Chemical Engineering replaced paintings with pictures and vision

Following an avalanche of criticism, a painting of university administrators enjoying a smoke was returned to its former place at Leiden University yesterday, after it had been taken down shortly before. At the end of August, Cursor reported on a somewhat similar incident at TU/e’s department of Chemical Engineering. The series of paintings that were the topic of discussion back then have now been replaced with pictures and a cartoon illustrating the department’s vision. Initiator Laura van Hazendonk says she received a lot of response as well.

photo Laura van Hazendonk

At the end of August, Cursor reported on a playful stunt initiated by chemistry PhD candidate Laura van Hazendonk and TU/e students Naomie Amsing and Tobias Plugge. They created a parody of five paintings that had adorned the Jan Pieter Minckelers Room for years. In these paintings all of the men were wearing academic gowns, while all of the women were clad in very low-cut dresses. Having a meeting in the particular room made Van Hazendonk uncomfortable, she said. “I don't feel intimidated by them, but they give me an implicit signal that this place is not meant for me,” she told Cursor.

On the paintings that were temporarily put up as a parody, the sexes had been swapped. Now the women were wearing gowns and the men were rocking sexy crop tops. According to Amsing, who completed her master’s at Biomedical Engineering in September, “efforts were also made to add a bit of diversity with respect to the subjects’ skin colors”. The original paintings were recently removed and replaced with pictures of people working in the laboratory spaces in Helix and a cartoon illustrating the department’s vision (see main photo and photo directly below).

Article continues below photo.

Leiden University

The painting artist Rein Dool made for Leiden University in the seventies depicts the university’s Executive Board of the time, including Rector Dolf Cohen, father of renowned Dutch labor party PvdA politician Job Cohen. Dolf Cohen survived the Second World War by going into hiding. Elina Zorina, a PhD candidate at Leiden University, said on Twitter that she wasn’t sure what to make of the painting, claiming it sent an unclear signal. Wouldn’t it be better if an ironic or self-critical explanatory note were added, she wondered.

Dean of the Leiden Law School Joanna van der Leun replied that the painting was the topic of much discussion and that as far as she was concerned, it could be taken down. Two days later she tweeted a picture of people doing exactly that, which raised a few eyebrows. Professor of Physics Sense Jan van der Molen, for instance, asked if the painting really had to be removed “based on a single complaint”. He added that he himself always interpreted the painting “as a cynical and subtle artistic protest against cigar-smoking gentlemen in suits who sit around holding meetings”.

The removal quickly led to a host of hateful posts about ‘wokeness’ and ‘foreigners’, mixed in with some comments about the importance of being careful when it comes to removing works of art.

Mission accomplished

PhD candidate Van Hazendonk, who initiated the stunt at Chemical Engineering, says that the paintings there were replaced with pictures of lab spaces and the vision cartoon two weeks ago. Van Hazendonk: “Which looks a lot nicer and more professional, if you ask me. Our Managing Director Mark de Graef, to whom we also presented our parody paintings at the time, even gave me a short tour. The replacement actually dovetailed with a planned overhaul of the Helix interior. Walls were painted and similar pictures were put up throughout the building. The impending visit of an assessment panel was the main incentive for this, but I do think our stunt contributed to the immediate replacement of the controversial paintings. I received a surprising number of responses, both positive and negative, but mainly positive. Many but not all of them came from female students and employees, some of whom I hadn’t talked to in years, wanting to express their support. I also heard from someone higher up, who said our stunt changed the way they thought about the issue. In any case the whole thing got a lot of people talking, in a respectful way, so I think our mission was definitely accomplished.

Thorough discussion

In Leiden, Dool’s criticized painting has been put back up. “We see the incident as a starting point for a thorough discussion, but for now we’re stepping on the brakes,” Executive Board President Annetje Ottow stated. “Not everyone feels represented by this iconic piece,” says Ottow, “but as it is presented now it also lacks context.”

A committee with diverse representation will be convened to come up with “the best approach to do the painting justice.” Ottow indicated she will ask the university historian, an alumnus, art historians, other experts and students to sit on the committee.

Share this article