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Benno Premsela and Max Heymans, Men with Guts and Style

by our Editors in Theatre, Art & Expo , 07 december 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

From December 14, 2015 until June 28, 2016, the Amsterdam Jewish Historical Museum presents the exhibition “Benno Premsela - Max Heymans: Men with Guts and Style.” The exhibition is about the life and works of designer and interior architect Benno Premsela (1920-1997) and couturier Max Heymans (1917-1997). Their history is an optimistic story of resilience and form in the Netherlands in the second half of the twentieth century.

After years of prosecution and hiding, both acted in the forefront of the postwar generation of designers looking for cooperation with each other and the industry. They became the figureheads of a group of artists and designers who successfully put design and fashion on the map in postwar Holland. Their long careers are characterized by their enormous productivity, creativity and wide public attention. They also gained fame by coming out of the closet as famous Dutch people in a time and society where this was still a big taboo.

Premsela was one of the most determining figures for designers in the Netherlands. Heymans wrote fashion history as “the Nestor of Dutch couture.” They met shortly after the war, having survived the war as one of the few in their Jewish families. Premsela designed bags in that period, and Heymans designed hats they would sell through friends. Their personal losses and the lives they had to rebuild had led to a “flight forwards,” as Premsela would later describe it. With high resilience, they were reshaping their lives and work.

Insight into Himself

Benno Premsela was born in Amsterdam as the son of the well-known Jewish general practitioner and sexologist Bernard Premsela, who also published about sexuality. Before and after the Second World War, he studied interior design at the Nieuwe Kunstschool and initially became renowned for his spectacular display windows decorated under his control at the Bijenkorf. He continued his career from his design studio BRS Premsela Vonk, which he founded with interior decorator Jan Vonk. Premsela’s cotton loop carpet and his sober Lotek lamp (1982) became iconic. But most of all, Premsela was a bridge builder, an initiator and manager who brought people together in the interest of (applied) art and aesthetics, initiating new co-operations.

Choreographer Hans van Manen, who was friends with Premsela, once said in an interview that Premsela “did not do all those things for nothing. Because of course, he is a vain man. He does not have these managerial jobs because he is a Good Samaritan or Florence Nightingale, not at all. He does it to get something in return, and I mean that in the most positive way. He becomes better through these jobs because he gets better insight into himself, his own motives, as he is looking for that, just like everyone else.”

Not just in the world of design did the manager Premsela leave his marks. He was chairman of the COC from 1962 to 1971, which was largely working in secret until he became chairman. In this capacity, he did pioneering work for gay emancipation in the Netherlands. But Premsela had been active in the fight for equal rights for homosexuals much earlier, already since 1947. Shortly after the war he was involved in the “Shakespeare Club,” from which the COC was founded in 1949. In an interview Premsela once stated: “In order to provoke I used to say: ‘All this moaning from those homosexuals! Be happy you are being discriminated. At least you have to consciously think about your place in life...’” Perhaps this introspection was one of the reasons the COC in 1964 started to come out more visible under his chairmanship.

On December 30, 1964 Premsela had the guts to appear as the first homosexual on Dutch television without having been made unrecognizable. On New Year’s Eve, the program “Achter het Nieuws” of Dutch public broadcaster VARA was the talk of the town. In the context of an exhibition on Premsela in the Amsterdam City Archives in 2008, the then chairman of the COC Frank van Dalen said: “The COC had been underground until the arrival of Benno Premsela. It must have been the reason he kept hammering away on equal rights for homosexuals and took open action against discriminatory legislation. His greatest merit was making homosexuality visible, rather literally, by admitting to it and talking about it in public. He was also one of the few who did not work under a pseudonym, but registered as a member under his own name. Now, in our time, the fight is about a change of mentality in collective consciousness. The aims are different, but the essence of the strategy - visibility - has remained the same.”

‘Being Like That’

Heymans certainly was visible as well, both in a private and a professional capacity. The functional and “less is more” designs by Premsela are in strong contrast with the flamboyant world of fashion designer Max Heymans. As a small boy in his town of birth Arnhem, where he grew up in a Jewish environment, Max was walking around the house all dressed up, also in his mother’s clothes. In his boyhood he was making his first creations by cutting up his mother’s clothing. His talent did not escape the fashion stores in Arnhem, and at the tender age of thirteen he was already “working” as a window dresser for three clothes shops. After the death of his father in 1933, Max and his mother moved to Amsterdam.

In the capitol he started working as a hat maker, and he was selling his creations in the late 1930s via Maison de Bonneterie and Nieuw Engeland. He was also working as a window dresser again, now at the Jewish clothes store Hirsch & Cie. He also opened his own salon on Muntplein. When he witnessed the arrest of two Jewish boys in 1940, he decided to go into hiding immediately. He received materials through friends and sold his creations. On August 30, 1945, Heymans held his first fashion show in the restaurant of the American Hotel on Leidseplein. Many of the creations on display there were made by Heymans from his mother’s clothes, who had died in Bergen-Belsen shortly before liberation.

Heymans mostly looked to Paris, where couture was far ahead of couture in the Netherlands, and in particular to his big example, Coco Chanel. With his own twist, Heymans found a way to make French couture suitable for Dutch women. He also gave fashion in the Netherlands an important new status by creating a distinct artist-couturier profile for himself. His autobiography “Knal” (1966) was taboo breaking, as he not only described his fashion activities, but was also outspoken about “being like that” and his love for cross-dressing.

“Knal” is illustrated with his own drawings and many photos, with several of him dressed as a woman. The book also contains photos of contemporary actresses, such as Hetty Blok, Conny Stuart, Mary Dresselhuys, Caro van Eyck, Charlotte Köhler, Josephine van Gasteren, and others in Heymans’ creations. Despite poor health, in old age Heymans kept designing and organizing fashion shows, including shows in Joop Braakhekke’s restaurant Le Garage, who also made sure Heymans was looked after properly and got food on a daily basis.

Premsela and Heymans regularly met and were friendly, greatly appreciating each other’s talent. Their legacy is connected to the Jewish Historical Museum: between 1985-1987 Premsela and his bureau BRS Premsela Vonk shaped the museum on its current location. The museum purchased a number of designs and personal pieces from Heymans. The exhibition is a wide overview of their designs and personal documents. A number of special items are also on display, for example Heymans’ silver pincushion, a miniature prototype of one of Premsela’s revolving book cases, and early sketches from Premsela’s period at the Nieuwe Kunstschool. During the exhibition, the museum organizes various events, including a theme day on gay emancipation.

In connection with the exhibition, the book “Benno Premsela & Max Heymans: Vormgeving, couture en homo-emancipatie in naoorlogs Nederland” will be published by publishing firm Waanders in Zwolle early December. The book is written by Yvonne Brentjens and Maaike Feitsma in cooperation with Mirjam Knotter. This illustrated paperback has 144 pages and costs 24.95 Euros.

Joods Historisch Museum,
Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, 1011 PL Amsterdam
Open daily (also during the weekend) from 11:00-17:00



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