“The moon was above the earth, higher and fuller than ever, it seemed.
But suddenly, Sam, I saw something very odd. All of a sudden, close to the earth,
I saw a second large, glowing ball. A haystack that had caught fire, with fiery flames
breaking out on top. Oh Sam, those flames were like arms reaching out to the unattainable light . . .
and, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, they were burning their own heart . . . just like the fiery ball
below, that will keep roaming the earth . . . until it finally surrenders to very, very
strong arms that will embrace it firmly.”
~ Helene 

HELENE and the
Kröller-Müller Museum

In the early years of the 20th century, Helene Kröller-Müller became one of the richest women in the Netherlands bequeathing for posterity the remarkable Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, and its astonishing collection of art.  Helene’s passion for the paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh in particular, resulted in the second-largest collection of the celebrated artist’s work.

But the museum’s evolution from concept to completion was fraught with angst caused by a surfeit of political intrigue and corporate malfeasance, the onset of war, the complex relationship with her family and her husband Anton Kröller and, perhaps most poignant, Helene’s strong feelings for her protégé, the much younger Sam Deventer.  ‘This museum is born out of grief”, Helene wrote.  Almost a century later, her grief still resonates.

The Young Helene

As noted by Piet de Jonge in “Helene Kröller-Müller” in Van Gogh to Mondrian, Helene’s name at birth was Julie Emma Laura Helene Müller. She was born on February 11, 1869 in Horst, near Essen, Germany.  She grew into a slight, slender girl possessing fine features, dark hair and even darker, almost brooding eyes.  She was the third child of a prestigious German couple: Wilhelm Heinrich Müller and Emilie Neese.  Her father Wilhelm was the founder and president of the  industrial corporation Müller & Company.


At nine, Helene was described by her observant father as “stormy, wild and volatile.” Her unbridled spirit both amused and concerned Wilhelm.  In his diary, he recorded that Helene was like her brother—a poor student and in need of structure, so he sent her to a private school overseen by the famous German educator Frau Schuback. Under Schuback’s disciplined guidance, students were taught to strive for “Nobility, Beauty and Truth” in all their endeavors.  The idealistic curriculum took hold of Helene and transformed the wild, passionate child into an aspiring scholar in the spirit of her great-grandmother and namesake.  Great-grandmother Helene had been a remarkable, theologically-minded woman who is said to have written the sermons of her pastor husband.


Living up to the school motto, Helene began to embody “unquestioning devotion”, a characteristic by which she was known for the rest of her life.  By age fourteen Helene, was studying 15 hours a day, from 5:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night.  She showed little interest in the typical amusements for her age such as the theatre or boys.  And, instead of reading popular novels, she pondered the metaphysical writings of 18th–19th century German philosophers including:  Spinoza, Goethe, Lessing, Schiller and Rilke.  As quoted by De Jonge, she wrote in her diary: “To read the writings of great men, to absorb their lives and characters, remains for me the highest achievement” (p. 15).

Where her father had once been concerned with her wild behavior, he now worried that her compulsive, scholarly zeal might be her undoing. He had Helene’s course load at school reduced in an effort to curb her obsessive fervor.  However cutting back on her assigned studies only emboldened her to fill in the spaces.  So she doubled down on the classes she was still allowed to take.  Soon she was even able to challenge the competence of her teachers.

One of the results of Helene’s new found love of learning was that she began to question some of traditional religious views of her family.  Wresting with spiritual issues is typical of adulthood but Helene was a teenager, unprepared for the tension created by the ensuing  disagreements with her parents.  Doubt and disapproval began to plague Helene for she had a strong need for her family’s approval.  To make matters worse, she bore the name of her pious great-grandmother.

Teenage Helene was far from being the only young person in the 19th century who wrestled with traditional religious practices.  Van Gogh struggled with many of the sectarian religious conventions of his time as well.  He too had faced disapproval by his father, a Protestant pastor in a rural community.  In 19th century Europe, many young adults were unsettled by unresolved spiritual questions and yearnings.

In his book Consciousness and Society, H. Stuart Hughes comments on the religious atmosphere in the late 19th century:

“In Germany there had lingered on from the early nineteenth century a non-dogmatic religiosity, an emphasis on the spiritual and a distrust of the material world.  German social thinkers characteristically came from conservative, religiously oriented families; clergymen’s sons were not infrequent.  In this tradition it seemed natural to set emotion against reason, community sentiment against technological change . .  . “  (pp. 287-288).

As a result, these unrequited spiritual yearnings found expression in artistic ways.  For instance, German novelists including Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and painters such as Emile Nolde, Franz Marc, August Macke and Piet Mondrian expressed forms of non-dogmatic religiosity in their work.  The novelists often portrayed young men in search of spiritual enlightenment as in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and Damian.  The painters frequently used religious symbols or portrayed scenes from the Bible.  Emile Nolde, for instance, painted the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ while others evoked less specific sacred themes and metaphysical moods in their work.

Helene fit this pattern perfectly as a progressively minded German woman at the dawn of the 20th century.  She came from a “conservative, religiously oriented family“, which inspired her to serve others.  Later in life and possessing great wealth, she would express her “community sentiment” by creating summer camps for disadvantaged children, volunteering as a nurse during the First World War, and donating to worthy causes.  And at mid-life, she created one of the world’s most important public art collections.

In spite of her unsettling religious questions, her father was encouraged when Helene took over household duties during her mother’s absence.  Wilhelm was amazed that Helene was able to carry out the demanding duties of the large household as efficiently as her mother.  She was highly-observant, disciplined and resourceful beyond her years.  As quoted by De Jonge, her father wrote:

“I can assure you that the household is in excellent hands. Helene goes about the task with the certainty of one who has done it for a year and a day.  She presides over the coffee table, convinces herself that the dinner menu she has assembled meets my approval, interrogates the cook about the accounts, gives the latter her instructions, and indeed today, because it is washday, took charge of the cooking herself.  For the rest, she is not idle for a moment: embroidering during breakfast, darning stockings after lunch and mending the washing in the evenings. I think that she gets it from her mother.” (p. 16).

A Brief Aside …Aside Headline

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Marriage & Empire

On May 15, 1888, at her father’s urging, 18-year old Helene Müller married 26 year old Anton Kröller, becoming Helene Kröller-Müller.  It was a common practice at that time for a woman to list her maiden name after her married name.  Her husband, Anton, was her father’s most-valued employee, a brilliant young businessman and a key stakeholder in the company.  The match bolstered the financial strength of the company overnight transforming Müller & Company into an international industrial empire.  However the transformation was not an easy one.  In their first year of marriage, Anton was bed-ridden with a life-threatening infection, which required months of rest, under Helen’s vigilant care. She most likely saved his life.

Following Anton’s recovery, Helene’s father suddenly died of a heart attack making Anton president of Müller & Company overnight.  One of his first business decisions in the early 1890s was to move the company head office from Germany to Rotterdam, in The Netherlands.  The Dutch seaport was a vital location for the shipping services of Müller & Company and its multifaceted empire.  With tentacles extended into mining, manufacturing, transportation the distribution of mining equipment, and the chemicals used to smelt steel and iron, Müller & Company was at the center of the world’s economic and industrial growth at the start of the 20th century.

In 1900, the Helene and Anton moved a second time to The Hague where the company headquarters was firmly established.  In this important Dutch city, Anton would weave a web of influential political backing by deploying his adroit diplomatic skills.  The international neutrality of The Netherland’s during the First World War allowed Anton to freely negotiate the sales and shipping of steel and iron.  His profits skyrocketed both during and after the war by providing the steel and iron needed to rebuild the ravaged cities of Europe.  He profited both during war and during peace, and thereby amassed a considerable fortune.

Now firmly transplanted in The Netherlands, one of Helene’s first tasks was to transform herself into a Netherlander.  She quickly converted her German Gothic script into an urban Netherlandish Cursive.  Her handwriting makeover was indicative of her nature—she was a compulsive perfectionist, with her motto unquestioning devotion put solidly into action.


Sample pages of her diary and letters show few if any corrections.  Even informal messages were crafted with impeccably slanted characters in an unerring pattern from left to right, a wonder, given the thousands of letters she drafted over her lifetime beginning with her diaries at the age of 14.  Her self-mastery was extraordinary and, just as she did with her writing, she also taught herself to speak in a perfect accent-free cultivated Dutch.  She was grooming a public persona necessary for a German-born woman with an ambitious husband.  And she furthermore accomplished all this through four pregnancies.  Yet Helene’s transformation from her native German to Dutch was nevertheless purely for external effect … she fearlessly held onto to her German identity.

As quoted by de Jonge, Helene wrote: “I was a woman born and raised in Germany, with a German heart, even if the law bestowed Dutch nationality upon her when she married” (p. 13). And because the new identity was compulsively formed, those who encountered her may have sensed a strain in her manner. She was never fully accepted into Dutch society.  Her apparent transformation from German to Dutch made her suspect to the locals, especially during the First World War with Germany’s central role. Many in their community viewed the Kröllers as nouveau rich with their fleet of chauffeur driven cars, multiple houses and estates. This deepened disdain for the rich interlopers. Being German-born and conspicuously rich set the couple apart and increased Helene’s desire to show good faith with her charitable activities.

In many ways the couple complimented each another quite well. Anton was a driven businessman (some described him as ruthless) and Helene was disciplined to deal with obstacles and proud of her German ancestry. The couple celebrated their new found wealth in a flurry of architectural projects. They erected villas, farms and factories and secured the services of top European architects and designers. They hired the young Mies van der Rohe and other prominent architects versed in the contemporary styles and technical innovations of the era. Müller buildings included up-to-date central heating systems, elevators, phone systems and other state- of- art communication systems.

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” (p. 18).

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 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 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.



A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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Builder & Conservator

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 master’s” 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 was 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).

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 an 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).

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.  Even though she was an advocate of change, she was not an advocate of the destructive ideology of war, and viewed 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.

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.  Bell 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 museum 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 letters, 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.” (own underscoring)

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 knowledge of art history.  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 in 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.

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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The Jewels in the Crown

Piet de Jonge reports:

“Within fourteen years Helene Kröller-Müller assembled almost 100 paintings and 180 drawings by Van Gogh. In addition to a self-portrait, her collection includes depictions of the peasants and weavers in Brabant and the Dutch and French landscapes that inspired him. Van Gogh’s immediate surroundings are represented by portraits of friends and the garden of the asylum to which he had himself committed. These works give an overview of the life of her favorite painter” (p. 50).

The Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) was one of the finest of Van Gogh’s work— prompting Anton to boast that they didn’t have the largest number of Van Gogh’s art but had “the cream of the crop.” With so much of Vincent’s work available at the beginning of the 20th century they bought aggressively, taking full advantage of the opportunity.  Dozens of his iconic works fell into their hands including such well known works as : Overblown Sunflowers (1887), Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889), La Berceuse (1889), Weaver and Loom (1884), The Ravine—Les Peyroulets (1889), Olive Orchard (1889), Portrait of Milliet (sous-lieutenant des Zouaves) (1888),  Roulin the Postman (1889), The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) (1890), Road with Cypress and Star (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889).

Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed was purchased in 1908, one of Helene’s first acquisitions.  This work had profound associations for Helene who stipulated that it be the centerpiece for her funeral.  She also wrote a eulogy about this powerful painting which expressed her unattainable yearnings.  It is an intense work—yellow, orange, ochre, pale green, and brown depict four sunflowers set on their sides with upturned, savagely cut off  stems. Warm harvest hues glow inside the flowers which is intensified by contrasting cool surrounding colors. As many as three blues make their appearance in the fore and background— cobalt, ultramarine and cerulean. The leaves of the sunflowers are uplifted, flame-like with their upward motion echoed in the vertical strokes at the top of the painting.  There the blues merge into viridian green enriched in turn by touches of orange, red and light-green.

The whole surface pulsates with the broad motion of the brush while a central focus is established around the delicately-rendered intricate seeds of the flowers. Here the swirling pattern of the whole is silenced and one is invited to pause and admire the network of tiny dots and patterns making up the seeds This concentrated focus offers relief for the eye on one hand and is a symbolic gesture on the other.  Symbolically it reminds one of the unity of life and death. The life of the plant has gone to seed with the potential of new life residing within them.  Van Gogh often spoke of his belief that death results in spiritual rebirth and resurrection.  This transcendent symbolism explains why this cherished painting was to play a primary role in Helene’s funeral.

