A bomb shelter full of art

The impact of World War II on art

Hidden in the peaceful woods of Otterlo, the Netherlands, there is a unique bomb shelter. It wasn’t used to keep people safe, but rather to hide one of the biggest private art collections of the Netherlands during World War II. How did this unique collection of art end up in a shelter, who put it there, and how does this explain the impact of World War II on art? Discover this intriguing story below.

Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939) was an extraordinary woman. Driven by her passion for modern art, she collected works from the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, and Seurat. Kröller-Müller had one dream: to build a museum for her unique collection of modern masterpieces in order to give it to the Dutch people. Unfortunately, an economic crisis struck, and she was forced to donate her extended collection to the State of the Netherlands, but only at one condition: her museum had to become a reality.

Kröller-Müller had been exhibiting her collection of modern art since 1913 in The Hague. Her exhibition was located next to the office of her husband, Anton Kröller, director of her family business. Anton supported his wife financially. Visitors could make an appointment to have a look at her exhibition. Nevertheless, Kröller-Müller dreamed of her own ‘museum house’, where she could share her love for modern art with society. Originally, the museum had to be in The Hague. But, after a long walk trough the quiet nature of the Veluwe, she decided to house her collection here. In 1938, Museum Kröller-Müller opened its doors. Visitors could enjoy the unique combination of modern art and nature. Kröller-Müller remained the director of her namesake museum until her death in 1939.

After she passed away, Sam van Deventer became the new director of the museum. He had the important task of preserving this impressive collection of modern art during the Second World War. Commissioned by Kröller-Müller before her death, the building of a bomb shelter had started in 1939. This shelter was located in a sand dune in the forest near the museum.

When the war broke out in 1940, the shelter was not yet finished. However, van Deventer managed to get in touch with German soldiers, and asked them to help finish the bomb shelter. These soldiers also assisted in moving the entire collection from the museum to the shelter. Every piece of the collection was wrapped up, in order of value. The masterpieces were brought to the shelter in small groups. Within a week, the collection had been transferred safely and the museum closed its doors.

It is extraordinary that German soldiers made sure that this modern art collection was preserved from attacks during the Second World War, after they had invaded the Netherlands. Hitler was, to say the least, not a big fan of modern art. An exhibition in 1937 in Munich, entitled Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) laid out his philosophy towards art. In displaying works that were part of modern movements, such as impressionism, expressionism, dada, surrealism, futurism and cubism, the exhibition sought to show art that did not correspond with the ideals of the National Socialist regime of the Third Reich. But then, why was the Kröller-Müller collection kept safe?

Transporting artworks to the bomb shelter. Photo Credits: Kröller-Müller Museum website.

Cultural historian Joes Segal discusses in his book Kunst & Politiek (“Art and Politics”) the remarkable artistic and social that developments took place in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), which was characterized by unprecedented creativity. Modern art was successful during the beginning of the 20th century, but these art movements were also constantly under fire. Some critics contested modern art during the First World War because they considered it “foreign”, which to say it was overly influenced by artistic movements in other cities such as Paris, even though a number of movements, such as Expressionism, related and reflected the social realities of Germany at the time. Nevertheless, there was a view that the Weimar Republic was tainted by outside forces, who came to the Republic to humiliate the German nation. This understanding of culture would find itself at the core of Nazi thinking.

Adolf Hitler had written down in his book Mein Kampf that art had to be used for political purposes. Art was seen as a product of a nation and therefore, it could only be understood by the nation itself. When the Nazi rose to power, they created the Reichskulturkammer to control the production of art. Every artist, museum director, art critic, art dealer, and curator had to be a member to be able to practice his profession. Not everyone was allowed into the Reichskulturkammer. Jews, socialists, modern artists and their sympathizers were not accepted, meaning that they could not work in the cultural sector anymore.

Campaigns against modern art had a political function: creating a common image of the enemy. Modern art could be used for this purpose: because to understand it required thought and reflection, it was understood as being deceptive. By comparison, National Socialist art was considered to be clear at first sight, and was seen as a reflection of the nation. The aforementioned exposition Entartete Kunst (1937) was also a part of this campaign, as it was used to publicly shame the artists whose work was selected as degenerate.

So what happened to these works of art? In many cases, nothing. The discriminatory art policy of the Third Reich made sure that living modern artists were not able to work. For the exhibition Entartete Kunst, 650 works of art were selected from German art collections. The exposition was visited by enormous amounts of people. When the exposition was still on show, multiple art dealers from abroad showed their interest in purchasing the exhibited works. This made the regime realise the value of the art and decided there was no need to destroy the entire collection. Eventually, a big part of the works of art were sold through an auction which as a result the collection of Entarte Kunst was spread around the world.

So how does this policy relating to art and the Third Reich relate to the collection of the Kröller-Müller? the masterpieces of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, and so on, were allowed to be preserved. Since the exhibition Entartete Kunst was curated in 1937 and the bomb shelter was filled with art in 1940, there was no need to take away the collection from the museum. The artists of the masterpieces were not alive anymore during the Second World War, so the art policy of the Third Reich did not affect them. In other words, the Germans had no interest in this collection since there was no danger in preserving the modern art of non-German artists underground.

When the Kröller-Müller Museum closed during the war, it was used as an emergency hospital. When the Netherlands was liberated, the museum could open its doors again. It did not quite look like a museum anymore, so help was needed to restore the museum in its former glory. This came, surprisingly, from the Canadian troops, who carried the collection out of the caves and transported it to the museum. Here, the collection could once more be hung for people from all over the world to see.

The Second World War had a great impact on the arts. The origin of the ideas for the art policy of the Third Reich can be explained through a clear ideology and outlook about artistic creation that was discriminatory. Luckily, many works of art have survived this period, and can still be seen in museums all over the world. The dream of Helene Kröller-Müller can live on, with thanks to the help of the German army. Her life work can still be enjoyed in Otterlo, just as Helene intended it.

This article was written with special thanks to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. They were so kind to show us the bomb shelter, and to tell us the unique story of Helene’s lifework. If you are curious to know the complete history of the Kröller-Müller Museum, you can read some other interesting stories here.

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