This sculpture is intended to preserve for eternity the memory of one of the worst events points in the history of our city and our people. But it does not stand here isolated. It stands surrounded by the triumphant manifestation of the resurgent city. Our aim is not to obscure its ignoble downfall but to reveal the inspiration in the construction of a new city. These words were spoken by Mayor Van Walsum on 15 May 1953 during the official unveiling of the famous sculpture The Destroyed City by Ossip Zadkine. Depicting a man without a heart, his arms raised to the heavens in despair, the work symbolizes the dramatic destruction of the centre of Rotterdam. It is associated like no other sculpture with the recent history of Rotterdam. Remarkably, a model of the work was shown in many places before it arrived in Rotterdam. Indeed, whether the work was even designed for Rotterdam is open to debate.
The sculptor Zadkine originally came from Belarus, but emigrated to the west to study at the tender age of 15. He settled in Paris in 1909, and received French citizenship in 1918 after serving in the French army during World War I. He developed into an important sculptor, working in a cubist-inspired style that also incorporated elements of primitive art. In 1941 the artist, a half-Jew, fled to the United States, but returned to France in 1946.
In October 1945 I returned from America, where I had stayed during the war. I arrived in Le Havre, full of ruins, a carcass of a city. It took one night to reach Paris on a train with no windows. That night I got the idea for the monument. I sketched it on paper and forgot about it, until I visited Rotterdam for the first time in 1947. I saw a city without a heart. I saw a crater in the body of a city. And I remembered that night, the sketches. I made a small terracotta model and sent it to an exhibition of French art in Germany.
That’s how Ossip Zadkine explained the genesis of the work in het Vrije Volk newspaper on 4 July 1950.
The book Zadkine, edited by Jana Beranova, casts doubt on whether the work really was based on the destruction of Rotterdam. In later interviews Zadkine did admit he was inspired by a visit to Rotterdam, but he only passed through Rotterdam by train 1946. Perhaps the view from the train as it crossed the viaduct was enough. He may also have been inspired by the destruction of Warsaw. Rumours that Zadkine offered the artwork to other European cities have never been substantiated.
In the summer of 1947 a 70-centimetre-tall terracotta model was exhibited in Prague and Berlin. This model was badly damaged during transport, so Zadkine produced a second plaster model twice the size, first shown in the Netherlands in 1948, in Amsterdam. After that, a bronze model was shown at Sonsbeek ’49 in Arnhem, before arriving at Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in December 1949.
Gerrit van der Wal, director of De Bijenkorf department store and an art lover, saw the work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He was so impressed that he came up with a plan to present a larger version of the work to the city of Rotterdam. De Bijenkorf was originally a Jewish company and had lost a lot of personnel during the war. Moreover, Van der Wal’s identity as the donator remained a secret until 1978.
He was also involved in the construction of the new Bijenkorf building on Coolsingel and the sculpture by Naum Gabo. Van der Wal attached two conditions to his donation. First, the sculptor himself could choose the site in the city. Second, the city council had to agree unanimously with the donation.
To gauge the reactions of the people of Rotterdam, a bronze model of the sculpture was presented in Rotterdam, first in a retrospective exhibition of work by Zadkine at Museum Boijmans on 1 December 1949, and at the City Hall and later at the Ahoy exhibition the following year. There were doubts about whether the city council and people of Rotterdam would be enthusiastic about such a modern sculpture. That was the reason for the cautious approach with presentations at the museum and Ahoy. But the work was embraced almost immediately. Only one man voiced strong objections. Jan Tillema, director of the Department of Public Works, wrote an article in the Katholiek Bouwblad in which he vehemently opposed the plan for the sculpture.
Must this six-metre-tall, madly demonic scourge paralyze the heart of my city forever? Tillema expressed a preference for a recognizable human figure in which one can and will recognize a man from the race created by God. He also wondered whether the bronze figure would miss an arm or a leg rather than a heart if the city had lost an outlying district in the war…
But most architects, such as J.J.P. Oud and J.H. van den Broek, and art critics like Pierre Jansen and Gabriël Smit were enthusiastic about the work. And, judging from the letters pages in the newspapers, the people of Rotterdam did not reject the sculpture either. There were of course the usual objections to modern art and the high cost of the work. Given that the piece was a donation, the cost was limited to 24,500 guilders (c. 11,000 euros) for the pedestal and placing of the work. Remarkably, it was none other than Tillma himself, director of the Department of Public Works, who on account of his position, had the honour of designing the pedestal. The book Zadkine by Jana Beranova explores the rumour that the Labrador granite of the pedestal was originally intended for a statue of Adolf Hitler. This was indeed intended for the pedestal of such a work in Berlin. But the Rotterdam stonecutters who were forced to carry out the work dragged their feet, and after the war they were able to buy the granite for a bargain price as a spoil of war. The Rotterdam Stonecutter’s Guild could then donate the material to the city in 1953. On account of its size, the piece could only be cast in France. On 1 May, the work left the Paris foundry of André Susse for Rotterdam.
This sculpture has acquired fame even before its unveiling. It’s been a subject of discussion among people all over the world, arousing both admiration and aversion. That alone proves its significance, since people would not get so worked up about something mediocre, conventional or unconventional. I certainly do not imagine that the thousands who will pass this work will all admire it or even find it beautiful. But I do expect many people will come to our city to see this work, or once in Rotterdam they will want to see it. And I certainly hope that future generations in Rotterdam will count themselves lucky to possess this creation and will consider the promotion of its erection as an instance of wise policy. That’s how Mayor Van Walsum reflected on the discussion concerning the work. Despite initial scepticism, as illustrated by the nicknames Jan Gat and Frankenstein’s Monster, The Destroyed City was quickly accepted by the people of Rotterdam. It was even referred to locally as Zadkine or Zadkini in honour of its maker. Since 1953, however, there has been a lot of tinkering with the work. Plein 1949 was redesigned in 1967 when the Leuve Lock disappeared. From the late 1960s on, the idea of a ‘Window to the River’ was also abandoned. Initially there were major plans for a World Trade Center at Leuvehaven, but this complex of office towers ended up at Marconiplein.
With the construction of the Maritime Museum between 1983 and 1986, the ‘Window to the River’ disappeared definitively from the Basisplan, and Plein 1940 shrunk in size, and the sculpture was moved a short distance to the east. In 2006, construction of De Coopvaert, a high-rise structure, changed the appearance of the square again.
In 2014 a plan was mooted to relocate the Zadkine sculpture to the forecourt in front of the new railway station. Supporters expected that Zadkine at the station could enjoy the same status as the Statue of Liberty. 'The Destroyed City, which symbolizes so well what happened to the city, deserves a better location than the insignificant site it currently occupies,’ argued D66 council member Jos Verveen in the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper of 26 February 2014. But in view of the fact that the artist had specifically chosen this site, the idea was soon dismissed as sacrilege.