Constant Nieuwenhuys  

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"Creation and revolutionary struggle have the same objective: the realisation of life."

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Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys (21 July 1920 – 1 August 2005), better known as Constant, was a Dutch painter, sculptor, graphic artist, author, musician and architect. He was involved with the Situationist International, practiced unitary urbanism and devised the concept "New Babylon".


Early period

Constant was born in Amsterdam on 21 July 1920 as the first son of Pieter Nieuwenhuijs and Maria Cornelissen. Their second son Jan Nieuwenhuys was born a year later. Both sons became artists although their parents had no apparent interest in art.

As a young child Constant drew passionately and showed great talent. He read literature with a special preference for poetry and played musical instruments. During his teenage years he learned to sing and to read music while in the church choir at a Jesuit school. In his later years, greatly inspired by gypsy music, he only played improvised music. He played guitar, violin and at 45 years of age also mastered playing the cimbalon.

Constant painted his first oil painting, De Emmaüsgangers, at age sixteen. It depicted the revelation of Jesus to two of his followers in Emmaus. With no money to buy materials he painted this painting on a jute sugar bag with pigments he had bought from a house painter. Many of Constant’s early drawings and paintings are religiously inspired, due to his Jesuit schooling. Yet at the age of twenty Constant turned his back on Catholicism.

After one year studying at the Kunstnijverheidsschool (Arts and Crafts School), Constant attended the Rijksakademie voor Beeldende Kunst (State Academy of Fine Arts) from 1939 to 1941. This education in craftmanship was put to use especially during his "New Babylon" period, when Constant built many constructions and models.

Constant lived and worked in Bergen from 1941 to 1943. Through the Bergense School he was introduced to the work of Cézanne, which impacted him deeply, as evident in Zelfportret (Self Portrait), 1942.

The city of Bergen was evacuated by the Germans in 1943 and so Constant and his wife Matie van Domselaer, whom he married in July 1942, moved back to Amsterdam. During this period Constant went into hiding and refrained from registering at the ‘Kulturkammer’ (Nazi Chamber of Culture) to avoid the 'Arbeitseinsatz' (labour supply for the Germans). Because of this he was unable to conventionally exercise his craft or to buy art supplies. To paint Constant used tablecloths and bed linen and had to rinse them out to start again.

During the war Constant's brother in law, Jaap van Domselaer, moved into the apartment to hide from the 'Arbeitseinsatz.' He introduced Constant to Plato, Spinoza, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Marx. Especially the latter provided great inspiration to Constant regarding his later ideas on art and society.

During the winter famine of 1944 Constant's first son, Victor Nieuwenhuys, was born. After the war, Constant, his wife and son moved back to Bergen only to return to Amsterdam in 1946 where they lived in an apartment across from Artis (a zoo). When the war ended Constant was able to expand and grow as an artist after years of captivity and limitations. He liberated himself artistically and experimented with multiple techniques of art-making. He was inspired by Cubism especially by Braque. In 1946 his daughter Martha was born, followed by his daughter Olga in 1948.


In 1946 Constant traveled to Paris for the first time where he met the young Danish painter Asger Jorn. The friendship between Jorn and Constant later formed the basis for CoBrA.

July 1948 Constant founded Reflex Experimentele Groep in Holland with Corneille, Karel Appel and his brother Jan Nieuwenhuys. The first edition of the magazine Reflex was published with a manifesto written by Constant. For Constant art had to be experimental. He had deducted this from the French word 'expérience' and believe that art springs from experience of the artist and is continuously changing.

This manifesto would become one of the most important texts on art in the Netherlands after WWII. In this manifesto he states that firstly the process of creation is more important to the experimental artist than the work itself. It is a means to reach spiritual and mental enrichment. Secondly the work of experimental artists is a mirror image of changes in the general perception of beauty.

Constant, Corneille and Appel, three totally different characters and artists, were united in their quest for innovation. They exhibited their work together and were often seen together in the European art scene. This was somewhat to the annoyance of other experimental artists in the Netherlands. The wanderlust of the three is especially notorious.

Later in the year 1948 on the terrace of café Notre Dame in Paris the Experimentele Groep in Holland linked up with Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret from Belgium and Asger Jorn from Denmark to form CoBrA, a name which was made by Dotremont, formed by the first letters of their hometowns: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The members opposed aesthetics in painting and bourgeois art in general.

