A park to reflect on what beauty really is

Pictures do well in green. Well, after all, all art has its origins in nature, which is why the combination of beauty created by human hands in a natural environment guarantees high-quality aesthetic enjoyment. And then I have traveled faithfully, like a pilgrimage, to Otterlo, to the Veluwe, to the Museum Kröller-Müller for a balanced dose of nature mixed with art.

As “an alphabet of spatial forms that gives access to a world of space and light.” With these words, museum director Bram Hammacher opened the Kröller-Müller’s sculpture garden, which he devised. Incidentally, it would have been close if the sculpture park in the forest had never been realized. When Hammacher went to the ministry in The Hague in 1959 to fight his plan in 1959, he had threatened to step down if his idea did not go through. The sculpture park finally opened in June 1961, loved from the first moment by visitors of all ages.

Hammacher’s desire to bring art forward was not new. In 1935, the Gemeentemuseum opened in The Hague, designed by HP Berlage, surrounded by water and green areas. It is no longer conceivable that the garden pavilion and the then landscaping were stamped by the municipal supervisory committee as an ‘unwanted nonsense’. Almost at the same time, the world’s most iconic museum sculpture garden was created on the other side of the sea without any official intervention as a ‘happy improvisation’. In 1939, Alfred H. Barr Jr. need only one night for his idea and implementation plan for sculpture garden of his new Museum of Modern Art in New York. This compact green oasis, an outdoor space for sculptures, amidst Manhattan’s bustling city bustle, would serve as an example to many post-war international museums.

Photos Marjon Gemmeke, Cary Markerink, Walter Autumn / Kröller-Müller Museum
Photos Photos Marjon Gemmeke, Cary Markerink, Walter Autumn / Kröller-Müller Museum

After several expansions, the combination of art and nature in Otterlo has grown into one of the largest and most beautiful in Europe and covers 25 hectares with more than 160 sculptures. For the realization, Hammacher invited landscape architect JTP Bijhouwer to design ‘a garden of outdoor halls’. From the museum building, I first enter the lawn with the iconic pond and it Sculpture floating, Otterlo by Martha Pan. Since the opening year 1961, the radiant white image has floated undisturbed in the reflective water. On the spacious lawn I see classics by Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol, these were the first pictures Hammacher chose for his garden.

Further ahead in the rhododendron rooms I then pass younger pictures towards the present, deeper into the forest the pictures become even more contemporary and also larger. Pictures do well here, I notice, maybe even better than inside. This is a park to muse and discover, to reflect on human creation and natural forms. About what beauty really is. Here, nature generously makes room for man-made images, sometimes there is a dialogue, but nowhere a dichotomy.

And then I hike this afternoon and enjoy the statues and the trees. Museums of modern art have long been scary places with white walls where white people drank white wine in openings. Give me a museum in the green. And this summer, it’s bursting with outdoor art. In the Museum Voorlinden, for example, I saw a magnificent parade of sculptures by Antony Gormley, the Rijksmuseum gardens contain Barbara Hepworth’s abstract bronzer, the Oude Warande in Tilburg displays modern sculpture, as well as the gardens of the Soestdijk Palace. And for Oranjewoud, once a haven for the Frisian Nassaus, guest curator Hans den Hartog Jager selected works by fifteen international artists.

Enough art. So next time about the garden gnome.

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