The Danish Experience: Art That Marries Real and Ideal

“Purity of heart is to will one thing,” wrote the early 19th-century Danish philosopher and poet Soren Kierkegaard, his one willed thing being knowledge of — meaning faith in — an absolute, sometimes called God. Certain Danish artists of his time espoused a will to purity too, purity of eye and hand, a way to see and know the world, factually or emotionally, as it really is.

Work by a handful of these artists, most of them trained in Kierkegaard’s home city of Copenhagen, comes together in a crystalline exhibition called “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And from the moment you enter the galleries holding some 90 paintings, oil sketches and notebook-size drawings of breath-on-glass translucency, you’re in for an experience of slow-down, move-close looking and thinking.

Kierkegaard was forthright in declaring that his philosophy was designed to ameliorate, or at least manage, existential unease — “fear and trembling” as he operatically phrased it — in a chaotic-feeling modern Europe. The artists around him must have had these feelings too, the sense that their immediate world was a mess.

Which in some ways it was. Soon after most of them were born, in the early 1800s, their once powerful country was in the process of being, geographically and economically, minimized. Attempting neutrality during the Napoleonic wars, Denmark had infuriated England, which sent its navy across the North Sea, corralled Danish fleets, torched Copenhagen, and pushed the country into bankruptcy.

Internal shake-ups eventually followed as Denmark shifted its form of government from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. Then came the Industrial Revolution, crunching and sluicing away, and changing pretty much everything: social structures, urban spaces, land use, belief systems, historical topography, not to mention the chemical properties of earth, water and air.

In such circumstances, art, like philosophy, could be a way to contain chaos, or explain it, or locate some firm ground beneath it. To this end, one of the show’s earliest artists and most influential art teachers, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853), followed the equivalent of Kierkegaard’s one-thing-only focus. He based his naturalistic art on the mathematically calculated theory of linear perspective.

We find him applying it equally to a spectacularly extended panorama of the Copenhagen skyline, to images of ships at sea, and to a domestic vignette of his two daughters peering excitedly from his studio window. In each case, the stringently plotted convergence of perspectival lines binds the composition together, gives it balance — creating, as Eckersberg told anyone who would listen, a pure marriage of science and art, the real and the ideal.

Eckersberg has often been referred to as the founder of a mythical “Golden Age” of Danish painting, and his work has a political dimension. It’s a wishful advertisement for a revivified nation, one swept clean of conflict and damage, a view sustained in the work of his students.

Some, like Martinus Rorbye, also did geometrically fastidious city scenes, though he tended to marinate this in Romantic moonlight. Others upped the ideality quotient by trekking into the countryside, through farmlands and forests, down to the sea. It didn’t take a Romantic to know that Denmark’s rolling terrain and omnipresent coastline were its greatest visual resource, and a walk-in textbook of its ancient history.

No two artists approach this resource in quite the same way. A lone oak tree painted by Lorenz Frolich is a sky-scraping, wind-leaning colossus. A limewood tree drawn by Christen Kobke is a quivering nervous system of tangled lines so fine that they seem barely to touch down on paper.

In a watercolor by yet another Eckersberg pupil, Johan Thomas Lundbye, a tiny male figure stands reading or sketching on the edge of a cliff as if oblivious to the sweeping planetary prospect behind him. By contrast, the cropped perspective in Fritz Petzholdt’s oil-on-paper “Forest Floor” seems to be that of someone lying prone on a bed of autumn leaves, observing nature from the roots up.

In several landscapes, including Lundbye’s, a distinctive nonnatural element recurs: a prehistoric stone structure of upright boulders with a capstone known as a dolmen. Anciently created as single-chamber tombs, dolmens dot the Danish landscape, and during the Romantic era became emblems of home pride, of national strength and lastingness.

