For the gesamtkunstwerk which had to be built on the Damrak, Berlage collected the best artists of his day. In keeping with the zeitgeist, they were all more or less proponents of symbolism. This meant that they did not want to convey the meaning of their work straight away. You had to look for it yourself, in the shape, the lines and the colour. In what is nowadays the Bistro, you can admire the tableaux of painter Jan Toorop.
Jan Toorop (1858-1928) travelled through all of Europe, but had his workshop in Domburg in the Dutch province of Zeeland, where many other artists also came to work. They inspired Toorop to use a great diversity of styles, from impressionism and symbolism to pointillism.
The Bistro originally served as the main entrance for the commodity exchange. Traders entered a foyer where they could hang up their coats and subsequently enter the Grote Zaal via the revolving doors on the left or right. They originally all three in a row decorated the rear wall of the vestibule. There they confronted the businessmen with the possibility that soon they possibly had to find another job. The works portrayed the past, the present and the future, according to socialism.
(The texts in italics in the explanation below were taken from a letter Jan Toorop sent to the Public Works Alderman on 26 October 1903)
In the ‘Past’ tableau, the trade in women is depicted in the foreground. The man on the left receives a sword from the man on the right in exchange for his wife. The woman is depicted in an ‘innocent’ posture that is typical of Toorop: naked and with her hair hanging loose. She covers her eyes with her arm in sadness and shame. On the background we see a depiction of slavery. Slaves/labourers are being whipped to urge them on. In this setting – with her eyes closed – the woman, even though she is not holding the sword, appears to represent (the coming of) Justitia, the goddess of justice.
The woman has the same noble and stoic expression as the labourer (right). Like him, she carries a hammer, the symbol of participation in society. She also wears a harness, the symbol of emancipation. But she also has a rose in her hand, which is once again a typical Toorop way of expressing her femininity (although some people interpret this rose as the symbol of socialism). In the background the smoking chimney stacks, trains and steamboats depict modern society. Halfway up the tableau you see the emerging political awareness of the classes: the men in high hats are moving to the right, the labourers are moving to the left. ‘The big central figure is a depiction of today's business. His left hand is resting on the time (an hours hand). The right hand indicates contemplation.’
There is some doubt about the displayed time. Is it ten minutes to twelve or is it 10 o'clock? This vagueness may be intentional and could refer to the final lines in one of the many quatrains Albert Verwey wrote as an inspiration for the design of the Exchange Tower. “De goede en sterke daad geschiedt, te rechter uur, den tijd ten spijt”, loosely translated as The good and strong deed occurs at the right hour in spite of the time. In other words: good deeds are not dependent on the clock. Outside, under the clock on the belltower, you can read: “Beidt uw tijd” (Bide your time) and “Duur uw uur” (Last your hour). The woman in harness and the labourer also appear to represent the gods Minerva and Vulcan who, according to Greek mythology, taught people the necessary trades and, as such, established the foundation for civilisation.
After 1900 Toorop increasingly turned to Catholicism, also in his private life. This is very evident in the third tableau: it depicts the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. This Bible passage is rich in symbolism: She is a rejected woman (‘she has to fetch water alone, in the heat of the day’). She is a public woman (‘she has 5 husbands’). Jesus travels through Samaria (the shortest route) without fear, although the Jews and the Samaritans are enemies. At the well the woman recognises Jesus as the Messiah. She returns to her town and is able to convince the other inhabitants of his coming. She is subsequently welcomed back lovingly by the other Samaritans and we can implicitly assume that she is also able to leave her trade. She no longer has to sell herself (compare to the ‘Past’ tableau). In this tableau the figure of Jesus, with his halo, also symbolises the – future – enlightened men, although he still has a whip at the ready near his left hand. And, if her thoughtful look is anything to go by, the woman is still not entirely sure of the situation either. But they are reaching their hands out to each other! The figure on the right symbolises the labourer who is able to retire. He sets down his tools and walks from the ‘winter garden’ (the trees without leaves, symbolic of a difficult past) through the gateway where ‘gelukkige menschen onder bloeiende boomen in de lente gaan…’ (happy people walk under the blossoming trees of spring). Toorop’s vision for the future was a balance between spiritual and material life. In the tableau the spiritual life is represented by the woman, and material life by the old labourer coming out of the winter garden.