an interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi

An interior in a house in Strandgade in Copenhagen with sunlight on the floor, painted by Vilhelm Hammershøi in 1901.

Painted in the apartment on Christianshavn, where the artist and his wife lived, the position of the door and the bright light shining through the window indicate that this room was on the south side of the building and looked into the courtyard. Although much of the mood of the painting depends on the sparseness of the furnishings - the catalogue of an exhibition of the artist’s work in London and Tokyo in 2008 described his paintings of interiors as “unsettlingly empty, silent and still” - photographs that survive of these rooms show that furniture, even if deliberately staged by the artist for his paintings, was furniture actually in the apartment and the rooms were certainly not cluttered. Can the paintings be seen as an example or, at least, as an interpretation of the taste and simple restraint to be found in the interiors of some middle-class houses in the city in the 19th century?

 

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) was the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied first at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and then with the artist Peder Severin Krøyer. His life-long friend and brother-in-law was the painter Peter Isted. This painting (KMS3696) is one of a series Hammershøi painted in the apartment in Strandgade and is now in the collection of the National Gallery in Copenhagen - Statens Museum for Kunst

Copenhagen in the snow

Houses in Kronprinsessegade from the King's Garden

 

This photograph of houses on Kronprinsessegade in Copenhagen was taken from the King’s Garden walking across to the National Gallery - to Statens Museum for Kunst - to see their major exhibition on the work of the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg on the last weekend before it closed.

Eckersberg was born in 1783 in Schleswig - then part of Denmark - and moved to Copenhagen in 1803 to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He would certainly have known the King’s Garden and these houses. This large area of avenues and formal planting had been the private garden of the King’s house of Rosenborg, built in the early 17th century and just outside the city walls, but was opened to the public in the late 18th century and the iron railings and pavilions, between the gardens and the street, designed by Peter Meyn, date from about 1800 … so just before Eckersberg arrived in the city. 

 

the pavilions and railings between the garden and the street

 

Historiske Huse, a catalogue of historic houses in the city, that was published by the National Museum in 1972, indicates that these fine town houses date from the first decade of the 19th century and were part of the expansion of the city to the north in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

The National Gallery did not move to its present building until the 1890s and, through the 19th century, the royal collection of paintings, the core of the National Gallery collection, was housed in the Christiansborg Palace on the opposite side of the city but the Royal Academy, where Eckersberg studied, was in the Charlottenborg Palace on Kongens Nytorv just a few blocks from the gardens. The Academy had been established in the Palace in 1753 and is still in that building.

After a period at the Academy as a student, Eckersberg travelled first to Paris in 1812 to study under the artist Jacques-Louis David and then on to Rome where he remained until 1816. Back in Copenhagen he returned to the Academy and was appointed to a professorship in 1818.

As a product of the Royal Academy and as a teacher Eckersberg did produce grand paintings of historic and classical scenes but he is better known now for his portraits of wealthy middle-class families of Copenhagen society and for marine landscapes and for studies of his city and of his family. He lived in an age noted for rational investigation and he knew and associated with contemporary scientists - men like the physicist Hans Christian Ørested whose portrait he painted in 1822. Linked to scientific observation, an interesting areas of the exhibition at the National Gallery were the cloud studies by Eckersberg and his drawings and studies of perspective including a modern version of the viewing screen with gridded glass that he used for drawing in the landscape and a copy of notes and instructions on perspective for his students produced at the academy.

perspective study by Christoffer Eckersberg from the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

By comparing preparatory sketches and the paintings completed in the studio you could see that in the finished works he rationalised the view to create distinct planes, rather like theatre sets, so that more distant features could be pulled forward and given more emphasis. This might sound as if the works were therefore not strictly naturalistic but in fact he simulated well what the human eye does so well naturally … how often have people taken a landscape photograph and realised that a distant feature, quite clear to the human eye, looks more distant and much smaller in the photograph but then if a zoom lens is used, the distant feature looks more like what the eye can focus on but the width of view suddenly looks much narrower.

Eckersberg used the same rationalisation and the same sharp observation in his portraits and his drawings of interiors. In these works, you see some of the well-established and prosperous families of Copenhagen but remarkably little ostentation or show. Clearly, in part, that is because of the style in clothes at this period, with little expensive lace or ornate embroidery, but as with the uncluttered interiors you can see the expression of wealth in high-quality materials and well made clothing and furniture. 

detail of the painting of the Nathanson family from the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen

The interiors themselves seem surprisingly but deliberately simple with shutters, rather than draped curtains, or at most blinds at the windows and stripped plain floors and unified and straight-forward colour schemes with all the panelling one flat and quite dark colour or at most one colour below the dado and a second colour for all the panelling and the cornice above the dado rail. There seem to be relatively few pieces of furniture in each room but that furniture is relatively restrained but clearly of good quality.

