Helene Kröller-Müller: The Prestigious Patron

A MONUMENT TO CULTURE

The couple’s passion for architecture and design was where their strenuous marriage found a common bond. Four children provided some domestic roots but at a price: Helene Jr. was born in 1889, Toon in 1890, Wim 1891 and Bob in 1897. With Anton absorbed in his empire and his attractive wife pursuing a wide range of interests outside the home their children had far from an ideal childhood.  Wealth meant servants and nannies which freed Helene from domestic duties. And because of his own frequent absence from home Anton encouraged Helen to pursue her own interests: overseeing the interior design of their villas and homes, horse riding, organizing summer camps for German children, attending lectures and traveling.  Helene was not an ideal mother—but she was unquestionably a phenomenal, formidable person.

The following letter as quoted by Johannes van der Wolk in “Kröller-Müller: One Hundred Years” (in Kröller-Müller: The First Hundred Years) was written on September, 7, 1911 as Helene recovered from a life-threatening cancer operation (her illness kept secret from her children).  Having survived the ordeal and looking toward the future she shared the following  life changing dream— she wrote:

“I am building my new house and it will be a museum and will later belong to the general public. You see, that is what I have been carrying around with me for a long time […] and the Master [her husband] also said: ‘I think that is a good idea and I am glad I know about it, and then you can build on it a bit’. . . .  I said to the Master I wanted to build a house and that I wanted to live in it and that I wanted to make it so beautiful, that is, as good and as honest as I ever could, and that I had the great wish that it would continue to exist like that. Then in a hundred years’ time it would be an interesting monument of culture, a great lesson in how far a merchant’s family from the start of the century had gone in terms of inner civilization”.

On November 14, 1911 she again wrote:

“I am pleased that the Master is also beginning to like my idea and he will also gradually take more notice of the paintings. It will also attract him to convert what he earns materially by his work, knowing that all the children are cared for, into a spiritual good for the general public. It will add to his works such a different glory, so much greater charm, and his greater interest will relieve me to some extent of the feeling of arbitrarily using his money for things which do not appeal to him. And he is starting to favour the idea, as you saw from what he said about the house: it must be elegant and fine . . . .”  (p. 19).

Helene referred to Anton as “the Master,” a highly formal term. The children were also required to lower their heads when speaking to their mother, a behavior noted by biographers that continued into adulthood.  This regal behavior is strange in view of Helene’s and Anton’s upbringing which appears to have been more informal.  Perhaps the newly acquired wealth and prestige accounts for this; but whatever the cause these affectations didn’t set well with the children.  But more unsettling was the imposing distance implied in calling her husband “the Master.” As later biographers have shown this would have serious repercussions.

Helene announced in her letter that her house would be filled with art and become a monument of culture. She would create a museum that would grow out of her home collection “that we will erect as a monument which has grown from our lives and as a delight for so many others who will come after us, when we have long since departed” (p. 18). She follows the announcement of her monument of culture with the idea that Anton’s wealth could in this way serve as a great delight for those who will come after them. Helene also used a very unusual phrase—inner civilization—perhaps a concession to civilization itself for their vast wealth accrued at the cost of war.

Generally art collections are not assembled with a longterm concern for society. As the term implies private collections are acquired for private satisfaction.  Helene however was not a typical collector from the start her goal was to raise a public art collection and museum.  Helene came to believe that art played a central role in civilizing and cultivating life-giving awareness and emotions— what could be called non-dogmatic spiritual sentiments. She believed that elevated works of art engendered internal growth helping to bring about both personal and interpersonal inner civilization.

  In 1911, once the plan to create a public collection had been agreed upon, Helene’s collecting assumed fever pitch. But in order to find the most worthy art she needed a trustworthy guide. She found the ideal mentor in the famed art educator H.P. Bremmer. He was convinced that Van Gogh should be the primary artist in Helene’s collection for he believed that Van Gogh’s art best exemplified the spiritual tenor of their era and would have the most lasting public benefit.

One of her first and greatest purchases was Van Gogh’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed,  1887.  This painting, the first in a series of now iconic Van Gogh sunflowers had been much admired by Paul Gauguin when he saw it in Paris shortly after it was painted. Within a few years Helene would acquire nearly 100 Van Gogh paintings and 180 drawings—the second-largest collection of Van Gogh’s in the world! From the start she was extremely generous in loaning her collection to other institutions and offered free admission to the public. As Piet de Jonge noted.

