NEW YORK—Say you are a citizen of a small but formidable nation—one who for centuries has ruled the seas, governed its neighbors, and alternately colonized, raided, and traded with faraway lands. What happens when your nation gets embroiled in a multinational war it didn’t want a part of, goes bankrupt as a result, and has its territories broken from it piece by piece?
Would you and your country-people rise up against the rulers, pillage the towns, or break out in civil war? Or would you decide that unity of purpose and political consensus are what’s needed for your nation to make it through such unprecedented times?
During the early 19th century, Denmark faced exactly these problems. It had gotten in on the wrong side of the Napoleonic wars and lost nearly everything that represented its former glory.
Remarkably, the Danish people chose the rational approach.
“One might have expected a lot of splintering… but the result of these setbacks was a greater amount of consensus than ever before,” said Dr. Thor Mednick. ”Everyone somehow agreed that the thing [to do] was to retrench. One way to define what people at this time thought of Danishness was the ability to face discord and talk them out.”
Mednick is an expert in turn-of-the-century Danish art. He and art historian Dr. Patricia Berman co-curated an exhibition of 37 painting from the collection of Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., now showing at the Scandinavia House.
While small in size, the exhibition explores Denmark’s struggle with its national identity throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.
The Golden Age
Interestingly, while the political situation couldn’t have been worse for Denmark in the early 1800s, its art couldn’t have been better. The exhibition begins with this Golden Age, when, compared with academies in the rest of Europe, the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts was trying radically new things.
It hired its first woman painting instructor. It introduced female nude models into drawing studies. Two of its professors in the 1820s decided that portraits ought to be done in natural light, with the models doing real-life things.
“In the 19th Century academic painting typically happened indoors with gas lighting. But they said that’s not how life happens,” said Berman. “Instead of painting in an empty room with the model sitting on a bench, they began to bring models into rooms with natural light pouring in.”
“Female Nude Before a Mirror,” painted in 1841 by L.A. Smith (1841) is a remarkable example of this naturalness produced by the Danish academic style.
In it, a woman faces away from the viewer, just starting to dress. Her reflection in the mirror reveals a moment of concentration as she pins a coiled braid to the back of her head. What has to be morning light bathes the scene, illuminating the painting with soapy freshness.
Grappling with National Identity
“One of the larger projects of Danish art in the nineteenth century was to figure out what Danish art means and whether it was possible to fashion an art that could be seen as Danish,” said Mednick.
After it lost a war against Prussia and Austria in 1864, Denmark lost 30 percent of its richest, most arable land in just two weeks.
“If it was any smaller it would have stopped being a country,” said Mednick.
”There were real challenges to its identity. Well, they thought, what’s left is the land. The land has always been Danish land—we’ll find Danishness there.”
The second room of the exhibit focuses on investigation of the Danish countryside the people who live on it. We have delicately rendered landscapes, portraits of farmers struggling with pitiful harvests, women artists frolicking at the seaside—but perhaps the most moving painting is one by Vilheim Kyhn (1819–1903).
In Kyhn’s “Evening Atmosphere” (1861), a man gazes into the sunset as he waters his horse by a river. The setting sun is obscured by a large bush, but faint lines of pale gold radiate from it. They evoke nationalism like a barely perceptible version of Japan’s The Rising Sun Flag, arming the scene with something palpable.
The Modern Mind
Titled “The Inner Life,” the last room of the exhibit touches upon another shift in the Danish self-identity—one that faces modern and increasingly urban life.
“A lot of figuring out what it meant to be modern meant figuring out what the modern psyche looked like, and what modern life meant to the individual,” said Mednick, adding that the paintings retained a feel of intimacy.
Modernism arrived in Denmark in the early 1870s, according to Mednick. Compared with the color palette used in other parts of Europe, the Danish color palette of the late 19th century was almost monochromatic.
The back wall of the exhibit features five paintings from Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916).
Hammershøi painted demurely clad women in sparsely decorated domestic interiors, and often hid their faces from view. The settings these women were portrayed in look intimate, yes, but a sense of alienation coexists with that intimacy.
Ironically, with the worst of the 19th Century behind them, Hammershøi and other modernist artists leave the viewer with a sense of uncertainty.
Luckily, visitors can regain a sense of that can-do Danish spirit when they double back through the gallery on their way out.
Danish Paintings from the Golden Age to the Modern Breakthrough
Oct. 12–Jan. 25, 2014
58 Park Avenue at 38th Street
www.scandinaviahouse.org; free admission