National Gallery of Denmark - SMK blogs Latest posts en National Gallery of Denmark - SMK blogs 18 16 Latest posts TYPO3 - get.content.right Thu, 31 Aug 2017 10:03:00 +0200 What is the role of the museum in a world on fire? “What is the role of the museum in a world on fire?” was first published as a feature article in... “What is the role of the museum in a world on fire?” was first published as a feature article in the Danish newspaper Berlingske on 21 June 2017.

In January 2017, immediately following the introduction of president Trump’s controversial Muslim Travel Ban, an executive order that denies entry to the USA for citizens from a number of Middle Eastern Countries, MoMA in New York replaced a number of their works by Matisse and Picasso with works by artists from the countries affected by the ban.

Several other museums followed their example, from New York to Seattle. Emphatically distancing themselves from a new political agenda that goes against the grain of the institutions’ ethical rules and global outlook, these museums have taken a firm stand on a matter that divides opinion – presumably among the museum’s visitors, too.

This example is merely one among many. These days, value-based and clearly biased statements increasingly find their way onto museum walls, exhibitions become (self) critical examinations, and museum directors post declarations of sympathy, political views and opinions on blogs and social media, thereby signalling that they head cultural heritage institutions that are actively engaged in present-day society and eager to discuss its issues.

In recent years it has become clear that the role played by museums in society is undergoing a change. Major museums that were previously regarded as institutions devoted to conserving our shared cultural heritage – and, hence, as politically neutral – are now increasingly acting as social commentators that address current issues, thereby inviting visitors to reflect on the matters and take a stand.

The question is whether these museums go too far. Are they more eager to gain attention and legitimacy than they are to contribute to the understanding of complex issues that cannot be reduced to brief political statements? Being publicly funded institutions, are they abusing the mandate and platform they have been given by the state and the citizens?

Compromising credibility
Many probably mainly associate museums with collections of works and artefacts for which they are responsible. The museum acts as a bulwark against oblivion, making our shared cultural heritage available to the general public – and to posterity.

To the extent that sufficient resources are available, museums also conduct research into their own collections. They continually add new knowledge about the genesis, history and impact of the various artefacts, often presented in the form of exhibitions, guided tours and events aimed at interested audiences. These firmly established museum responsibilities remain very much in force and are undergoing steady development – at the actual museum spaces and on various digital platforms.

However, several museums – including state-funded museums – have begun to expand their concept of what it means to be a social institution that holds responsibility for our shared cultural heritage. Simply being a community institution, as museums are, entails an obligation to shape and evolve our democratic culture and debate. However, this involves more than simply presenting one’s collection in an enlightened, serious and interesting manner; it also involves setting agendas, prompting discussions, presenting points of view, raising difficult questions, and challenging widespread readings and perceptions of the objects’ significance and value in the past and in our present day. When acting as an agent in society, the museum becomes a participant and partner in discussions, at times even an activist. But is this all to the good?

A museum runs the risk of compromising its credibility if it sends out heavy-handed and simplified political messages. A definite, clear-cut position can easily become firmly entrenched. We have no need of more entrenched positions in present-day debates. Museums can do and should do something that other agents in society cannot do in the same manner, allowing them to reach further than most.

Of course certain situations may require a museum to show civil disobedience and voice a definite political point of view, even if it causes fierce discussions on social media or enrages politicians. Even so, when museums wish to speak, create meaningful contexts, act proactively and set the agenda of public discussions, they will and should mainly do so by arranging, combining and presenting art and artefacts.

This is not a new thing in itself. Museums apply frameworks for interpretation in many ways – when they buy art, decide what to put on display and what to place in storage, when they describe the works in wall texts and catalogues, thereby giving them voice – and all this has a crucial impact on what we see and how we perceive and understand what we see.

Museums are institutions of knowledge
Museums have always – often without recognising this fact – manipulated their presentations and acted on the basis of specific opinions and values. Museums have never been apolitical, neutral institutions. Quite the contrary: since their emergence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they have aimed to educate and cultivate citizens in specific ways, to celebrate nations and their heroes, to display landscapes imbued with value, emotion and meaning, and to point out masterpieces, geniuses and artistic and cultural epochs of particular importance. None of these activities are neutral, even if they may have been presented as such by the museum authorities.

Today, these mechanisms are more frequently revealed to audiences, inviting them to contemplate the issues involved. When The Royal Danish Arsenal Museum presents an exhibition on The Distant War in Afghanistan, when the Royal Danish Library shows the exhibition Blind Spots and SMK presents What Lies Unspoken on the same subject, addressing Denmark’s colonial past in the Caribbean as seen through written, pictorial and artistic testaments, they all engage in presenting the results of their research – but these things are also open-ended questions and contributions to current discussions on subjects that such cultural institutions can help make visible, retain and add greater nuance to.