Constant had already outlined their ideas in his manifesto in Reflex magazine. This manifesto holds another of his famous quotes: "A painting is not a structure of colours and lines, but an animal, a night, a cry, a man, or all of these together"

Constant was productive during the CoBrA period. White Bird (1948), Ladder (1949) and Scorched Earth I (1951) are some of his noted works from this period. At this time CoBrA published bulletin additional artists from several different disciplines joined their ranks. In 1948 Constant, together with poet Gerrit Kouwenaar, published a poetry album Goede Morgen Haan. Additionally there were two large CoBrA exhibitions, one in Amsterdam in 1949 and one in Liège in 1951.

The director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (Municipal Museum of Amsterdam), Willem Sandberg, was very supportive of young artists and fully supported the CoBrA group by giving them seven large rooms to exhibit their work in. Most of the CoBrA works had been fairly small due to their lack of money and so Sandberg gave the artists an advance to create some larger works in the week before the exhibition. Constant, Corneille, Appel and Eugène Brands created several large pieces of art that have become iconic for the movement. The architect Aldo van Eyck was commissioned to shape the exhibition. The exhibition was unconventional to say the least. The works of art as well as the way they were presented give rise to harsh critique from press and public. A critic from Het Vrije Volk (Free People) wrote, 'Geklad, geklets en geklodder in het Stedelijk Museum' (Smirch, twaddle and mess in the Urban Museum of Amsterdam). An often heard remark from the public was that their children could probably do the same, only better. The CoBrA artists were considered scribblers and con artists.

In the Liège exhibition in 1951, even larger than the Stedelijk exhibition, the CoBrA group dissolved itself and with its tenth edition bulletin publication. As Christian Dotremont, the international secretary, stated in Museum News in 1962 the group would rather 'mourir en beauté' (die in beauty) than become a regular artist interest group. However short the existence of the group was, it forever changed the landscape of postwar European art.

Situationist International

After CoBrA Constant's work became more abstract. Back in Amsterdam in the summer of 1952 he developed an interest in spatial architecture and three-dimensional works. With Aldo van Eyck, whom he met during his CoBrA time, he created a space for the exhibition 'Man and House' at the Urban Museum Amsterdam from 1952-1953. In 1954 he worked on a project with Gerrit Rietveld. Together they created a model house for warehouses de Bijenkorf.

In 1952 Constant received a scholarship from the Arts Council of Great Britain to study in London for three months. There he met, amongst others, Henry Moore, Anthony Hill, Kenneth Martin, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Victor Pasmore. He found the art climate in London very welcoming. As opposed to Paris, Constant felt that art was judged more objectively.

At that time Constant lived near Kensington Gardens and as he walked through the bombed city every day he started to wonder how people live and how cities should be built. His stay in London raised his awareness of how the constructions that surround us influence us. He felt that the constructions of his time were mostly practical, immensely dull and provided no room to develop playful and creative lifestyles.

In the summer of 1956 Asger Jorn invited Constant to Alba, Piedmont, Italy, for a congress dedicated to 'Industry and the Fine Arts' initiated by 'Mouvement pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste' (International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. At this congress Constant presented his lecture Demain la poésie logera la vie in which he pleaded for a free architecture which could stimulate a creative lifestyle rather than impede it. The Lettrist International were also at the congress and they pleaded for a unitary urbanism (the synthesis of art and technology). Later that year Constant visited Debord in Alba, which proved to be an inspiration for both. In 1952 Debord had founded the 'Lettrist International', for which he was a writer, filmmaker and strategic activist.

Debord wanted to establish an even more radical movement which would totally abandon the arena of fine art while solely focusing on questions of psychography, a total dissolution of boundaries between art and life. In 1957 he and Asger Jorn brought together the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and the Lettrist International by establishing Situationist International. They specifically denied their status as an art movement.

Constant did not join SI at that time. He objected to the SI on the ground that the movement seemed to be established mainly by artists who have their own interest at heart more than a common goal. When SI openly pleaded for 'unitary urbanism', as defined by Constant and Debord, Constant joined. An intensive correspondence between him and Debord followed. Constant wrote several theoretical articles for the French SI journal and staged events at several museums in Paris as well as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where he showed his New Babylon series in 1959.

The success of the New Babylon show in 1959 prompted SI to plan a group exhibition there in April–May 1960. This exhibition would never take place. Disagreements in the group resulted in a split and several expulsions. In 1960 Constant left the group for the same reason he initially objected to joining. By 1961 no one remained of the original artistic core except Debord himself.

