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Thorbecke Monument The Hague 2012

Hans van Houwelingen


"one crown, made from neither one piece of metal nor a single mold, but assembled from unlike pieces from different times and places."




Most monuments in The Hague have been erected to commemorate political figures from our national history. A striking absence in its collection of monuments is the politician and political reformer Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798-1872), founder of our parliamentary democracy. Thorbecke was the chairman the committee for constitutional reform, which suggested a series of radical amendments, forming the basis for the new constitution which was eventually proclaimed on November 3, 1848.

            The constitution of the Kingdom of The Netherlands goes back to 1814 and has been modified several times throughout history. Thorbecke's constitutional reform provided the parliament with an enormous extension of its legal powers and formed the basis of the current political system. It introduced ministerial responsibility for the Crown, the possibility to dissolve parliament, and direct elections. Thus the Netherlands acquired its current polity: a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, a country in which the actual power is invested in the representative body.

            In 1848, Europe was covered by an atmosphere of tension and the threat of revolution: uprisings in France and several German states, peasants' rebellions in middle and eastern Europe. As this tension was also felt in the Netherlands, King William II was forced to order a constitutional reform along liberal lines. "I have considered it better to give the impression to allow voluntarily that which later I might have been forced to concede." Some years before, Thorbecke had already started, albeit carefully, to attack the autocratic power of the king. In Aanteekening op de Grondwet (Note on the Constitution, 1839-41), he states: "one crown, made from neither one piece of metal nor a single mold, but assembled from unlike pieces from different times, and places."

            King William II, who until then had ruled as a convinced conservative, shifted position just in time and converted, in his own words, from conservatism to liberalism within 24 hours. In retrospect, this proved to be a wise choice, albeit that he only reluctantly had surrendered his power and would always remain conservatively inclined. His son William III never kept it secret that he hated Thorbecke. Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that a monument for Thorbecke was met with political resistance, and was never erected in The Hague.



Shortly after Thorbecke's death, a variety of political movements made an appeal for a statue. The Parisian sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff (1841-1914) was commissioned for the job. On May 18, 1876, the monument for Thorbecke was unveiled, albeit not in The Hague, as had been the intention, but in Amsterdam. The statue of Rembrandt was moved from Reguliersplein to Botermarkt to give way to Thorbecke's monument. The statue which arrived in Amsterdam had been made for The Hague. Indeed, Thorbecke was a politician, founder of our parliamentary system, and architect of the 1848 Constitution. Most of his life he had lived and worked in The Hague. But there was a fundamental disagreement and strife in the municipal council of The Hague, which the writer Vosmaer described as "little feuds, grocers' arguments, nonsensical reasonings." From behind the scenes, the conservative minister J. Heemskerk exerted his influence, as he saw no need for a tribute to the liberal frontman. Euphemistically speaking, the conservatives were not entirely pleased with Thorbecke's reforms.

            To overcome the deadlock, Amsterdam, and not The Hague, was chosen as a location for the monument, thought this should not have happened. To place Thorbecke's monument in Amsterdam was a political blunder. More than once, the liberal frontman had stated that he considered Amsterdam to be a bit lethargic, and this doubles the cynicism with which he stands on his pedestal. At the unveiling of the monument in 1876, liberal MP Mr. G.M. van der Linden stated: "Thorbecke had many enemies, I will not list them, many are already on the road to oblivion, others are destined to follow them."



Strikingly, on June 5, 1848 and therefore almost at the same time as the introduction of Thorbecke's constitution, a monument of William of Orange, made by sculptor Louis Royer (1793-1868) was unveiled at Plein in The Hague. The original public initiative from 1828 to establish this monument had been taken up by King William II in 1840. This monument too had been the object of quarreling for many years. Conservatives and liberals disagreed on the way in which William of Orange was to be depicted. Royer's original design showed the prince with his left hand on his sword, and his right hand on a roll of documents. According to the liberals however, he was depicted too much as a warrior instead of as a statesman. They got it their way, and the left hand moved from the sword to the Union of Utrecht, the 1579 treaty between several Dutch provinces formulating the collective aim to chase away the Spanish from their country, and which treated political issues concerning defense, taxation, and religion. Hence, the Union of Utrecht is considered to be an ancestor to the Dutch Constitution, and, together with the Act of Abjuration (1581) and Peace of Münster (1648) it forms the foundation for the Dutch State. William's right hand moved to his chest.

            The unveiling of this statue took place at the memorable moment of celebrating the foundation of the Dutch monarchy and the Dutch constitution, precisely when the constitutional reform was depriving that monarchy of its power. Whereas William of Orange celebrated the victory over the Spanish monarchy, Thorbecke celebrated his victory over the House of Orange. This precarious situation did not go unnoticed. Fearing revolutionary disturbances, the date of the unveiling was made public only at the last moment, and the celebration was kept low-key.



