De Vitaliteit in de Kunst (1959–1960) and Van Natuur tot Kunst (1960) at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Stefano Collicelli Cagol
The recent debate on the relationship between histories of exhibition and art history tends to consider the former as supplementary to the latter. While it is certainly not the case that art history of the second half of the twentieth century should be reduced to a history of exhibitions—given the variety of contexts in which artists have operated—exhibition histories should likewise not be addressed only to enrich art historical narratives, or be selected according to their relationship to an art historical canon. In fact, exhibition histories provide critical tools to approach history in itself: by revealing cultural debates of the past, they help retracing histories of ideas; their expanded field highlights the connections between art and other realms, such as commerce, and they reveal politics and policies of an institution, stressing the latter in order to create a narrative to understand the present and imagine the future.
The case studies presented in this article—the thematic contemporary art exhibitions De Vitaliteit in de Kunst (Vitality in Art) and Van Natuur tot Kunst (From Nature to Art), both of which opened in 1960 at the Stedelijk Museum—put pressure on the approach to exhibition history as an art historical subgenre. Key to the analysis of the two case studies is the role played by their avant la lettre curators, Paolo Marinotti and Willem Sandberg, who, through these exhibitions, fulfilled the agendas of the institutions they directed: the Centro Internazionale delle Arti e del Costume (from now on CIAC) in Palazzo Grassi, Venice (where the exhibitions had their first installments), and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. By considering these two exhibitions in their four installments, it is possible to expand the area of research of exhibition history by pointing out how the institution emerged as the primary medium of contemporary curators, and highlight the relevance of this discipline to both theory and curatorial practice.
The end of the Second World War left many European museum buildings either damaged or demolished, with their collections variably placed in offsite storage, stolen, or partly and even completely destroyed. This provided a unique opportunity to directors, politicians, and architects to rethink the museum’s role within society, mirrored in the adopted strategies for its reorganization. As a response to the divisive cultural politics of the European dictatorships of the 1930s, the social and educational purposes of the museum became preeminent in the postwar years, joining the traditional functions of the institution: research and preservation. These aims, together with displays ordered according to geographical, chronological, or medium-based categories, highlight how the fine art museum mainly worked as a function of art history at that time.
Among the few voices refusing this model and looking for alternatives was graphic designer Willem Sandberg, who from 1945 to 1962 was director of the Stedelijk Museum. Since 1945, Sandberg abandoned the art historical model as the privileged perspective through which to organize and envision the aims of his museum, and experimented with various exhibition formats (e.g., thematic). Unsatisfied with the obsession of art historians with both the past and established historical canons, Sandberg argued for an institution oriented towards the future, one able to find new ways “to help in making us aware of our own epoch.” Setting out to transform the Stedelijk Museum, he found inspiration within the context of commercial exhibitions, in which he had been active during the 1930s, as well as during his several visits to the Bauhaus and conversations with architects and artists such as Mart Stam, Johannes Itten, and Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman. Under his directorship after the war, the Stedelijk provided artists with a public space in which to produce art, made visitors responsible for the final judgment on, and the meanings of, what they encountered in its rooms, reorganized the collections, and attempted to connect art with everyday life. The latter goal was approached by encouraging Amsterdam’s citizens to use the museum’s wide range of facilities (i.e., a café, a restaurant, a playground, an auditorium for lectures and screenings, and the New Wing of the museum, built in 1954, whose glass walls allowed communication between the inside and the outside), and through its exhibitions and publications, which tackled issues considered relevant and urgent to understanding the present and looking at the future.
It is not by chance that Sandberg’s visions found in Paolo Marinotti a partner with whom to further boost his Stedelijk project, defined as an anti-museological one. An aspiring poet, Marinotti had been the general secretary of the CIAC since 1951. CIAC was a multidisciplinary private center dedicated to art and costume based in the Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Funded by the SNIA Viscosa (Societá Nazionale Industria Applicazione Viscosa), a man-made fiber company owned by Paolo Marinotti’s father, Franco, the CIAC organized thematic exhibitions between 1951 and 1958 on the history of textiles, costumes, and Venice, alongside other activities such as theater plays, fashion shows, ballet performances, and various side projects. Therefore, the CIAC at first responded to the SNIA Viscosa marketing strategy to promote its products through a philanthropic enterprise.