As quoted in the film Helene, a Woman Between Love and Art, Helene wrote the following about this powerful painting:

“The moon was above the earth, higher and fuller than ever, it seemed. But suddenly, Sam, I saw something very odd. All of a sudden, close to the earth, I saw a second large, glowing ball. A haystack that had caught fire, with fiery flames breaking out on top. Oh Sam, those flames were like arms reaching out to the unattainable light . . . and, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, they were burning their own heart . . . just like the fiery ball below, that will keep roaming the earth . . . until it finally surrenders to very, very strong arms that will embrace it firmly. “

Much that was unfulfilled in Helene’s life is referenced in this mysterious message. It contains several subjects found in Van Gogh’s art: a moon, haystack and sunflowers. Above all it links the legacy of suffering at the root of her existence to tragic life of the painting’s maker. Perhaps the reference to strong arms that will embrace —alludes to unrequited love but more likely it is an expression of inexpressible spiritual longing.  The flames that reach up like arms toward the unattainable light of the full moon evokes a yearning for transcendent release and relief.  One finds a similar set of symbols in Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night where a massive moon and upsurging cypress trees set an earth/ heaven dialogue in motion. Van Gogh said of this painting that it expressed his terrible need for religious affirmation and sacred security.  Helene and Vincent expressed similar desires for spiritual transcendence and transformation in reference to these works.  

It is also a remarkable coincidence that one of the first major works she purchased should have as its theme sunflowers gone to seed. Seeds are for planting—and this painting would germinate into a harvest of nearly 100 collected works stemming from this Van Gogh painting.

Anton also independently purchased some works of art. There is the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Mlle Eva Callimaki Cartagi by Henri Fantin-Latour (1881) which Anton gave as a gift to Helene on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. This life-sized portrait of Eva Callimaki (a much admired Parisian beauty) strongly resembled Helene as Anton remembered her in her twenties.  The portrait is shrouded in shadow projecting an alluring sense of mystery which says a good deal about Aton’s feelings about his enigmatic wife. The choice of this superb Fantin-Latour showed he had an eye for fine work.

Related closely to Van Gogh’s Overblown Sunflowers is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun (1889). Many of the same warm hues occur in both paintings. The reaper with sickle appears as a field worker doing his job amid the ripening wheat. Vincent said that the reaper was a symbol of death at the harvest of life. The connection with death and the reaper was ever-present in Van Gogh’s mind and which he brought up often in his letters and symbolized in his art.

The links between the two paintings and her favorite The Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) were obvious to Helene who was in tune with Van Gogh symbolism and the meanings cited in his letters, which Helene read and reread after Johanna van Gogh-Bonger had published them (in both Dutch and German) in 1914. 

Another work of exceptional beauty was the Olive Orchard of 1889.  As van der Wolk recorded, Helene said of it: “But the most beautiful one is an olive orchard, so tender and profound and such a complete, great painting. I cannot describe it to you, but in most people’s eye it will be the most beautiful painting of all because it does not disturb you in any way” (p. 22).   Helene recognized that Van Gogh’s work often dealt with the ever-present reality of death  and suffering but she cherished certain paintings where Vincent conveyed a sense of solace, resolution and release from pain.  The Olive Orchard exudes a soft, gentle mood. It was made at San Remy Asylum in the comforting olive groves surrounding the hospital (and remain there to this day). As a collector she was highly aware of the state-of-mind of an artist (a modern concern after Freud and the advent of psychology).  She recognized each of her Van Gogh paintings as poetic responses to his life’s journey and conjoined it with her own sojourn.

She welcomed the repose of this work and hoped viewers would drink in the quiet spirit of it as well. Her concern over the response of her viewers was born from her belief that a heartfelt work of art can impact a viewer in deeply personal ways.  Van der Wolk quoted her as saying “But art, however difficult it may be to unravel, does not have this element of concealment; in art it is different. It never threatens; it can never threaten, for art is emotion and emotion is always genuine. Art is a Self-Portrait and in this sense art is pure truth and that is precisely what makes it so valuable, especially for us modern people . . .” (p. 71).

Helene held the conviction that emotion can be embodied by the touch, tenor and theme of a work. However for this embodiment to exist it must first of all be motivated by an artist’s sincere desire to evoke such feelings in the work itself. It most be done in the most direct and transparent way. Her notion that art can be a self-portrait arises from this view.

Her elevated view of a work of art along with her belief in artistic genius seems confirmed by the great number of viewers who have strong empathetic responses to Van Gogh’s art. One explanation for this phenomena is that he was so transparent in the transmission of his state-of-mind in his artistic projection.

Recent research in the field of neuroaesthetics has proven that humans are effected at subliminal homeostatic levels by the emotional state of another. These emphatic responses including the heart rate and breathing can be reset or ‘entrained’ by direct bodily contact with another person. Other examples of entrainment include exposure to the rhythm of waves where after a short time ones breathing and heart rate are entrained by these natural patterns. The explanation of entrainment begins in the womb where infants are in direct contact with the  the mothers heartbeat and breathing.

Being in the presence of a work of art also exposes one to rhythms of brushwork, and color patterns as records of the artist’s psychological state. This rhythmic patterning is similar to the impact of waves in entraining our central nervous system. This effect may account for the conviction by nonfigurative artists that viewers are emotionally impacted by their work in the same way that music can effect mental states. Proof of this has been shown in MRI scans and occurs in the film Musical Minds by Oliver Sacks.

When a narrative subject is offered along with the entrained effects of a highly expressive work (as in the case of a Van Gogh) the impact is stronger on a viewer.   A candidate for such a strong empathetic response would be Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan” a painting he made to speed up his own recovery from severe epileptic episodes. One can surmise that the entrainment transmission of this work would be unusually strong on a viewer.

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) was painted in the last months of Van Gogh’s life. It is based on a Parable of Jesus in which the beatitude of compassionate love is shown by caring for another and, in this parable, an enemy. This work, like the Olive Orchard suggests a respite and rescue from danger. The good Samaritan is saving a gravely injured man whom others have ignored and passed by. Van Gogh said this painting was a tribute to the doctors and nurses at San Remy who he credited with saving his life. He created this work in gratitude and as a healing aid in his own recovery.  This strong desire to express a deeply felt emotion is typical of Van Gogh and why his work impacts viewers so much. Had his work been produced for purely commercial purposes that would be sensed by an attuned viewer.

As Piet de Jonge observed, Helene had good reason for her emotional connection with Van Gogh.  In 1924 she was a patient in Dr. Dengler’s psychiatric Sanatorium in Baden-Baden and periodically sought healing in a sanatorium in the Black Forest (p. 30). She could identify withVincent’s themes of death, deliverance and healing. The mood of The Good Samaritan is the aftermath of a trial; it is consoling and redemptive and—like the Olive Orchard—uplifting and reassuring.  Such works spoke directly to her and likely “entrained” her own mental states.

Other great Van Goghs in the collection include: Road with Cypress and Star (1890), Flowers in a Blue Vase (1887), Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), Cypresses with Two Figures (1889). Each of these paintings are restorative in mood and were produced at vital periods in Van Gogh’s life. Cypresses, flowers, and cafes have positive connotations and remain among his most popular works. Many of these are powerfully restorative works filled with hope and gentle persuasion.  For Van Gogh they were a response to the healing properties of nature and its ability to reach all of the human senses. One can walk, smell, see, hear, imagine and taste the sensory output of nature and nothing is as restorative as the entrainment power of field, forest, sky and ocean.

Cypresses with Two Figures, is perhaps the most tender of all.  It features two women in elegant dresses strolling in a field of flowers with majestic cypress trees rising protectively over them. This poetic, eulogy must have appealed to Helene for multiple reasons. It embodied a poetic feminine motif wedded to supremely fine craftsmanship. Van Gogh labored over this work to make it as complete a painting as possible.  Using a word that was especially meaningful for Van Gogh the work evokes  ‘solace’.  A term Vincent repeatedly used for something he sought namely peace of mind. The feminine presence is a reminder of his oft repeated desire for a wife and family. 

As Helene shared in her private letters she also was in great need of solace and peace of mind. At the time of her hospitalization for what was described as ‘neuroses’ Anton was also plagued by great financial loss. Additionally problems with their children were occurring. Having comforting works of art to immerse herself which had been made by a fellow sufferer were restorative aids to her peace of mind. Something she hoped that visitors to her museum would one day also experience.  The surrounding solace of the HogeVeluwe “fallow lands,” National Park near the rural village of Otterlo provided an ideal location for the “entrained” impact of art and nature to soothe, assuage and provide solace from the tensions of city life.

ASIDE: In the postmodern art world often the value of beauty in art has been maligned or ignored; yet the places where visitors converge in a museum is telling.  More often than not, the majority of visitors are found where impressionist paintings are located.  The rich paint handling, generous color and convivial atmosphere in Monet, Pissarro, Sisley etc.  has a universal appeal. It uplifts spirits. Museum collections devoted to beauty are those most appreciated by the public and why they remain much-visited and celebrated. Helene understood this well and intended her collection to be as beautiful as possible and appreciated in this light.

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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A Shared Ethos

The suffering Helene shared with Vincent was paralleled by some striking chords. Helene volunteered as a nurse during the First World War and had experiences like  those Van Gogh experienced as an evangelist/nurse in a Belgium mining community in the late 1870s. Vincent was appalled by the indifference of mine officials for the welfare and of the miners.  Helene similarly was indignant at the lack of hygiene and care of soldiers in the army hospital where she worked. She took it upon herself to improve sanitization and oversaw procedures for the daily care of the patients. During this time she said she was inspired by Vincent’s selflessness in the mining episode.

Vincent once said he “would never recognize love that was not an action,” and arduous action is what one finds especially in his mining experiences.  Helene said that of all of Vincent’s letters those he wrote about his mining ministry spoke the most deeply to her.

Following are selections from these letters:

Vincent wrote from the Borinage mining community in 1878:

“Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the neighborhood. It has a bad reputation because many perish in it, either going down or coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first everything around looks dreary and desolate. Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time. On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are poor miners’ huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc….

“The mine has five levels, but the three upper ones have been exhausted and abandoned; they are no longer worked because there is no more coal. A picture of the maintenages would be something new and unheard of—or rather, never before seen. Imagine a row of cells in a rather narrow, low passage, shored up with rough timber. In each of those cells a miner in a coarse linen suit, filthy and black as a chimney sweep, is busy hewing coal by the pale light of a small lamp. The miner can stand erect in some cells; in others, he lies on the ground . . . .The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, gloomy passage in an underground prison, or like a row of small weaving looms, or rather more like a row of baking ovens such as the peasants have, or like the partitions in a crypt. The tunnels themselves are like the big chimneys of the Brabant farms.

“The water leaks through in some, and the light of the miner’s lamp makes a curious effect, reflected as in a stalactite cave. Some of the miners work in the maintenages, others load the cut coal into small carts that run on rails, like a streetcar. This is mostly done by children, boys as well as girls. There is also a stable yard down there, 700 meters underground, with about seven old horses which pull a great many of those carts to the so-called accrochage, the place from which they are pulled up to the surface …. The villages here look desolate and dead and forsaken; life goes on underground instead of above. One might live here for years and never know the real state of things unless one went down in the mines.

“People here are very ignorant and untaught—most of them cannot read—but at the same time they are intelligent and quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short but square shouldered, with melancholy deep set eyes. They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament—I do not mean weak, but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a miner’s character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or mastery, or one will never get along with them or gain their confidence.

“Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was so badly hurt by a firedamp explosion? Thank God, he has recovered and is going out again, and is beginning to walk some distance just for exercise; his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he can use them for his work, but he is out of danger. Since that time there have been many cases of typhoid and malignant fever, of what they call la sotte fievre, which gives them bad dreams like nightmares and makes them delirious. So again there are many sickly and bedridden people—emaciated, weak, and miserable.

“In one house all ill with fever and little or no help, so that the patients have to nurse the patients. “Ici c’est les maladies qui soignent les maladies” [here the sick tend the sick], said a woman, like, “Le pauvre est l’ami du pauvre” [the poor man is the poor man’s friend] . . . .