“Beginning 1 September 1913, in the building adjacent to Wm. H. Müller & Co., the collection could be viewed upon written application. Until 2 November 1933 Helene organized exhibitions there. Museums in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Arnheim also regularly exhibited selections from the collection. In 1927 the entire Van Gogh collection traveled to Basel and Bern, four cities in Germany, and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Brussels. “

Taking advantage of the interest that would be generated by these large exhibits a number of biographies of Van Gogh were published which made use of Vincent’s published letters.  Johanna Van Gogh released the first Dutch edition of letters in 1914 and a second edition in German shortly after. The growing interest in Van Gogh which inspired other biographies and documentary studies of his life.  In 1933 Julius Meier-Graefe released Vincent Van Gogh A Biographical Study and in 1934 Irving Stone published his popular book Lust for Life. This was the beginning of a legion of studies of the Vincent.

By the mid-nineteen thirties with so many Van Gogh related books in circulation. Major exhibitors of his paintings were in great demand. One of the largest of these took place in America.  “Sixty of Helene’s Van Goghs formed an important part of the Van Gogh exhibition held in the United States in 1935-1936” (p. 22-23). The touring exhibitions  in America supported by catalogues, books and studies of Van Gogh catapulted him into international prominence. From this point on there was steadily growing interest in Van Gogh further enhanced by films and plays based on his life.

 

ARCHITECTURE OF THE SPIRIT

While the building next to Anton’s office functioned as a temporary showroom Helene began to design a permanent museum for her large collection.  It would be built in the Hoge Veluwe wildness property where the couple had been enjoying horse riding, hunting and holiday excursions.   Helene hired the renowned architect Peter Behrens to design the museum and after months of detailed drawings and revisions— took the unprecedented step of having a life-size canvas and wood model fabricated of his museum design. Behrens set it up on rails so it could be moved throughout the forested region.  Helene and Anton spent hours on horseback scrutinizing the structure from every vantage point and angle. In the end— Behren’s design was rejected and another architect sought.

A major difficulty for Behrens (and every architect after him) was to satisfy both Helene and Anton, for they had different aesthetic preferences. Helene was inclined to the austere and functional while Anton gravitated toward the grand and imposing—a grand structure reflecting “the masters” prestige and status. Helene yearned for artistic purity and restrained elegance, a building related to the contours of the natural realm. At first the couple believed a perceptive architect would be able to meld their divergent needs into a harmonious unity —this would never to be.

Their next architect they employed was the young German architect, Mies van der Rohe, an apprentice of Behrens. Mies made multiple refined drawings followed by endless revisions, detailed discussions and deflating indecision.  Helene especially liked the handsome young man who calmly listened to her and dutifully endeavored to please her every wish. He also had life-sized models made of his designs but they too suffered the same fate as Behren’s canvas building on rails. Helene’s final fallout with Behrens ended the services of his young protege as well. In “Four Architects and a Museum” in Van Gogh to Mondrian, Wim de Wit observed:

“Much has been written about the collaboration between Mrs. Kröller-Müller and the architects with whom she worked over a period of more than twenty-five years. The story is remarkable indeed. Peter Behrens, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, H. P. Berlage, and Henry van de Velde—a veritable cross-section of early modernism—were all hired to supply Mrs. Kröller-Müller with a design for what initially was going to be a house-museum and later became a plan for a full-fledged museum” (p. 114).

A TOTAL ENVIRONMENT

As Helene and Anton wearied one architect after another in pursuit of their elusive museum design they did agree on architect H. P. Berlage’s design in 1914 for a hunting lodge to be built in their wildness reserve. Here Anton could entertain his business partners and guests in grand style. It came to be known as the St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge.

Though intended for hunting and outdoor activities its decorative scheme was more suggestive of a church for in overseeing its design and decor Helene expressed her non dogmatic religiosity.  It is one of the most mysterious buildings of the modern era.

