Visual Nation Making and Forgetting

NATIONAL GALLERY OF DENMARK - Henrik Holm looks at the making of the Danish painting canon and its relation to the construction of a national identity.

September 3, 2013

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A View through Three of the Northwestern Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome (1815) by C.W. Eckersberg; Statens Museum for Kunst, CC-BY — Source.

The selection of Danish artworks that the Statens Museum for Kunst, the National Gallery of Denmark, has released for free download in high resolution (under a CCBY-license) offers a good case for taking a critical look at how national identity is constructed.

One of the images in this collection is the painting often claimed by Danish art historians to represent the birth of a truly Danish kind of art — A View through Three of the Northwestern Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome. It was created by Christopher Wilhelm Eckersberg, the artist known as “The Father of Danish Painting”, inspiring as he did the so-called Golden Age of Danish painting. At the heart of Eckersberg’s work, and this Golden Age he inspired, was the practise of making sketches out in the open, en plein air, a practice made popular by the Parisian school of painter and revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, of which Eckersberg was a pupil, and later taken to extremes by the Impressionists.

The Danish School that grew from Eckersberg’s work, with its grounding in the practise of en plein air, is said to contain within it the very essence of Danishness — the realistic rendering of the gentle landscape and fair climate is seen to echo the inner nature of the Dane, that is, as fair and bright as the sky, and grounded in the real world. The more far-flung romantic sentiments of the time were considered “German” and so unwanted. This movement which followed from Eckersberg was held in high esteem at the Royal Academy of Arts for many decades, until after 1900, thus keeping the artistic revolutions taking place in the rest of Europe, such as that provided by the Impressionists, at bay.

One of the many strange things about this particular iconic “Danish image” of Eckerbserg’s is that it is not actually painted in Denmark, but in Rome. As the title describes, the painting shows “A View through Three of the Northwestern Arches of the Third Storey of the Colosseum in Rome”. It is small, a masterpiece of control of the visual field, painted in 1815 at the dawn of a new era, when new ideas of democracy, freedom, and capitalism were being tested, and new thoughts of the arts as a qualified domain in itself, from which to develop knowledge of the world and history, were growing.

Considering the realism generally seen in paintings from this period and the strict use of traditional schemes of composition — such as linear perspective and the principles of mathematical composition provided by the Golden Section — this painting of Eckersberg’s exists as somewhat of an anomaly. Following the rules of linear perspective, the curved shape of the Colosseum should either lay flat on the surface, or draw a half-circle around the viewer. But the Colosseum is not curved as it should be. It is instead made to look as if it is bulging inwards, not outwards. Eckersberg was normally an obsessive practitioner of the rules of perspective, so this strangeness is almost certainly not down to error. But why then this distortion? Did he perhaps feel this anomaly fitting for the new sense of freedom rife after Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo earlier that year? And why the decision to condense the city’s skyline in order to show buildings through the arches in positions which cannot be seen in reality? This constructed nature of the image has mostly been ignored in the literature surrounding the painter and in the promotion of his particular Danish qualities.

What, then, did it take to make this painting and its maker icons of Danishness?

One of the most influential theories on national identity creation is found in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). In the work Anderson talks of the constructed nature of nations, what he terms “imagined communities”: unities created over and above the disparate nature of events and times, enabled through the emphasis, and over-emphasis, of certain events and qualities. The national art museum can be seen as a key arena in which such a nation making is played out, based as it is in the assumption that it’s here in which one can grasp a certain essence of a nation — its people, their culture and their history — all by walking through a selection of its visual remains.

However, this imagination of sameness, shared identity and history comes at a price which Anderson does not address — to allow this construction one must also do a whole lot of forgetting. Homi K. Bhabha, in his essay “Dissemination” (in The Location of Culture, 1994), emphasises how, to build a nation or a unity of any kind, you must forget most of what you know about differences, be it individual or socio-economic. It is a forgetting we often see played out in museums. All the events, traumas and differences that do not fit well into the uniform and often overly heroic and glamorous picture of the whole, are often left out in silence. As it offers you the opportunity to remember, to learn, to get closer to the culture, the museum also simultaneously obscures. Indeed, if forgetting were not necessary, no museums and curators would be needed to select and revise the canon of the arts, through including formerly forgotten artists and in the process facilitating the forgetting of others.

