Scarred by defeat, they gave birth to a golden age of Danish art


NEW YORK — Whenever I see the word “identity” in an exhibition title, I have an urge to vanish into the soothing nebulousness of a steamed-up bathroom. On the other hand, I am interested in how artists respond to national defeat and disaster. So I recommend “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art.

The show, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sounds unprepossessing. Danish art from the early 19th century? “Identity and place”? Unless you are a big fan of “Borgen” and eager to know what Birgitte Nyborg meant when she said, in the current season’s final episode, that “modern day Denmark was born of defeat,” you might be inclined to give it a pass.

Reconsider. A lot of terrific art emerges from national trauma. Impressionism would not have taken the form it did without the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war inside Paris of 1870-71. Dada and art deco were both brought to you — thanks! — by the cataclysmic upheavals of World War I. And abstract expressionism would not have emerged with such potency without the protracted shock of World War II.

Although it is not generally remembered outside Scandinavia, what happened to Denmark in the early years of the 19th century was also traumatic. In 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, the capital, Copenhagen, was heavily bombarded by the British for the second time (the first was in 1801). Denmark was ostensibly neutral, but Napoleon Bonaparte was pressuring the Danes to pledge their fleet to him. Britain’s preemptive response destroyed most of Denmark’s merchant fleet, one of the largest in the world. Meanwhile, its naval fleet was commandeered by the British and a large part of Copenhagen was destroyed.

Britain’s actions pushed Denmark into France’s arms, an alliance that proved disastrous. Denmark’s economy collapsed (it had to declare bankruptcy) and at the end of the wars, in 1814, it was forced to cede Norway to Sweden.

Often, when a nation loses its bearings and self-esteem, it looks to its artists to alleviate the shame. Something like that happened in Denmark, which, between 1818 and 1848, enjoyed a “golden age.” (The term was first employed by the critic Valdemar Vedel.)

Defeat is often attended by a kind of self-conscious dignity that is, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote in “The Culture of Defeat,” “as inaccessible to the victor … as the kingdom of heaven is to the rich man.” The result can be a sense of moral superiority, often attended by a process of purification. Both are observable in Danish art of this period.

The Met’s show is mostly drawings. (It was organized by guest curator Freyda Spira in collaboration with Stephanie Schrader and Thomas Lederballe; it will travel to the Getty Center in Los Angeles in May.) But it contains a couple of marvelous small paintings by Martinus Rorbye. One of them, “View From the Citadel Ramparts in Copenhagen by Moonlight,” shows two sailors and a soldier standing on the rampart of a citadel that was battered during the Napoleonic Wars. The central sailor’s pose is sturdy and resolute. The soldier’s bayonet gleams in the moonlight and the extravagant feather emerging from his helmet rhymes and overlaps with the curve of a sail in the harbor.

The composition, curiously crowded and tight, was painted in 1839, after the artist had returned from an extended trip to Paris, Rome and Constantinople. It feels poignant that Rorbye should depict, so soon after his homecoming, a view back out to sea. (The view is across the Oresund, the narrow strait separating Denmark from Sweden. My Swedish grandfather used to sketch ships passing through this very strait, then send them to me in Australia.)

But there is more going on in this gorgeous painting. Both the focus on moonlight and the use of figures seen from behind gazing out at nature reveal the influence of the German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich and his close friend, the Norwegian-Danish painter Johan Christian Dahl. (Rorbye had visited Norway twice in the early 1830s, traveling for a brief period with the writer Hans Christian Andersen.)

Rorbye’s painting is certainly an expression of the particular species of romantic nationalism on which this exhibition is substantially focused. But I think it can be just as interesting to think about the way the pictures like his slide away from such narratives, like truant schoolchildren.

Certainly, this and Rorbye’s nearby painting, “Entrance to the Vicarage at Hellestad,” painted a few years later, are ravishing works. They appeal to our imaginations today less as nationalistic illustrations of local customs and culture than as acutely observed, quietly poetic and brilliantly rendered responses to the external world.

Close bonds — fraternal, aesthetic and philosophical — connected the artists in this show. The younger artists were variously engaged in carrying out the program of the ardently nationalist Niels Laurits Hoyen, Denmark’s first art historian. Hoyen, who called for Danish artists to depict national monuments, had his hands on everything to do with Danish art during this period.

Many Danish artists went to study in Rome, where the great neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen held sway. Some also studied with Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, an artist and pedagogue known for his carefully observed, perfectly perspectival and impeccably patriotic pictures. Eckersberg was an empiricist who favored natural light and close observation. But his fanatically ordered aesthetic evinces a mind caught between realism and idealism, desperate to repress anything smacking of disorder or decline. He influenced an entire generation.

Is there a sense in which these three formidable figures loomed too large over young Danish artists during this period — just as the brilliant but domineering and overly programmatic critic Clement Greenberg loomed too large over postwar art in America?

A portrait of Eckersberg shows him with, as the wall label puts it, “tightly pursed lips” and a “steely stare.” Another, of Thorvaldsen, depicts him in profile with a “distant expression,” radiating a “sense of authority and respect.”

Now look at the group portrait of the younger Danish artists in Rome painted by Constantin Hansen in 1837. Thorvaldsen was still holding court in Rome at this time; he would return the following year to Denmark, where he was feted as a national hero. Hansen’s picture is a marvel of organization. Its canny use of perspective would have made Eckersberg proud.

But look at the expressions of these young men, all loosely arrayed in the apartment of the architect Michael Bindesboll. He’s the one wearing the Ottoman-style fez, recounting a tale from his recent trip to Constantinople with Rorbye. His loyal pals are all listening. You could describe them as attentive, even lost in thought. But to my eye they look skeptical, bored, even demoralized.

The painting appears in a small section of the show devoted to portraiture, where the descriptions of the artists confirm one’s sense that the young Danish painters were not the happiest campers. Wilhelm Bendz, an anxious traveler, contracted typhoid fever in Italy. He begged his companion, Ditlev Blunck, to draw him as he was dying. Blunck, timid and naive as a youth, later turned against Denmark and fought with the Germans against his own country.

Before his death, Bendz had drawn a portrait of another artist, Fritz Petzholdt, “an unsettled spirit living in an unsettled time,” according to the wall label. He killed himself in 1838. A portrait by Lorenz Frolich shows the artist P.C. Skovgaard, who was “painfully withdrawn” and “rarely spoke, even to his closest friends,” according to a contemporary. Johan Lundbye, a nationalistic landscape painter, drew himself sitting under a beech tree — itself a national symbol of Denmark — with his head in his hands, in utter despair.

The art coming out of Denmark’s disastrous defeats suggests a people trying to steady the ship of state and console the national psyche. It was an art remarkable for its moderation, balance, symmetry and sincerity, and it offers up many pleasures. But much of it feels spiritually vacant.

That’s why it’s interesting that, internationally, the best-known 19th century Danish painter is Vilhelm Hammershoi. By the time he peaked, Denmark had undergone a new series of shocks. In 1849, the absolute monarchy was abolished, and then, in 1864, it lost more of its territory, this time to Bismarck’s Prussia, stripping Denmark of about a third of its population. Hammershoi’s work transcended nationalism and identity. He painted hauntingly empty interiors that are like Vermeers or Edward Hoppers bleached of color and cleansed of narrative. He was, as Lawrence Wechsler once wrote, “a poet of absorption.” He painted vacancy infused with a spiritual sense. He painted tranquility. His paintings are balm to souls reeling from rhetoric.

“Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through April 16.

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