“Going down into a mine is a very unpleasant sensation. One goes in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well, but in a well from 500-700 meters deep, so that when looking upward from the bottom, daylight is visible only as a star in the sky.

“It feels like being on a ship at sea for the first time, but it is worse; fortunately it does not last long. The miners get used to it, yet they keep an unconquerable feeling of horror and fear which reasonably and justifiably stays with them. But once down, the worst is over, and one is richly rewarded for the trouble by what one sees.”

Vincent noted that the miners were prematurely aged, tired and ill, and he was horrified by the plight of children alone and unprotected in the unsupervised isolation of their dismal underground world. He experienced firsthand the very settings depicted by Dickens in his novels.  The workers in the Borinage were constantly reassured by their overseers that the mines were safe. But this was far from the truth. Vincent told of an explosion underground where a man was badly injured, suffering terrible burns, and Vincent was compelled to nurse him back to life. The mines were in fact a living nightmare for the workers, where life was regularly snuffed out like a candle by explosions or the collapse of tunnels and shafts.

The image of the shining star was to appear often in Vincent’s letters and art. His early letters described stars shimmering in black skies, eternity emboldened in glowing points. This glimmering vision and its starry promise was to reappear at the end of his life in one of his best-loved paintings The Starry Night of 1889.

During his time in the Borinage, Vincent nursed men back to life, specifically those suffering from third-degree burns. Covered with perspiration, these men were caked with fine, black coal dust which, when ignited, turned them into terrifying human torches, their coal-soaked bodies aflame like candles in the dark. Vincent discovered that the charred limbs of those who survived needed to be softened and oiled in order to regain suppleness. He would administer cloth compresses soaked in olive oil to their blackened skin, a restorative balm that also helped stave off disease.

Grounding his admiration for the miners was Van Gogh’s native love of soil for soil sake. This love of the earth was a deep Dutch characteristic considering that much of the earth of the Netherlands had to be recovered and de-salted as land was retrieved from the sea. The miners descended into the depths of the earth to its literal foundations and Vincent greatly admired these individuals for their courage and audacity.

Courage and audacity are not normally the qualities that comes to mind in reflecting over the life and legacy of Van Gogh. However what one finds in his mining episode shows that he possessed these characteristics and revealed them at key points in his life. Often the general view of Van Gogh that has emerged from film accounts paint him as a fragile and broken man— far from courageous or strong in vital ways. However a close study of his life reveals a tenacity and power to persevere and these qualities emerge from his letters and the testimony of many who knew him.

Those like Helene and Johanna—who studied his letters and gained personal testimonials from Van Gogh’s close friends and companions—came away with a positive view of his character and strength of will. It is for such reasons that many historians have leaned toward the possibility that his death was accidental and not self-inflicted. The mining accounts give evidence of a grit consistent with self preservation and a determinant life-giving attitude. Helene and Johanna were deeply impacted by this side of Vincent and why they valued his letters and legacy.

In additional to their adaptability and admiration of Vincent, Johanna and Helene shared other essential qualities which enabled them to achieve great things. They were emboldened to share their art with others because they had been deeply impacted by how it inspired and uplifted them. The Socialist tenor of the era encouraged this kind of  thinking. Both manifested unswerving devotion to ideals and in their formative years had read the philosophical writings of 18th century German Idealist thinkers. At any age such reading is demanding but tackling such work in ones teenage years is an indication of a serious mind. Both were highly literate young women who by adulthood could hold their own with the best intellects of their day.

Johanna’s immersion in art began with Theo, and their love letters make this maturation evident—she was curious and wanted to understand arts purposes and cultural values. During their brief marriage she was exposed to some of the most radical art of the age and met many of progressive painters of the era.  Jo absorbed an enormous amount of information rapidly and  applied life’s lessons pragmatically.

Following Theo’s death and her move to Bussum, Jo surrounded herself with artists, art historians and specialists from whom she continued to learn. By the time she launched her career as an art dealer she was familiar with the most important art movements of the time. Helene and Johanna both mastered multiple cultural communication systems. Where Helene absorbed Dutch to further her wellbeing — Johanna mastered English and French for her role as an international art dealer. In what other ways were Johanna and Helene alike? How is it that they took upon themselves the important international educative roles they played?

Johanna was trained as a high school teacher, translator and communicator with what would now be considered college master’s degree.  Johanna corresponded with Vincent and took enormous satisfaction reading the letters exchanged by Theo and Vincent.  She was able to continue to understand the depth of connection between the brothers by reading their correspondence after they died. She spent nearly 24 years cataloging and preparing their letters for publication. Then she penned a lengthy introduction to the letters that reveals a depth of insight into the minds and motivations of the two brilliant men, unafraid of opening their inner lives. Historians have remarked that, even if Vincent had never painted, his letters would have brought him fame. The letters are unique in their openness and honesty which resulted from their private purposes. They were never intended for any other purpose than as a line of discourse between brothers with an uncommon concern for one another. Johanna and Helene saw the importance of sharing their profound exchange with the world. It was a model of what emotional transparency can involve — truth telling and admission of failure. Even the self doubt that Vincent felt was exposed in a stream of confessional-like communication.

Far from delusional, as some critics have claimed, the letters convince us of their rationality by their authenticity and pragmatic analysis.  One can read of Vincent’s taking a beating by a violent landlord for instance—a beating many men would be reluctant to admit. There is the account of his genital infection and hospitalization, an admission of great pain and urgent need. From start to finish Van Gogh’s letters are full of such disclosures and one would be remiss to claim the opposite of Van Gogh a fabricator and delusional liar as some have gone so far as to claim.   

The foundational transparency of the letters is a primary source of the Van Gogh legacy.  Those like Jo and Helene who helped create and sustain his legacy offered something rare in our world—sincere truth telling. This rarity is also found in Johanna and Helene for they emulated the honesty which is a hallmark of Vincent’s letters. He accepted his limitations with humility and tried to make up for it with audacity and intensity. Similarly Johanna and Helene made no pretense by claiming special status as cultural benefactors. They viewed themselves at service to humanity. They took satisfaction knowing that the cultural contributions they were making would be longstanding. This conviction  gave them great satisfaction and carried them through dark times and repeated failures. Making Van Gogh a household name was not a task anyone would readily take upon themselves, but they believed that Vincent’s life work involved the same uncertainty for him to realize his goals.

This kind of concern is expressed in the care and concern Johanna and Helene manifested in bringing Van Gogh into the world in their own written accounts, published letters, interviews and the exhibitions they arranged. They understood that if Van Gogh’s  achievements were to be recognized they would have to do so with unswerving effort and concentrated vision. All participants in this legacy:  Theo, Vincent, Johanna and Helene were faced with tragic setbacks and repeated defeat. It is to the benefit of anyone who struggles against odds to know that lasting achievements can be made by flawed individuals under difficult circumstances.    

Johanna’s memoirs make it evident that she and Theo had planned to publish Vincent’s letters. They had discussed this even before his death. They may have also mused over the idea of housing a collection of his paintings in a museum venue; something  Johanna never achieved. It would be her son who would carry this out after her death.

On the other hand there is no proof that Johanna knew of Helene’s desire to create a museum. But whether or not she did know of it— Johanna indirectly supported it by allowing Helene access (albeit by independent art agents) to acquire many of Vincent’s greatest works. This kind of sharing of great works is remarkable if Jo had in mind keeping the best of his work for herself. She did not seem to worry about it.

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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A Treasure Trove of Art

It is puzzling that Van Gogh’s own accounts of his life and actions have been discredited by some historians. Their argument is that he was an unreliable source because his motives in writing was largely to manipulate and mislead; either his brother or family.  What is interesting about those who have made such claims is that a second body of materials exist namely letters and testimonials of those who knew Van Gogh and which confirm Van Gogh’s personal claims and observations. A good example of this is his Borinage mining letters in which testimonials by miners and others who knew Vincent during this time confirmed the reliability of Vincent’s reports.

Perhaps the most convincing proofs of Van Gogh’s innate honesty are the final letters he sent to his mother in which he admitted that earlier prior to 1885 and his father’s sudden death that his own behavior had been regrettable and savage. He asked her to forgive him and admitted his violent outbursts against his parents had been unwarranted.  He was able to see that he had been out of control and following his confinement at Sainte Remy where he witnessed pathologically ill patients he saw the danger of his uncontrolled anger. His final days as a 37 year old man show the beginning of personal insight and growth — one can wish he had lived much longer and benefitted from this wisdom.

Other important sources that offer a balanced account of his life include Johanna, Emile Bernard, Paul Gauguin and Vincent’s sisters. From these sources one finds that he was truthful in his personal reporting.  When he was ill he told of it and described the stages and states of his recovery. This was especially the case following what his doctors identified as severe epileptic seizures. Vincent offered a nearly clinical account of what preceded his seizures and what it was like to reclaim his functions following days of recurrent outbreaks.   

Far from delusional ramblings, the letters of Van Gogh are a reliable source for assessing his states of mind. He doesn’t ever allude to an alternate life or confuse himself with a character in a Dickens novel. When he used metaphor he was clearly aware of doing so delusional people do not make a clear distinction between reality and imagination.

Writing in private journals or letters allows one to reflectively filter ones thoughts. This reflective process involves appraising intense emotions and vague thoughts in the analytical state of mind writing demands. Historians are therefore at a great advantage when first-person accounts exist of the thought-life of complex individuals such as Vincent or Helene.

In describing her art collection Helene called it a “Self Portrait” and like her diaries she believed the works she acquired revealed her private side.  In writing about her collection her analysis affords an avenue of insight into what the collection meant to her. It aids an outside observer to better understand what she hoped viewers would receive from her collection. The account of her collecting and the meanings she ascribed to it could be called a ‘double reflection’ for we hear her assessing her personal motives in two ways. One is an analysis of her art collection itself and its assembled value— the second is an inquiry into her state of mind and motivations in assembling it in the first place.


A Candid View

In our own troubled era an admiration for Van Gogh may appear disingenuous. It can be argued that the legacy of Van Gogh was contrived by Johanna and Helene for their personal gain and carried on by others blind to the darker aspects of Vincent’s personality. One can argue that Jo and others close to her would benefit financially by fabricating a false view of Van Gogh as heroic and accomplished when he was a broken and crazed man. When one looks at what Johanna and Helene knew of Van Gogh they will discover both the negative and positive aspects of his personality.

In the editing and publication of his letters Johanna showed great sensitivity to the Van Gogh family regarding facts about his life and episodes of his recurrent disruptive behavior. Most of his questionable behavior was reported by Vincent himself and brought to light in the lengthy introduction to his letters written by Johanna herself. She spent time with him and witnessed his actions and in the end was touched by his disarming sensitivity.  Theo also reported that Vincent was a challenge for he could be kind and gentle but also argumentative and quarrelsome as well.  However these more negative flaws were offset by his brothers rich intellectual and artistic gifts.

When all is said later historians sided with Theo and noted Vincent’s powerful cluster of knowledge, skills and communication abilities.  None of his credible witnesses, friends and supporters ever dismissed his foibles and formidable force of will. Only when he was recovering from his severe seizures or in an alcoholic daze does one find anything that resembles delusion.  Of course in such cases one does not expect rational behavior.  But these incidents were exceptions not the rule.  The most extreme behavior occurred in the last 16 months of his life when the combination of syphilis, absinthe and epilepsy had a life shattering impact on his wellbeing and behavior. Even then in the final weeks of his life he was lucid and in control of himself.  On the whole what one notices is Van Gogh’s honesty and unswerving commitment to his art and artistic goals. In studying his letters what emerges is his mental acuity, ability to read, recall, assimilate and articulate important ideas and to formulate insights into action.  His work ethic was undeniable and admirable.

The art, letters and actions of his life are the proof of the man and his quality of his thought.  There’s the way Van Gogh absorbed Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo and admired the thought life of other legendary thinkers. This is what Johanna and others were inspired by—his examples of honest self-appraisal and reflection. They recognized the best in the man and insisted that others see those qualities too—for in not seeing them humanity would be the lesser.

There many reasons why Helene felt a strong connection with Vincent and which was intensified by owning so much of his art and reading his letters. Vincent and Helene shared an Evangelistic heritage and a complicated relationship with organized religion. They were passionate readers, avid writers, driven personalities, highly-intelligent and idealistic. They held to a spiritual view of art and culture as a way of elevating society. Both had experiences that pitted them against restrictive views and which developed endurance within them. They both had an ability to master languages and possessed the mental power to concentrate for long periods of time on self-assigned tasks.