Marinotti and Sandberg met for the first time in 1958 at the Stedelijk, deciding immediately to join their visions and financial resources (especially those of CIAC) to conceive the exhibition Vitalità nell’arte (in Dutch, Vitaliteit in de Kunst), to be presented between 1959 and 1960 in both institutions and two other European venues (Kunsthalle Recklinghausen and the Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen). Acting like curators avant la lettre, they took the theme of “vitality” as their initial concept, rather than drawing upon current art historical categories or genres. A year later, they conceived Dalla natura all’arte (which travelled to the Stedelijk with its Dutch title, Van Natuur tot Kunst) and, in 1961, Arte e contemplazione (Art and contemplation), which did not travel to Amsterdam. Together, the three exhibitions formed the Ciclo della Vitalità (Cycle of Vitality). For Marinotti, the “cycle” meant a break with the CIAC’s previous program and with the SNIA Viscosa agenda pushed by his father. The concept of vitality allowed him to further exercise his skills as a poet, by giving him a platform to gain intellectual public recognition through the CIAC. For Sandberg, the shows signified the positioning of vitality as a key concept in developing the museum policies and a further step away from the mainstream art historical approach of displaying art followed by other contemporary art museums and perennial institutions, such as the Venice Biennale. As only two of the exhibitions of the Cycle travelled from Palazzo Grassi to the Stedelijk, this essay focuses only on De Vitaliteit in de Kunst and Van Natuur tot Kunst.
De Vitaliteit in de Kunst was intended as a wake-up call for visitors to an understanding of the present moment, introducing them to works of art imbued with “vitality,” the instinctual energy invading the creative process of the time. Van Natuur tot Kunst focused on the developing relationships between art and nature among contemporary artists, and tried to define where the vitality of making lies. Despite both exhibitions being organized by large committees (and with the closet help of Danish artist and Situationist Asger Jorn), it was upon Marinotti and Sandberg that the final selection of artists depended. By comparing the catalog texts, it is striking to realize how the two directors gave life to two different interpretations of the same exhibition, which resulted in four distinct displays. While we have various installation shots for those held in Palazzo Grassi, no documentation so far has been found for the two Stedelijk Museum exhibitions. Nevertheless, thanks to the press clippings and an analysis of Sandberg’s directorship, it is still possible to reflect upon their function within the context of an institution turned into the main medium of its director. While both curators avant la lettre engaged themselves prior to the Cycle with thematic exhibitions, it was the first time that both conjured a project of such a vast scale and resonance, with contemporary works of art at its very core.
Both De Vitaliteit in de Kunst and Van Natuur tot Kunst belong to the genealogy of thematic exhibitions, despite significantly departing from it. Rather than being simply exhibitions illustrating a theme, the thematic exhibitions aimed to explore a subject through a critical approach to it. The two exhibitions analyzed in this article seemed to combine, on the one hand, the thematic experiments in exhibition-making that occurred in German museums during the first half of the twentieth century, and on the other, those experiments that flourished in Europe since the end of the 1920s, within commercial and propaganda contexts. Considering the latter, known by both Marinotti and Sandberg (certainly more aware than his Italian partner of the previous German museological experiments), it could be said that what characterized thematic exhibitions up until that moment (and despite its postwar transformation) was the use of experimental exhibition designs. Before the Second World War, the best examples of this genre were produced by architects and avant-garde artists invited to respond to given exhibition themes (such as press or hygiene), critically addressed through experimental design. After 1945, they turned to this exhibition genre either for self-critical reflection upon their own disciplines (such as the 1951 Architettura misura dell’uomo at the Milan Triennale, by Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers), or to address contemporary issues considered relevant and urgent (i.e., the Independent Group’s focus on the machine or the future).