Yet their meaning in art is not always simple. Lundbye depicts dolmens in profile repeatedly and, in one watercolor drawing, from the inside. Here we see a man dressed in modern clothes — an artist’s smock, in fact — sitting on the floor of the otherwise empty tomb. Holding what appears to be a notebook, the sitter looks pensive, tired, cast-down, as if contemplating not a history still alive there, but one irretrievably gone.

The model for Lundbye’s figure was his fellow painter Lorenz Frolich, he of the towering, tilting oak. Danish artists often worked and traveled together. (A section of the show is devoted to journeyman years spent by a pack of them in Rome, where, in art, they transformed that sensory-overload city into a Marie Kondo-style clutter-free zone.) And when they focused on human subjects, those subjects were often each other.

The most moving works in the exhibition — organized by a former Met curator, Freyda Spira, collaborating with Stephanie Schrader of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Thomas Lederballe of SMK, The National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen — are artist’s portraits and self-portraits.

Eckersberg is seen here looking, at midcareer, extremely self-assured in a polished oil painting by Christian Albrecht Jensen. Other academic top brass also take a bow, notably the philosopher Frederik Christian Sibbern — who comes across as exactly the frazzled, approachable good guy he is reputed to have been — in a virtuosic graphite drawing by Kobke.

Kobke’s a marvel. What a hand! And what a pair of alert, tender eyes. Sky-blue, in fact, as we see in a small, open-faced oil portrait of him by his friend Wilhelm Marstrand, done when Kobke was 29. He was, at that point, on the obligatory European grand tour, a sojourn he had dreaded. (And why wouldn’t he? It had its dangers, plus it meant leaving his new wife behind for two years.) Then for some reason, after he had endured the trip and returned home, his career fizzled. Changes in fashion? Self-assertion issues? Anyway, it’s nice to report he’s now a star.

He died young (of pneumonia at 37), as did many of the artists in the Met lineup. Another was the dashing Wilhelm Bendz, whose ostentatiously convoluted 1826 painting, “A Young Artist (Ditlev Blunck) Examining a Sketch in the Mirror” opens the show with a wow. In an 1831 pencil sketch, “Self-Portrait with Knapsack, Munich,” Bendz depicts himself as rakish artist-conquistador. A year later, in Italy, typhoid fever took him out. He was 28.

And then there’s Petzholdt, the ground-hugging landscapist and yet another Eckersberg protégé. Unlike his peers, he came from money, had early academic success, and loved to be out of Denmark. You catch some of his maverick character in the small 1830 graphite portrait by Bendz: in the disheveled collar, the squashy fez, the pipe extending casually from his lips. He was an adventurer, one of the few Danish artists of the day — Martinus Rorbye was another — to move on from Italy, where he lived for years, to Greece.

But what catastrophic thing happened there? In 1832, he was found in a Greek hotel room, his throat slashed. History has pronounced his death at 33 a suicide, but no one actually knows.

Overall, the aesthetic ideal practiced and promoted by Eckersberg — to render a volatile world orderly through an art of pure line — seems not to have made full sense to younger artists in his orbit who experienced history, nature and daily life as endangered and transient. An 1844 Lundbye watercolor suggests this. A man in a frock coat sits on a rock under a tree, burying his face in his hands as if weeping. Behind him looms a vortex of darkness. Beneath him, handwritten in Latin, are the words “Past, Present, Future,” defining the spectrum of his despair.

At least one artist in this exquisite show strikes a balance between programmatic optimism and existential gloom, and that’s Vilhelm Hammershoi, who lived into the 20th century. In his 1912 painting “Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25” we enter his Copenhagen studio. Constructed from blocks of shadow and light, it’s a space of geometric precision and perspectival perfection, but also one of uncertain emotion and narrative mystery: the painting on his easel is turned away from us; a half-closed door hides a room beyond. His picture is an example of a scientifically informed art willing to acknowledge the absolute reality of mystery (sometimes called God), the “one thing” Kierkegaard sought.

Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art

Through April 16, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, (212) 535-7710; The exhibition travels to the Getty Center in Los Angeles, May 23 to Aug. 20.

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