They both were hospitalized for periods of time requiring bedrest and therapy. They were deep thinkers and their correspondence shows a strong philosophical tenor. They shared great compassion for the suffering of their fellowman and both worked for a time as volunteer nurses. They had the ability to think abstractly and to reach powerful insights expressing insights in words, images and actions. They were both misunderstood and often maligned by others. In the end they created outstanding cultural treasures and became benefactors of humanity.

In looking at the similarities between Helene and Johanna one also finds important parallels. The women were contemporaries and close to the same age and well aware of one another but there’s no evidence they ever met face to face. The legacy of Van Gogh was a shared concern for Johanna and Helene who, though acting separately, were collaborators in spirit. Both left the world immeasurable richer from their devotion, courage and commitment to the cultural life of the world. They were curators of cultural values contained in the body of art work they valued and shared with the world. They were cultural cultivators and creators by the  example of their lives.

It is a blessing that they maintained their own correspondence as cultural agents. From Johanna’s and Helene’s private accounts we can realize the depth of their efforts to plan, coordinate and carry out their dreams of bequeathing something of inestimable value to the world. Culture makers and artists share much in common in this way— they live beyond their time through their desire to impact the future.

Enduring legacies are not created piecemeal.  They are willfully built, verified and codified by intelligent effort, intuition and devotion to high ideals. It induces an awakening, a renewal, a reaffirmation of the things that give life intimate and ultimate value. Art works in this way are  concrete universals— making real and evident the conscious effort of individuals (in this case the artist and conservator) to benefit others.

The rich deposit of personal information found in their letters, memoirs and testimonials provides important cultural insights. For example Vincent’s letters reveal his reading habits and give a faithful day-by-day account of his art production and influences shaping his evolving vision.  No one who has carefully studied Vincent’s accounts of his art process has ever discredited the veracity and accuracy of his studio reports.  Vincent’s claims can be verified by the art work he made and accounts he left in writing about the making of them. There is not a shed of delusion in his artistic reports. Why then would other accounts of his life be less reliable?

That Vincent wrote so often and eloquently about his artistic development and motivations has proved critical to archivists in properly curating and understanding his work.   Helene recognized the accuracy of his letters as she acquired more and more of his art. To fully appreciate his artistic achievements she sought passages where Vincent discussed the works in her collection.  She never reported being misinformed by Van Gogh at any time— his recollection and reports of his progress and process proved fully accurate and reliable.

With his letters in hand she noted the conjunction of images and ideas in Van Gogh’s art. This disclosure allowed her to probe and ponder what artistic creation did for Van Gogh with the supposition that what his work in turn did for her would also be of value to humanity.  As a caretaker of things having great cultural value she wanted to share the insights she got from the combination of her research and direct and daily experiences with Van Gogh art.  Her duty as a curatorial custodian involved far more than showcasing objects of art— her task was to record, report and provide life-giving cultural continuity and experiential knowledge to others after her.

  What is unique about the Van Gogh paintings and drawings Helene secured is that each work fit into Vincent’s life narrative and was in turn enhanced by his explanatory written accounts.  Her collection stands as a systematic overview of Van Gogh’s life and can be understood in a graphic sense as the illustrations of Van Gogh’s letters.  To find a similar example of this phenomena one needs to study the journals and letters of Eugene Delacroix where he maintained an open account (often day-by-day) of his studio progress and internal spiritual journey.

ASIDE: Where Vincent had Theo to dialogue with Helene’s private side was shared with Sam Deventer, a trusted company employee with whom Helene exchanged over 4000 letters. This  trove of letters was only recently discovered. The correspondence points to a relationship that was the source of suspicion by members of her family— in particular her daughter Helene Jr.. her oldest child and namesake.

Biographers have concluded that Helene was in love with Sam.  He was also twenty years younger than her mother and close to Helene Junior’s age. From their extensive correspondence it is evident they shared an intense intellectual intimacy expressed in writing but apparently never physically. Like Vincent and Theo, Sam and Helene are also buried near each other. Helene and Anton’s metal slabs reside side-by-side and just above them is Sam’s grave.  It appears that Anton was not overly concerned about their bond— perhaps he was relieved of fulfilling her intense spiritual and emotional needs.

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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Vincent’s Example of Compassion

The fact that Helene possessed in visual terms the equivalent of Van Gogh’s life was enhanced greatly when Johanna published Vincent and Theo’s letters in 1914 in both Dutch and German. The letters allowed Helene to understand that Van Gogh was not a typical painter. He was in fact a painter/illustrator or—put another way—he was a fine artist with a highly-honed narrative mindset. In cultivating an appreciation of his achievements Helene and Johanna understood that they had a double responsibility: namely to offer a comprehensive view of the two sides of his singular mindset— the visual and the literary.

Because she acquired paintings and drawings spanning his whole career, Helene saw each work as expressive of key moments in Van Gogh’s life. Part of her curatorial concern was to aid the general public in understanding the unique way Van Gogh thought about his visual production. She knew that at the outset of his career his desire was to be a book illustrator. He was deeply impacted by the way an illustrator was able to embody words and actions into an image. By following his career though the diverse images in her possession she saw how they fell into an evolving illustrative stream leading up to his last productions.

For instance, she was able to see that early works such as Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed had a story attached to them, and she readily grasped its reference to abandonment and the painful cutting away of vital life expressed in the shown and discarded stems of the flowers.  This kind of visual communication is what a good illustrator does—suggesting or at best symbolizing meanings using expressive elements, cues and clues.

However Vincent combined this traditional way of thinking with emotive content through unique color choices and gestural brushwork. As a Post Impressionist painter he was able to add emotion and points of emphasis allowing access  to his state of mind and symbolized meaning. Helene saw that her task as a museum founder (with the second largest gathering of Van Gogh’s art in the world) was to offer a means of accessing the meaning of the work in her possession. She took it upon herself to lecture and publish on art and aesthetics.  Her own union of  the visual and literary was heightened by her self assigned task in weaving her accumulation of cultural heritage into a whole.  She wanted to find elegant and cogent ways of communicating with the general public and assigned herself the role of a museum educator. She was far more than a private collector— she was a person with a serious commitment to the public welfare.


Cultivating Cultural Awareness

The hundreds of letters exchanged between Vincent and Theo comprise some of the most moving personal correspondence of the nineteenth century. In these records one finds their deepest concerns, fears and ambitions laid bare. We can hear Vincent’s despair when he was dismissed as an Evangelist in the 1870s. We learn of the aftermath in his return home and of his father’s failure to defend him from their neighbor’s gossip for his sons apparent failure as a volunteer evangelist. So much is evident in these letters that one can loose sight of why they were written in the first place. And it is evident that the purpose of the letters was for Vincent to think out loud—to grapple with the issues that plagued him and to have someone to sympathize with and acknowledge his value.

Their correspondence opens a door into the hearts and minds of two remarkable men and their belief in the potential of art to help transform the world. Transforming it by deepening the understanding of the human condition and the role the arts play in civilizing the world. What we have in their letters is a direct access into the meaning of the Van Gogh legacy.

Cultural treasures are often birthed under the most improbable of circumstances and  saved at the risk of life. They can just as easily be destroyed suddenly and unexpectedly. This book was in its final stages of editing in April 2019 when Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was ravaged by fire.  The destruction of this cherished architectural wonder reminded all culture lovers of the critical value of the world’s historical heritage. The loss of the things we value forces us to acknowledge the life-enhancing gift embodied in physical objects and the creative sacrifices made by those who made them.

Preserving culture heritage emanates from the same spirit as making works of art. The spirit of a curator or restorer is a life-preserving attitude much like that of a nurse or doctor.  Through their preservation of Van Gogh’s art and letters, they supported, sustained and saved the efforts of the man who risked his life to create them.   Johanna and Helene cultivated Vincent’s legacy as one of the most valued contributors to our understanding what it is to be human. Johanna had a demanding task— she had both the letters and  art in her care and was singularly gifted with the wisdom, skill, patience and determination to preserve and in turn share what she had learned with the world.

Legacies are forms of wealth created, accrued, curated and shared with others in an intentional chain. The dreams, memories and reflections of fine minds constitute one of humankind’s ultimate treasures.  The values passed onto us by Vincent, Theo,  Johanna and Helene are incalculable and underscore the importance of every generation to preserve and insure that works of rare value are kept for those who will follow them.

In telling the present story letters have been indispensable and their existence is directly due to Helene, Johanna, Theo and Vincent.  All of them wrote and shared their letters with others who in turn preserved and passed them on to us as valued knowledge..

In reflecting over the difficulties that Helene andJohanna surmounted one gains a great respect for their persistence and courage to carry on when there was slim prospect of success. We find in their letters and diaries a record of the intense struggles that Vincent, Theo, Johanna and Helene dealt with and their steady— nearly stoic quality to endure— but not one untouched by deep insight and feeling.

Johanna was a natural survivor who garnered her internal energy and doled it out carefully, reserving her vital powers to meet the demanding circumstances she was forced to face.  She survived a difficult birth and lost her husband after a tragically brief marriage. After Theo’s death, as a widow she provided for her child by running a boarding house, something she was not eager to do.  She was a very accomplished person and every bit the equal of Helene. Both women were remarkable in multiple ways and well ahead of their times in personal and professional achievement.

Helene’s life and testimony like that of Johanna’s is a story of devotion to things of value. Helene carefully purchased, planned and placed each piece in her collection for a purpose and for posterity. She conserved and arranged a comprehensive group of images that carried a concise graphic history. There is a great sense of order about the whole. It forms a general picture of the evolution of modern art decade-by-decade and the present-day museum remains devoted to showcasing new artistic developments. 

One may wonder how Helene prepared for her work as a cultural historian and caretaker? One explanation is that she had trained herself to think philosophically; to make important connections between private and public forms of knowledge. Her extensive readings of German philosophers was excellent training for the aesthetic thought required as a cultural benefactor. It was one thing to acquire fine objects but another to comprehend their legacy of value for humankind.  Helene was able to do in spite of severe personal difficulties and overwhelming world threatening catastrophes.


A Heritage of the Spirit

Helene’s statements are saturated with German aesthetic thought going back to philosophers such as Goethe, Spinoza, Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Rilke and Hegel. The notion that a work of art reveals the inner working of the spirit of the maker and conditions in which works were made was elaborated upon by many of these thinkers. These spiritual views of art were advocated by Helene’s mentor Bremmer who in turn passed them on to his followers. This educative transmission itself was a form of cultural cultivation where the thought life of important thinkers is shared with receptive minds.  Helene would become one of Bremmer’s most devoted advocates and as a result she placed him under contract as her art agent. The terms of the contract forbade Bremmer from taking commissions for negotiating purchases of art for Helene’s collection. Her generous annual salary eliminated any need for further compensation.

She was a great example of collectors who made sure that modern art found its way into important museums in the early 20th century. She loaned her art out just as Johanna had and by making her collection accessible she stimulated the acceptance of modern  art worldwide.

Having known at firsthand the destruction of war,  Johanna and Helene supported peace efforts and understood the value of art as a means of breaching cultural barriers.  They both stated that they had been deeply impacted by the compassion of Van Gogh whom they came to admire through his letters and art. Both were devoted to the ideals they associated with Van Gogh such as the idea that love can only be expressed in action. They spent their lives honoring this ideal especially as they suffered loss, disappointment, tragedy and illness— yet  succeeded in achieving their dreams in ways they couldn’t have imagined.

They remained steadfast and courageous to the end. Both women expressed their yearning for “the infinite, the eternal the absolute” and part of that powerful desire was relieved through their love of beauty.  Interestingly they both shared a strong interest in philosophical writing and consumed the metaphysical thought of Lessing and Goethe whom they read in their earlier years They had a passion for elevated ideas which was far from a usual cast of mind for most young women at the time. Had the women met they would have recognized they were well matched intellectually for they were both exceptionally well read.