Sandberg had worked with architects on thematic exhibitions since the 1930s, being a member of VANK, Vereeniging voor Ambachts- en Nijverheidskunst (the Association for Trade and Industry Art), and architects had also been involved in exhibition design at the CIAC since 1951. The thematic contemporary art exhibition allowed its organizers to articulate urgent issues, providing a convincing alternative to museums’ prior concern with art history. This approach helped to redefine the functions of the museum with respect to the present and to its public, overcoming its past elitism; but, at the same time, it dangerously exposed the institution to an obsession with the present. Sandberg and Marinotti tended to ignore these risks, being primarily engaged in undermining the conservative political and social climate of the late 1950s through their institutions.
Since neither Sandberg nor Marinotti were architects, it is possible to detect in these two examples the shift that happened in thematic contemporary art exhibitions at this time: from an approach based on exhibition design to a more discursive orientation. Traditionally, the exhibition functioned as the medium of architects and artists. With the two exhibitions of the Cycle of Vitality, it was the institutional context tout court that was redesigned. This means that both institutions redefined themselves through these exhibitions: the CIAC loosening its marketing ties with the funding company—or better, absorbing, disguising, and partially contradicting them; the Stedelijk by further enriching its monographic presentations of contemporary artists or movements with a more discursive approach, effectively putting pressure on the museum’s established relationship with art history. It was towards the culture of display within the commercial field that Marinotti and Sandberg looked as a potential alternative to find new aims and meanings for a contemporary art museum. In particular, besides the commercial exhibition culture, Sandberg was inspired by the strategy of the shopping mall to attract visitors, as attested by the glass walls of the New Wing he built, and his later involvement in the selection of the winning architectural project for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
From Vitalità nell’arte to De Vitaliteit in de Kunst
Vitalità nell’arte opened in Palazzo Grassi on August 7, 1959, occupying both floors of the Venetian palace until October. After a second installment in Recklinghausen, it arrived at the Stedelijk in December, where it remained open until January 1960. In the selection process, the two curators counted on the assistance of an international committee composed of James Johnson Sweeney (director, Guggenheim Museum, New York), Thomas Grochowiak (director, Kunsthalle Recklinghausen), Rodolfo Pallucchini (Professor of Modern Art, Padova University; General Secretary of the Fine Art at the Venice Biennale, 1948–1956), and Italian critic Marcello Venturoli. The exhibition presented thirty-three artists who mainly used non-geometrical abstraction, either in painting or sculpture, and coming from the United States, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy. From Bram van Velde and Marino Marini to mid-career artists like Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet, Étienne-Martin, and HAP Grieshaber, and to the younger Joan Mitchell and Kimber Smith, to name but a few, the exhibition aimed to shed light on the trans-generational quest for vitality, granting a strong visibility to ex-COBRA artists.
“Tiepolo insulted by poor jugglers,” or “In Venice, a ‘zoo’ of paintings,” ruled Italian critics about an exhibition that, generally speaking, was well received. By 1959, Italy was used to old buildings hosting modern art collections, but the idea of displaying the most contemporary of artistic productions in an eighteenth-century palace with frescoes and golden ceilings came as a shock for some. The main critique concerned the vague approach to the theme of the exhibition, in particular as expressed by the catalog’s texts. Using neither an art historical category, nor pretending to found a new artistic movement, Marinotti and Sandberg adopted a subjective methodology to establish those works of art which for them were soaked in vitality. In his essay, “Interview with myself,” Marinotti explained how the exhibition was spurred by a need “to leave a trace” and to gather those energies in need of a platform to finally have an impact on the public. By avoiding trying to pass judgment on works of art, Marinotti refused to resort to an art historical approach and highlighted the new vocation of the CIAC as a space open to artistic creativity. Instrumental to this position was the very nature of the CIAC, a cultural institution more similar to the Milan Triennale than a fine art museum, and the influence not only of Sandberg but also of Jorn, with whom Marinotti became a friend and supporter, as well as one of the artist’s principal collectors.
