Copenhagen’s Glorious Mess of Movements and Manifestos

How the Danish capital held a mirror up to the rest of Europe
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Late Autumn Day in the Jægersborg Deer Park, North of CopenhagenTheodor Philipsen
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For more than 200 years, Copenhagen has been one of the world’s great art capitals. But its standing in the modern era hides a rocky past: Just 200 years ago, Denmark went bankrupt. What followed was a saga of defeat, ingenuity, and triumph worthy of the Vikings–and one that deserves to be far better known than it is.

An unlikely Golden Age

After decades of war with its neighbors and starvation-level poverty, the nation of Denmark declared bankruptcy in 1813. It was a low point for Copenhagen, which had been Denmark’s capital since the 15th century. In other words, it had nowhere to go but up. As the 19th century began, Copenhagen’s population wasn’t much more than 100,000—peanuts compared with London (one million) or Paris (600,000). What the city lacked in manpower, however, it made up for in ambition. The period from 1813 to 1850 is often remembered as Denmark’s Golden Age, and during this time, Copenhagen’s residents led the national struggle for self-reinvention. Hans Christian Andersen wrote beloved fairy tales (Edvard Eriksen’s bronze statue of the Little Mermaid remains one of Copenhagen’s major tourist attractions). His friend Søren Kierkegaard rebuilt theology from the ground up. Perhaps most importantly, Copenhagen’s artists produced works that turned heads across Europe.

View of a Street in Østerbro Outside Copenhagen. Morning LightChristen Købke
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One of the greatest of these artists was Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Remembered as the Father of Danish art, Eckersberg studied in Paris and Germany, but his most famous paintings—like the vast, brooding The Death of Baldur (1817), based on a Norse myth—deal with quintessentially Scandinavian subjects. Eckersberg trained many of the finest Copenhagen painters of the era, including Christen Købke, Martinus Rørbye, and Constantin Hansen. In the masterful illustrations of Norse mythology he completed in the 1850s, Hansen continued his teacher’s project: using the innovations of European academic painting to glorify Danish cultural heritage.

Rebels and radicals

When young ambitious painters try to rebel against artistic conventions, it’s usually a good sign: Without a healthy arts scene, there wouldn’t be much for them to rebel against. This was certainly the case in Denmark at the start of the 20th century. Artists like Paul Gustav Fischer (sometimes called “The Painter of Copenhagen”) celebrated their country’s thriving metropolises. Vilhelm Hammershøi carved out a spot in the canon for his muted yet thrilling domestic paintings. But other, more avant-garde sensibilities studied the limits of realism and, at times, a nightmarish Copenhagen that was almost beyond living memory.

Copenhagen’s avant-garde art scene was, in fact, as diverse and lively as Modernism itself. There were Cubists (like Vilhelm Lundstrøm), Fauvists (like Sigurd Swane), and Symbolists (like Jens Ferdinand Willumsen)—so many freethinking radicals that, in 1919, a noted Copenhagen doctor named Carl Julius Salomonsen tried to argue that they were mentally ill.

View From Bredgade at the Church of Saint Ansgar in CopenhagenPaul Gustav Fischer
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Of all the art movements in Copenhagen at this time, Expressionism may have been the most astonishing. Jens Søndergaard, who studied at the city’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, is still regarded by many as Denmark’s finest painter and the key Danish Expressionist. Though he specialized in images of balefully beautiful countrysides, his greatness is clear in works like Trams at the Town Hall Square, Copenhagen (1936), a melancholy view of a place that, only a century ago, had been ravaged by disease and fire.

Movements and manifestos

It’s a shame that many people’s knowledge of modern Danish aesthetics begins and ends with the clean lines of its couches and chairs. It’s also ironic, since 20th-century Danish art history is a glorious mess of movements and manifestos.

In the last hundred years, Copenhagen has continued to nurture and inspire the country’s finest painters while serving as a channel for artistic exchanges with the rest of the world. And as its art scene grew richer and more radical, the flow began to change directions: Instead of simply importing established styles from Europe (Cubism, Fauvism, etc.), Copenhagen began to export some of its own. The “Linien” school of aesthetics arose in Copenhagen in the 1930s, but by the end of World War II, it had evolved into something totally different, emphasizing bold color and rigorous abstraction. One of the most prominent members of the new, reformed Linien was Richard Winther, a student and later a professor at the Royal Academy. Winther would count himself a member of more than a few other aesthetic movements—including the influential Eks-skolen, which opposed (among other things) the traditional Royal Academy styles.

The Royal Theatre Ballet School, CopenhagenPaul Gustav Fischer
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Winther’s career has a lot in common with Copenhagen’s art history in general: academic but skeptical of academies; tied to many different styles and “-isms”; outstandingly prolific and ambitious. Maybe that’s why some of his works feel like anthologies of the best Danish art. Consider Linda & Elisabet (1985–89), which has some of the statuesque, larger-than-life qualities of Eckersberg, the provocative, experimental colors of Søndergaard, etc.

It’s probably for the best that Dr. Salomonsen isn’t alive to see what’s become of art in his city. Copenhagen’s painters only became more freethinking, mirroring the movements that gave shape to art history, adding their own twists and takes, and every so often pushing the bar higher than had been achieved before.

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Paintings of Copenhagen

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