In The Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain, Mary Greensted commented on the concept of total design:

“In 1892 William Morris wrote that ‘the  most important production of art and the thing most to be longed for’ was a beautiful house. He believed passionately that everyday objects deserved the same concern as a painting or sculpture, and that an involvement in creative manual work, whether as a professional or an amateur, as a maker or a consumer, could improve and individual’s quality of life. . . . The idea of the home as a sanctuary and a work of art was emphasized by by C.F. A. Voysey. In his book Individuality he wrote: ‘the love of sincerity and truth is the mainspring of individuality, it is the secret of the impulse to have all around in harmony with mind and heart. The desire for home is born of this holy impulse’” (pp. 63-64).

Helene and her architect Berlage embraced the Arts and Crafts ideal. Every feature of the St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge from exterior to interior decoration was designed by Berlage under her critical eye.  Believing that good furniture was fine art and small-scale architecture in its own right everything inside the lodge was considered of equal importance to the exterior.  This was a concept of  “totality of design.”

In his essay “Helene Kröller-Müller and the Furniture of H. P. Berlage” in Van Gogh to Mondrian, Stephen Harrison observed:

“It was this totality of design that Helene Kröller-Müller was no doubt drawn to in her quest for artistic immersion. The furniture that Berlage produced for the Art Room was luxurious in material and modern in form. In these designs Berlage reveals his affinity for Viennese design, most notably that of Josef Hoffman, Adolf Loos, and Joseph Olbrich. There is a refined, rational elegance to the profiles of the chairs and tables that echoed work produced for the Wiener Werkstätte, the Austrian counterpart to ’t Binnenhuis—a stripping away of ornament to let the materials prevail. Yet Berlage did not fully depart from historical reference, and the chairs clearly pay homage to the forms of ancient Egypt, which Berlage was known to have admired and even copied. Berlage further developed his aesthetic relationship to Vienna in his designs for Holland House and St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge. However, it was left to the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde to complete both after Berlage left the Kröller-Müllers in 1920” (p. 134).

According to a medieval hunting legend St. Hubert is said to have been converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of a cross suspended between the antlers of a stag. This mystical story tied to hunting and outdoor sports provided an ideal set of motifs for Helene. She used symbols and color schemes from the legend in stained glass windows, wall reliefs, cryptic geometric designs and the footprint of the building and surrounding grounds. In his essay “The Collection from 1907 to 1938” in Kröller-Müller: The First Hundred Years, R.W.D. Oxenaar reflected:

“In spite of wealth, land, buildings, collections, and spectacular patronage, there is nothing opulent or exuberant about Mrs. Kröller’s life’s work; rather there is monumentalism, scale, style, measure, order.  Even St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge with its sometimes almost eastern ornamentation, does not escape a certain severe reserve” (p. 182).

POWER AND RESISTANCE

 

The preceding observations soften a truth about this unusual building which although  called a hunting lodge, was to become their primary house. A telling exchange about the impression the house had on visitors occurred in 1922 between Helene and Sir Eric Geddes an English friend. As quoted by van der Wolk,  Sir Eric writes:

“I am feeling the spirit of the man who designed it but it provokes resistance in me! I suppose that is a compliment to his strength. In the work he has designed is a representative spirit which makes one react. I believe that as you live there you will also feel resistance and will soften in your own part of the house his harshness and cruelty. For the moment your objection has kept you to his design but I don’t believe you can live in that house for years without bringing your own personality into it [. . .]” (p. 31).

Helene responds:

“Then also you called the Sint Hubertus House a harsh and cruel building, what then of course was not meant to be a compliment on its account; but into my ears your words sounded like music. Until now, our guests only found it more or less beautiful, what in most cases did not say to me very much. You, Sir Eric, gave an opinion of the house itself. You called it harsh and cruel; and as it has been our intention—and my serious wish—to erect a characteristic monument of our days, your judgment gave me the hope—at that moment the certainty—that we succeeded at least in that one direction. And you will agree with me that the moment one feels to have succeeded in a thing after years of work—and in this case of much trouble—this always means something.

“When after the house was finished, I had the date 1914-1920 engraved on the entrance wall. I did this not only because it has become a habit to do so; I desired to convey, clearly, that it arose in difficult years and that we built whilst everywhere else so much was destroyed, much, that had been of high value to mankind, because it was symbolical of the spirit, the intention, the mentality of the past under social and religious influence; but much also that we, modern people, could not drag along with us anymore. In other words: to my mind, the war not only represented destruction, but was essential for the purpose of re-building. Churches and palaces—in actual and spiritual sense—had crumbled; Sint Hubertus meanwhile was erected to mark a boundary line, a milestone on the road to a new future.

