Thursday 28 July 2022

Fré Cohen - the Dutch artist who turned ordinary objects into things of beauty

 “Fré’s work is so interesting. She was skilled in a range of techniques at a time when there were few women in her field and was able to not only promote her beliefs but also to make a living from her work Our exhibition concentrates on her social ideals, feminist views and Jewish inspiration,” says Alice Roegholt, founder and director of the Het Schip Museum in Amsterdam, which is showing an exhibition on the work of the recently rediscovered Dutch graphic designer Fré Cohen.

Fré Cohen at work in her studio, 1934

Frederika Sophia Cohen, known as Fré, was born in Amsterdam in 1903, the oldest daughter of diamond workers, Levie and Esther Cohen. When she was still very young, the family moved to Antwerp in search of work only returning to Amsterdam in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I.


Fré showed skill in drawing at an early age and wanted to be a cartoonist. She also developed an early interest in left-wing politics, perhaps influenced by her father’s connections to Netherlands’ social democrat movement. She attended youth camps organised by the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale, a Social Democrat movement, where she took part in hiking, sports and cultural activities. An image has survived of her at one of the camps, smiling and drawing and surrounded by friends. 

Giro booklet


Despite her artistic promise, it was not until she was 21, in 1924, that she began studying at Amsterdam’s Quellinusschool, first on a part time-basis and later, as a full-time student. She graduated with a Medal of Honour – the first to be issued in the school’s history.  


In 1921 she was hired to design advertisements for the Draka wire and cable factory and later found work with a publishing firm with strong links to the Social Democratic Party. She produced many designs for the party’s printing office, Vooruitgang (progress), and received commissions from trade unions, socialist youth movements and the magazine The Proletarian Woman. She depicted workers in a positive way, showing them as strong and capable, rather than downtrodden victims.


She went on to work for the Amsterdam municipality’s printing firm but left in 1932 to become freelance. She was so successful that by 1933 she was living in her own studio. Her nephew, Ernst Waltemathe, who later became a leading Social Democrat politician in Germany, recalls visiting “my rich aunt” in her studio and receiving gifts from her. 

Brochure for the Social Democrat Party's youth organisation, 1925

Postcard for Amsterdam city cleaning department, c1931

Ex-libris for actress Marie Hamel, 1932


Her work was varied and included book bindings, ex-libris, illustrations, postcards, calendars, playing cards, posters and pamphlets, as well as woodcuts and linocuts. Examples of all are included in the exhibition and show a range of influences including art deco, art nouveau and the Amsterdam School. 


The Amsterdam School movement had been founded by Jewish architect Michel de Klerk at the beginning of the 20th century with the aim of improving the living conditions of the working class. The Het Schip Museum, which is devoted to preserving and promoting the work of the movement, is one of his buildings. Fré not only shared his politics but was one of the leading graphic designers associated with the movement. 


Many of the artworks and objects she designed found their way into the homes of ordinary people, where they have survived until today. “When we announced the exhibition, many people visited us, bringing items that she had designed. We thought they wanted to donate them to us, but no, they just wanted us to see these things that they have treasured for so long,” said Roegholt.


City of Amsterdam coat of arms, 1930

Cohen was not afraid to work in different mediums or new formats. In 1934 she wrote “Each new technique is welcome: book print and lithography, offset and rotogravure. It’s just a matter of choosing the right technique suitable for the product we wish to create.” She exemplified this by making three-dimensional works including boxes and scale models. She also pioneered statistical graphics, in which data is presented with icons rather than numbers. This work included brochures for Schipol Airport and the Amsterdam port, using pictograms to show the growth in passenger numbers and cargo. 


Her reputation spread, and in 1934 the Midlands Master Printers Association invited her to give a series of lectures in the UK. Her subject was ‘Modern Lay-out in Holland,’ and she designed an invitation card especially for the lectures. The December 1934 edition of the Association’s magazine reported that “The lectures were both interesting and helpful and everywhere well attended”. In her presentations, she outlined the history of Dutch printing and spoke about new technology within the industry. 


