Dear visitor, we’re working on a new website. Coming soon!

projects books text cv publications contact
[ back ]

Hans van Houwelingen / commissioned by Stroom, The Hague / July 2008

What's done ... can be undone!

The Hague takes the lead when it comes to memorial statuary in the Netherlands. Most of these monuments were erected in honour of important historical figures. The majority were statesmen, ranging from Count William II of Holland (1228-1256) to former Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees (1886-1988). These historic figures are emblematic of the Netherlands we live in today: a model state of freedom and democracy. The rise and persistence of the monarchy is the predominant theme of the historical series of public statues in The Hague. But it is striking that the inception of democratic government, in the person of Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798-1872), is absent from the succession. Thorbecke, as the chairman of the Constitutional Committee, became the founding father of Dutch parliamentary democracy in 1848. King Willem II, alarmed at the political upheavals elsewhere in Europe, charged him with the task of formulating a new constitution. The results included direct elections and an extension of parliamentary rights. Ministerial responsibility and a provision for the dissolution of parliament were also introduced. The new constitution was proclaimed on 3 November 1848, and it stood at the root of the Netherlands as today's modern democratic state.

The Thorbecke monument in Amsterdam

Shortly after Thorbecke's death, appeals arose in various political quarters for a monument to be erected in his memory. The statue was initially intended for a site in The Hague, but disunity and discord in The Hague municipal council eventually resulted in its placing in Amsterdam. The location, Reguliersplein, was renamed Thorbeckeplein after the statue was unveiled there on 20 May 1876. That seemed to be the end of the matter, and, in the century that has passed since, nobody voiced concern about whether the statue is located in the right city
Amsterdam however, is actually the wrong place. It is a historic error to memorialize Thorbecke's constitution there, for The Hague is the seat of the power that Thorbecke conceived to allow people to live in the maximum possible freedom. A monument to Thorbecke therefore belongs in The Hague; so much is beyond doubt.


Populism and the market
It is no coincidence that in The Hague today, 160 years after the introduction of parliamentary democracy, people have started noticing the absence of a Thorbecke monument, and there is ample support for erecting one after all. Never in all the intervening years has parliamentary democracy been placed under such a strain by parliament itself. Never before have politicians been so susceptible to the wishes of the electorate that parliamentary populism threatens to undermine Thorbecke's democratic vision. Politicians are no longer visionary thinkers with a conception of the public good, but have become electoral wheeler-dealers who parrot the language of the street in an effort to win favour from a frustrated and disgruntled society.
Who but Thorbecke can bring the Netherlands' public representatives back into line? Who but Thorbecke can reinforce the idea that parliament is meant to represent the people and not vice versa? Who is better equipped to defend the constitution than its very originator?

A Thorbecke monument in The Hague
In the light of the above, it is important to keep any plan to erect a new Thorbeke monument free of market dogmas. If Thorbecke represents our national identity, let him do so in a way that does justice to that word, and do not simply throw him to the mercy of the worldwide identity business. A new monument in the style of a 19th century bronze statue could never do justice to what Thorbecke stands for, however good the likeness. The pseudo-historical qualities would be merely deceitful. A retro-classical image has no identity, but rather testifies, by its falsification of history, to a lack of identity. The unfortunate politician would see his substance evaporate, leaving behind only a thin bronze shell. If Thorbecke is to spur revived interest in democracy, his monument must not be a product of the very forces that threaten it, such as the identity business, populism or market branding.
The point is to erect a recognizable monument but not to make do with an outmoded, empty shell. This is a problem, however, because it is far from clear whether any contemporary monument would be capable of filling the gap in The Hague's collection of 19th century statues. Should such a monument refer retrospectively to the rise of Dutch democracy, or should it perform a contemporary role? Should it honour an individual who died 136 years ago, or his ideas that are alive and productive today? In the latter case, what points emerge as the salient aspects of these times with regard to freedom and democracy? Would a contemporary symbol of freedom and democracy really bear any obvious connection with Thorbecke?

Point of departure
The ostensible paradox of a new Thorbecke monument impels a serious rethink of the situation. The criteria to be met by a Thorbecke monument in The Hague are not merely aesthetic but predominantly political. Ironically, it is almost impossible to avoid a political debate about a monument to a politician whose credo was that politics had no justifiable influence on the content of art. To erect such a monument would in my view be tantamount to abandoning Thorbecke's renowned credo - not because his standpoint was faulty but because culture and politics have long been intertwined behind the smokescreen of that credo. It would be a real homage to Thorbecke to monumentalize him following an above-board political and cultural debate.