Similarly with the houses of this period, typical examples being those looking down into the King’s Garden, which are sober and elegant with carefully spaced windows and features such as doorways with columns that are based on classical precedents. Solid and respectable.

view of Sankt Annæ Plads, close to the Academy at Charlottenborg Palace

 

Does this sound familiar? I would not go so far as to suggest that what is called the classic period of Danish design from the 1950s and 1960s - the work of Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner or Finn Juhl - looked back to the first half of the 19th century in terms of style but at least you can see through the works of Christoffer Eckersberg an important stage in the development of middle-class Danish taste that can be seen echoing still in the best modern furniture and interiors in Denmark.

 

the daughters of the artist as they look out of a window in the Academy. Drawn by Eckersberg shortly before his death in 1853. From the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst and available through the Google Art Project

Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen - a new forecourt

 

A major remodelling of the forecourt of Statens Museum for Kunst, the National Gallery in Copenhagen, has just been completed with the new landscape designed by the Dutch partnership of Sylvia Karres and Bart Brands, based in Hilversum, but also working with the Copenhagen architectural practice Polyform. 

Completed in 1896, the art gallery is set across the angle of its plot, at the intersection of Øster Voldgade and Sølvgade, so the forecourt is a large triangle. A formal arrangement of pathways radiating out from the entrance steps of the building has been removed completely with the aim to make the gallery much more part of the park behind. Dense planting at each end of the front has been removed and the pathways and open space now encourage visitors to move around the sides of the building to the lake and trees beyond. 

Now, the triangle of the forecourt has a number of elliptical areas of grass and planting and a very large area, with a raised stone edge, below the steps which in Summer will be filled with water but it can be drained to form a podium for outdoor gallery events. Presumably, in the Winter it has to be drained to prevent frost damage. 

Edging for the different areas, particularly the edge of the pond in dark grey smooth-cut stone, with eccentric inner and outer outlines creating an elegant thinning of the edge on one side, is of the highest quality and of course provision for bikes and for sign posts has all been very carefully thought through. 

The end elevation of the gallery towards Sølvgade has benefitted enormously from the new work - by taking away the established larger planting the junction between the original gallery and the addition by C F Møller, completed in 1998, now seems more dramatic particularly at dusk when lighting in the long cross hall - the full height top-lit space between the old and the new gallery spaces - is much more obvious. There is also a vista through, below the narrow end of the modern galleries, to the gallery of Den Hirschsprungske Samling, across the park.

The new pond at the front or really, as it is so large, the new lake is dramatic - as visitors leave the gallery and move down the steps the water picks up a reflection of the city sky line. People seem to have taken already to this more-open public space particularly when they are waiting to meet up with friends. It will be interesting to see how much the space will be used in the Summer … I suspect very well used. My only reservation is that the removal of relatively thick planting along the road edges has opened out and exposed the area so the traffic seems much more intrusive and, curiously, the road junction appears to be even wider and even more tarmac but presumably new planting will grow up to soften that.

What will be interesting over the next fews years is to see how this area of Copenhagen evolves as it has just been announced that work starts soon on linking the Geology Museum. opposite the art gallery, to the buildings at the north corner of the Botanic Gardens to form a new national museum of natural history. With the opening of new metro stations at Østerport and Nørreport in 2018 the dynamics of the area will change and the plan is for this area to be promoted as the museum quarter of the city … the vindication and completion of plans by the city dating back to the 1860s when the city defences were removed and the parks and the first new public buildings on the line of the embankments were created.

 

Marmorkirken - the hoardings

Marmorkirken, the Marble Church or Frederik's Church in Copenhagen, has been surrounded and almost cut off by extensive engineering works for a new metro station. As at all the other major building sites for the metro around the city, the high green hoardings have been used for the display of art works.

Two earlier posts have shown many of these works and I promise that this will be the last on this subject but I really had to post a blog with photographs of these hoardings by ULK - Ungeslaboratorer for Kunst or Young People’s Art Lab. The group is the inspiration of the National Gallery in Copenhagen - Statens Museum for Kunst - whose aim is to engage and involve young people to make art feel relevant. The works on the hoardings were produced with the 38 Kunstpiloterne or Art Pilots who guide the group and was also in conjunction with a Google project to digitise and make available online high-resolution images of works from the national collection.

The entrance portico of the church had to be kept free for access for worshipers and tourists but engineering works press hard against each side with just a narrow footpath left open to give access to the apartment buildings on either side of the church. The hoardings are actually not obvious for visitors to the church and, as the back of the square towards Store Kongensgade has been blocked off, there is no through access so the art on the hoardings may not get the attention that they deserve.

Also, the web site for the whole project implies that these hoardings may be taken down in the Spring so I would urge everyone who can to explore to the left and to the right of the church steps to look at the images carefully … they are certainly worth the time and effort.

The images are taken from paintings in the National Gallery collection and are set in a stone arcade that is from a painting of 1815 by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckerserg called A View through Three Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum but, as the title indicates, this view of Rome included only three arches and here they have been replicated in a bizarrely surreal but oddly logical way to run round both sides of the church and in some sections the arches have been built back in layers to create catacomb-like spaces.