New Babylon

New Babylon (Constant Nieuwenhuys)

Back in Amsterdam after his stay in London, Constant started to focus mainly on architecture and the urban environment. The focal point of his work was finding out what potential added value art can provide in intensifying daily life, in which there is room for creative expression. He abandoned painting to work solely on his New Babylon project from 1954 to 1969.

With New Babylon Constant envisioned a "world wide city for the future" where land is owned collectively, work is fully automated and the need to work replaced with a nomadic life of creative play. New Babylon is inhabited by homo ludens, who, freed from labor, will not have to make art, for he can be creative in the daily practice of his life.

In Constant's own words:

The project of New Babylon only intends to give the minimum conditions for a behaviour that must remain as free as possible. Any restriction of the freedom of movement, any limitation with regard to the creation of mood and atmosphere, has to be avoided. Everything has to remain possible, all is to happen, the environment has to be created by the activity of life, and not inversely.

The New Babylon project consisted of a series of models, constructions, maquettes, collages, drawings, graphics and texts expressing Constant's theories of urban development and social interaction. A few examples of spatial constructions for which he used modern materials like stainless steel, aluminum and perspex are Het Ruimtecircus (1956) (Spatial Circus) and Het Zonneschip (1956) (Sunvessel).

In 1974 the New Babylon project officially came to an end with a large exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (Municipal Museum of The Hague). Because he lacked room to store the vast collection of constructions, maquettes, maps and structures he sold them all to the museum. In 1999 Constant's New Babylon: City for Another Life, opened at the Drawing Center in New York. It was his first solo exhibition in the United States and was curated by Mark Wigley. There was a symposium conducted in conjunction with the exhibition.

According to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Constant has made a lot of architects think with his New Babylon: "He was an example of courage".


After ten years of only working on New Babylon, Constant returns to painting, watercoloring and graphics in 1969. Till half way through the 1970s the subjects of his imaginary world New Babylon still crowd his work. However, more and more he's inspired by contemporary and political issues, including such things as the Vietnam War, African famine and Kosovo refugees. Marxism is a strong influence. Rudi Fuchs says in his foreword for the Catalogue of Constant Paintings in 1995 "there are people who consider Constant's later work as a return to tradition. I, however, do not share this opinion. Because I consider his later development from the 1970s as greater penetration into the garden of painting."

In the tradition of the Venetian Renaissance painters, Titian and Tintoretto, Constant applies himself to the technique of colorism. Following this technique the artist doesn't make use of charcoal or pencil sketches but applies colour directly on the canvas with the paintbrush constructing soft transitions instead of sharp contours. The most important feature of this technique is the way light is expressed in the painting by integrating it into the color. This technique is laborious. The painting comes to life layer by layer. Constant paints with oil on canvas and every layer he applies then needs to dry. In this period Constant produces a mere 3 to 4 painting per year.

Public space

In 1949 Constant decorated a garden wall in Tibirkelunde, Sjelland, Denmark.

In 1963 The Gate of Constant was placed at the entry of a sports park in the west side of Amsterdam. Constant designed the 40 feet high concrete structure as a commission for the Municipality of Amsterdam. For almost three decades the structure adorned the entry in anonymity until Rita Doets, a former employee of the municipality, left money in her legacy to construct an information sign next to the gate. Apparently she had been impressed by the work and had always regretted the fact that so few people knew of its origins. Constant's widow, Trudy Nieuwenhuijs, was present at the inauguration. She was pleased that the structure was now once again connected to Constant.

In 1966 Constant designed a fountain for the Kooiplein in Leiden. For years the structure didn't function and slowly withered. When the square was redesigned in 1999, the fountain was repaired. New equipment made sure that the shoppers were not bothered by the water.


Constant died on 1 August 2005 in Utrecht and was survived by his fourth wife, son, three daughters and stephdaughter.

Fondation Constant

In 2012 Constant's widow, Trudy Nieuwenhuijs, re-organised the foundation Collection Constant. She renamed it Fondation Constant. The foundation's purpose is to manage, protect and preserve the art collection and legacy of Constant. To honour the artist’s profound appreciation for the French language the foundation is referred to as Fondation Constant. Fondation is French for foundation. A month before he died Constant wrote a letter in which he expressed his wish to have a catalogue made of all his work. One of the foundation's tasks is to honour the artist's wish.


Constant, Avant le Départ (2005), 82 min
Constant died in the summer of 2005. Thomas Doebele and Maarten Schmidt filmed the artist during the last months of his life. They followed him and his dog, Tikus, on their daily stroll to the artist's studio, where he finished his last painting Le Piège (The Trap). A personal tale about a great painter in the last months of his life, working on the final details of the horizon of his last painting.