On the 18th of April 1892 Johanna wrote the following in her diary:

“This evening I saw a blackbird high up in the branches of a still leafless birch–he sang–it sounded so beautiful in the quiet evening air–and he swayed so lustily and free high up there, high in the air, for the first time, I felt something of that if only I were a bird. I’d like to be everything, everything: a flower, a leaf, a bird, anything but what I am–a poor, unhappy person with the thirst and the hunger in me for the infinite, the eternal–the absolute–and yet shackled to the most material things in the world–eating, drinking, housekeeping. There’s something of the infinite in my love for my boy–but it’s not enough for me–every day he takes a step further away from me, becomes more independent–he needs me less. That’s good–that’s what must happen–but I–I remain with my poor, discontented heart, that still wants so much, desires so much. My life didn’t begin until three years ago–I had always gone through life with my eyes half closed. Theo taught me to see, taught me to live–is everything over for me now?” (https://www.bongerdiaries.org/dagboek_jo_4_section_16)

What is evident in such passages is that both Helene and Johanna had spiritual needs that were never full satisfied. Johanna’s plea, “I am a poor, unhappy person with the thirst and the hunger in me for the infinite, the eternal–the absolute–and yet shackled to the most material things in the world . . .” is echoed by Helene in multiple entrees in her own private letters and reflections. They were destined to devote their lives to seemingly unattainable dreams.  Johanna’s steady pursuit of her goal of publishing Vincent’s letters would take up a third of her life. And the promotion of his art began with Theo’s death and continued to her own passing. Helene likewise devoted herself to similar efforts to bring Van Gogh into the world and provide an ideal place for the contemplation of his art. From the start Helene believed her personal efforts would have longterm public value. She stated that 100 years after her death the world would embrace her collection and value the efforts that created it.  De Jonge quoted Helene as saying that her ambition was to collect works that would  stand the test of time . . . because I collect to give to future generations that which I consider the best in life” (p. 23).

By loaning Van Gogh’s work to reputable institutions it underscored his artistic importance. In turn it cultivated an appreciation not only for Van Gogh but eventually for Picasso, Mondrian and other Modernists in her collection. Abstraction reflected the perplexity    of the time and by acquiring and defending it she helped persuade the world of its value.  Soon Helene had assembled one of the world’s great modernist collections. It was challenging work and often misunderstood by the public but that did not dissuade her. She had a strong conviction of its value.  Her clarity and purpose was expressed in the following statement by Oxenaar:

“Mrs. Kröller’s collection does not in essence represent a comprehensive movement in art history, but a unity of atmosphere, experienced by everyone as unique, which can be called by the name H. L. C. Jaffé liked to use: Apollonian. It shows harmony and clarity, silence, seriousness and gentleness, subdued drama, cool tension, repressed emotion, poetic flight, serenity, but rarely the glory, explosiveness, spontaneousness and torment of a Dionysian attitude to life. . . .

“In the memorandum Mrs. Kröller sent to the Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences in 1933, at the time of the preparations for the transfer of the collection to the State, she gave her views on the possible future of the collection and the museum. Once more she firmly states that the collection was built up— ‘with a preconceived idealistic, scientific and ethical purpose’, also that ‘The collection is not composed of independent aesthetic works and masterpieces, rather it is a carefully sought-out series of works of art which give a picture of the course of development of contemporary art, of the artist in himself and, because of the combination of their works, of the whole period’. . .  (pp. 180-182).

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Morbi commodo, ipsum sed pharetra gravida, orci magna rhoncus neque, id pulvinar odio lorem non turpis. Nullam sit amet enim. Suspendisse id velit vitae ligula volutpat condimentum. Aliquam erat volutpat. Sed quis velit. Nulla facilisi. Nulla libero. Vivamus pharetra posuere sapien. Nam consectetuer. Sed aliquam, nunc eget euismod ullamcorper, lectus nunc ullamcorper orci, fermentum bibendum enim nibh eget ipsum. Donec porttitor ligula eu dolor. Maecenas vitae nulla consequat libero cursus venenatis. Nam magna enim, accumsan eu, blandit sed, blandit a, eros.

Connoisseur or Conservator?

Helene’s close association with scholars and experts in art and architecture deepened her understanding of aesthetics and the art world.  In the same way, Johanna continued her lifelong art education through friendships with an avant-garde society of artists, critics and writers — members of the Tachtigers or Eighties Group residing in Bussum, Holland.  Helene and Johanna both attended lectures and maintained contact with important historians and thinkers. Many of these individuals including Bremmer and his associates were well known to both women.

Had they been less passionate in their educative process they wouldn’t have succeeded in understanding and promoting the art developments of the early 20th century as they did. It is to their credit they were able to sustain their interest in spite of setbacks that would have derailed others. Helene and Johanna were by no means ordinary art advocates. Appreciating the works in their possession required that they understood its conceptual basis. Here is where their mentors and educators played key roles in shedding light on the formal, thematic and contextual nature of art. This enabled them to acquire the heart of a conservator and the trained eye of a connoisseur grounded in a highly informed appreciation of art in general and Van Gogh’s achievements in particular.

It is important to make a distinction between the connoisseur and the conservator, for the difference in the case of Helene and Johanna is important. The connoisseur is by definition an individual who relishes perfection in art and like the aesthete is primarily interested in the formal properties of an object. A conservator on the other hand is one who desires to preserve or conserve the cultural heritage of objects. They see them as holding intrinsic historical value regardless of their formal perfection. In fact the conservator may be drawn to save works that have been severely damaged and to save them from total loss.

The connoisseur is often driven to assemble a collection of works of high quality for their own satisfaction within their private residence and not intended for the public’s eyes. The conservator on other hand is driven by broad humanitarian concerns. They see their task as saving and sharing things of cultural value for the general edification of mankind. When such an individual inherits or acquires valuable cultural objects they have an obligation to share them with the public. Helene and Johanna were conservators driven with the awareness of the generations following them as benefactors of the art and letters in their care. Where a connoisseur focuses primarily on the object— the conservator while admiring the physical artifact— believes the work embodies timeless cultural values. 

The themes of a work of art often express to literary concepts and cultural traditions. For instance if the subject of a painting is about David and Goliath, knowing the origin and importance of the story within Biblical history adds layers of meaning of the painting. Knowledge of these meanings in turn deepen the appreciation of the formal properties of the work. It does this when the expressive skill of the artist (as an interpreter of a story) intensifies the character and power of the story illustrated with expressive and poetic uses of color, shape, texture etc.  Additionally when a conservator has a strong aesthetic mindset they are able to grasp the long-range cultural significance of the works in their care and can educate viewers of values embodied surrounding these objects.

If there has been damage to a work a conservator is able to include the happenstance of the art’s injury into the life history of the object.  A conservator will bring viewers into the steps taken to repair or conserve the damage and in so doing helps reveal how it was made to begin with.  Allowing the public to see conservation steps offers them broader understanding of a works makeup  and deepening an appreciation of it as a physical object.

What provided Johanna and Helene with revolutionary conservatorial power was the unusually large number of paintings and drawings they possessed—enough for two museums. This largess of work also included Van Gogh’s extensive letters which provided insights into the themes and context of the art. These written records helped in preserving and presenting their collections to the public.  For example they were able to learn that Van Gogh often enhanced his oil paintings by varnishing them with egg yoke and in other instances used coffee to stain sheets of paper to give them a tan color. He also would on occasion coat drawings with milk which when dry acted as a sealant and varnish. Knowing how works were made by an artist is crucial to conservators in conserving. restoring and caring for works of art.

Vincent’s studio notes and reports in his letters gave them an enormous amount of conservatorial data that was disseminated over the past century. Yes— their collection included works of rare formal beauty and in excellent condition. They did have the things a connoisseur admired— namely objects of beauty— but they also had something a conservator values —objects of cultural significance that were on account of their embodied values made even more beautiful and meaningful.

A curatorial view of Van Gogh includes an appreciation of his literacy skill, beauty and the wisdom to be found in his writings. Such appreciation reveals how preceptive and insightful his portraits are and what they reveal about the human condition in general. There is also the extraordinary range of paintings of nature in formulations from fields to forest and detailed studies of trees, flowers and plants. His legacy as a painter of the natural realm has the diversity of a botanist and the elegiac soar of a lyrical poet. The conservator is the one who keeps all of this in view and makes sure the public is made aware of these aesthetic values through educational programs and public outreaches.

The Museum by Definition

The concept of a museum varies with the concept of the collector and the nature of the collection. Some collections offer an overview of an era, others are devoted to regional or local interests and specialized in scope. Other collections are broad with an international focus crossing centuries and exploring diverse stylistic developments.

Within such a range of possibilities there is a question of how a collection is best presented. Should works of art be exhibited thematically? Should they be arranged in order of age or country of origin? What sort of gallery space should the work be shown in? What considerations should be made for lighting and the design of the building? What steps are needed to maintain the operational funding and technical maintenance of the collection? How is  climate control maintained in the museum? museum guards and alarm systems? who will oversee regular inspections of the art by experts and restorers? There must be restrooms, a museum cafe and store where one can purchase keepsakes, books and reproductions. A successful museum must be attractive with an ease of access for parking. The institution needs to be staffed by courteous and knowledgeable employees and administrated by a director/art historian and backed by a fundraising staff, financial manager, curator of education, docents and much more. With all of these complex needs confronting the couple it was a blessing that the final resolution was taken out of their hands.

Anton’s companies great financial gains in the First World War were decimated by the international bank collapse of 1929.  The 1930s brought a growing treat of a Second World War and potential invasion of the Netherlands. It was far from an ideal time to erect and fund a museum! The Kröllers turned to the Dutch government to find a solution and one was found. The design of the building that caused the couple endless disagreement would be taken out of their hands. As A.M. Hammacher, a former director of the museum, explains:

“The First World War had no adverse effect on assembling and composing the collection. The political, national, social and economic upheavals of the twenties in Europe which culminated in a growing threat of war from Hitler were what unsettled the major plans for a building for the collection. The Kröllers’ commercial activities ran into trouble and their finances grew shaky. Far from giving up their museum dream, Mr. and Mrs. Kröller proved to have developed such a profound passion for the art they had already acquired that they faced the challenge of the threatening world storm with equanimity.

“In other words, not to labour the point too much, the collection was able to be preserved as a museum for the community, not presented from plenty, but saved from shipwreck. Disappointing negotiations with a government which doubted the significance and value of the modern art collection and worried about the precarious financial situation, did not prevent the Kröllers from finding a formula for a transfer in two phases, ending private ownership of the art, then preserving it for the future, uncertain though this future might be” (p. 10).

Their willingness to relinquish control says a great deal about their desire to create a public collection.  They were now convinced that a state collection devoted to Van Gogh and modern art  would contribute to Holland’s cultural heritage into the 20th century and beyond.  However a museum of modern art was a novel idea and only a few visionaries could see modernity’s longterm value.  Finding the political support for this undertaking took enormous force of will. But Helene was up to the task — she was not dissuaded even in the face of war.

By the 1930’s the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (built in 1885) was the pride of the country with its preeminent collection of Dutch masters showcasing such exemplars as Rembrandt and Vermeer. What the Kröller-Müller offered was a collection centered around the still controversial works of Van Gogh. Helene pitched it as a forward-looking collection destined for a progressive and peaceful 20th century. But progress and peace were not a certainty in the face of the looming Second World War. It was the worse possible time for the country to take on the financial burden of building the museum. In a remarkable twist of fate the museum that was  created would be more modest but more suitable than anything they had imagined.

However what cemented the deal was that Helene and Anton would donate the vast HogeVeluwe “fallow lands,” and its 14,000 acres to the country provided their collection be given a proper building to house it. The wooded region had enormous value as a National Park. The resolution was explained by Wim de Wit:

“If the Dutch government had not stepped in during the 1930s to provide financial support, a Kröller-Müller museum would never have come into being. Ironically, the time it took to implement the by-then drastically reduced plans may from a museological point of view have been an advantage. Had the original design for the museum (dating to the late 1910s and early 1920s) been realized, the result might have looked old-fashioned as soon as it was completed. The late-1930s plan that was eventually constructed resulted in a museum building with modest but elegant and light-saturated galleries that coincided perfectly with the then-current practice of displaying works of art in white-washed spaces. Although it was planned as a temporary structure, the Kröller-Müller Museum that opened to the public in 1938 became very popular and the building has been in continuous use for more than sixty years”  (p. 114)

The architect Henry Van de Velde (who had previously completed construction of the Hunting Lodge) designed a disarmingly effective building as evident in what one sees today.  It is a credit to his patience endurance that of all the architects who attempted to appease the needs for the Kröller-Müllers that he should have succeeded without their involvement! What he was allowed to do has endured the test of time. It is a gift that continues to give. It is surely not at all what Helene had imagined but in the end something far better than she could have foreseen. Helene died a few months after the opening of the museum in 1939 and typical of her desire for control— she oversaw the placement of every piece of art shown.

