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The Kröller-Müller Mu­seum in Ot­terlo is one of the lead­ing mu­se­ums in the Nether­lands for mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art. It also has c.90 paint­ings and 180 draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh, mak­ing it the sec­ond largest Van Gogh col­lec­tion in the world. Dur­ing WWII the mu­seum di­rec­tors shared a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect their col­lec­tion and the mu­seum. Here is their story.

He­lene Kröller-Müller was a pas­sion­ate col­lec­tor of works by Van Gogh, Pi­casso and Mon­drian and her aim in life was to build a mu­seum for her unique col­lec­tion and do­nate it to the Dutch peo­ple. The Great De­pres­sion meant that her dream couldn’t come true, so when she died in 1939, she left her col­lec­tion to the State of the Nether­lands, on the con­di­tion that they would build a mu­seum to house it.

Af­ter her death, a new di­rec­tor Sam van Deven­ter and cu­ra­tor Willy Aup­ing Jr shared the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing the mu­seum and col­lec­tion dur­ing the war.

He­lene had started build­ing a bomb shel­ter be­fore her death, in a sand dune in the Veluwe Na­tional Park nearby. It was

not fin­ished when the war be­gan in 1939, but on 22 July 1940, the en­tire col­lec­tion was moved there. The works of art were packed in or­der of value and trans­ferred to the shel­ter in small groups. It took a week to trans­fer all the works of art, but once they were safe, the mu­seum closed its doors to the pub­lic.

In the fi­nal years of the war, the mu­seum served as a hos­pi­tal for the Red Cross. It ac­com­mo­dated 310 adults and 40 chil­dren. The pa­tients were housed in the Van de Velde wing and St Hu­ber­tus hunt­ing lodge served as the nurses’ ac­com­mo­da­tion.

On the 15 April 1945, the mu­seum was lib­er­ated by the Cana­di­ans, who also helped to re­in­state the art so the mu­seum could open quickly to the pub­lic once more. The mu­seum was of­fi­cially re­opened on 6 Oc­to­ber 1945.

Af­ter the war, the mu­seum’s first cu­ra­tor, Willy Aup­ing Jr, bought the Van Gogh mas­ter­piece, The Potato Eaters. This paint­ing, along with those pre­vi­ously pur­chased by He­lene, meant that ‘the col­lec­tion of works from his Dutch pe­riod’ was now com­plete and was ‘a crown on the col­lec­tion’.

To see a time­line of sto­ries about the mu­seum, Helen Kröller-Müller, and the mu­seum dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, see www.kroller­­line.

“It took a week to trans­fer all the works of art [to the bunker], but once they were safe, the mu­seum closed its doors to the pub­lic.”

HE­LENE KRŐLLER-MÜLLER was a lead­ing Euro­pean art pa­tron of the early 20th cen­tury, and one of the first women in Europe to ac­quire a ma­jor art col­lec­tion. Born in Ger­many in 1869, she mar­ried the Dutch­man, An­ton Kröller in 1888. Un­der the lead­er­ship of An­ton, Müller and Co (the com­pany founded by He­lene’s fa­ther), grew into a highly prof­itable com­pany and with the ac­quired as­sets He­lene was able to start her art col­lec­tion in 1907.

Guided by in­flu­en­tial art critic and

ad­vi­sor, HP Brem­mer, He­lene and her hus­band pur­chased some 12,000 works of art be­tween 1907 and 1922, thereby build­ing one of the largest pri­vate art col­lec­tions of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. They also ac­quired nearly 300 works by Van Gogh, mak­ing it the largest pri­vate Van Gogh col­lec­tion in the world. It has been said that He­lene was the first to recog­nise his tal­ent. Her pas­sion for his oeu­vre and her ex­hi­bi­tion of his work un­doubt­edly con­trib­uted to his in­ter­na­tional recognitio­n and fame. www.kroller­

New open­ing of air­raid shel­ter

Later this year, the mu­seum plans to open the ‘bunker’ which was used to store He­lene’s art dur­ing the war. Vis­i­tors in September and Oc­to­ber 2019 and April and May 2020 will be able to visit the site for the first time.

For more in­for­ma­tion, see the mu­seum web­site: www.kroller­

He­lene’s col­lec­tion be­comes ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic

He­lene first pre­sented her art col­lec­tion in 1913 in the build­ing next to An­ton’s of­fice of Müller & Co in The Hague. The col­lec­tion could be viewed by ap­point­ment and the first floor was re­served for the ‘ul­tra­mod­ern’ works of Juan Gris, Au­guste Herbin, Bart van der Leck and Piet Mon­drian.

He­lene had orig­i­nally wanted to build her mu­seum in The Hague, but af­ter a visit to the Veluwe in Spring 1914, she de­cided to build it in The Hoge Veluwe Na­tional Park in­stead. By choos­ing this venue, she could present her col­lec­tion out­side the hus­tle and bus­tle of the big city, in a place where art lovers could truly en­joy the unique com­bi­na­tion of art and na­ture.

Her dream was fi­nally ma­te­ri­alised in 1938 when the mu­seum opened its doors. The build­ing was de­signed by the Bel­gian ar­chi­tect Henry van de Velde. In the 1970s, a new wing was added, de­signed by Dutch ar­chi­tect Wim Quist.

Willy Aup­ing Jr, the mu­seum’s first cu­ra­tor

Trans­fer­ring the col­lec­tion to the bunker in 1940

The re­in­stal­la­tion of the mu­seum

He­lene and An­ton Kröller-Müller

Nurses from the emer­gency hos­pi­tal based in the old mu­seum cheer the first ar­riv­ing Cana­dian troops, 15 April 1945

The gallery re­stored af­ter the war

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