Museums are probably ill suited to comment on topical issues in the here and now. Museums move at a different speed. So too do the objects in them – and this in turn affects how they are perceived by audiences.

Museums are institutions of knowledge. They conduct research into their collections and make new insights and experiences available through exhibitions and other presentation activities. The art housed in art museums – whether historical or contemporary – is in itself full of meanings and narratives on which the museum can offer new perspectives. The works do not offer up everything they contain all at once. Their potential is unfolded over time. Even though our art and artefacts can and should prompt lively discussions, and even though the museum is neither a temple nor a mausoleum, but part of the public space, it is nevertheless a space for a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of reflection than the ones found in other media.

Art in museums, which sometimes carries several centuries’ worth of history, can be regarded as a link between the specific historical circumstances that produced them and our own present day. Always displaced from us in time, yet immediately present; aloof, yet open to our explorations; right before us in the here and now.

The museum space possesses a mixture of slowness and directness, of postponement and instant experience. This prompts reflection and allows sensory and intellectual experiences to mingle and challenge each other. The museum space also has a special openness: it allows the users’ voices, the stories of the works and objects told on their own terms, and the explanations offered by research to be heard simultaneously. Specific opinions and positions may be involved here, including the museum’s own beliefs and values, but none of these utterances must be allowed to drown out the others – the conversation must flow freely, openly and inquisitively.

Many museums feel called to engage in activism and social issues. And an increasing number do so – fortunately. But if they are to act in an extrovert, proactive manner and make their presence strongly felt in the here and now without neglecting the necessary slowness of museums, and without drowning out the indirect speech of art and artefacts, they must do so in a sensitive manner while fully understanding the complex dual role of museums: On the one hand, museums form an unobtrusive framework around an endless conservation between an unknown number of voices. On the other hand, museums curate – they select, challenge, ask questions, tell stories, offer new perspectives and carry out analyses. It is a difficult balancing act. Both aspects require courage. And both are inescapable necessities for any museum that wants to be relevant, engaging and of our time.

Webmaster Tue, 04 Jul 2017 11:28:00 +0200
What lies beneath the project 'What Lies Unspoken' Curator and senior researcher Henrik Holm blogs about the ideas and processes behind SMK’s new... We had to cover a painting with a blanket because viewing it made the artists, picture activists and debaters we had invited to discuss our new themed display physically sick. How could we possibly be that insensitive when addressing this very subject: colonialism and the portrayal of black people in Western art? Why do white people depict slavery as a party? The figures in this painting are depicted as naked, lecherous and primitive. How are you supposed to party when you have been snatched away from your native country and family to a place of hard labour and unspeakable offences against your body every day? The work of art is offensive in itself, our guests agree. We reiterate the offence by not being sensitive and thinking more closely about what we are doing.

This prompted us to change our minds: we had originally picked this work by Dirk Valkenburg to be the main work of the exhibition, the one introducing our small-scale display for What Lies Unspoken. It is a very well executed, well-preserved and very rare painting dating all the way back to 1706-8, showing enslaved people engaged in celebrations on a plantation in South America.

After covering the painting we relocate it to another position in the display. We are learning how to listen to voices and opinions other than our own. And we are learning it very directly in this project. We have deliberately subjected our points of view and actions to external pressure so that we cannot simply do what we usually do.

The basic idea
The entire idea behind the project What Lies Unspoken came from outside the museum. A research fellow in art history at Living Archives in Malmö, Temi Odumosu, urged SMK to invite a range of people to discuss works from our large collections. She is currently undertaking a similar project with the Royal Library in Copenhagen for their exhibition Blind Spots. Images of the Danish West Indies colony, opening 19 May 2017.

Prompted by the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies colony to the USA, we are seeking to bring new stories from the SMK collections out into the light of day. All of the works found at the museum were produced on the basis of a Western perspective on colonialism, slavery and the Other. As an institution, the museum is a product of an age where nations consolidated themselves by colonising other parts of the world. The collection reflects how state authority and the cultural scene have shaped and defined Denmark’s national self-image through the ages. We have depicted other cultures and people of other skin colours from a Western perspective as a matter of course, exhibiting the results in museums. In the museum space, things can often become all about beauty and rarity – even depictions of enslaved people dancing. Here we find examples of stereotypes and romanticised imagery that have persisted until the present day. Our present has many ties to colonial times, and some of them can be found in museums such as SMK. But getting these stories out in the open requires special effort.