What did she think of Van de Velde’s building?  She must have had mixed feelings for it was so unlike the Apollonian perfection she yearned for and far from the monumentality Anton sought. But she knew Van de Velde had an eye to the future and perhaps trusted that he knew far better than she what the future would require.  She was at peace knowing there was a museum after all—a miracle born out of tragedy caught up between two cataclysmic wars. The modest light-filled structure captures some of the restrained elegance Helene had in mind. Following her death extensions were added to the building; carefully calculated to contain the clarity and austerity Helene loved.  She did not have time to second guess or make any modification to the building.  She died unaware that the building and its treasure would succumb to invasion and hand-to-hand combat would actually take place within the HogeVeluwe park. The museum building was even converted into a temporary Red Cross War Hospital at the height of the Second World War.  When the war ended its original purpose as a museum was reestablished.

Decades later the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was opened in 1973 expanded in 1999 and yet again in 2015. The extensions of this auspicious museum, like those in the Kröller-Müller Museum were a response to the growing interest the two great collections were generating.  A level of interest and success thatTheo, Johanna and Helene would have never imagined.


An Unusual Legacy

It is laudable that Helene was concerned with sharing her thoughts and motivations in assembling her collection. One that—though centered around Van Gogh—was to extend well beyond him. It was for this reason she wrote a book in which she explained her goals. As van der Wolk reports:

“Mrs. Kröller set herself the task of ‘showing [her audience] that understanding art sensibly is not so overwhelmingly difficult as they probably thought’. She writes: ‘To achieve that, I had wanted to clothe my explanations and all I had to say in very simple words even if, or precisely because, most books and magazines and articles on modern art contain so incredibly many high-sounding words which, if one reads them critically, simply do no more than conceal the great ignorance of the writer. Art is not difficult; art only calls for absorption [. . .] I would like [. . .] on the basis of the paintings to make it more or less clear to you what the considerations were in bringing this collection together; I would like to illustrate to you what thread runs through it and show that the various forms of art which are represented in it are not there by chance, but are a steady development from what is seen in concrete terms toward the abstract, towards the Absolute. My starting-point will be the realism of the years 1870-1890, which constituted such a sound basis for a regular development of art up to the idealism of our days’” (p. 71).

This passage shows Helene’s intimate knowledge of German aesthetics notably for whom a work of art could embody the Absolute ideas of an age as a concrete manifestation in a finite work of art.  Helene and Bremmer credited works of art with manifesting the Spirit of a era. Zeitgeist or World Spirit. The German term expresses that a work of art is the realization of the ideas and spirit of a particular time.  Zeitgeist is related to dreams which express the state or inner-spirit of ones consciousness at a very deep level. The above passages and the one following it below elaborated on the theme of a work of art as revealing the spiritual Self which is understood as the universal identity all persons share. The notion of objectivized emotion Helene employs expresses that a work of art can bring into the open what lies hidden within; allowing the object of art to became a carrier of spiritual emotion making the spiritual SelfAbsolute and real. Van der Wolk continues:

“As the two extremes in this development Mrs. Kröller reproduces in her book the Still Life with Ladles, 1900 by August Allebé and Le violon, 1911-12 by Pablo Picasso. Mrs. Kröller: ‘If we wish to speak and reason about art we must first have a clear concept of  ‘art’. We must know exactly what the word art means to us when we speak and hear it. My definition of art is as follows: art is the emotional objectivization of the spiritual Self, with no other intention than to objectivize this Self . . . . So after long hesitation I decided on the words derived from Latin ‘emotional objectivization’ and I can only describe this to you. By emotional objectivization I mean the creative recording of an emotion, the fusion of what has been seen in concrete terms with the spiritual Self, with the Absolute in the artist’” (p. 71)

We see Helene struggling before her audience to put into words, and makes several attempts before she settled on the Hegelian terms— Spiritual Self and the Absolute — we recall her admiration for German thinkers going back to her student days. She uses these philosophical terms to describe objects created by artists intent on expressing their spiritual aspirations.  A form of non-dogmatic religious expression which Helene embraced and as did Van Gogh, Mondrian and other Modernists. 

Helene cautions us to approach a work of art with the respect we would afford a person. She challenges a viewer to spend time with a difficult work of art and allow it to unravel itself much like discussion results in disclosure allowing us to understand another. She also believed that nonobjective works of art convey emotion much like instrumental music —which carries a mood more than to a message or overt meaning.

Van der Wolk continues to quote Helene:

“‘But it is not only in modest self-effacement, but also with respect that we should stand before a work of art, for every work of art is the picture of a human soul and if only we grasp it correctly it can reveal much to us that would escape us if we drew exclusively from our own source. We human beings generally walk around with faces which tell little, which even conceal things and are not allowed to express what moves us inwardly. And it is a good thing that it is like this. If we wanted to let ourselves go and show every emotion, then our society, which is already complicated enough, would become completely impossible. But art, however difficult it may be to unravel, does not have this element of concealment; in art it is different. It never threatens; it can never threaten, for art is emotion and emotion is always genuine. Art is a Self-Portrait and in this sense art is pure truth and that is precisely what makes it so valuable, especially for us modern people. . . .

“‘In art we therefore encounter a positive beauty in the sense that art and beauty are concepts which coincide, and that must not surprise you; for if beauty—according to our definition—is a feeling inside us, and art—also according to our definition—is objectivized emotion, then the artist’s emotion about what he finds beautiful is recorded in the art object. Then, in the face of an art object, we are confronted with a marriage of observation and emotion. Even what is termed ugly is not excluded here, for what applies to beauty applies also to what is ugly. It is equally a feeling, a sentiment in us which we ascribe to objects. Even the ugly is never tied to a thing; it is an emotion which is just as subjective as the beautiful and what seems ugly to us may be experienced as something beautiful by someone else’” (p. 72).

The German generation of WWI understood the suffering and loss contained in Van Gogh’s art, letters and life and explains how Expressionism was birthed on German soil. The paintings of Schiele, Marc, Klee, Beckmann and novels of Mann and Hesse all reflect a mood of inwardness and tragic reflection over what some might even consider ugly as Helene expressed it above. What Helene sensed in Vincent’s Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed, 1887 was what Van Gogh had breathed into it— his inner desire to convey deep sympathy because he understood what it was to feel the want of it. There is nothing false about Van Gogh when he said he hoped people would one day say he was someone who felt deeply and keenly about life and it’s contours of tragedy and beauty—suffering and joy.

That Van Gogh succeeded in expressing powerful and compelling emotion in his Sunflower series it is notable that both Johanna and Helene cherished a Sunflower painting and included it in significant ways in their lives. Johanna kept her Sunflower paining in her living room for years and only parted with it at the end of her life when the National Gallery in London pleaded for it. She did so when the director of the museum stated that with Vincent’s great love of England that he would have wanted it there. Johanna who also had spent time in London and studied in the National Gallery finally gave way. Additionally, if one examines the broaches Johanna often wore with her high necked dresses one will recognize a sunflower design. The work had very potent symbolic meanings as “Son Follower” with overt Christian themes.

Helene’s love of her Sunflower work was equally intense and as previously mentioned insisted that it be placed above her coffin at her funeral. She also wrote an especially powerful poetic passage about the painting.  Like Johanna she too had a strong Christian foundation of belief which she demonstrated in her non-dogmatic ways.

Van Gogh risked his life to wrestle meaning out of chaos and it is this kind of thinking that Helene wants a viewer to grasp as she uses terms like Absolute Spiritual Self—or Art as Self Portrait; the idea is to experience the work as a revealing of Self rather than a copy of the external world. When a viewer can go beyond the appearance of an object in the same way one can sense and respond emotionally to another person past their appearance. To connect with the inner life of another removes cultural barriers and is at its core a sacred way of thinking about interpersonal communion.

TheAbsolute Spirit Self is in fact the spirit of the artist and the artist’s embodiment of Self is intended as a universal sense of all humankind’s self awareness. This kind of universal connection is what Helene hoped viewers would experience in the presence of a work of evocative art.  It is why she was so concerned with wrestling, finessing with words in an attempt to explain the purpose and potential of her collection. She hoped visitors would emerge with a deeper understanding of themselves (and empathy with others) from the contemplation of a collection centered on Van Gogh—an artist who evoked emotion and passionate engagement.

In 1911 after her cancer operation she expanded her collection and started the practice of  loaning it to other museums and galleries. She was a great example of collectors who made sure that modern art found its way into the world in the early 20th century.  She also made her collection especially accessible within the Netherlands offering free admittance to her temporary gallery.

In America the Joseph Barnes Art Foundation was similar to Helene’s collection. Barnes also allowed viewers free access to his important works housed in his mansion in Philadelphia.  Helene’s willingness to make her collection readily available to the public contributed to the acceptance of modern art worldwide.  Helene’s desire to share her work was in line with the desires of Johanna and Theo. It was a social-minded concern and based on the conviction that art museums needed to attract and help educated the public.  As history has shown, these  pioneers succeeded in spreading the word and sharing their cherished art works to a waiting world.


A Legacy of the Heart

In his article “Vincent Willem van Gogh and the Van Gogh Museum’s pre-history” in the Van Gogh Museum Journal of 1995, Gerald von Brinkhorst observed the following:

“The cultural and political values that Jo instilled in her son were bound up with the socialist movement in the Netherlands around the turn of the century, of which she was part. Above all, the idea that the cultural education of the masses was of prime importance left a permanent mark on him. Soon after settling in Bussum, Jo became a member of the newly founded Social-Democratic Labour Party (SDAP). It was through the party that she became friendly with the politician F.M. Wibaut, whom she probably got to know when he was the editor for social and economic affairs for De Kroniek, a progressive weekly for which Jo made translations from English and French.

“Unlike Theo, Johanna’s views on art seem to have been influenced mainly by the members of the Eighties Movement (De Tachtigers). She was certainly attracted to their love of pathos, and in the years following Theo’s death it seems that this led her to take her veneration of Vincent somewhat to extremes” (pp. 2-3).

Helene was in many ways an equal to Johanna; both were disciplined, well-read, steadfast, courageous and driven by a sense of duty. They were devoted to the artistic brilliance and moral values they saw in Vincent and devoted their lives to honoring him by sharing his legacy with the world.  In retrospect it is remarkable that they were able to realize this untenable dream. They succeeded with patience, courage, sacrifices of time, energy and personal resources.

Along with many points of similarity the two woman are studies in contrast as well. Helene was a conflicted and complicated woman who could compartmentalize her inmost thoughts whereas Jo was more open and emotionally steady. Helene had enormous wealth and power at her disposal whereas Johanna had little financial support by comparison. Johanna slowly built her life and reputation as an art dealer and publisher of Vincent’s letters while Helene married into power and prestige.

Both women left Holland immeasurable richer culturally but at different prices. One can say with much certainty that the price Helene paid to achieve her goal of creating a major collection of art left her devastated and estranged from those closest to her while Johanna did not suffer this kind of personal conflict.

But from the start Helene, like Johanna, was convinced Vincent’s art and letters had great social value—that 100 years later it would be seen as greater than ever. That the world would embrace it and perhaps recognize her steadfastness in acquiring it. Thoughts like this must have given her some comfort amid the sadness that surrounded her.  Living on a vast tract of wilderness and seemingly immune to financial need she was envied and mistrusted by the general public.

Prior to 1911 we can find little indication that art would play a major role in Helene’s life but here grave illness offered little hope of recovery. When she emerged from the hospital she felt that she had been granted a new life and convinced she needed to leave a legacy. This all fit well into the mystical tenor of the time and inspired her to produce one of the first modern art collections in the world.

