Apollo Magazine (UK)
Robert O’Byrne on a talented but obscure Dutch curator
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