HUGE SCULPTURE BY COUZIJN FOR UNILEVER
Rotterdam already possesses the biggest sculpture by Zadkine, the biggest by Gabo, the biggest by Carasso, and a very big one by Andriessen. To those has now been added the biggest by Couzijn. It hides the entrance to the new building for Unilever West Europe on s'Jacobplein, built to a design by architect A.J.B. van de Graaf. The work has taken three years to complete, and the result captures the considerable effort of the sculptor and the Joosten brothers, who cast the bronze.
De Tijd/De Maasbode, 6 July 1963
The new Unilever head office, which was built on the west side of the complex on the former Land van Hoboken, was richly decorated with works of art. Each floor of the staircase features an artwork. Twelve works by twelve artists from twelve European countries where Unilever was active. But the most important work was the large sculpture at the main entrance. In 1958 Unilever commissioned this piece from the Amsterdam sculptor Wessel Couzijn (1912-1984).
According to the sculptor, it depicts the margarine and soap company as an outsider sees it: incomprehensible, even though you sense that some organizing mind is at work here, steering all that has been collected in a particular direction.
Stan Huygens, De Telegraaf, 28 November 1962
Couzijn lived much of his youth in New York, and the Jewish artist also spent World War II in America. It was there that he came into contact with Ossip Zadkine and Jackson Pollock. Couzijn won the Prix de Rome in 1936 and was married to the American sculptor Pearl Perlmuter.
The fact that Couzijn had previously missed out on a major Rotterdam commission probably played a role. In 1951 he came second in the competition to design a merchant navy memorial, but owing in part to public pressure, the design that finished in third place, De Boeg by Fred Carasso, was eventually selected for realization.
The design for the sculpture was approved in 1959. The Manipulator, the original title, was replaced by Corporate Entity. ‘The directors really wanted a name, even if only as a designation,’ explained Couzijn. Of course, as is customary in Rotterdam, the work soon acquired a nickname: Scrap Fraud.
Couzijn worked in an expressive, largely abstract style. ‘In his design for Unilever, he wanted to convey an active person who imposes order in a complex organizational structure.’ (Roel Arkesteijn, Beelden in Rotterdam, 2002) The sculpture consists of three parts: in the central part one can make out a human figure with wing-like limbs.
One of the biggest modern sculptures in Europe, the twenty tonne Unilever monument by Wessel Couzijn, is nearing completion. The 65 components are currently being welded together by a company in Soesterberg, after the firm Joosten in Soest had spent two years casting them. Never before has a monument of such size -14 metres wide, 7 metres tall, 8 metres deep – been carried out in bronze.
Het Vrĳe Volk, 3 October 1962
Executing the design by Couzijn in bronze was a technical feat. First he and a number of assistants made a full-scale model out of sheets of acrylic inside a specially built warehouse. This model formed the basis for the casting process, carried out using the so-called ‘lost-wax’ method, which involved coating the acrylic sheets in wax and then melting away the acrylic to leave a mould in which the bronze could then be cast. A total of sixty pieces were cast in this way and then welded together. The bronze was cast by 29-year-old M.J. Joosten in Soest, and the welding carried out by a firm called Interlas in Soesterberg. Weighing twenty thousand kilograms, the artwork was transported to Rotterdam on a flat-bottomed boat in three parts, where they were welded together. The final work was unveiled on 11 June 1963.
You have to view the sculpture and building as one entity, and then try to understand that the building, sculpture, pond and street belong together, jointly forming this piece of the city. If you can view it like that, then you can see the reflection in the water, the pinstripes left on the surface of the bronze, the ‘chance elements’ such as the effects caused by the discolouration of the bronze, the ‘play’ of grey-brown, brown and light-green tones, which wasn’t precisely predicted to the millimetre, the movement of the planes relative to one another — you can see all these details in relation to the impression of the entire piece. And then you get the same feeling you have inside a colourful Baroque church. It is as if the inert material comes to life and makes sound, perhaps not the serene sound of a church choir, but probably the busy sound, not lacking conviviality, of our merry society.
Rein Blijstra in Het Vrĳe Volk, 17 July 1963
Mrs Van Walsum-Quispel, wife of the city mayor, carried out the unveiling. She was fearful that ‘the large, perhaps ignorant, perhaps stubborn, certainly merciless public made up of the uninitiated’ would have difficulty with the work, but she hoped they would get used to it, as they had to Zadkine and Gabo. Most art critics responded enthusiastically, however. ‘The assembled artists and critics (including some major figures from abroad, such as Pierre Courthion and Michel Seuphor from Paris and Franco Russoli from Rome) were for the most part impressed by the work,’ wrote Het Vrije Volk. Bram Hammacher, director of Museum Kröller-Müller, applauded Unilever and Rotterdam for their courage in accomplishing something so new. But the art critic in De Tijd took the view that the executed work was far less impressive than the design because of the technical constraints.
When Unilever relocated its head office to a new building on Weena, the Couzijn sculpture also moved. It acquired a new home beneath an open structure beside the entrance. Although Rotterdam has a history of moving sculptures, not everybody was pleased. Some local artists considered the work an integral part of the original building. Cor Kraat: ‘You cannot simply relocate a sculpture that occupies its site in such a monumental and distinctive way, as though it’s nothing more than an office chair.’ But the Couzijn heirs were happy with the new home, for it meant you now had a fine view of the back of the sculpture, which was just as beautiful as the front. The sculpture was sawn into pieces again and moved in September 1992, giving it a more prominent site in the city.