These arches frame a whole series of images taken from different paintings … some reproduced apparently unedited but many cut and pasted into new relationships and the more you look the more you spot the improvements. On at least two idyllic rural scenes there are rubber ducks swimming; a historic view of Copenhagen has had the smoking chimney stacks of the modern power station added and includes hazardous industrial waste; Frederik V in his ceremonial robes is actually carrying a bar of chocolate and wearing ski goggles which seems curiously reasonable given that he has been repositioned against a winter snow scene. The Wounded Philoctetes painted by Nocolai Abildgaard has what I think is called a sleeve … a tattoo across his shoulder … and A Running Boy by Marius Holst von Schmidten painted in 1802 is on a skate board, wearing trainers and with pretty flash headphones.

This is a mashup and one encouraged by the National Gallery … in fact I have downloaded the high definition images of the original paintings from the collection and they encourage “free use” in the widest sense.

One of my favourite paintings in the gallery is the Ryberg family group painted on their country estate by Jens Juel. In the version on the hoardings the son, Johan Christian Ryberg, looks much like the original until you see he is carrying sunglasses and has blue dyed hair but it is their dog that you see first … the original is a pretty odd mutt anyway but here he has been given a pink rinse. Is nothing sacrosanct?

My degree is in Art History and I can remember some grim photo tests but ... actually ... I wouldn’t mind having to do a few compare-and-contrast questions on this little lot.

 

ulk - ungeslaboratorer for kunst

Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen - Free download of art works

The One and the Many

 

If you visit Statens Museum for Kunst - the National Gallery in Copenhagen - the only way that you can avoid looking at The One and the Many is by not actually going inside the building as this colossal installation fills the entrance hall. 

That hall rises up through two storeys with a high domed ceiling and has galleries running around it and a modern staircase but this work from the partnership of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset dominates and fills the hall. It pushes visitors to the edges of the space.

 

It is a stark, dark, grey, concrete cube representing a four-storey apartment building or, to be more straightforward, what in England would be called a council block. There is an entrance door on one side with bells and name plates but you cannot get in because there is an answer phone and no one is in apart from a young man on a mattress on the floor in his room dead to the World or worse.

Some rooms are lit and let you look into the interior through the windows … not just at the ground floor but at the upper levels as well from the gallery. Each room, or cell, belongs to a different tenant … each room from its contents and furniture hints at a back story but above all shows you, the voyeur looking in, that the tenant is trapped. Not trapped in the room for only one room is actually occupied, but trapped in a life they are surviving or facing or coping with by dreaming or denying. There is the room of an old lady, or I presume an old lady, which is spotlessly clean with carefully washed net curtains and her knitting only just abandoned on the armchair; there is the sitting room of a man escaping by watching football on his TV with the coffee table covered in empty beer bottles and cigarette ends, a neighbour has a room set out with bland good taste but needing drama or whatever has the TV tuned to X-factor and, heart-wrenchingly sad, the kitchen of an immigrant from the far east with the poster of the woman they would like to be or want to look like and surrounded by everything that can be bought that is pink. Not pretty, soft pinks but harsh strong pinks. Like a Flemish or Dutch still life you have to keep looking further and further in to the image at the details.

If this all sounds grim it isn’t. If it sounds pretentious that’s my fault because of the way I’ve written about it. Everyone who lives in an apartment or is worried about ending up in a flat if they have to 'down size' or has aspirations to get away from mum and dad and get some independence should see this work. Anyone who tries to claim that they are not, above all, defined by what they own, should look carefully at this piece and then look around them when they get home.

At some stage it is also important to watch the film in a side gallery of an interview with the artists because there you begin to understand their observational skills and the way they use what is essentially the stripped-back but laser-sharp viewpoint of a cartoonist but with a very real sense of humanity to create the narrative for their tenants and in doing that make the viewer take stock. In the film at one point they admit that they feel as if they are outsiders and the whole point is that it takes an outsider to see what is happening in this way.

Visitors to the gallery eagerly look in through the windows or read the name plates on the entrance bells and laugh nervously about the piles of junk mail inside that no one has bothered to clear. One of the mail boxes has been forced open and left bent and un-lockable and that is in part what is brilliant about this work because just two years ago my mail box in the apartment where I was living then was broken into in just this way … it is that classic ‘shock of recognition’ that makes you feel that art has a message.

This is parody and there is real gentle, and mocking humour running through the ideas but what is haunting is that there is no hint of a future. That is what is grim. One window has no light but has a sign to show it is to let so new people will arrive. Is this The Hotel California? The style is hyper realism but stripped back and thin, almost hungry … or is that trying to read too much into it?

I spent a lot of time watching people’s reactions. Watching parents lift up children to look in through windows, trying to judge their reactions, but who was watching me?

 

The One and the Many was created in 2010 and before this was shown at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. It will be at SMK until 4 January 2015 and is shown along with two other major installations by Elmgreen & Dragset under the title Biography.