The friendship almost collapsed, however, when Jorn visited the exhibition and discovered that Marinotti had granted greater visibility to two artists—Venetian painter Emilio Vedova (who made three of his works directly in a room of Palazzo Grassi) and Dutch artist Karel Appel—by commissioning new works to be realized in situ. A previous member of the COBRA group and a protégé of Sandberg, Appel created an environment using the SNIA Viscosa’s textiles, triggering Jorn’s disappointment and his suspicion that this was a marketing strategy orchestrated by Sandberg to boost Appel’s popularity. Polemics aside, this innovative use of the exhibition space highlights once again the strong relationship that both curators had with the realm of commercial exhibitions. It was in this context that the companies promoted themselves by commissioning artists to use their products to produce new works of art in dialogue with the exhibition space. While Vedova’s paintings traveled to the Stedelijk, Appel’s installation was dismantled after Venice, highlighting the persistency of the bind between the CIAC and its funding company, the SNIA Viscosa. Despite his turn to contemporary art, Marinotti still had to guarantee his father the presence of artificial textiles within the rooms of Palazzo Grassi.
In fact, the whole exhibition screamed textile. Architect Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to design the exhibition, and he took full advantage of the SNIA Viscosa’s connection with the CIAC. By using meters of colored textiles to cover parts of ceilings, walls, and plinths, and concealing and reframing portions of rooms and interrupting sight lines, as well as playing with the natural light of the Palazzo and the effects of the reflections of water from the canals, Scarpa injected the exhibition with a hectic spatial dynamism. This was increased by visual effects obtained through the display itself, such as molding walls and door jambs, in order to give a sense of a continuum among the palace’s rooms, and by allowing visitors to glimpse from a distance works that would only later be encountered up close. Consistent with his methodology, in Vitalità nell’arte he gave a visual and physical interpretation of the exhibition theme through his design, invented through a careful reading of the “visual logic” of the works of art included. The violent brushstrokes of Vedova were in dialogue, for example, with the barbed sculpture of Franco Garelli, while the geometric, burned pieces of wood by Alberto Burri coincided with the formless figures by Antonio Saura. In this way, the display actively engaged the visitor in his/her relationship with the works of art, helping to develop a critical and autonomous reading of them.
The exemplary installation design by Scarpa was not repeated at the Stedelijk, where the exhibition occupied half of the first floor. There were probably economic reasons for this; furthermore, Scarpa was extremely busy at the time. In the Stedelijk archive, however, there is no record of a designer for the Dutch installation of De Vitaliteit in de Kunst. If, in Italy, apart from few articles, the critics were generally impressed with the scale of the exhibition and the quality of the works, the Dutch press was less enthralled. Sandberg and the exhibition were attacked mainly for two reasons: the first was for giving visibility to a very partial art expression, seen as retardataire—amateurish and imported from the United States. From this point of view, many critics stressed how the exhibition referred mostly to abstract expressionism, although not everybody in the exhibition could be included under this critical label. Other criticisms stressed the airy way of using the term “vitality,” which reduced the interpretation of the works of art as an act of protest done by the artists against the present. Critic Jan Engelman stresses how, by 1959, the invited painters were already out of date, as was the main theme of the exhibition. He pointed out how the Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman had already tried in the 1920s, through his philosophical movement, “vitalism,” to wake up society. Engelman pushes his critique even further, accusing Sandberg of both creating a reputational economy for the artists that increased their selling power, and of turning the museum into a “department store and kindergarten” (reproductions of artworks were available in the museum shop, while the various institutional activities were planned to attract a massive public). The fact that the exhibition was not presenting a movement like abstract expressionism perplexed others, who highlighted the consequent difficulty for the audience to grasp its sense. It was felt to be too subjective, too vague from an art historical point of view, and too much related to Sandberg’s personal views on art. As pointed out by art historian Caroline Roodenburg-Schad, critics were mainly distressed by Sandberg’s political understanding of an art imbued with vitality that, according to them, he connected to an agenda of protest. In fact, in 1959, it was rather towards an agenda of resistance that Sandberg was oriented.
De Vitaliteit in de Kunst presented works of art by artists at a very different stage in their careers and with different market values. While it was certainly important for Sandberg to reinstate the originality of COBRA with respect to postwar developments in painting in the United States, the trigger for the exhibition was to provide the public with an encounter with works of art imbued with vitality. For the two curators, it was a crucial element felt missing in the European societies of the time; vitality had disappeared with the end of the resistance movements and the beginning of the Cold War. Only some artists perpetuated its spirit in their work and, for this reason, and at cost of appearing retardataire, the two curators decided to focus on a language on the verge of waning at the end of the 1950s, yet historically linked to the previous decade.
