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SMK: The Danish National Gallery Bringing Art Back Down to Earth

Exhibition Review

by Kitty Atherton | 08 November 2020

'Visual culture is often out of touch, and we can find ourselves tangled in wordy-over analysis that adds little insight or understanding. Making art approachable is refreshing.'

In the winter of 2019, a time so far removed from the confines of Covid-19, Copenhagen welcomed an eager Art History student to be. Wanting to somewhat ‘transform’ herself into a smart-casual-styled, nonchalant Danish girl, she decidedly took to the streets in search of a cultural awakening.

I had planned to visit a few of the galleries in the city, and the national gallery seemed a good start. I had my preconception of what to expect from the capital’s main collective of artwork, likely endless rooms of patriotic expression, projecting me into the realm of the disconnected observer. Yet, when I entered the ‘Statens Museum for Kunst’, the gallery had put in place an initiative to communicate and translate artwork to modern society, prompting me to rethink the assumptions I had held prior to entering. The slogan of a 'museum for everyone' truly fulfilled its intention, particularly in the headline exhibition 'The Danish Golden Age'.

The entrance to the gallery was undoubtedly picturesque; the Italian Renaissance revival front was accompanied by an extensive courtyard, decorated with a mirror pond reflecting upon the gallery's façade. It was clear that this was a popular attraction, since not far off the museum, lampposts were collaged in the technicolour entrance stickers visitors given to the visitors; as an ongoing tradition, a nod to Denmark's sense of community.

'The Danish Golden Age' exhibition centred itself around the late 18th to early 19th centuries, 'between disasters' as the gallery commented. In fact, the period encompasses the height of the French Revolution, in which Copenhagen was not only bombed, but suffered a devastating fire. The paintings by contrast, seemed to hark back to simpler times. The technique of ‘tempura’ was a recurring feature, mocking in places the effect of Pointillism, in its obsessive attention to detail capturing the idealised natural landscape. Despite the title of the exhibition, ‘The Golden Age’, suggesting paintings of halcyon days, it was in fact the darkly mythical subjects that changed my impressions of Danish art. Undoubtedly a form of escapism for society at the time.

A painting that stole my focus was Ditlev Blunck's 1846 piece 'Nightmare', a sensual observation of a young woman in bed, accompanied by the presence of a creature seated on her chest. The piece conveys a sense of dichotomy between the purity of her complexion with this demonic ‘rabbit-esque’ creature, hauntingly staring at the sleeping woman. The uncomfortable weight of this beast-like figure, looming over this woman, is arguably a reflection of the constant sense of fear the Danish population felt during this period, induced by the serious economic crisis and subsequent depression that the country experienced. Viewing this piece therefore, allowed me to understand the deep-rooted metaphors Danish artistry could express.

Ditlev Blunck Nightmare, 1846, source: The Nivaagaard Collection

The element of the gallery’s initiative that I found most impactful was the way in which it contextualised the artwork for the viewer, bridging the gap between the past and the present. The handouts scattered amidst the artwork presented a fact sheet about a particular work, proposing a question to the reader regarding that piece of art. I recall the card of Wilhelm Marstrand's 1868 portrait of Niels Lauritz Hoyen, which outlined how Hoyen's favourite painter was Johan Thoman Lundbye, master of Danish landscapes, and proceeded to ask, 'What do you think is typically Danish from a present-day perspective?'. Visual culture is often out of touch, and we can find ourselves tangled in wordy-over analysis that adds little insight or understanding. Making art approachable is refreshing, and other art galleries and museums should lead by example of Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst.

Handouts at the SMK 'Golden Age Exhbition'

As strange as it sounds, the first thing that excites me upon entering a gallery is the placement of benches, it’s something I always look for. Therefore, a penultimate element to note is Copenhagen’s somewhat obliteration of the wooden benches you would usually see. In place of them, casually distributed sofas, something of paramount importance when taking onboard this gallery space, and a further effort to encouraging conversation, prompting people to debate and unpick the paintings they were surrounded by in such a way that seemed reflective of a dinner party. Although this idea isn't revolutionary, some galleries in London are decorated with upholstered chairs in a bid to make viewing art more comfortable, I felt the Danish Statens Museum for Kunst was trying hard to enhance the social community that visual culture has the potential to inspire.

Copenhagen has my heart for its progressive outlook on society, and it is easy to see how this gallery has contributed to such a dynamic community. Being a central hub for Danish and global visitors alike, this gallery challenged my preconceptions through its commitment to educating younger generations on their history through art, and by this effort, their future before them.


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