Gabo in Rotterdam
Pachner, Joan, Art Journal
On May 14, 1940, Nazi warplanes bombed Rotterdam, decimating its commercial center; 650 acres were razed, or 60 percent of the bustling port city. Holland surrendered to Germany the next day. Only one week later the planning to rebuild the city center began. Rebuilding began in earnest around 1949 and was essentially completed by 1957.(1) What had been a densely populated inner city characterized by "houses...built back to back in labyrinthine alleys" was to be reconstructed with broad avenues and open vistas.(2) During this period two important and very different public sculptures were erected in Rotterdam. One was The Destroyed City, an anguished, expressive work by Ossip Zadkine (conceived 1946, commissioned 1951, dedicated 1953; figs. 1 and 2); the other was an untitled 85-foot-high openwork construction outside the new Bijenkorf department store by Naum Gabo (1953-57; fig. 3).[Figures 1-3 omitted] These monuments are important as landmarks in the progressive integration of modem sculpture into twentieth-century culture. The two sculptures were realized by disparate routes and carried different meanings in the context of 1950s ideological debates.
Ossip Zadkine, a Jew born in Russia in 1890, moved to London in 1906 and settled in Paris in 1909. The French capital became his adopted home. In 1941 he took refuge from World War II in the United States, returning to Paris in 1945. In the next year Zadkine was on his way to visit a friend in Holland, and when the train stopped in Rotterdam he was stunned by the total devastation, by the evidence of annihilation in the city: "From the station onwards, there was nothing but a vast desert."(3)
Rotterdam's emptiness haunted him when he arrived at his friend's house on the border of Holland and Germany. There Zadkine joined a family reunion of survivors and heard stories of the war that he had escaped.(4) These experiences surely amplified his response to what he had just seen. When Zadkine returned to Paris he made a two-foot-high clay figure with distorted anatomy and a cut-out "heart." This statuette was the basis for the monumental Destroyed City.
When he was invited to participate in the first postwar show of modern French sculpture that traveled in 1947 to Berlin and Munich, Zadkine decided to send his new sculpture; he hoped that the citizens in one of those German cities might commission the work as a public sculpture.(5) Unfortunately, the original terra-cotta was broken during the run of the show. Rather than abandon the project, he decided to make another version in plaster that was four feet high, twice as tall as the first.(6) This second maquette, cast in bronze, was included in a solo show of Zadkine's work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in early 1948. A contingent of Rotterdam citizens visited the exhibition, met Zadkine, and made preliminary inquiries into the possibility of erecting The Destroyed City to commemorate the city's inhabitants. Among this group, Zadkine later recalled, was a broad-shouldered man with blue-gray eyes who was a wealthy businessman and modern art collector--Dr. G. van de Wal, director of Rotterdam's Bijenkorf department store, a firm owned by a Jewish family that had survived the war. In gratitude to their Christian friends and faithful employees, the owners of the Bijenkorf wanted to donate a monument to the city, and van de Wal initiated the process.(7) In the winter of 1949-50, when a Zadkine retrospective was organized at the Boymans-van Beunigen Museum in Rotterdam, the bronze maquette of The Destroyed City was displayed prominently in the center of the exhibition hall. At this time van de Wal made the official offer of donation on behalf of the Bijenkorf, though it was done anonymously.(8)
While the citizens of Rotterdam wanted a memorial to the war, many questioned whether or not it should be this sculpture. Zadkine's final work ended up being an anticlassical, twice life-size figure bending at the knees, head flung back, mouth open in a cry, arms outstretched toward the sky, hands bent back at the wrist. …