In his usual poetic tone, Sandberg opens his De Vitaliteit in de Kunst catalog text with a flashback to 1940, moving then to 1945 when Asian and African countries were fighting for their freedom against colonialism while “Europe talks about liberation / although it hesitates to renovate itself / instead of building it’s rebuilt.” European societies seemed anesthetized by wealth and oppressed by a “brutal peace” that suffocated all those plans for radical transformation developed during the resistance to European fascism. COBRA’s artists appear as the only interpreters able to convey those anxieties, and having the will to break with the status quo imposed in Europe after 1945. For this reason, in his text, he quotes part of the Reflex manifesto (a Dutch group that had merged with COBRA), written in 1948. Unwilling to settle for the present state of European society, Sandberg devoted his entire career as museum director to challenging the conservative climate imposed by the Cold War. In the front line during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Sandberg used his skill as a designer to forge identification cards, and went into hiding with several masterpieces from the Stedelijk Museum’s collection, where he had been employed since 1938. Once director, made bold by his involvement with the Dutch Resistance, he did not hold back in building an institution in which art was central to rebuilding the social body.
The theme of vitality emerged out of this experience with the Dutch Resistance, and during the 1950s it constituted one of the permanent features of Sandberg’s way of reading contemporary art. As indicated by Roodenburg-Schadd, it is likely that Sandberg developed his interest on the concept of vitality at the beginning of the 1950s, through a personal reading of Henri Bergson’s élan vital. A key moment in his reflection is the publication in 1959 of the Nu (Now) manifesto, which caused another stir among the local press. In 1967, he published a poetic text titled “Vitality” in the prestigious Studio International; in his 1973 lecture at the ICA, London, he traces back to COBRA the genealogy of that spirit that, in 1968, led to the student protests in Europe and the United States, while in another text, Sandberg speaks again about “vitality” as one of the main elements needed by an artist.
Obviously, any definition of what is “vital,” or which works of art have “vitality,” remained subjective. This unstable subjectivity was, however, part of Sandberg’s strategy as a director. Rather than act as the final judge of an artistic practice (as earlier art historians had done), Sandberg preferred to test, directly within the spaces of the museum and through the reactions of its public, the capacity of the work of art to connect with people and its political agency. His intent was not to please, but rather to disturb or provoke. This was eventually the aim of De Vitaliteit in de Kunst, which, as Sandberg points out at the end of his text, does not aim to be a survey of all the existing tendencies in art at the moment (that was the duty of institutions such as the Venice Biennale or documenta), but to present to a European public a gathering of energies, in order to inspire societies to change.
It is not clear what these changes could be, however, and this is a significant problem with such a loose thematic approach. Sandberg admits in a letter that the exhibition was not perfect, but that he was happy with the final result. From descriptions of the Stedelijk display, it is clear that paintings by different artists were often presented in the same rooms, but it is less clear whether a specific display mechanism was adopted, or if paintings were simply hung on the walls. De Vitaliteit in de Kunst appears to have moved from Scarpa’s textile-based display in Venice to a more simple and traditional format in Amsterdam.
From Dalla natura all’arte to Van Natuur tot Kunst
If in De Vitaliteit in de Kunst the passage from Palazzo Grassi to the Stedelijk Museum witnessed a polishing of the thematic contemporary art exhibition as a genre from its commercial genealogy, Van Natuur tot Kunst further reiterated this process. For this exhibition, Michel Tapié, the art amateur, as he defined himself, joined the team of Sandberg, Marinotti, and Jorn (whose behind-the-scenes contribution was undisclosed both here and in De Vitaliteit in de Kunst). While, in Palazzo Grassi, Dalla natura all’arte provided a vehicle for the ongoing marketing strategy of the SNIA Viscosa, at the Stedelijk it echoed an earlier exhibition titled Natuur en Kunst (Nature and Art), organized by Sandberg in 1957. Natuur en Kunst had displayed a series of natural objets trouvés (pieces of wood and stone molded by wind, fire, or water), crafted objects made out of shells and wood, paintings made by children, and other works realized by amateur painters.