New Babylon de Constant (2005), 13 min
New Babylon visually captured by Constant's son Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyfert.

Cobra, a revolt against order (1986), 50 min
Documentary by Jan Vrijman about the meaning and influence of the COBRA group, then and now.

Constant oder der Weg nach New Babylon (1968), 55 min
For ten years Constant worked on his New Babylon project as a reaction to the architectural and social reality. Film maker Carlheinz Caspari follows Constant and his visions.

Accompanying Simon Vinkenoog to Constant's New Babylon (1962), 15 min
Lies Westenburg visits Constant at his studio with writer Simon Vinkenoog. Simon Vinkenoog and Constant discuss the ideas behind the New Babylon project.

Gyromorphosis (1958), 7 min
In Gyromorphosis, film maker Hy Hirsh strives to display the kinetic qualities of the New Babylon structures of Constant Nieuwenhuys. One by one he puts parts of the structures in motion and films the details with colored lighting having them overlap each other, appear and disappear. He creates a sensation of acceleration and suspense suggested by the work itself.


In 1940 Constant held his first exhibition together with Hans Wiesman at the Aalderink art galery in Amsterdam. In 1947 he had his first solo exhibition at the Santee Landweer art galery in Amsterdam.

A few of Constant's exhibitions over the years are mentioned here. The list is by no means complete:

In 1966 Constant represents the Netherlands with his New Babylon at the Biennale of Venice; in 1999 a retrospective of the New Babylon project is organised in New York and in 2002 New Babylon gets an honorary position at the Documenta 2002 in Kassel.

Public collections

Constant's artworks can be found in the following public collections.

Dutch museums

European museums

Museums outside Europe


  • 1961 Sikkens Award together with Aldo van Eyck
  • 1966 Premio Cardazzo at the Venice Biennale
  • 1971 refuses the royal decoration of 'Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau'
  • 1974 David Röell Award for his work as a drawer
  • 1985 Singer Award for his entire body of work
  • 1991 Resistance Award of the Foundation Artist Resistance 1942-1945
  • 1994 Oeuvre Award from Foundation Fund for Fine Arts, Design & Engineering


Below the list of books on Constant or on the groups he initiated or was part of. This list doesn't include his own writings.

  • Klee and Cobra. A Child's Play. Michael Baumgartner en Kirsten Degel, Ludion, Amsterdam, 2012
  • Constant. The late period. Trudy van der Horst, BnM publishers, 2008
  • In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni. The Situationist International (1957-1972). JRP|Ringier, Zürich, 2006
  • Constant. Grafics. Waanders uitgevers/Editions Cercle d’Art, Zwolle/Paris, 2004
  • CoBrA. The color of freedom. The Schiedam collection. NAi publishers, Rotterdam, 2003
  • Après nous la Liberté. Constant and the artistic avant-garde in 1946-1960. Marcel Hummelink, academic thesis privately published, 2002
  • The Activist Drawing Retracing. Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond. Edited by Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley, The Drawing Center, New York, 2001
  • Constant. Une rétrospective. Musée Picasso, Antibe, 2001
  • Constant. L’atelier d’Amsterdam. Jean-Clarence Lambert, Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, 2000
  • The Child in Cobra. Cobra Museum for modern art, Amstelveen, 2000
  • Constant’s New Babylon. The hyper-architecture of desire. Mark Wigley, Zero, Rotterdam, 1998
  • The A of COBRA in word en image. 50 years Cobra. Jaski Art Galery, Amsterdam, 1998
  • Cobra. Copenhague. Bruxelles. Amsterdam. Art éxperimental 1948-1951. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts et Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 1997
  • Constant. Schilderijen/Paintings 1948-195. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1996
  • Constant. Aquarellen/Watercolors 1975-1995. Haags Gemeentemuseum, 1996
  • Constant. Les Aquarelles. Jean-Clarence Lambert, Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, 1994
  • Cobra. Richard Miller, Nouvelles Édirions Françaises, Paris, 1994
  • Constant. Les trois escpaces. Jean-Clarence Lambert, Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, 1992
  • New Babylon. Constant. Art et Utopie. Jean-Clarence Lambert, Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, 1992
  • Documents Relatifs À La Fondation De L’Internationale Situationiste 1948-1957. Éditions Allia, Paris, 1985
  • Cobra 1948-1951. Éditions Jean-Michel Place, Paris, 1980
  • Cobra. History, foreplay and meaning of a movement in art after the second world war. Willemijn Stokvis, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1980

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