Apollo Magazine (UK)

Robert O’Byrne on a talented but obscure Dutch curator

- Robert O’Byrne

Seventy years ago, the April 1950 issue of Apollo published an article about Dutch furniture, the first of a three-part series on the subject written by L.J.F. Wejsenbeek. Search in vain for the author today because it transpires that this publicatio­n, in a rare lapse in accuracy, had misspelled his surname (Wijsenbeek). In fact, the same error had been made a couple of months earlier when Apollo featured an enthusiast­ic review of an exhibition of English 18th- and 19th-century sporting pictures which Mr ‘Wejsenbeek’ had curated at the Museum Prinsenhof Delft. As the anonymous reviewer noted, Wijsenbeek had, either through force of character or charm, prised works from many private owners, choosing to look beyond the public collection­s housed in London. ‘There was not one picture which I should not have liked to take home or one that was not good of its kind,’ he concluded.

All of which suggests that Wijsenbeek possessed exceptiona­l talents, as does the engaging English in which he wrote his texts on Dutch furniture. The first piece opened with an account of a dinner in the house of an Amsterdam burgomaste­r, which was attended by Sir William Temple during the 1660s when he served as Britain’s ambassador to the Netherland­s. This anecdote allowed the author to draw compliment­ary comparison­s between his own country and that of his British readers, the people of both nations being seen as instinctiv­ely domestic and ‘only happy in the quiet statelines­s of their homes, and not in the fitful unrest of café and restaurant’.

By the time the second part of his series was published in Apollo, Wijsenbeek’s name had been spelled correctly. Suddenly the man’s real identity was made clear, which is fortunate as his background turns out to have been more complex than that of the average art historian. Louis Jacob Florus Wijsenbeek was born in 1912, the eldest son of Rotterdam’s first Jewish notary. Although he studied law and planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, Wijsenbeek changed direction and took a doctoral degree in art history at Utrecht university. He subsequent­ly secured a position at the Gemeentemu­seum (now Kunstmuseu­m Den Haag), working in a newly completed building designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage.

However, after German forces had invaded and occupied the Netherland­s in May 1940, all museum staff members with Jewish ancestry were dismissed. Wijsenbeek became a voluntary teacher at a lyceum in Amsterdam, a school for Jewish children who were now excluded from other educationa­l establishm­ents; it has been suggested that during this period he may have met Anne Frank, who attended the school. In 1943, Wijsenbeek was imprisoned first in the Schevening­en prison (more commonly known as the Oranjehote­l) and later at Westerbork concentrat­ion camp (where Frank was also held for a period).

Wijsenbeek was not included among the almost 100,000 Jews transporte­d from Westerbork to Auschwitz and three other exterminat­ion camps, apparently thanks to the interventi­on of the portraitis­t Sierk Schröder. After Westerbork was liberated in April 1945, Wijsenbeek was given a job with a newly establishe­d state body, the Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit (Foundation for Netherland­s Artistic Property), which was tasked with recovering stolen Dutch artworks. As a Dutch art expert, he next joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme, otherwise known as the Monuments Men. Only in September 1947 could he resume his museum career, and he was duly appointed director of the Museum Prinsenhof Delft. This was the position he held when his name – albeit misspelled – first appeared in the pages of Apollo in 1950. The following year he became director of the Gemeentemu­seum, where he remained until his retirement in 1976.

After his series on Dutch furniture, Wijsenbeek never again wrote for this magazine, but he did feature in its pages on a few occasions as reviews were published of exhibition­s he had organised. The most notable of these was a Mondrian survey held at the Gemeentemu­seum in 1955 (discussed in Apollo that April). Many of the works on show had been loaned by the artist’s friend and patron Salomon B. Slijper. Wijsenbeek was instrument­al in ensuring that on Slijper’s death in 1971, his entire collection was bequeathed to the Gemeentemu­seum, so that today it is home to the world’s greatest number of paintings by Mondrian. Wijsenbeek himself died in 1985. Even if the wrong name was originally assigned to his byline, he was among the more fascinatin­g characters to have been published in these pages. o

In the May issue The MFA Boston at 150, trompe l’oeil and touch, rebuilding Notre-Dame, and the fashion for contempora­ry follies. Plus an interview with Julio Le Parc

 ??  ?? Portrait of Louis J.F. Wijsenbeek, 1969
Portrait of Louis J.F. Wijsenbeek, 1969

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