“The builder Berlage is a child of his time, but, nevertheless—metaphorically speaking—he stood still with one foot in the Past. In youth, he commenced, like all architects of his period, with the imitation of styles, but he ended by creating new forms, basing them on new principles and axioms; a plain, clear construction and honest material, in connection with the purpose the building was meant for.

“My aim during the process of building was to support him to be strong in this principle. He not always was strong in himself and consequently the Sint-Hubertus-House bears still the characteristic marks of a period of transition. My task was to let him prove to be as strong as possible […]” (pp. 31-32).”

This exchange reveals much of Helene’s philosophy as a builder and conservator of culture. That she was actually pleased by Eric’s critical remarks is telling. For she subscribed to German metaphysical thought that destruction could be transformative. She was well aware that Friedrich Nietzsche predicted the First World War as a necessary step in remaking the world. During the interwar years of 1918 -1929 she, like many Germans began to admire Hitler whom she had met at a Wagner Festival in Germany. She followed him on his radio speeches and hoped he would remake her country. Hitler revered Nietzsche and believed war was hygienic—an inevitable part of life. Later Helene felt Hitler was out of control and lost her fascination with him however she was an advocate of change. Helene while not an advocate of the destructive ideology of war view cultural transformation as essential to civilization.

That Sint Hubertus should appear harsh and cruel did not trouble her in the least she sought it as expressive of the troubled times in which it was made.  She also understood that incomprehension is a typical reaction to changes in art and culture.  Sint Hubertus House was “erected to mark a boundary line, a milestone on the road to a new future.” In this light the powerful  militant forms of the Hunting Lodge were in keeping with future oriented aesthetic ideals and aspirations. The oppressive building embodied the Zeitgeist or ( World Spirt or spirit of the time) of World War I during which the building was erected. It remains a strong, strange and unsettling monument to the contradictory forces that brought it into being— and the woman who wanted it to be as strong as possible.

There was a powerful force that drove Helene upstream resisting the currents of the past. She was a progressive-minded woman who wanted to leave a mark on her era in the same way she inscribed construction dates onto her buildings. She hoped to move the past forward as a curator of cultural change. She would succeed in her paradoxical task unsettling many who were in no mood for change during two cataclysmic world wars.

However progressive she was—she was not averse to using anything from the past that had strong, clear and eloquent qualities.  For instance she thought that Egyptian art had eluded time and elements of Renaissance architectural design as timelessly modern. Van Gogh and other spiritually-minded artists were in her view also able to escape the rut of their era much as Einstein and Relativity altered time and space.

AN AUSTERE MODERNITY

 

Sint Hubertus boosted a monumental tower inspired by Italian Renaissance civic architecture, namely the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The ascent to the top of the tower was facilitated  by an elevator (one of the first in the Netherlands).  One of its advantages was that Helene could  escape Anton’s heavy smoking and noisy hunting parties down below.  Helene had a second bedroom at its summit where a medieval inspired curtained bed chamber was installed—its stone austerity in keeping with the mystical, militant tenor of the St. Hubertus Lodge.

To strengthen the somber effect of the buildings profile a reflecting pool was created at great expense.  It doubled the visual impact of the building by mirroring the tall tower and reminded one of a medieval moat. The strong aesthetic impact of the Hunting Lodge is best described as artistic immersion. A schemata where every element is as important as any other and the whole of it is intended to immerse one visually and emotionally.

This notion of artistic immersion is allied to the concept of significant form—a term introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by the British aesthetician Clive Bell.  Clive believed the formal elements of a work of art or architecture communicated to a viewer directly. His ideas had a great impact on the practice of modernism where pure form, color, shape etc were uppermost for the artist freeing them from reliance on storytelling and overt representation.