Natuur en Kunst clearly functioned as a prequel for Van Natuur tot Kunst, with its questioning of who has the power to define what is—and is not—art. Rather than art historians, for Sandberg, the power of art lay in the eyes of the beholder, short-circuiting the very meaning of the museum itself. Sandberg believed that even natural forces could generate art, if recognized as such by the beholder, and that it is within the museum that these creative trajectories find a place. But while the focus was on what is outside the realm of so-called art in 1957, it was the realm of art that was the protagonist of the exhibition in 1960.
The skillful pliability with which Marinotti and Sandberg bent the exhibition to their ideas and institutional agenda demonstrates how the institutional framework redirected the exhibition, the former becoming the real medium of the curators. Furthermore, it shows how the two men were able to find a middle ground without compromising their institutions and the curated exhibitions. The Palazzo Grassi’s version of the exhibition had a complex genesis, rooted directly within the tradition of the thematic exhibitions organized in Italy since the 1930s, and influenced by what German art historian Charlotte Klonk defined as “discursive space” exhibitions installed in the late 1920s early 1930s by Bauhaus members. But while in those German experiments the texts aimed to develop critical thoughts on a theme, in Palazzo Grassi a series of quotations from various artists and authors, such as Paul Klee, Henri Focillon, and Michèle Bernstein, aimed to provide points of entry to the works. The first room of the exhibition, for example, presented a photographic installation by Bruno Munari, with enlargements of pieces of wood with peculiar shapes. Its floor, covered with straw, was divided from the visitors’ path by a sentence attached on the barrier, stressing the presence in nature of artistic forms. The same excerpts were published in both catalogs, with that of the CIAC presenting black-and-white images of the Venice installation, used also in the Stedelijk catalog, and the latter with the graphics designed by Sandberg.
In Venice, in areas where the artists had not installed their own works, the exhibition was designed by Danish architect Robert Dahlmann-Olsen (who was hired on Jorn’s recommendation). The final exhibition represented a compromise between Marinotti and his father, Franco, who was determined to keep the CIAC focused on costume and textile. This can be seen in two different elements: the first is the existence of a parallel narrative to that built by Sandberg and Tapié, on the relationship between art and nature; the second is the absence from the Stedelijk’s exhibition of two Italian artists, closely related to Franco Marinotti and probably invited in Venice under his pressure: Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari. The alternative narrative developed at the CIAC highlighted a recurrent theme in SNIA Viscosa marketing since the 1930s: the notion that man-made fibers constitute a necessary development from natural to artificial material; from thread obtained from silkworms to nylon fibers obtained chemically. This was epitomized by positioning three giant ikebana realized by Sofu Teshigahara at the exhibition’s entrance in Palazzo Grassi’s courtyard, while positioned at its end was the mesmerizing, commissioned environment Esaltazione di una forma, (Exaltation of a form, 1960) by Lucio Fontana, made with red and orange lights and fabrics produced by the SNIA Viscosa. Jorn, who committed to the CIAC hoping to turn it into an experimental center and later organize a large-scale exhibition on Scandinavian art there, helped Marinotti in partly sabotaging this narrative, through the presence of painter Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. With his “industrial painting,” the artist exalted the role of creativity over industrial production, as epitomized by the SNIA Viscosa.
Neither the ikebana or Esaltazione di una forma were brought to the Stedelijk and, from the press reviews, it appears that Sandberg allocated Van Natuur tot Kunst to the two floors of the New Wing. On the ground floor, we found Teshigahara, Henry Heerup, Germaine Richier, Étienne-Martin, and Jean Dubuffet (both already in De Vitaliteit in de Kunst), while upstairs the Italians Fontana, with his sculptures Nature, (Natures, 1960) and Pinot-Gallizio were situated, with an ad hoc rehanging of the canvases of La Caverna dell’Antimateria (The Cavern of Antimatter, 1958/1959). From the catalog, it also seems that Italian artist Roberto Crippa was included in the exhibition. At the center of the catalog’s cover, a piece of wood with a vaguely humanoid resemblance, already presented in the 1957 exhibition, declared the relationship of Van Natuur tot Kunst with the previous Stedelijk project.
