The Work of an Outcast

Let’s get acquainted today with one of the most controversial personalities of the Dutch art world. Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle is one of my favorite Dutch museums, and I was quite surprised to discover such a high quality collection of modern art in a small provincial town. Among its works there are paintings by Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Francis Picabia, Isaac Israëls, Vincent van Gogh, J.M.W Turner, Franz Marc or Karel Appel. The main part of this collection is the life work of one person: Dirk Hannema, former director of the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam

A wonder child of the Dutch art world, Dirk Hannema seemed to be set for success. A passionate art collector from a rich family, he was named director of the Boijmans Museum at 26 years old. He would hold that position for more than 15 years. In that period, he made some important acquisitions, including paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt. We also owe him the impressive main building of the museum, opened in 1935. Hannema worked closely with the architect A. van der Steur to create one of the most modern exhibition spaces of its time. In 1938 he was named Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau, and in 1939 doctor honoris causa of the Utrecht University, a title crowning his lifelong work in the service of art. It would be the peak of his career.

His downfall came after 1940, when the the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany. For the following 5 years, Hannema would be a high-profile collaborator of the German authorities, reaching eventually the position of supervisor of the Dutch museums. He would be arrested as soon as the Germans left the country, and remained imprisoned for more than a year. His public image received another blow when it was revealed that the Boijmans Museum had acquired in 1938 a fake Vermeer painting, produced by the famous forger Han van Meegeren. Hailed as a long-lost Vermeer, the painting had been the centerpiece of a special exhibition entitled “400 Years of European Art”, and then became the main attraction of the museum. Although most art experts of the time had been fooled by “the new Vermeer”, Hannema was the perfect scapegoat following the discovery, and he was much ridiculed. He would never hold another public function again, and his reputation as an art expert was tarnished.

While his career was over, his love for art was not: over the next four decades, Hannema would work on expanding his substantial collection. He opened it to the public as a kind of private museum, and he would personally lead his guests on tours presenting the exhibits. At his death, in 1984, it was one of the largest private collections of modern art in the country, with more than 3,000 works. He donated it to the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle, and it now forms the center of its collection. Amazingly varied, it offers visitors a chance to take visual tour through all currents that marked European art since the 19th century. The main part is displayed in Zwolle, in the Neoclassical building of the former court of law. A perfect trip for a cultural Sunday:


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