the colours of Thorvaldsens Museum

 

The sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and then,  in 1797, travelled to Rome where he established a successful studio.

When he returned home to Copenhagen in 1838, he was was welcomed as a hero.

He donated his collection to the nation, on the condition that a specific and dedicated building should be constructed to house his sculptures and his studies, and a site adjoining the royal palace, the Royal Coach House, was granted by the king. A new building was commissioned that was designed by Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll (1800-1856).

Completed by 1848, it was the first art museum in Denmark.

 

Frescoes around the exterior depict the triumphal arrival of Thorvaldsen in the city with his sculptures carried in triumph from the ship and watched by local people.

The painter was Jørgen Sonnes (1801-1890) but his colours were lime based but over a cement mortar and changed over time so had to be repaired in the 1860s and then recreated by the renowned Danish painter and ceramic designer Axel Salto in 1951.

The colour scheme is a combination of rich, deep-ochre tones with the background in a blue/grey base with figures in outline and fabric of costumes picked out in a limited range of colours with solid ochre, iron red and stone which gives the frieze a strong unity.

Colours of the interior of the building are richer and darker, based in part on studies of classical Pompeian art, with strong solid wall colours as a foil to the marble statues and plaster casts.

Documents survive to show that, from the start, the architect considered the role and the control of natural light in the galleries as crucial … in part, it is said, to copy the form of controlled lighting in Thorvaldsen's studio in Rome. Light was to fall from above with the brightest light on the heads of the statues with a more suffused light across the floor. On the upper floor is what was called "the sunshine corridor" where natural light was reflected to illuminate the works. Etched glass was used in the large windows on the ground-floor that look into the courtyard and this modifies the natural light in these inward-looking spaces. 

The colour scheme of the large courtyard is different from the exterior and has strong, deep, slate green and a dull blue that are used to emphasise architectural features. This is not just a museum but was conceived as a mausoleum and the grave of Thorvaldsen is at the centre of the courtyard so plants etched in the window glass and palms in the design of the frescoes are an allusion to the Garden of Paradise.

When completed, the whole composition must have seemed astounding to citizens, at a time when the city had been dominated for half a century by subtle and subdued classical taste, with most new buildings painted in tones of cream, grey and stone. Here, at Thorvaldsens Museum, was a return to the strong colours of 17th-century Danish buildings and interiors and the building marks a key point in the development of Danish historicism with a new interest in the idea of a national style based on historical precedence. 

Thorvaldsens Museum

 

Maud Jarnoux at Statens Værksteder for Kunst

the first stages of the project - assessing and recording the historic urban colour palette in the city
select any image to open all the photographs in sequence as slides

 

the colours on woven panels of thin ash veneer

Recently  I had the opportunity to meet the French designer and teacher Maud Jarnoux who was at Statens Værksteder for Kunst / the Danish Art Workshops on Strandgade where she has been working on a project inspired by the light and the colours of Copenhagen.

Walking around the city, she has sketched buildings and details of the architecture with annotations of the colours and matched those colours on site using pastels.

Back in the studio, those colours were matched in acrylic paint that was applied to sheets of thin card and again checked against small flakes of paint collected or checked against the notes and back out at the buildings.

Maud feels that the colours have not only changed over time - as fashions and paints change - but that colours also change from area to area and with the types of buildings and also with the light in different parts of the city that are reflected in subtle differences.

The next step, to me, seemed to be the amazing and incredibly creative and imaginative stage of the project.

Maud describes herself as a colour designer but she is also a textile designer. She cut the sheets of painted card into regular strips and these were then woven together in various combinations that were inspired by and reflect many of the colour combinations seen around the city on its buildings.

I have always been fascinated by the light in the city and in the colours of the plaster and the woodwork of the buildings and have got as far as appreciating that colour varies with the quality of the plaster or wood or stone. Uneven surfaces absorb or reflect light across a wall to cause distinct and often subtle changes in the density and quality of colours and - although Danes may take the work of Danish house painters for granted - the woodwork of doors and windows in the city, usually using linseed oil paints so with a matt finish, have a depth and a consistency and a quality of colour rarely matched in other cities …. but what this project by Maud Jarnoux did was open my eyes to strong and distinct combinations of colours in a single building: a deep warm pink on a wall combined with a gun-metal grey on woodwork or the range of deep green colours used for woodwork or stonework that is not actually a single consistent colour but a colour created by a range of often very different colours in distinct flecks or grain.

In a final stage, back in the workshop, colours were matched in linseed oil paint that was applied to split lengths of ash and these thin strips of coloured wood were woven together into large panels, using different weaving patterns and different combinations of colour, for what are, in essence, the weft and warp.

With woven fabrics it is the weave and the combination of different thicknesses of yarn and different colours that together create a texture and pattern and that controls how we perceive the overall colour and character of the textile. Here, that has been achieved with wood.

There is a link with the weaving of baskets and, in some cultures, the weaving of panels for walls and fences in willow or reed or split laths and other materials, with or without the bark stripped but this seems to me to be a truly remarkable and extremely imaginative project that makes us look again and reassess and appreciate anew the colours in the buildings around us.