Construction on the lodge began in early 1915 and continued for five years with endless modifications under Helene’s obsessive eye.  Berlage couldn’t take it any longer and resigned. He was replaced by the Belgian architect Henry van der Velde who carry out Helene’s changes well into the 1920s. For the next 17 years (till 1937) the Kröllers used the singular Sint Hubertus Lodge as their country home. There Helene could indulge in her passion for horse riding in the park while Anton could entertain his powerful political and industrial allies. (A side note: the horse stables at the lodge, unlike the servant’s quarters, were equipped with a central heating system.)

One might wonder why Helene would be so obsessed with the lodge after all she had other villas and a future museums to fret over. There is a deeper reason. Helene had a compelling need to be emotionally settled, surrounded and saturated in a total environment. It  calmed and focused her. Van Gogh also immersed himself in art, literature and nature to balance his strong impulses.  In the following passage from one of his letter’s Vincent’s word choices expressed his strong artistic values:  sober, austere, elaborate, honest, unembellished, energy, determination, free, lofty and dignified. Helene’s immersive art and architectural values paralleled Vincent’s list.

“Or take another sheet of Ridley’s which I have, engraved soberly and austerely by Swain—“The Children’s Ward in a Hospital”—there I feel the justification for what I’ve heard people who are supposed to be first-rate connoisseurs contemptuously refer to in these terms, ‘Oh, well, that’s the old-fashioned style.’ And then we remember what Herkomer [Dicken’s’ illustrator] wanted to say that old style of engraving, that elaborate,honest,unembellished drawing, is by far the best . . . I assure you, every time I feel a little out of sorts, I find in my collection of wood engravings a stimulus to work with renewed zest. In all these fellows I see an energy, a determination and a free, healthy, cheerful spirit that animate me. And in their work there is something lofty and dignified—even when they draw a dunghill” (letter to Anthon van Rappard, November 1, 1882, own underscoring).

THE ART ROOM AND THE LODGE

The Hunting Lodge’s Art Room provides an intimate look into the mind of Helene Kröller-Müller. The immersion environment was not to impress a visitor but rather to remind Helene by surrounding her with her deepest values. Curators have noted the blend of ancient and modern motifs and furnishings in her art room. This fusion of past and present shows that Helene while welcoming contemporary cultural developments retained a solid  grounding in the unembellished and austere art and architecture of past ages. One finds this idea in the quote by Van Gogh above where he shows his affinity for “old fashioned style.” Like Van Gogh, Helene believed that great art tracks on universal human emotions often transcending stylistic labels with the best art and design manifesting timeless aesthetic values.

As Stephen Harrison observed, her architect Berlage ascribed to this assimilative view of art and produced an environment for the absorption of historical knowledge. Berlage was chosen as her architect because he shared the aesthetic theories of Helene’s mentor H.P. Bremmer and the artists he encouraged Helene to study and collect. The inclusion of a superb home library, priceless art and timeless design in the room centered her thoughts and bolstered her knowledge as an art scholar and international collector.

When Helene met Bremmer he had over 300 devoted followers of his “Practical Aesthetics” lectures. A number of his followers also collected art for Bremmer believed everyone benefited by surrounding themselves with high quality works of art. Helene became his most devoted follower and collector. But soon she wanted more and placed Bremmer under contract as her exclusive  agent. The terms of the contract forbade him from earning a commission from locating or purchasing paintings for her collection.  Helene’s generous salary eliminated any need for additional compensation and as a result Bremmer became a wealthy man.

Over the next decade he helped  to cultivate Helene’s taste and art historical knowledge.  However it was not long before Helene began to act on her own; purchasing work without Bremmer’s approval. She was not one to be under anyones control for long. As she had done with her teachers in Frau Schubeck’s finishing school she began to challenge Bremmer’s knowledge. She started collecting early abstraction and sponsored Piet Mondrian and other cutting edge artists at a time when few understood their aims. A number of Piet’s important semi-Cubist works now hold important places the Kröller-Müller collection.

Later when Mondrian moved away from his Cubist inspired period, Helene ended his financial support. She held ruthlessly to her ideals and rejected what she perceived as less than compelling work. Mondrian was desperate and contemplated giving up painting all together. His distress was more than monetary. Mondrian respected Helene’s artistic judgement and her rejection of his new work prompted A season of doubt for him. He did recover his confidence  but their relationship was over.  But it was Van Gogh who would always be the spiritual center of her collection.

 

Continued …