Fré also explained her design philosophy saying, “My task is to create solid books, to make beautiful printed matter. The ordinary articles we use every day should be things of beauty”. She managed to provoke a minor controversy. The same article reported on her, “…friendly criticism of William Morris’ work, that the decoration tended to become more important apparently than the text” and how this provoked questions about her own use of white space within designs. 


Although Fré enjoyed work, she also liked to have fun and in 1934 took her first holiday in an artists’ village in Ascona, Switzerland. She wrote to a friend describing the town’s bohemian atmosphere saying “…there are vegetarians of all kinds (and) don’t be shocked…principled nudists”. She enjoyed the town’s café culture and painted watercolours there, some of which feature in the exhibition.

Greetings to eternity - watercolour by Fré Cohen

Anscona landscape by Fré Cohen

In the 1930’s her work increasingly showed Jewish influences. Hebrew letters appeared on her ex-libris, magazine covers and political posters. In 1933 she began working with an organisation assisting Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. It was there that she met writer, journalist and poet, Joseph Gompers. She designed two ex-libris for him. One, from 1934, shows a ploughman and Hebrew text which translates as, ‘the day is short, and the work is much’. The other, produced in 1936, shows a body crushed by a swastika and the words, ‘Ex-libris antisemitism’ in Hebrew.  It was intended for Gompers’ collection of books on antisemitism. The two friends would sometimes go for walks in Amsterdam’s Jewish neighbourhoods. Gompers wrote about these walks in the Nieuw Israeliëtsch Weekblad magazine, under the title Wanderings in Little Jerusalem. Fré contributed the illustrations. 


In 1940, Germany occupied the Netherlands and in October of that year, legislation was passed dismissing Jews from government employment. Fré’s commissions from the municipality ceased but her private commissions continued, including some teaching work at the WH Van Leer Jewish Applied Arts School above the Hollandse Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre). 


In the summer of 1942, the theatre began to be used as a holding point for Jews before deportation. The exhibition includes a photograph taken that year, showing her with a group of the students, and wearing a large Star of David on her coat. 


Life became increasingly dangerous for Dutch Jews, and in 1942, Fré went into hiding, staying at various houses in Amsterdam, Diemen, Rotterdam, Winterwijk and Borne. She continued to keep a busy routine, working on private commissions under the pseudonym ‘Freco’. The exhibition includes playing cards and illustrations for children’s books produced during this period. She also went for walks – running the risk of being recognised and arrested. This troubled her friend, Rie Keesje-Hillebregt, who hid her in Diemen. In a video recording in the show, Rie says, “She dyed her hair red…but she still looked very Jewish.” 


Fré still had hopes and ambitions but was clearly aware of the danger she faced. In 1942, she wrote, “I still have plenty of plans, sketches, and drawings at the ready, for after the war, if we ever live to see the end of it. You sometimes begin to doubt it.” She was right to doubt. On  9th June, 1943, she was captured in Borne and quickly took the poison she had been carrying for such an occasion. After two days in a coma, she died in hospital in Hengelo on June 12th. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery there.


After the war, she was largely forgotten, but in recent years interest in her work and life has grown. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum has a large collection of her graphic works, some of which are included in the Het Schip exhibition which is being enthusiastically received and attracting crowds. Perhaps, more importantly, many of those ‘ordinary articles’ that she designed as ‘things of beauty’ have survived, and are treasured, in the homes of people all over the Netherlands.

Fré Cohen, outside Amsterdam Central Station, c1935

Fré Cohen, Form and Ideals of the Amsterdam School runs until 30th October 2022 at the Het Schip Museum.

An edited version of this article, with additional illustrations, appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Jewish Renaissance Magazine.

All images are reproduced with the kind permission of Het Schip Museum.

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