A Brief Aside …

Aside Headline

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Behind the Scenes

The path to the legacy Helene sought was a thorny journey interrupted by two World Wars including the Occupation of the Netherlands by the German Army. The fact that the Kröller-Müller collection was not seized by the Nazis provoked questions in the minds of the Dutch government at the close of the war. What compounded suspicions of collusion with the enemy was the fact that Helene and Anton were German.  The observations by A. M. Hammacher sheds light on the intense investigation that followed the liberation of the country and threatened closure of the museum:

“The occupation prevented the museum from making a name either locally or further afield. Mrs. Kröller died in 1939, desperately concerned about the fate of the world and about their creation, the national park and the museum. The management during the occupation was not politically neutral, and immediately after liberation in 1945, the museum was subjected to close investigation. Management structure was reviewed, the museum was even threatened with temporary closure for the duration of the investigation and the very useful Kröller-Müller Foundation was blocked, the intention being to abolish it.

“This made it extremely difficult for the museum under its new management to enter the international art world, which with its Van Goghs, early Cubists, Mondrians, Van der Lecks, not to mention its rare Seurats, it undoubtedly deserved. All the management’s energies were directed towards coping with the investigation and the threat to the Kröller-Müller Foundation which would have damaged the museum’s future.

“In fact, only one name in the collection evoked massive support both in museum circles and from the public and this is what broke through the political aftermath of the war and steered the small new museum into open waters. Van Gogh was the key. His mysterious popularity, which was fully exploited, was able to solve the museum’s problems. America, Japan, and some countries in Europe, took Van Gogh to their hearts with an intensity hitherto unknown in our country, except for a handful of initiates. Museums, even in Otterlo, saw the entry of the masses. The day when the solitary visitor could spend unforgettable hours de toute-puissance in private collections continued to have an effect, but was obviously something of the past” (pp. 10-11).

Hammacher noted Helene’s foresight and wisdom regarding the future of the museum:

“Never confident about the policy civil-servant managements might carry out after her death, Mrs. Kröller had formulated certain guarantees, based on her own experience, to protect the well thought-out character of the collection. These were stipulated in the constitution of the Kröller-Müller Foundation and in the general guidelines she had worked out in consultation with the Ministry” (p. 10-11).


Collusion with the Enemy

In 1936 Anton and Sam van Deventer were sacked by the trustees from Müller & Company and four years later Holland surrendered to Hitler on May 10, 1940. Two months later the SS chief and art historian arrived at the Museum seeking three key paintings from the collection.  Anton was granted exceptional leniency by the Nazis.  He was able to negotiate the sale of works of art to them rather than have them seize the work which they did so often during the war.  What is amazing is that he actually benefited from the sale as The Secret Account (from the Kröller-Müller Museum’s A Timeline Full of Stories) makes evident. It also explains why in 1945 Sam van Deventer was removed as director of the museum and placed under arrest:

“German visit: In July 1940, Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart visits the museum to acquaint himself with the collection. Shortly thereafter, Sam van Deventer is approached by SS chief and art historian Kajetan Mühlmann who informs him that the German State wants to purchase 3 ‘German’ 16th century artworks from the collection. Venus and Amor by Hans Baldung Grien, Venus with Amor the honey thief by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the double panel by Barthel Bruyn the Elder must be relinquished under the guise of ‘Rückführung’ (Repatriation), with the vague argument that they ‘possess such a great emotional value for Germany’ that they cannot be missed there. In actual fact they are intended for the art collections of Hitler and Goering.

“Negotiations in the ‘Secret Report’: Sam and Anton decide to negotiate and gain the maximum possible benefit from the agreement. Seyss-Inquart compensates the museum with 600,000 guilders for the three paintings. This amount is placed in a fund for the acquisition of new works of art. In addition, the administrative structure of the Kröller-Müller Foundation and De Hoge Veluwe National Park is altered, creating financial leeway and strengthening the positions of Sam and Anton. Sam is appointed director of both the Kröller-Müller Foundation and the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller. The Reichskommissar even claims to be willing to finance the construction of the ‘Grand Museum’. Although this never transpires, it does indicate how Sam and Anton are able to use the situation. The negotiations are not included in the annual report, but they are documented in the so-called ‘Secret Report’

“Acquisitions from the ‘600,000-guilder fund’: Between 1940 and 1946, Sam purchases nearly 20 paintings with the 600,000 guilders. The first acquisitions are Portrait of a man by Edouard Manet, Road leading to the lake by Cézanne and work by Degas, Gauguin, Pissarro, Sluijters and Corot. Gaps in the collection can be filled thanks to the advice of H.P. Bremmer, who still sits on the Assistance Committee. The collection is also enhanced with drawings, sculptures and furniture. The acquisitions are made in The Hague, Paris and Berlin, sometimes even on the advice of Kajetan Mühlmann and his staff. Immediately after the war, two paintings by Pissarro and Degas have to be returned as they were acquired in Berlin and Paris from collections stolen from their Jewish owners by the Germans. The money is also spent on commissions. For example, John Rädecker is asked to create portrait busts of H.P. Bremmer and Henry van de Velde.

“Personal gain: Anton also manages to divert an amount to himself from the 600,000 fund. That is badly needed, as he is certainly no longer the well-endowed millionaire. His income has fallen dramatically since his departure from Müller & Co, but his lifestyle remains essentially unchanged. The domestic staff of St. Hubertus still consists of seven people, he travels around in a chauffeur-driven luxury car and regularly stays in expensive hotels. To pay his debts, in 1941 Anton sells the painting Roses and peonies by Vincent van Gogh from his personal possession to the museum for 25,000 guilders. A large amount of furniture, including many pieces by the architects Berlage and Van de Velde, also becomes property of the State in this way. This provides Anton with another 30,000 guilders” (https://krollermuller.nl/en/timeline/the-secret-report)


Underground, a Museum Survives

If Anton’s remarkable dealing with Hitler is not remarkable enough, the literal survival of the entire facility and its art is even more extraordinary as the following account makes evident.

The following article appeared in a newspaper article “Their Fathers Saved a Priceless Dutch Art Collection” dated August 15, 2017 by Denise Ryan in the online publication The Province, Toronto (https://theprovince.com/news/local-news/children-of-two-war-weary-men-who-saved-a-priceless-dutch-art-collection-from-nazis-meet-in-vancouver):

“In the final months of the Second World War, in an underground cavern close to the German front, Dutch art curator Willy Auping would, by lamplight, unveil priceless works of art to a rapt audience of doctors and nurses who were enduring the bitter, final days of the war together.

“The underground bunker where the paintings were hidden was in the Netherlands on the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum. The museum had been turned into a Red Cross hospital after the nearby city of Arnhem fell and the Germans drove its 100,000 citizens out.

“Auping was the curator of the museum, which housed an important collection of early Vincent van Gogh as well as masterpieces by Picasso, Seurat, Gauguin, Braque and Mondrian.

“In 1939, Auping had hidden the collection from the Nazis in a man-made cave on the museum grounds, in the De Hoge Veluwe National Park. He created a temperature-controlled environment under mounds of dirt 30 feet deep, by lining the bunkers with pots of lime to soak up moisture and create warmth.

“The paintings were professionally wrapped by a restoration expert and transported to the bunker. A door was added so the unnatural mounds of earth would look more like a storage room for the nearby hunting lodge or the entryway to a cellar.

“The collection, the second-largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world, was the passion of museum founder, Helene Kröller-Müller. Kröller-Müller, who was of German descent, had survived the First World War and was deeply distressed by the growth of Nazism.

“‘She knew this could get out of hand,’ said Isabelle Bisseling, a researcher with the museum. Kröller-Müller, anticipating that Holland could fall, ordered the construction of the bunker to protect the work, but died in 1939 before it was completed.

“Auping made sure it was finished, an act that could be seen  as a quiet but important act of resistance—it kept the artwork safe during the German occupation. The collection would be unearthed intact after the liberation with the help of Colonel Gerald Levenston, a young Canadian officer who loved art as much as Auping did.

“Some 70 years later, Auping’s daughter, Saskia Bergmans, and Levenston’s son Michael, met for the first time in Vancouver to marvel over the winding road that brought their fathers and those priceless works of art together 72 years ago.

“For Saskia, the meeting had another significance. Auping died unexpectedly after minor surgery in 1947, several months before her birth. She has met him only through the recollections of those who knew him, through a history her daughter Emilia Bergmans researched, and by walking on the grounds of the museum that still houses the collection.

“In the living room of a Kitsilano apartment, a gold-framed painting of a vase of flowers by Dutch artist Jan Adam Zandleven, is a reminder of the friendship, and love of art, their fathers shared. The painting, a gift from Auping to Levenston, was a thank you for the contributions he made in bringing the Kröller-Müller collection out of hiding and returning it to the light.

“Saskia Bergmans and Michael Levenston might never have met, but Michael had painstakingly researched and documented his father’s life after the former Colonel died in 2010. His father had recounted the tale of the artwork, and his remarkable friendship with Willy Auping, and even helped bring the work for a showing in Toronto in 1961. So Levenston reached out to the museum earlier this year in the hopes of finding out more about Auping, and the rescue of the Kröller-Müller artwork.

“The museum forwarded his email to Saskia, who quickly responded. By coincidence she and her husband would be travelling to Canada in a matter of months. They began to exchange their stories, and patch together recollections.

“‘The Germans were very keen on artwork,’ said Saskia, during a sunny summer evening in Levenston’s Kitsilano home, ‘but many of these were older paintings, and the Germans didn’t like them so much.’

“Hitler famously said that “anything painted later than the 18th Century is rubbish.” That the paintings might not have been up to Hitler’s personal taste would have offered little comfort to Helene Kröller-Müller and Auping. Evading theft and plunder by the occupying forces was one problem. Surviving the damage of bombings, fire, smoke and shrapnel was another.

“The collection included 60 early Van Gogh paintings and hundreds of his drawings. Auping knew their value was more than paint or canvas. Kröller-Müller’s life was driven by her core belief, the motto she discovered reading Spinoza: spiritus et materia unum, or “spirit and matter are one.” Perhaps she understood that the survival of the Dutch spirit was inextricably tied to the survival of its culture, and its artwork.

“So Auping finished construction of the underground bunker, and with the help of an expert in art restoration wrapped and buried the paintings. The museum would be empty, and the paintings safe, until the Battle of Arnhem in September of 1944 brought the front line perilously close.

“The Battle of Arnhem, subject of the famous Cornelius Ryan book and film A Bridge Too Far, was one of the worst Allied losses of the Second World War. Ten thousand English and Polish air troops landed near Arnhem, hoping to secure the Arnhem Road Bridge. They expected an easy victory but were quickly overwhelmed by the Germans. Less than 2,400 would escape, thousands were captured and killed.

“‘The English lost that battle,’ said Saskia ‘and the Germans took revenge.’

“Their revenge included an order to immediately evacuate the entire town of Arnhem. One hundred thousand souls would be displaced. Of particular concern to the Red Cross were three hospitals housing about 400 patients.

“One of the Red Cross doctors knew the museum 20 km north of Arnhem was empty. According to personal interviews with survivors conducted by Saskia’s daughter, when the Red Cross showed up at Auping’s door with an order to use the empty museum as a temporary hospital, a stunned Auping said, ‘Are you nuts?’

“In the following days the patients were transported in cold and rain, by horse and cart, along with doctors, nurses and support staff to the property. About 30 young men also went into hiding at the hospital, avoiding the German orders that would send them to work camps. If the Germans came by the boys would jump into the hospital beds and feign illness.

“In addition, some 2500 evacuees, most of them families of the ill and wounded, sought refuge in the nearby village of Otterlo.

“To accommodate the patients who would be housed in the museum, Auping threw himself into organizing.

“Latrines were dug, kitchens set up, sleeping quarters, sick wards and treatment rooms were devised, and a graveyard was prepared — all while the artwork remained untouched underground in the nearby bunker.

“Under the Geneva Conventions, a Red Cross hospital is neutral territory, something that afforded the artwork another layer of protection. For nine months, the grounds of the museum, now a hospital, existed as a place of tenuous calm between the German and Allied fronts.

“Biselling said the physical conditions the patients were facing, including sleeping on the floor, some without mattresses was distressing to Auping, who worked hard to ameliorate the situation.

“Although it is impossible to know whether Auping felt compelled to fulfill Kröller-Müller’s motto, Spiritus et materia unum, he also addressed the spiritual comfort of those who endured those cold months together.

