Willem Sandberg (Amersfoort, Netherlands, 1897 — Amsterdam, 1984), typographer and graphic designer, spent the bulk of his professional career at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where he served as director from 1945 to 1963. Moreover, he was appointed commissioner of the Dutch Pavilion at the 1948, 1952 and 1956 editions of the Venice Biennale. In the last of those, in 1956, he organised the show Guernica, avec 60 études at the Amsterdam museum, dubbing Picasso’s great painting as the “night watch of the 20th century”, due to it coinciding with the 350th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt.
After setting off on a voyage of education and work in graphic design in different European cities, including Vienna and Zurich, and participating in projects with Piet Zwart and other big names in modern typography and graphic art at the end of the 1920s, Willem Sandberg joined the team at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1936. Aware of the situation of pre-war turmoil at that time, he travelled to Spain in 1937, witnessing a country immersed in the Civil War, before living in Holland in the period of German occupation during the Second World War. Following its liberation, he was appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum, where he played a key part in shaping the collection, working to turn the museum into a social agent of cohesion and knowledge, and integrating art into daily life. His work ran through not only the programmed activities and exhibitions but also the renovations and extensions carried out in the museum, for instance the opening of a new wing in the old building (1954), the foundation of a new library, reading areas, improved communications and movement inside the museum, and the old door was replaced by a new glass one granting easier access, thus advocating, through architecture and the values of transparency, the interface between the institution, city and citizen.
Sandberg’s time at the Stedelijk Museum is noteworthy for his reconsideration of past avant-garde movements, collaborations with artists and architects, and design — personally overseeing publications, posters, and all graphic material designed for and by the museum – in addition to strengthening the teaching department. This work, in the form of programmes, bloomed at a time of reconstruction in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As a result, he saw the iconic value of Picasso’s Guernica as the memory of and plea for peace, having seen the painting in Paris in 1939 and in the multiple reproductions in newspapers and books. Furthermore, Sandberg, aware that the picture had crossed the Atlantic in exceptional circumstances for the Picasso retrospective in Milan, held in October 1953, immediately contacted the artist, the organisers of the Milan show and New York’s Museum of Modern Art to request the loan of Guernica.
With his attempts failing to bear fruit, he persevered and once again took advantage of the next time Guernica returned to Europe, at the Paris exhibition in the summer of 1955, to request its loan. Upon gaining a favourable answer, his initial idea was to reconstruct, however possible, the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, particularly in light of the recent acquisition of Julio González’s sculpture Montserrat for the museum’s collection. Sandberg looked to the origins and destination of Guernica whilst enhancing the central space it filled in the world’s collective imagery; an emblem of the civic renaissance among the ruins – real and metaphorical – of war.