Ger Luijten (1956-2022)


Meeting Ger was an unforgettable experience. There are few colleagues able to confront you with the materiality of works of art with such enthusiasm, knowledge, expertise and a sharp eye for significant detail. 

Meeting Ger was an unforgettable experience. There are few colleagues able to confront you with the materiality of works of art with such enthusiasm, knowledge, expertise and a sharp eye for significant detail. He would talk very quickly while gesticulating and would tap you on the shoulder to draw attention to a patch of shading or a brushstroke, all the while referring to numerous other works in the artist’s oeuvre, or by others, or indeed from the entire cultural period. At the same time he regularly introduced analogies with modern songs, especially by American singer-songwriters, and again with poetry: it was almost as if he took you with him into the studio of an artist, secretly, so that you could look together over the artist’s shoulder and appreciate the devices by which the surrounding reality was being turned into art. 

Fortunately, he also regularly committed his animated and wonderfully meandering views on art to paper, which can absorb information with unlimited patience. His list of publications is impressive, not just in number, but for the depth and breadth of knowledge it reveals. His remarkable erudition and command of material shows especially in entries dedicated to a single work. Ger’s texts are often gems which force you to rethink your position and see things differently.

Ger developed his extraordinary and exceptionally sharp eye for detail and deeply rooted interest in, and knowledge of[beter zonder] ‘the artist’s hand’ in the late 1970s while training as a drawing teacher. Anyone who has received a letter from Ger will remember his strikingly calligraphic writing. In an interview from 2019 in Kunstschrift Ger talked of the importance of his first teacher, who encouraged him to go and look at things with his own eyes, as often as possible. From that moment began his unstoppable love of travel, a Wanderlust which came to an abrupt end on 19 December of this year. While studying art history at Utrecht he would drive up and down the country in his Volkswagen Beetle, taking fellow students with him, to look at collections and visit exhibitions, on the return journey memorising the arrangement of the works on the wall.

Immediately after his studies he worked as researcher for the New Hollstein, the major series of oeuvre catalogues of old master printmakers, which took him in a short space of time to dozens of print rooms. In those years he laid down an enormous knowledge of objects from many periods as well as of the history of collecting, and he succeeded in building an impressive, international network. This led naturally to his first appointment as curator at the print room of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, where part of his job was acquiring works for public collections.

To say that since that moment Ger collected on an almost princely scale – successively for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam and for Fondation Custodia – is an understatement. There were many occasions when he managed to tap into additional charitable trusts, or come up with ingenious financial constructions so that a unique work of art could be acquired which was absolutely essential to the collection under his care. Regular visitors to annual art fairs such as the Salon du Dessin, Print Fair or TEFAF, learned how to spot works that Ger had managed to reserve even before the official opening.

In 2010 he was appointed Director of the Fondation Custodia in Paris, which had been the life’s work of Frits Lugt and his wife To Klever. He developed the organisation in a way that was true to the couple’s spirit, and the Fondation is now very much his crowning achievement. Ger refurbished the Hôtel Turgot and the adjoining late 19th-century apartment building from cellar to attic, introducing a great many changes including state-of-the-art storerooms, library and study rooms, a digitisation suite for putting the collection online, as well as attractive exhibition galleries. With good taste and – as always – with an eye for detail, he had the public spaces of the Hôtel restored, in which he of course made all decisions about colours of walls and panelling, as well as choosing, purchasing and installing appropriate furniture and objects. As a result, the Hôtel is a completely renewed Gesammtkunstwerk: Ger would never miss an opportunity to point out how each work of art was positioned because of a relationship with another art object nearby, which in turn could be found to create a ‘visual rhyme’ with something else, and so on. A true leader in every way, he worked with his dedicated team, and with support from the trustees of the Fondation, in order to welcome the wider public to a ‘House for Art on Paper’. It had for decades enjoyed the reputation of a celebrated collection, but its reach was confined to a small number of experts. As he maintained with great conviction: ‘Art is for everybody. See what it has brought me.’

It would be quite wrong to think that with all these activities going on, Ger had no time left for acquiring works for ‘his’ collection, for organising or contributing to international exhibitions, for travel, or for his many public roles as trustee or editorial board member.  Ger did not allow himself to be restricted by the annoying fact there are only 24 hours in a day. He succeeded, between the various building works – including during the pandemic with consecutive lockdowns, a period which must have been exceptionally difficult for someone so keen on travel, who was always making connections, and was a passionate lover of art, music and literature – in enriching the Fondation’s collection with hundreds of objects.

One of the fields of collecting into which he diverged was the 19th-century oil sketch, building on the group bequeathed by a former director, Carlos van Hasselt. Looking back, it is clear that in these sketches Ger’s art-historical interests and personal taste came together: these works were produced on an intimate format, often on paper; showing fragmentary impressions of the world, they often reveal something of the ‘making process’. In these ‘impromptus’ Ger must have valued the combination of inspiration and chance, the artist’s setting down of initial ideas with scarcely a thought to a finished painting. These sketches show some of the visual and material challenges that face an artist as he works en plein air and searches for a way to put craft into practice.

Those who have had the opportunity to see the oil sketches assembled on the staircase of the Hôtel Turgot, or were able to visit Ger’s recent True to Nature exhibition, will understand the significance of the oil sketch as an artistic process, and will always remember that these are works in which we can glimpse the mysterious process of artistic invention. As Ger once noted, an exhibition ought to illustrate precisely this making and thinking process so that we, the viewers, are roused to go on a journey. This allows us to make new visual discoveries – and see with fresh eyes. Ger achieved this as no one else has, and in a way which also speaks to a younger generation.

Passion; contagious enthusiasm; knowledge; expertise; connoisseurship; extraordinary energy: it is hard to find enough of the right words to do justice to a man who embraced life and shaped it through an appreciation of the fine arts, music and literature. In addition, Ger was a fine colleague with an exceptionally warm personality, who would always welcome you affectionately and immediately lead you on a new and inspiring journey through ‘his’ collection. 

Ger is already sorely missed by his family and close friends, his immediate colleagues, the board of the Fondation Custodia, and by colleagues all over the world. And of course by the staff of the RKD, which he had so generously supported as board member since 2010. He was a tireless ambassador for the institute until his very last moment.

Chris Stolwijk
General Director RKD