Thorbecke and Spinoza
The crux of the matter is that a Thorbecke monument has to be placed in The Hague today because the need for it has been disregarded for over a century. It should have been there a hundred years ago, but we cannot turn back the clock. Yet the historic blunder of The Hague's municipal council in refusing to erect a monument to Thorbecke in 1876, with the result that it went to Amsterdam instead, offers us a way out.
As it happens, a similar situation exists in Amsterdam. In this case, it relates to Baruch Spinoza, the Netherlands' best known and most radical philosopher (1632-1677). Born and brought up in Amsterdam, the universally renowned Spinoza has no monument in the city; but he does have one in The Hague.
The Amsterdam Spinoza Kring, a foundation established last year, is campaigning to put up a monument to the philosopher. This initiative, like that regarding Thorbecke, has not come out of the blue. Amsterdam's reputation as one of the most tolerant cities in the world is wearing thin. The easygoing cultural diversity of the past is meeting more and more fundamentalist opposition. The freedom of religion clashes with the freedom of expression with increasing frequency and vehemence.
Thorbecke's ability to call the forces of democracy to order is matched by Spinoza in his potential to revive respect for freedom of thought. As a secularist, Spinoza was a passionate advocate of freedom of speech and religion. He argued that there are no God-given laws, and that revealed religion is a work of mankind. Spinoza placed human intellect above faith and appealed to the human capacity for love and justice. The latter are precisely the qualities which Amsterdam is so keen to recover. A monument to Spinoza belongs in Amsterdam; so much is beyond doubt.

Four years after The Hague refused to erect a statue of Thorbecke, in 1880, the same city unveiled a monument to Spinoza - although again after years of political squabbling. This decision too teetered on a knife edge, since many people saw Spinoza's ideas as atheistic or subversive. The decisive reason for accepting the monument was that Spinoza had spent the last few years of his life in The Hague. The statue was erected on Paviljoengracht, a confined site opposite the house where he died. By a coincidence, Spinoza lived only eight years in The Hague, and Thorbecke only eight years in Amsterdam. These relatively superficial formal links with the respective cities may explain why the monuments have received so little attention.
Thorbecke's statue in Amsterdam has a better location, perhaps, but he faces the wrong way with his back to his square. The statue pleases directly against the way, transversely on a canal. He seems to have turned his back angrily on his colleague Rembrandt, whose statue only a few metres away, is now accompanied by a complete Night Watch in bronze. The unthinking insult to the memory of the master painter implicit in this carnivalesque reproduction typifies the nonchalance and opportunism that surrounds monuments.
Amsterdam, like The Hague, has been occupied since last year with the question of what criteria must be met by a new monument, which actually should have been erected long ago. So far it has been proposed to erect a new bronze Spinoza statue for the ‘ordinary people', devoid of any intellectual content. Since the shortcomings of this outlook have not gone unnoticed, a second monument has also been proposed; suggestions for this tend towards a ‘platform' with possible links to the new media. Amsterdam favours, in other words, form without content plus content without form.
A bronze sculpture could never escape the retro feel, and a platform for new media would date too quickly, unable to memorialize an intellectual heritage on a long term basis. The something-for-everyone approach Amsterdam has taken towards branding itself as the Spinoza city is absurd: two monuments are required because one alone cannot fulfil the purpose.

What's done...
... is done, as the saying goes; but perhaps not in this case. Amsterdam has a Thorbecke monument that belongs in The Hague, and The Hague has a Spinoza monument that would be more at home in Amsterdam. Considering the course of history, there is justification enough for an exchange. The present desire to revive attention for the respective heritages of Thorbecke and Spinoza could be satisfied if Amsterdam and The Hague were to decide on a statue swap.
Redressing past errors in the commemoration of these two great Dutchmen would help place them in a contemporary light. The authentic nineteenth century sculptures would throw the original ideas they represent into sharp contemporary relief. The double move would bring them to the attention of today's public without any detriment to their historical presence in the street scene. The course of their history would revive the currency of their heritage but leave their dignity unimpaired.
These national heroes of freedom and democracy belong in their historical contexts, in the places that do most justice to their significance. Thorbecke belongs in The Hague and Spinoza belongs in Amsterdam. Appropriate surroundings for the monuments of Thorbecke and Spinoza would do justice both to history and to the future.

The actual implementation of this exchange would itself amount to a contemporary work of art without parallel. Cities exchanging monuments would be a novel phenomenon. The intellectual heritages of Thorbecke and Spinoza and their present day significance would come to public attention in many different ways. Like the original placing of the two monuments in 1876 and 1880, there would be controversy. But wasn't it the intention to revive interest in our national history? If the existing initiatives to erect monuments for Thorbecke and Spinoza both aim at stimulating public discussion on freedom and democracy, then this discussion must indeed be spurred.
A resolution to amend for past errors by exchanging the statues of Spinoza and Thorbecke would set a good example to the societal forces associated with these monuments. A intensive debate on this subject would bring history to life, and this in turn would contribute effectively and validly to our national identity.

The monumental statue of Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, unveiled in Amsterdam in 1876, was made by Ferdinand Leenhoff (1841-1914). The monumental statue of Baruch Spinoza, unveiled in The Hague in 1880, was made by F. Hexhamer.