It is telling that at the same time, a second monument for the same Prince of Orange was erected, which was unveiled in 1845 on Noordeinde in The Hague. Discontent with the amount of time that the whole business concerning the monument on Plein had already consumed, William II had decided to fund, at his own expense, a second statue of William of Orange. He had already, and to no avail, pleaded in favor of the pose with the sword, and now he could realize the Father of the Fatherland according to his own views, without any involvement of the liberals. To his great content, the French sculptor Emile de Nieuwerkerke (1812-1892) depicted the prince as a horseman, even though he had never been a warlord and had never traveled on horseback. However, when viewed from a traditional perspective, the language of the equestrian statue was unequivocal: the horseman shows his omnipotence by the way in which he is holding the reins -- though always loosely -- controlling the people.

            In the case of the liberal version of William of Orange on Plein, the representation of the people differs widely. From this sculpture any form of compulsion is absent; instead, his mighty left hand rests on the document guaranteeing the freedom of cities and citizens.  No horse is being restrained in this sculpture; instead, it shows a dog, loyally looking up at his master. This dog, sitting next to the right leg of the standing Prince is called Pompey, and the story goes that at some point it had saved William's life from an assassination attempt by jumping on his face. Different from the horse restrained by reins, the little dog sits at its master's feet without a leash. It is docile because it's well taken care of. A free and docile people at the feet of the princely power, looking up at its master. On the pedestal his reassuring maxim: Saevis tranquillus in undis (Tranquil amid the savage waves).

            Together, the three monuments placed in an urban environment that were mentioned above, two in The Hague and one which was not allowed to be there, provide a clear image of the Dutch political landscape in the middle of the nineteenth century. The background of the threatening revolutionary atmosphere clearly offsets the power struggle surrounding these monuments. The tension of these sculptures doesn't derive from the choice of the ones portrayed, which is self-evident and inevitable. But the mutual relation between their monumental figures reveals an unbearable tension. The location, timing, and iconography of these monuments recount the human proportions of the political field, and bring the street level of political power struggles to life.



At this very moment, 150 years later, an initiative has appeared to erect a monument for Thorbecke in The Hague. Which criteria have to be met by a monument that was actually already supposed to exist? We will have to find an answer to the paradoxical question how, in the year 2012, a monument can address the present while at the same time relate to the tense climate from 1848. In other words, how can this Thorbecke monument relate, in an intelligent manner, to the historical monuments which so penetratingly recount Thorbecke's influence, whilst being contemporary? A monument that will be added to the historical collection, subtly balancing on the rope of the nineteenth century, is obliged to contribute to this dance. Thus the question appears how, within the monumental tradition in which power is displayed on pedestals, it is possible to place a politician who intended to distribute this power by means of his constitution: Thorbecke intended to "de-pedestal" power, and is placed on a pedestal for precisely this reason. Any answer to these questions forces the formulation of a contemporary definition of "the monument." Considering this, it is of importance to inspect how timing, location, and iconography currently relate to their nineteenth century counterparts.


            It seems obvious to make a choice between either an, in a certain sense, traditional artwork depicting Thorbecke, or something in the direction of Thorbecke's heritage, a depiction of freedom and democracy. However, neither of both suffices. Regarding this insufficiency we only need to point to the controversy surrounding the erection of the monument for queen Wilhelmina, some years ago; the city was forced to make a choice between a meaningless sculpture which only approximated the posture of the queen, and a series of stones referring to her merits. Recently, the same dilemma appeared in Amsterdam at the erection of the Spinoza monument. In order to brand itself with Spinozas' name, the city of Amsterdam had erected a statue for him, modeled after the portrait on the old ten-guilder banknote. To compensate the lack of any content, a second monument was erected somewhere else in Amsterdam, a "manifestation" concerning Spinoza's work. So one container without content and one with content but without container. It's a curious thing that two monuments need to be invented because only one no longer suffices...

            A monument, with a physical resemblance to Thorbecke, erected 150 years after his death, lacks any intellectual content. Don't sell him out to city branding and the omnipresent retro-trading of identities. That would be an opportunistic forgery of history, merely bearing witness to the lack of any identity. If Thorbecke is solemnly introduced to stress the meaning of democracy, his substance should not be allowed to evaporate nor should he be condemned to a bronze shell. But at the same time the question arises whether a monument focusing on Thorbecke's thought can supplement the lack in the monument collection of The Hague. How is that monument supposed to relate to the present when it also wants to take the past into account? Is it supposed to be a posthumous salute to a politician who died nearly 140 years ago, or a living interpretation of his intellectual heritage? And in case of the latter, which elements should be stressed? And would a contemporary approach to Thorbecke's intellectual heritage still relate to Thorbecke as a person? Throughout time, Thorbecke's liberalism has repeatedly undergone changes, and any contemporary exegesis of freedom and democracy relating to Thorbecke's original thought cannot be but arbitrary.(1)