“‘Auping and Helene shared the same feeling about the spiritual effect of art, that it could give joy, give comfort and I think it gave him strength in the hard times,’ said Bisseling.

“Auping rallied one of the boys in hiding, Herman Krebbers, a 19-year-old musician, to help keep up the spirits of patients and staff by playing his violin for them during that long, difficult winter when food was scarce and the future unknown.

“As much as he could, Auping made the hospital an oasis of camaraderie, culture and hope. He had Krebbers play for patients on Christmas, for those who lay dying, and for the staff. And once or twice a week, Auping would invite staff into the bunkers, unearth a Van Gogh or another piece of artwork and give an impromptu seminar.

“Krebbers, who would go on to great acclaim, later wrote in his biography that ‘to be confronted by art in this way’ was an important formative experience.

“In interviews recorded by Saskia’s daughter Emilia, those who attended the secret nights of art and music in the bunker would recall how meaningful it was ‘just to see something beautiful,’ and joke about how appetizing a painting of a rooster looked when they had so little food.

“Marinus Flipse, another musician who played for patients on the museum grounds would recall the experience of music, art and community flourishing in this underground space as ‘friendship by sound and colour.’

“One of the doctors would write to Auping after the war, saying that his stay at the museum, sharing joys and sorrows, was ‘an episode of my life I wouldn’t have liked to miss.’

“By all accounts, Auping did far more than secure the artworks, and open the museum to hundreds of patients and evacuees. He created a community that, with art at its centre, not only kept the evacuees alive physically, it kept them alive spiritually. He fed their souls.

“During those long cold months, the war came perilously close to destroying it all.

“On April 15, 1945, Canadian, English and Scottish soldiers battled their way toward the Germans in nearby Ottorlo. A convoy of 70 tanks rumbled through the museum grounds toward the front. The battle was bloody: some 400 German soldiers were slaughtered, but the Germans succeeded in turning the Allies back.

“The museum had been turned into a Red Cross facility to house patients forcibly evacuated by German Forces from nearby Arnhem.

“The tanks retreated to the museum grounds. At one point the enormous Canadian tanks rolled on top of the man-made hills that hid the bunker filled with artwork. Unaware of what was inside, soldiers tried to force the bunker open. Auping had to hurry out and intervene. Once he showed them the treasures hidden within, commanding officers quickly ordered the tanks off the bunkers. They posted a sign declaring the location a historic monument — it would be protected.

“During the war, Canadian Colonel Gerald Levenston didn’t know Auping, but shared a similar enthusiasm and sensitivity for art and culture. Like Auping, he worked hard to raise the morale of those around him.

“Levenston wrote hundreds of letters home to his widowed mother, vividly chronicling the war years that took him from Canada to Britain, North Africa, France, Germany and, finally, the Netherlands. Although he had to maintain discretion about anything strategically sensitive, including his exact location, the letters brim with details about everything from the meals he ate, the flowers he picked, the adventures he had, the cruelties he witnessed, to his longing for home.

“Among tales of Allied soldiers killing German soldiers with their bare hands, he recounted more lighthearted exploits. In the Netherlands, determined to keep spirits up, Levenston built a burger joint in Nijmegen for troops of the First Canadian Army, who had been stuck south of Arnhem for a long, miserable winter. Levenston called it the Blue Diamond, serving up to 8,000 burgers, doughnuts and slices of pie a day — something that was documented in a wartime newsreel. At one point, Levenston even ‘purloined’ a Gypsy caravan to make a mobile burger stand for the fighting regiments.

“When the war ended, Levenston was assigned to Hoenderloo, the Netherlands, not far from the museum.

“There he met Willy Auping, who showed him around the grounds of the museum. ‘With a mutual interest in painting, we became great friends,’ he explained later.

“Levenston wrote to his mother, marvelling over the discovery that nearly 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings had survived the war in an underground bunker.

“‘He was stunned to see this work there, underground,” said Michael.

“On Sept. 17, 1945 — once the patients had been moved out — Auping was determined to restore the museum. But as the country struggled to recover from the occupation, the few working vehicles, gas and other supplies were only available for urgent and life-saving reconstruction efforts.

“So Auping sent a formal letter to Levenston, requesting his help in liberating the artworks from the bunker, and returning them to the museum. ‘Because I have no tires and petrol I cannot use my old car … I remember that you told me once that you would consider the possibility to help me.’

“‘My father was obviously sick of the war by then, and here was a chance to help Saskia’s father, restore some of the culture,’ said Michael. ‘He’d been in the army since ’39, he’d fought all the way through northern Europe into Germany, he’d even taken some surrenders from Germans.’

“Levenston asked his men, and a volunteer brigade set to work — soldiers who, according to Levenston’s letters home, had recently been involved in the pitched, bloody battles of the liberation. ‘They had been breaking soldier’s necks with their bare hands,’ said Michael Levenston, ‘and were now being given the opportunity to handle these precious works of art,’ work that required care and tenderness.

“Years later, when Levenston senior helped to facilitate a 1961 showing of the museum’s collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he would muse, ‘It is interesting to think that it was Canadian troops … who carried this collection out of the caves and painstakingly transported it to the museum where it could once more be hung for people the world over to see.’

“‘The Canadian soldiers not only helped move the collection from the bunker back to the museum, they also helped painting the walls, laying carpet and a multitude of other tasks in and around the museum,’ said Bisseling.

“Levenston would be decorated as an Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau, by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, in recognition of his efforts in moving the Dutch artwork.

“When the museum reopened 0n Oct. 6, 1945, an emotional Auping would muse on the feelings of longing he felt in ‘those dark years’ — and how the work underground, though hidden, held an almost mystical power: ‘the eyes of a tiger and a cat were glowing in the dark, where heaps of flowers were stacked; where the culinary still lives of oysters and fruit lost their shine and vibrance,’ he said.

“Auping said the National Park housing the museum, although just a small piece of the ‘precious Netherlands,’ was in need of rebirth and healing after those ‘tough and dark’ years.

“‘Reopening this museum is a big part of that healing process,’ said Auping.

“In that same speech, he formally thanked ‘the valiant Canadian Armies,’ and especially ‘dear Colonel Levenston’ for their help.

“‘It’s such a beautiful story, such a special story. It gives so much more depth to every painting when you know the history of it, where it has been,’ said Bisseling, in a phone interview from the Netherlands. ‘We are so grateful to the Canadians who fought the final battle at the gates of the museum’s park, who not only freed the people, but who stayed afterward and helped us put everything back together instead of going home to their own families.’

“Saskia credits her daughter Emilia for helping to uncover the history of the hospital years, and having the foresight to interview survivors who had been eyewitnesses and record their stories. Never having known her father, Saskia says, the story, and the meeting with Levenston, has helped her understand more of who he was. ‘I was looking for pieces of the puzzle.’

“‘For my father, and her father, having the relief and the uplifting of their spirits through art, after such a horrible time, was huge,’ says Levenston.

“‘Isn’t it amazing,’ says Saskia.

“The conversation quiets for a moment as they consider what it might have meant to their fathers so many years before to unearth the Kröller-Müller treasures, and the story of their fathers that, like those works of art, they have managed to save and bring out in the open.

“They look for a moment to the painting by Dutch artist Jan Adam Zandleven that Auping gifted to Levenston. A bit of oil on canvas, but a picture that means so much more.”


Final Thoughts

The famed Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna shares a common history with the Kröller-Müller Museum for it too was saved from destruction during the Second World War. Its director Gustav Wilhelm risked his life by packing the great collection into a covered truck taking it over endless evasive off-road maneuvers. He forged shipping documents and miraculously evaded the German authorities who were assiduously searching for the prize collection. By taking this risk he also put his unprotected wife and children in eminent danger.

Gustav’s heroic actions were similar to those of the famed Monument Men, U.S. art specialists who were assigned to save important buildings and artworks endangered by the war. They were trying to save as much of the cultural heritage of Europe as possible.

Such sacrifice raises an important question: Can a work of art ever be worth risking a life to save it? Even more, why should a city of workers risk death to save a museum? What of the extraordinary efforts that have taken place over the years to save collections such as those in the Prado, Hermitage or Louvre which were evacuated (sometimes more than once) during times of war. Each time multiple lives were put at risk and some were actually lost in the efforts.

We recognize the spirit of the Monument Men as we reflect on the Kröller-Müller museum’s history—a monument of culture that survived against the odds amid war, illness and  the personal tragedies of its founder Helene. It is a somber matter to walk the museum grounds realizing that lives were lost there in hand-to-hand combat during World War 2. Not long after Helene’s funeral the museum was converted into a Red Cross hospital which may have saved it from bombing.  And a curious repetition of the time Helene had been a volunteer nurse in a similar war hospital—and of van Gogh who had been a nurse in the Borinage mining community.

Perhaps cultural cultivation is like nursing—an effort to sustain human life and the priceless things that enhance existence.  When asked what the British were fighting for during the relentless bombing of England Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said they were fighting to save Christian Civilization—- and all that is meant by the word. Namely, the efforts of ages and countless individuals who created their culture and in turn sustained the efforts to sustain and save it. In summarizing such contributions the lives of Johanna and Helene come into focus for the monumental impact their efforts have had on the cultural life of the world.

In trying to access what this contribution looks like one can perform a simple mental exercise. Imagine the world without the arts—all of them gone and lost from memory.  Everything including poetry and dance, paintings and plantings, museums and monuments and all great design and of every piece of jewelry ever made. Imagine the world minus the written word, minus cities and the vibrant cultural life that such places provide. What the Monument Men saw amid the horrendous destruction of war was rubble, chaos and endless suffering where the opposite and where the value of the lost becomes all the more obvious and all the more  cherished by its absence.  Cultural life is the blossoming of human existence in all its potential and where it is shared, cultivated and celebrated and then resurrected by following generations.  Often it is war itself that forces us to cherish our cultural treasures all the more.

Anton spent his last days in the Hunting Lodge ill and reclining before the great dining room window gazing over the reflecting pond and the vast silent forest. A pond that reflected untold stories and a lasting legacy few would believe but many would share and celebrate.


Further Reading

de Jonge, P. 2004. Helene Kröller-Müller. In Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern art from the Kröller-Müller Museum. 13-33. Atlanta: High Museum of Art.
de Witt, W. 2004. Four architects and a museum: The design of the Kröller-Müller Museum. In Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern art from the Kröller-Müller Museum. 114-132. Atlanta: High Museum of Art.
Greensted, M. 2010. The arts and crafts movement in Britain. Oxford: Shire Publications.
Hammacher, A.M. 1989. Museum memories of the depressions and the sunny spells that followed the dark years of occupation. In Kröller-Müller: The first hundred years. 9-11. Trans. J. W. Watson and L.J.M. Coleman-Schaafsma. Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Foundation.
Harrison, S. 2004. Helene Kröller-Müller and the furniture of H. P. Berlage. In Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern art from the Kröller-Müller Museum. 132-139. Atlanta: High Museum of Art.
Hughes, H.S.  2008. Consciousness and society. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. Original work published 1958 New York: Knopf.
Köller-Müller Museum. [n.d.]. The secret report. In A timeline full of stories. Otterlo: Köller-Müller Museum. https://krollermuller.nl/en/timeline/the-secret-report
Oxenaar, R.W.D. 1989. The Collection from 1907 to 1938. In Kröller-Müller: The first hundred years. 13-137. Trans. J. W. Watson and L.J.M. Coleman-Schaafsma. Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Foundation.
Ryan, D. 2017. “Their Fathers Saved a Priceless Dutch Art Collection.” In The Province. Toronto: Postmedia. https://theprovince.com/news/local-news/children-of-two-war-weary-men-who-saved-a-priceless-dutch-art-collection-from-nazis-meet-in-vancouver
van Bronkhorst, G. 1995. Vincent Willem van Gogh and the Van Gogh Museum’s pre-history. In  Van Gogh Museum Journal. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum. https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_van012199501_01/_van012199501_01_0003.php  [Dave, is this how you want to cite this?]
van der Wolk, J. 1989. Kröller-Müller: One hundred years. In Kröller-Müller: The first hundred years. 13-137. Trans. J. W. Watson and L.J.M. Coleman-Schaafsma. Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Foundation.