 
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note:

I am extremely grateful to Maud for the time she spent to show me her work on this project, and to discuss what was done and why, particularly as it was at the very end of her stay in Copenhagen and she was having to pack away the work to return to Paris.

Above all I’m incredibly grateful that then she generously sent me her own photographs and allowed me to reproduce them here.

This is the only post in this blog that has used the photographs of another photographer throughout the piece but here the essence of the work is colour matching so it was important to use photographs that Maud herself feels reflect the work she has done. This is a remarkable and imaginative project to identify the colours that give a city and its light its distinct character.

These photographs should not be reproduced without permission.

This is another amazing example of the important role of the workshops for research and for facilitating creative projects in design and crafts in the city.

Statens Værksteder for Kunst

‘the art of mixing grey’

 

The book by Bente Lange on The Colours of Copenhagen has a section on the pigments used to make grey paint. On historic buildings in the city, the range of greys used is amazing from soft stone colours through dark steel grey to warm greys tending almost to dull green. Of course the pigments used are never simply black added to a white base but might have touches of Prussian blue or ultramarine or even Italian red.

Bente Lange describes the ‘grey of the Baroque’ as ‘a cold heavy colour made by mixing carbon black into white’ and she refers to a painters’ handbook from 1799 that ‘contains recipes for mixing … silver grey, linen grey and ordinary grey’ and there are evocative gems just dropped in to the short account of grey pigments that ground black was made ‘by charring young shoots from grapevines’, linen grey was with white lead, varnish and Berlin blue ‘ground separately before mixing’ and stone colours might include ‘shavings’ from cut stone in lime putty with ‘brown ochre as needed.’

Bente Lange, The Colours of Copenhagen, published by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture Publishers in 1997

Copenhagen blue II

Torvegade and Christians Kirke from Overgaden Over Vandet

 

Having said that for me blue is the colour in the urban landscape of Copenhagen that seems to be strong and reflect how I see the city, there are very few buildings that are actually painted blue. 

There are several reasons for this and not least it’s that early blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli for ultramarine were incredibly expensive and the cheaper Prussian blues that were available from the early 18th century onwards were fugitive so they not only faded but could decompose in the air. Although Cobalt blue, an industrially produced blue pigment, was stable and lime proof, even that paint was considered to be too expensive for use across a facade.

Also, I have read somewhere that Danish architects and painters considered blue to be a very strong and dominant colour … ‘stronger’ than red … so to be used carefully.

Some historic buildings in the city are now painted blue in shades that vary from cornflower blue to blues that are much closer to purple and they certainly lift and brighten a line of buildings but there really should be a rule that one blue house in a street is fantastic but two is too much so once one owner has gone for blue that should be it.

 

Det Blå Hjørne / The Blue Corner

The infill building in Christianshavn by the architectural studio Vandkunsten known as Det Blå Hjørne or The Blue Corner (bottom right) dates from 1989.

This is - as the name implies - a corner plot which can be difficult for both the plan of a building and for the design of the facades but here the corner is not even a right angle as Dronningsgade and the side road of Store Søndervoldstræde meet at an angle of about 120 degrees.

In addition, making the commission for a new apartment building here more difficult, this is a part of Christianshavn where relatively modest historic houses have survived so it gives an important impression of what domestic areas of the inner city must have been like in the 17th and 18th centuries before ordinary houses were replaced with grander or more commercial buildings. The building is at the quiet end of a beautiful and complex courtyard that retains more old courtyard buildings than in many blocks. 

But Vandkunsten were bold, dividing the new apartments between two buildings to leave a narrow view into the courtyard at the corner and played with all the rules so the roofs are mono-pitch - the older buildings have pitched roofs with a ridge - and the choice for wall finish is metal sheet so it almost feels like a final parry with convention, that the cladding is deep blue. The total effect works well as it gives the building a semi-industrial feel and if there is any single aspect of the historic centre of the city that has been lost or changed with too little appreciation of the consequences it is that Copenhagen has lost far too many of the workshops and early industrial buildings that once filled many of the back streets and courtyards.

 

Circular Economy

 

A major exhibition at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation to show fourteen projects that offer new solutions and strategies for the development of new sustainable materials along with the development of new technologies, the exploration of new approaches to building and construction and the recycling or re-circulation of materials.

“The conversion means that we need to work innovatively and experimentally on the development of new materials and the recycling of old ones, while also using our knowledge to create solutions that people actually want to use. That is the way we work at KADK, so our research and the skills of our graduates can play a major role in terms of giving people a better life without putting pressure on our planet.” 

Lene Dammand Lund.

 

Through the Autumn there will be a series of open seminars to “draw on knowledge and experience from some of the world’s leading architects and designers in the field of circularity, who will be invited to talk about their work.”

 

the exhibition Circular Economy continues at KADK at Philip de Langes Allé 10 in Copenhagen until 3 December 2017