While Marinotti wrote the Italian catalog’s foreword, Sandberg wrote that of the Stedelijk’s. The two texts reveal the different perspectives through which the curators framed the same exhibition, as I have elucidated above. At the core of both texts, however, is an attempt to recognize the relationship contemporary artists have with nature, and to question the nature of creation, in which vitality again played a major role (either as subjective choice or as natural forces). Marinotti addresses this theme from an unequivocally religious perspective, equating the role of its creation to that played by God. By contrast, in his manifesto-like text, Sandberg claims that the sensation of “art” is partially due to the artist and partially dependent on the spectator, and highlights three steps with respect to how artists treat found objects. An artist selects an object because it resonates with his/her inner forms and colors; he recognizes in it the potentiality to convey a message, by transforming it, and finally, out of a personal collection of objets trouvés, the artist uses them according to the need to create his/her own work.
As suggested in his speech at the Venetian opening of the exhibition, it was Sandberg who came up with the idea of the exhibition, following a visit to Dubuffet’s studio. After observing a series of collages realized by the artist with leaves and butterfly wings (then included in the exhibition), Sandberg suggested to Marinotti to elaborate on the concept as an exhibition. Clearly, Natuur en Kunst spurred this interest in further understanding what it means for an artist to either confront elements from nature (as in the works of Étienne-Martin or Heerup), or include them within works of art (as in Richier and Teshigahara). But Van Natuur tot Kunst went further, with the works of Fontana and Pinot-Gallizio—the former with the Nature cycle, the latter with the Caverna dell’Antimateria—exploring the ideas of producing new forms, either by evoking nature in a reconfigured way, or by making visible immaterial forces. That a museum director of one of the most established European museums took the initiative to question its mission of claiming what is art and wherein creativity lies resulted in shocking the general press, which considered Sandberg a threat to the Stedelijk’s existence.
The exhibition raised a series of criticisms, from Italian critic Gillo Dorfles (who opposed in an essay in Domus the superficial way of addressing such a loaded theme), to the comments of the Dutch press (who were astonished by the proposition that the creative processes of nature and art could be so displayed at the same level). “Considerably more foolish than Vitaliteit in de Kunst,” claims one writer; another states, one “has to start distrusting abstract art [with such exhibitions]. However one knows that: from time to time the Stedelijk Museum is visited by fits of self-destruction.” While certainly the aim of the exhibition was too ambitious for its scope, nevertheless, critics of the time failed to notice both the innovations introduced by some of the artists—working with photography or producing installations—and the presence of elements such as the ikebana, or stones not related to art, strictly speaking. By using an art historical approach that was too narrow, critics did not recognize the shift that happened in terms of exhibition-making, instead being disturbed by its challenge to the contemporary art institution of the time.
De Vitaliteit in de Kunst and Van Natuur tot Kunst marked an ambitious shift in the scale of the Stedelijk’s program, closely followed by the two most celebrated exhibitions organized by Sandberg, Bewogen Beweging (Art in Motion, 1961), co-curated with Pontus Hultén, then director of the Moderna Museet of Stockholm) and Dylaby, 1962. They were part of an ongoing reflection started by Sandberg in 1945 on how to connect his museum with its public, and how to reimagine its role, stage its collections, and display groundbreaking exhibitions. These exhibitions demonstrate that the selection of case studies in exhibition histories does not necessarily follow art historical questions. Departing from the idea that a contemporary art museum had mainly to offer an art historical narrative, Marinotti and Sandberg questioned with the Cycle of Vitality the process of the institutionalization of art and pose, the understanding of the present, and the imagining of the future as the primary mission of a contemporary art institution. Exhibition histories can certainly extend the scope of art historical research (e.g., by including histories of institutions), but they should not necessarily be considered as its ancillary discipline.