Reinventing Denmark through Painting
Through a century of wars, fires and bankruptcy, the spirit of the Danish people not only endured, but eventually inspired the world – through the eyes of its artists.
“The story of 19th century art may be about Paris, London, Berlin, Dusseldorf and Brussels as major art centers – but Copenhagen was a very lively place,” says Patricia Berman, co-curator of an exhibition of Danish masterworks that’s set to open at Scandinavia House in New York in October.
Danish Paintings from the Golden Age to the Modern Breakthrough covers the years from the late 18th century through the early 20th. Co-curated with Thor Mednick, it’s composed of highlights of John L. Loeb’s extensive collection of paintings by some of Denmark’s best known and most influential artists.
“It provides a survey of Danish work from the neoclassicists of the late 18th century through the symbolism of 20th” she says. “It’s really high quality work.”
During that time, Denmark found itself on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars, saw its military and merchant fleet turned over to Sweden, then engaged in a series of Prussian wars. Copenhagen burned twice: once by accident in 1795, and then firebombed by the British in 1807.
“The monarchy and its naval power were in shambles in the mid-19th century,” she says.
Still, the artists persevered. Encouraged by trade, a middle class began to grow – and to buy the local art it found at exhibitions.
“The artists were reimagining the country as a rural utopia,” she says. “So there was the idea of coming back after the crash, with a love of landscape, and attentiveness to rural life and its patterns.”
By the 1880s and ‘90s, they established an artists’ colony at Skagen, a fishing village where the North Sea meets the straits of Denmark. It attracted a great deal of attention, as Impressionists and Post-Impressionists from Germany, France, Norway and Sweden came to spend their summers there.
It got good press. “Hans Christian Anderson went there and wrote about it in local Copenhagen newspaper,” she says. “He wrote that it’s beautiful, it’s rustic and it’s our place to visit.”
That paid off in spades. Before long, Robert Louis Stevenson showed up for a visit. Edvard Munch’s first exhibition was there, along with others by Gauguin and van Gogh.
“It was one of most important artists’ colonies in Europe,” she says. “People were coming there by boat or train during its heyday.”
Beginning Oct. 12 at Scandinavia House, we can all go to see why.
For more information, go to www.scandinaviahouse.org.