During art historian Mikael Wivel’s many years of work with Danish art history he has observed how the inspiration from the Archaic style of Greek art (c. 600-480 BC) and the epoch-making new departure in Danish sculpture in the 1890s that heralded Danish modernism are inextricably linked. His observations were gathered in the exhibition “À la Grecque! The Sculptors and Antiquity 1898-1962”.
While Bertel Thorvaldsen primarily took his artistic point of departure in Classical Greek art and its Roman copies, it was now the earlier, more ‘primitive’, Archaic art that came into focus. Niels Skovgaard was the first artist to be struck by a ‘transfiguring light’ on seeing Archaic sculpture. Skovgaard saw the Archaic sculptures as individualizing – unlike the Classical ones, which were idealizing. The recognition of this true-to-nature feature of Archaic art subsequently became a guiding principle for his art, beginning with the sculpture The Magnus Stone from 1898, in which he introduced a brand new style in Danish art, and the Archaic inspiration quickly became one of the most fertile strands of Danish modernism. It continued with sculptors such as Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, Niels Larsen Stevns and Svend Rathsack, and made its impact in earnest in the 1920s, when artists like Astrid Noack, Adam Fischer and Henrik Starcke engaged in dialogue with the Archaic style. Later Axel Salto and Svend Wiig Hansen followed suit.
Several of the sculptors represented in the exhibition are not so well known today – for example Adam Fischer and Henrik Starcke – but their works deserve renewed attention from both an artistic and arthistorical perspective. Others, like Astrid Noack, made some of the most iconic works in Danish art. The range of expression from Niels Skovgaard to Svend Wiig Hansen is wide, but it is quite clear that the inspiration from the Archaic art of antiquity links them together.
The exhibition was built up as a series of dialogues, such that the modern works were shown together with the ancient works, which had been borrowed from the Royal Collection of Plaster Casts. This brought out obvious, but also surprising connections and meanings that had never before been presented as a totality in an exhibition.
Bertel Thorvaldsen became one of the most important artists of Neoclassicism, a movement that gave the formal idioms of antiquity and ancient culture a presence and an impact in his time. It is thus also an important mission for Thorvaldsens Museum constantly to investigate and communicate how the art and culture of antiquity have influenced later art. In 2002 the museum showed the exhibition “Fatique. Danish Sculptural Art 1850-1900”, which presented a wide segment of the sculptural works of the half century after the death of Thorvaldsen in 1844. In this period the memory of Thorvaldsen himself and respect for his huge contribution as a sculptor were still great. Two generations of sculptors in the second half of the 19th century were in fact engaged in a constant struggle to escape from the shadow of Thorvaldsen and at the same time find their own, contemporary statements in art. It was not easy for the sculptors in that period – hence the title of the older exhibition.
The exhibition “À la Grecque! The Sculptors and Antiquity 1898-1962” continued chronologically where “Fatique” left off. And it shows how the break with Thorvaldsen’s artistic expression was now finally effectuated. But the new exhibition also shows how the sculptors, precisely in order to implement this break, turned once more to antiquity to find new inspiration for independent paths and a new awareness in their own artistic idioms.
The exhibition is to be shown at the Bornholm Art Museum in the period from 18 January until 6 April 2015.
The exhibition has received support from the foundations 15. Juni Fonden, A.P. Mortensen og Hustrus Legat, Augustinus Fonden and Ny Carlsbergfondet. A 112-page exhibition catalogue with texts by Mikael Wivel, Paul La Cour, Rainer Maria Rilke and others was published. Price DKK 149.
The exhibition was arranged by the art historian Mikael Wivel, dr. phil., in collaboration with director Stig Miss and curator Kristine Bøggild Johannsen.
Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen: Typhon. 1905. Odense City Museums.
Photo: Jens G. Aagaard, Odense City Museums.
Svend Wiig Hansen: The City. 1962. Photo: Jakob Mydtskov.
Niels Skovgaard: The Magnus Stone. 1898. Skibelund Krat, Vejen.
Photo: Pernille Klemp.
Niels Skovgaard: Rolf’s Battle in Lejre. 1933. The Skovgaard Museum.