A spur-of-the-moment decision by academic staff to take down a 1970s painting depicting male Leiden University board members smoking cigars has sparked a debate in the Netherlands over cancel culture.
The artwork on the wall of a university meeting room had been a topic of discussion for years, with some students claiming that it both endorsed patriarchy and the act of smoking.
In what was described as a “tongue in cheek action”, the painting was taken off the wall and turned round during a meeting last month.
“Done!” tweeted Koen Caminada, a professor of tax and social policy.
The move, however, led to a furore, with one former government minister and former Leiden University lecturer, Uri Rosenthal describing it as a “shame” and an example of “stupidity” by “so-called intellectual professors”.
Others piled in, with Rob de Wijk, a professor of international relations, saying its removal was an attempt to “rewrite history”, while the painter himself, Rein Dool, 90, called the action “stupid and sad”.
A debate heard the world over between those who want to remove art and culture of the past that could be offensive today and those who believe that this would amount to trying to erase history is strong in the Netherlands, where the country’s colonial past looms large as an issue of division.
Initially, a spokeswoman for Leiden University had suggested the painting was “no longer relevant” and a “source of irritation for some members of staff”.
The university’s president, Annetje Ottow, subsequently said that there needed to be a debate and that the work had been put back on the wall. Earlier this month, a special committee was appointed to examine the case and others.
“We see the action as the start of a discussion on the matter and our university is of course an excellent place for this,” Ottow said. “After the commotion in November, we wanted to press pause for a bit, which is why the painting was hung back up on the wall.
“A committee will now consider what to do next, also in a broader sense and concerning other artworks and the way they are displayed at the University. This discussion belongs here and we at Leiden University, bastion of freedom, can hold it like no other. A debate often leads to new knowledge and valuable insights.”
Ottow has also commended the art and the six men portrayed. “They are very valued former administrators of our university and the painting gives a unique, historical picture of the time,” she said. “It is an impressive artwork and we are proud of the past administrators who are depicted in the painting. The action does not change that.”
Ottow said that part of the solution might be to add context to the image, an approach used to explain the presence of controversial statues elsewhere in the world as an alternative to removal.
She said: “Not everyone feels represented by this iconic work. As it hangs now, it also lacks context.
“The spontaneous action makes us think. Inclusion is one of our most important tasks. But in the discussion on which we as the board will base our decision, we will obviously include the painting’s historical value.
“Other considerations are respect for the former administrators in the painting and for the artist who created the work. We will listen to all sides.”
When approached, Caminada, who tweeted the original image of the painting being removed, responded: “Too much attention for this.”
The university’s spokeswoman added that the painting could be found today in the “same place, same wall, same room, same building”. The committee is expected to return with its first piece of advice in the first quarter of 2023.