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October 07, 2004

Masterpieces from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Ancient Art to Post-Impressionism
Masterpieces from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

at the Royal Academy, London
18th September - 10th December 2004
Daily 10am – 6pm (Fridays to 10pm)

Despite the comment of a Yorkshire aesthete that "where there's Munch there's Monet" it is not often that one sees great nineteenth century Scandinavian and French art in one exhibition. But this exhibition is different; it comes from Copenhagen.

Among the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists represented are most of the familiar figures: Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley et al. Sometimes such collections consist of not very good works done on a bad day but signed by a great name, the equivalent of being forced to read The Mill on the Floss or The Biographer's Moustache. However, here are some of the finest, notably Paul Cézanne's Self Portrait with a Bowler Hat in which the blackness flecked with white of his hat, coat, and beard, frames a face whose shrewdness conveys the mastery of the artist himself. Equally striking is a detail from Edouard Manet's The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. Tellingly, Manet has dressed the Mexican republican firing squad in French imperial uniforms and redeployed the images of Goya's The Third of May in which unarmed Spanish freedom fighters are mowed down by a dark and hideous line of Napoleonic soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder aiming and firing. Napoleon III who had recklessly set Maximilian up as Emperor of Mexico during the American Civil War is revealed as the ruthless if incompetent heir of Napoleon I. Here are the two faces of France: great in art, hideous in war. Both facets are conveyed by the magnificent French memorial to the French soldiers killed during the Franco-Prussian war, a monument that transforms defeat into sacrifice. It was sold to a Danish collector and has been placed at the very entrance to the exhibition. The Danes have their own reasons for wanting it to be there. Yet in Schleswig you will also find memorials to men with Danish surnames who died in battle after volunteering to fight for Prussia in 1870.

The painters from Denmark's Golden Age of painting in the early and mid-nineteenth century are less well known but well worth seeing. There is a soft light and an understatement about them that fits the Danish landscape. It is like the light of Orkney in the late evening in mid-summer. The same appealing softness can be seen in C.W. Eckersberg's nudes posed casually in ordinary domestic settings. The poses are familiar ones and the interiors are clearly derived from Dutch paintings of an earlier period but their tone is entirely Danish, not demandingly erotic, nor exotic, nor obsessed with human perfection but displaying a soft , matter of fact, taken for granted, domestic sexuality. Bare bourgeois Danish bottoms displayed in hyggelig (gezellig/gemuetlich) Danish homes. Eckersberg's nude from 1843 is called Naked Woman Putting on her Slippers. The choice of slippers, of neat but not bright little red slippers set against a patterned carpet to mark the end of a solid calf and thigh is as Danish as the calm and well-built woman herself. A long firm arm reaching down to the heel of the slippers hides all but the very nipple of an ample breast. At first glimpse the curve of the breast seems to be part of the muscle of the arm. Oh to be back in the Denmark of my youth.

Surprisingly, there are no later Danish paintings in the exhibition. Why have the works of the artistic colonies of Jutland of the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries been omitted? In another section there are some pictures painted by Gauguin in 1884-5 when he went to live in Copenhagen with his Danish wife Mette Gad. Denmark, though, is not Tahiti or the South of France. Gauguin needed bright light and primitive beauty as the basis of his later innovations.

In the exhibition there are also extensive collections of works of art from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, Etruria and Rome. It is worth going to the exhibition just to see one room, the room of Etruscan and Roman funerary art, which must be experienced by being in the room with it. Look for the sculpture of a man reclining on the lid of his coffin with a tufa ring on his tufa finger and for the joint memorials of Roman married couples their hands touching for eternity. Vita brevis est…

The Greek sculptures are, as might be expected, tedious. You could in each case chop their heads off and transfer them from one idealised body to another like a dishonest American mortician preparing corpses for a drive-by viewing. What a horrible, regimented geometric society classical Greece must have been to produce such art. No wonder it had such an influence on Fascist art, which like that of the Greeks was the art of a militaristic world. Only when they sculpted animals did the Greeks manage to become truly human. The point is reinforced by the neo-classical sculptures in the first exhibition room by the Danish disciples of the Icelandic sculptor Thorvaldsen. Iceland was at that time one of Denmark's colonial possessions. To appease the hungry and discontented Icelanders the then King of Denmark sent to their island one of Thorvaldsen's banal statues as a gift. An Icelander commented bitterly "we asked for food and the wretched Danes gave us a stone". Had Iceland not been surrounded by a sea of cod, the King would probably have also sent them a serpent.

It is a relief to escape from all this Classico-Greekishness and to meet the dark and quirky statuary of Matisse and Picasso at the exit. Yet once beyond that exit one is filled with a grateful sense of the care and taste with which a Danish brewing family, the Jacobsens and their German and British advisers put together the wonderful collection from which these exhibits have been selected. Here at the Royal Academy they are well displayed, well lit and well explained; it makes you realise how important these skills are.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain. He has enjoyed his many wanderings in Denmark and its former colonies looking for beauty.


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I am not sure I really want to know about Prof. Christie Davies fantasies and what he got up to in Denmark in his youth:
"The choice of slippers, of neat but not bright little red slippers set against a patterned carpet to mark the end of a solid calf and thigh is as Danish as the calm and well-built woman herself. A long firm arm reaching down to the heel of the slippers hides all but the very nipple of an ample breast. At first glimpse the curve of the breast seems to be part of the muscle of the arm. Oh to be back in the Denmark of my youth."
Indeed.

Posted by: Jane at October 11, 2004 12:06 PM
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