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Debate on painting of cigar-smoking white men

The brief removal of Rein Dool’s ‘cigar-smoking white men’ painting generated a storm of reactions last November. Students, staff and alumni reflected on this and the role of art and representation at the university in a symposium on Friday 26 May.

Pleased with the furore

The symposium was opened by Kitty Zijlmans, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Art History and chair of the committee that organised the symposium and has been considering the issue of the painting since December. Zijlmans briefly explained the furore about the painting’s removal and the committee’s preliminary advice on what action to take. She said she was pleased with the outcry. ‘It shows that art can have an impact.’

Brave space rather than safe space

This idea was echoed in the contribution of Margriet Schavemaker, Professor of Media and Art in Museum Practice at the University of Amsterdam. She reflected on how museums are increasingly making room for the perspectives of groups who received little attention in the past. This often meets with disapproval in our polarised society. ‘But bringing new perspectives to history can actually foster greater mutual understanding and make society more equal’, Schavemaker said. Rather than ‘safe spaces’, museums − and universities too − should therefore be ‘brave spaces’ that strive for social justice.

Through student eyes

That art has an effect on people was quite literally demonstrated in the contribution of Judi Mesman, Professor of the Interdisciplinary Study of Societal Challenges. She showed videos of the candid responses of four students to various paintings that are hanging in university buildings. What was striking was how differently each student reacted to and reflected on the paintings they were shown. Whereas, for instance, a male alumnus appreciated the Senate Room for its historical value, a female student gazed at the few portraits of female professors hanging there. ‘I feel proud to see these women and what they have achieved.’

Label the painting

A brief discussion followed with suggestions being made about what should happen with this specific painting and with paintings in the university’s public spaces in general. Providing context to the painting, for instance by adding a label with a description or a QR code, was mentioned most frequently. Mayor Henri Lenferink even suggested commissioning a painting of the current Executive Board and hanging this next to Rein Dool’s painting to show the changing zeitgeist. Because, the audience concluded, removing the painting and erasing history was not the solution.

The Executive Board will discuss the committee’s advice and the insights from the symposium on 13 June and will then reach a decision on Rein Dool’s painting and draw up guidelines for a university exhibition policy. ‘I really enjoyed hearing all the insights and see this symposium as the first discussion within an ongoing conversation’, said Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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