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14 September 2023

Now on view: ‘Art Amid the Ruins’

Step into Rotterdam’s art world during the Second World War in the exhibition ‘Art Amid the Ruins’. The accompanying online interactive city map and the book The Firebird Generation also take you back in time and show you the city during WWII.

It was a sunny spring day on 14 May 1940 when bombers flew over Rotterdam just before half past two in the afternoon and bombed the city. The resulting wildfire consumed the buildings and flowering trees, spreading westwards. The artist Dolf Henkes viewed the destruction from a safe distance on the south bank of the river Maas: ‘As the city burned, I climbed onto the roof of my house in Katendrecht to get a good look. How beautiful, was my first thought, but when I arrived in the city the following day, I saw the corpses and the rubble – it was terrible.' 

Marius Richters, Panorama of Rotterdam after the German Air Raid, June 1940, collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Purchase commissioned by: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1940. Photo: Studio Tromp.

The bombing took hundreds of lives and left many thousands of people homeless, including around fifty artists who lost their homes or studios. They included Antonie Bal, Wim Chabot, Dick Elffers, Kees van der Laan and the communist Johannes Proost, who had already been imprisoned. ‘All the studios in Rotterdam were destroyed and my house was a black hole in the ground,’ recalled another affected artist, Nico Benschop. Some found shelter with relatives or found a house elsewhere in the city. Others left Rotterdam. 

Stories like these about how artists’ lives were affected by the war are central to ‘Art Amid the Ruins’. The museum has a rich collection of works made by artists in Rotterdam during the Nazi occupation, many of which are on display in the exhibition in the Depot – some for the first time in many years. 

Read more about the exhibition here

Image in header: Rotterdammers on the land of Hoboken fleeing the bombing. On the far right the tower of Museum Boymans, 14 May 1940, collection Rotterdam City Archive.

The book The Firebird Generation

The core of this project is the book The Firebird Generation: Artists in a Destroyed City, in which art historian and guest curator Sandra Smets delves into the lives of ten artists and art world figures in Rotterdam during the occupation. It paints a picture of a city in ruins and explores how artists put the pieces back together. The book, published by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, is available in the Depot Store, online and in your local bookshop. 

Order the book here

Online city map: discover wartime Rotterdam for yourself

In addition to the exhibition, the museum has launched a digital interactive map of historically relevant places and buildings that played a role in the art world in Rotterdam during the occupation years. How many of them remain and what can still be seen? The map provides inspiration for walks through Rotterdam that take you back in time. Some of the walks have been curated by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and UrbanGuides. Further information will follow during the course of the exhibition.

Despite Sandra Smets’s extensive research, there is still much missing information about the art world within the area destroyed by the bombing and fire. We therefore welcome your stories and information, which you can share with us via the submit button on the city map. And if you have images of the artists’ studios at home, please let us know.