Constant Nieuwenhuys (or Constant for short, 1920 – 2005) was a leading member of the Cobra group but is equally famous for his intriguing New Babylon project, on which he laboured for almost twenty years. He witnessed the reconstruction of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and he saw how, by the 1950s, increasing automation was changing society.
He revealed himself as a true visionary, producing architectural models, constructions, maps, paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints, films, texts, lectures and temporary ‘environments’ to suggest to the public what their world might in future become. Constant believed that, by liberating people from the imperative of work, the society of the future would produce a ‘homo ludens’ (‘man at play’), free to exercise personal creativity and to travel at will. Above the existing cities, new environments would be created where everyone would be free to move around as they wished. But the form of New Babylon remained fluid; Constant was merely suggesting how the world of the future might be organized. It would be for its inhabitants to give creative shape to it, depending on their changing needs and desires. As he himself put it:
“Everything should remain possible; everything should be able to happen. The environment will be shaped by the activities of life, not vice versa”.
Following an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in 1974, Constant left most of his New Babylon works at the museum where, he said at the time, “it [could] be safely stored away for future generations and more favourable times”. He was keen to clear space in his studio for a return to painting. Over subsequent decades, a substantial proportion of the works were acquired for the collection.