I would like to propose a monument moving in time from two directions. From the nineteenth century it looks forward into the present, from which it looks back into history. Thorbecke's statue in Amsterdam will be scanned, and a mirrored copy will be cast in bronze.(2) The 19th century Thorbecke who was denied his spot in The Hague and his 21st century mirror image, now granted in the city, enter into a constant conversation bridging 150 years. Thorbecke himself is reflecting time, from the present to the moment at which he proclaimed his Constitution.

            The design does justice to Thorbecke's 19th century posture -- it was made shortly after his death --, but also reflects the 150 years of Dutch history that came after him, a period in which the Constitution acquired its current form. At last he settles in the city to which he belongs, in his old outfit but with a contemporary outlook. Familiar with the present, he reflects on the history of Dutch state power, the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, from autocracy to democracy. His mirror image shows the society brought about by his Constitution.

            Retrospectively, his nineteenth century antagonist, William of Orange, shows a striking resemblance to Thorbecke: not because of their appearance but owing to the posture in which both, standing on their respective pedestals, show themselves to the people. Thorbecke's mirror image is standing in exactly the same posture as William of Orange. However, his left hand is not resting on the Union of Utrecht from 1579, but on the 1848 Constitution. Whereas William of Orange had turned against the Spaniards in defense of the freedom of cities and citizens, Thorbecke fought for the same freedom by turning against the monarchal power of the House of Orange, two hundred years later. Power has been displaced by time, even though its posture remains the same. Both of them with their left hands resting on the law, their right hands placed on the heart.

            It remains an open question what will happen to the Netherlands in the centuries to come. These are uncertain times. Will there ever be another national hero, placed on a pedestal in the same posture? On thing, however, is certain: the place of the people, the factor which always determines any possibility of power. William of Orange's dog currently sits at Thorbecke's feet, looking up to the father of the modern, liberal, constitutional state, which curbed the power of the Crown in favor of more democracy and popular participation, crowning at the same time the eventually acquired Dutch independence and unity. The dog will be made from a cast of William of Orange's monument, added to Thorbecke's one. His motto will be placed on the pedestal: ‘eene kroon niet van één metaal noch van één gietsel, maar uit ongelijksoortige, op verschillende tijden en gronden aangekomene, stukken ineengezet.' ("one crown, made from neither one piece of metal nor a single mold, but assembled from unlike pieces from different times and places.")

            Thorbecke's monument has been constructed according to his ideas about power: sculptural elements from different monuments -- including his own --, from different moments in our national history, copied, mirrored, altered by time, reassembled into one monument. Ultramodern technology allows us to scan the nineteenth century and mirror it into the twenty-first. The traditional craftsmanship which determined romantic sculpture is projected into the present by means of hardcore digital data. The monument not only mirrors Thorbecke as a person, but also his power, his time, his environment, his antagonists, his city, and his sculpture. And inversely it mirrors the present, contemporary art, technology, and the way in which power currently manifests itself. Thorbecke's ideal of the distribution of power is nearly literally mirrored in the composition of his monument. The dog loyally at his feet, just as loyal as he was to the Oranges. The people place power on a pedestal, always at its feet.


Hans van Houwelingen / June 2011



(1) Incidentally, for the first since Cort van der Linden (1913-1918), the Netherlands are headed by a liberal prime minister. Cort van der Linden rejected traditional nineteenth century liberalism, but neither did he feel comfortable with post-Thorbeckian liberalism. He argued for the foundation of a social liberal party because according to his point of view there was too much emphasis on individualism and laissez-faire, which had determined liberalism since the end of the nineteenth century. In 2008, his current successor, prime minister Mark Rutte, stated in the reformulation of the principles of the conservative liberal VVD which he headed at that time, that, just like a century ago, liberalism needed to be reinvented. Because of the expanding welfare state, individual talent and individual freedom had been ignored for too long, and Rutte found it necessary yet again to stress the position of the individual.


(2) It happened before that a statue was copied in its entirety in order to supplement the sculpture collection of The Hague. The statue of King William II, unveiled in 1854, was removed in 1924 and replaced by a copy of his statue standing in Luxembourg since 1884, an equestrian statue made by the French sculptor Victor Peter (1840-1918). Although the previous statue too had featured William in military uniform, the equestrian statue was preferred. Considering his military inclination, which also determined his choice for William of Orange's equestrian statue, there seems to be no doubt that the king would have approved of this correction of the urban landscape.