THE KRÖLLER-MÜLLER MUSEUM DURING WORLD WAR II
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.krollermuller.nl/timeline.
“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.krollermuller.nl
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.krollermuller.nl/
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