“The Golden Age of Danish Painting” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
February 13–April 14, 1994
Responding to a tribute that called him “the greatest philosopher in Denmark,” Søren Kierkegaard wryly corrected the praise: he wasn’t the greatest philosopher in Denmark, he was the only philosopher in Denmark. I thought often about Kierkegaard while looking at the pictures in this exhibition of Danish Romantic painting, recalling not only his deflationary witticism but also his prickily self-absorbed gloominess. The period covered in this exhibition, 1790–1850, largely coincides with Kierkegaard’s dates (he died in 1855 at the age of forty-two). I couldn’t help concluding that if Denmark’s only philosopher kept up with new artistic trends in his home town of Copenhagen, then perhaps it wasn’t only the thought of God and Regina Olsen that made him gloomy.
In fact, exhibitions such as “The Golden Age of Danish Painting” (as well as the Met’s show “Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition,” which runs concurrently and leaves one with a similar feeling) raise a number of thorny problems for curators and museums. Generally, one is happier to have seen them than to see them. They’re educational in the sense that they introduce the public to unfamiliar work; that’s all to the good. But unfamiliarity is not itself a measure of artistic success. The trick is to present the material with appropriate qualifications and understatement: always a delicate task, but especially so at a time, like the present, when excessive praise is the norm. Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, spoke in a press release about “the beauty of these paintings” and the “wonderful ‘northern light’ that these works embody.” But that’s just PR persiflage. The words that need scare quotes are not “northern light” but “beauty” and “wonderful.” I’m sure that Mr. Montebello knows this; but he knows, too, that circumspection does not bring the public into the museum.
There are just over a hundred paintings by seventeen artists in “The Golden Age of Danish Painting.” All but a few are from collections in Denmark. None of the works is first-rate; many are quite dreadful, some comically so. That pitiless sifter of reputations, the passage of time, occasionally overlooks a genius, and the recovery of genius is always cause for celebration. But nothing like that has happened here. Wilhelm Bendz (1804–1852), Ditlev Conrad Blunck (1799– 1845), Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857), Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), Christen Købke (1810–1848), Christian Albrecht Jensen (1792–1870), et al.: there’s a reason that these names (with the exception of Købke, the subject of a recent monograph by Sanford Schwartz) are obscure. Eckersberg, who studied with David in Paris, is credited with ushering in the “golden age” in question. But, as the organizers of this exhibition hint, his real contribution was not as an artist but as a teacher at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. There is one pleasant nude called Woman Standing in Front of a Mirror (c. 1837). But the rest of Eckersberg’s work—more nudes, some portraits, naval scenes, landscapes, and one or two history paintings à la David—is (to put it politely) primarily of historical interest.
The best of these golden-agers are probably Christian Albrecht Jensen—see especially his 1836 portrait of Hans Christian Andersen—and Christen Købke (who studied with Eckersberg). Partly because his stock is high at the moment, Købke is represented here by twenty-three pictures, nearly a quarter of the exhibition. Unfortunately, he is not an artist who improves with greater familiarity. I predict a dip in Købke preferred in the wake of this exhibition, though it’s perhaps worth noting that both the Met and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where the exhibition was on view last fall) have in recent years acquired works by Købke: Los Angeles a mediocre view of ruins at Pompeii, the Met an accomplished portrait of the artist’s brother.
A catalogue of the exhibition, by Kasper Monrad of the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, has been published by Hudson Hills Press/The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (237 pages, $35 paper).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 7, on page 42
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