Although to some extent, an inevitable process, we can, of course, work to challenge these habits of forgetting. We can look to bring obscured artists out from the shadows. One such Danish artist who has in recent decades emerged from somewhat relative obscurity, is Nicolai Abildgaard.

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Philoctets Wounded (1775) by Nicolai Abildgaard; Statens Museum for Kunst, CC-BY — Source.

Abildgaard was appointed professor at the Royal Academy of Art in 1778, before Eckersberg would take up the role in 1818. However, Abildgaard’s taste for violent rebellion, tragic disasters, mythology and a general historical focus did not suit the ideas of Danish national identity as it developed through the 19th century. As such, he was eradicated from the canon, even though he could easily have been, as Eckersberg was, bestowed with the name and fame of being the “Father of Danish painting”. Indeed, his painting Philoctetes Wounded, pictured above, achieved a fair bit of international attention at the time of its painting in Rome, something which did not happen to the paintings of Eckersberg. Philoctetes has some peculiarities to it, which are not as easy to hide as those of Eckersberg’s. Abildgaard’s painting is a violent rendering of a helpless hero in pain, not quite the stuff with which national icons are made. Furthermore, it shows off some overtly homoerotic elements. Remembering Eckersberg and forgetting Abildgaard had been a necessary move in order for Denmark to sustain the image of a bright and rational nation. It was not until around the 1980’s that the painting came out of storage and graced the wall of a museum. Since then it has occasionally been sent on loan to other museums such as the Louvre, and is now considered an important European work of its time.

Although Eckersberg has been hailed as the Father of Danish painting, recently his place at the head of the family tree has been contested. A pupil of his, Christen Købke, who was almost completely forgotten after his death in 1848, has come to fame in recent years and has been talked about as the most Danish of all Danish painters. Købke is now being credited as bearer of the most naturalistic, free and uncomplicated spirit in Danish art. But he has his strangeness as well. There is nothing left of Abildgaard’s historical pathos which can also be seen also in parts of Eckersberg’s works. Neither is there much left of Eckersberg’s masterful control of form. It is, in fact, as though Købke deliberately works against such order. In his View of a Street in Østerbro outside Copenhagen. Morning Light (1836), cows wander the streets and there seems to be no real focus of attention in the painting. If there is a focus, it vanishes as the eye is led along the lines of perspective which shoot from right to left, lines which travel against the familiar direction of reading.

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View of a Street in Østerbro outside Copenhagen. Morning Light (1836) by Christen Købke; Statens Museum for Kunst, CC-BY — Source.

At an exhibition of Købke’s work at the National Gallery in London he was hailed as the “Danish Master of Light.” For Købke it took a long time of forgetting to become remembered again. When he did eventually take his place in the limelight of history, he was, through this new accolade, propelled from the cow-filled streets of Copenhagen into the higher, light-filled spheres of religious and philosophical discourse. The emptiness and casualness of his work, which was almost unbearable to his contemporaries, was forgotten, and the reasons as to why the nation left behind one of its best men were not addressed.

Non-Danish experts on Danish art have encouraged us to leave behind these old Danish masters of the early 19th century and hand over the title of a Golden Age in Danish painting to the breakthrough of Modernism in the 1880’s — a period when realism and symbolism fused together in the works of a group of Danish painters which included the likes of Vilhelm Hammershøi and Laurits Andersen Ring. The latter, L.A. Ring, had a preference for placing his figures on thresholds such as the one occupied by his wife in the image below, between the interior of the home and the garden outside. There is something in Ring’s rendering which invites us to see the garden as something more than just a garden, the woman as more than just his wife, and her attitude more than merely casual. On the other hand, of course, it could be nothing more than a painting of his wife in the doorway to a garden. This ambiguity of betweenness, in fact, might better fit the truth of Danish identity, as the nation stands at the threshold of the globalised world, somewhere between wanting and not wanting to be involved.

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At the French Windows. The Artist’s Wife (1897) by L.A. Ring; Statens Museum for Kunst, CC-BY — Source.

Henrik Holm, MA. and Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Former head of education at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, currently curator at Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark, in charge of The Royal Cast Collection. Henrik Holm is co-author of the book Nature Strikes Back. Man and Nature in Western Art (SMK, Copenhagen 2010).

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.