Jens Juel, Niels Ryberg with his Son Johan Christian and his Daughter-in-Law Engelke, née Falbe, 1797

Untold stories
The stories of the dark aspects behind the beauty remains untold unless we create a space for them and give them voice. At times these stories are quite obviously present, as in the scene from the plantation. But at other times the darkness lies hidden, as in the painting of the Ryberg family on their estate (1797). Ryberg worked his way up from being a smallholder, almost a serf, to become a “grand merchant”, growing rich enough to have his portrait painted by the very best portrait painter of the age, Jens Juel (and on a monumental scale, too). Ryberg made some of his money from the slave trade. But this is nowhere evident in the painting. He lived during the period that Danes call call the “Florissant” (flourishing) age because of the economic boom brought about by the international triangle trade. The period would hardly be described as “flourishing” by the thousands of enslaved people who were forcibly sold and shipped away from their home countries to the West under horrific conditions.

The main product generated by this project was the workshops held at SMK and the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Many voices and statements from discussions of works from the two collections have been incorporated into the special sound collages produced by Temi Odumosu for the two institutions. The soundscapes, audio guides, texts, selection of works and the overall presentation at SMK are all outcomes of the process prompted by these workshops.

Having a plethora of voices – voices not founded in art history – speak on the basis of their own knowledge and experience runs counter to institutions that often speak with a single, authoritative voice. Voices can be authoritative, but they always come from an individual. Voices can also carry emotional overtones, and oral statements cannot claim neutrality to the same extent that a written text can. The soundtrack for this exhibition only lets us hear voices. We cannot see who is speaking. No-one is on display, and no-one is hidden. But there is a special sense of presence. The voices speak about the old works of art from a present-day perspective, making us aware that the subject does not just belong in the past. The new reflections fill in gaps in our narratives about the art works. And they help us discover aspects of the works that we did not notice before – or did not have the necessary background and experience to see.

The sound collage at SMK is a small counterpoint to habit, to the museum’s traditional – one might call it colonial – urge to see, order and understand everything.

When voices are raised, they carry many things with them out into the space where that voice meets another human being: individuality, perception, insight, physicality and the metaphysical. Being allowed to have your voice heard – by voting, through public speaking, in a museum, or in conversation – are acts that create meaning and take part in negotiations and exchanges of power. As a museum we relinquish power when we listen to others and act differently as a result. We warmly recommend this approach to everyone.

Read more about the exhibition What Lies Unspoken

Henrik Holm Thu, 11 May 2017 08:47:00 +0200
Thoughts about an exhibition – using materiality and sensuousness as a narrative device By art educator Mette Houlberg Rung An exhibition is a medium that tells stories. Many different... By art educator Mette Houlberg Rung

An exhibition is a medium that tells stories. Many different devices, narrative methods and dramaturgical deliberations are brought into play when we work with special exhibitions at SMK. In this blog entry I muse a little on the question of what an exhibition actually is, how the exhibition Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin was created, and the choices we made while preparing it.

Fundamentally, an exhibition is a story told in a space. Works of art, texts, images, sounds etc. are arranged in a more or less structured manner in a designed environment that we users move through. Exhibitions differ from creative formats such as films, where audiences sit still in front of the screen as images and sounds are presented to them in predetermined sequences. They are also different from theatre or dance performances, where bodies in movement are usually found on the stage while the spectator’s own body keeps still. 

This is to say that the exhibition is a unique genre. Users move through it, stop, focus and let themselves be enthralled by specific parts. It is an experience that engages body and mind alike, stimulating our emotions as well as our intellect. 

Research conducted here at SMK has shown that we are directed by our curiosity and immediate attraction to objects as we move around the exhibition. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), the French philosopher Michel de Certeau describes how the basic plan of a city is devised by municipal urban planners, organised by rules, etc. This is the city as a whole. But the pedestrian never sees that city. Instead she moves around her own neighbourhoods, makes shortcuts and forms pathways that no-one had planned. She makes her own city.

In many ways exhibitions are like that too. You are directed by whatever happens to appeal to you, you find favourite spots and spend your time where it makes sense to you. You piece together your own experience, rather like cutting and editing a film out of raw footage. No two people ever see exactly the same exhibition.

Research-based exhibitions

The exhibitions presented at SMK are almost always rooted in an art historical research project. A researcher has spent several years working on a given project, and their findings are used as the basis for the story told in the exhibition itself. The art works themselves are always the main ingredient. 

An exhibition offers a unique opportunity for bringing together original works of art – sometimes they are flown in from every corner of the world to be shown together for the first – and possibly last – time. The works bring out and accentuate certain traits in each other, thereby prompting us to see and experience them in new ways. Traditionally, the arrangement of the works is supplemented by texts and perhaps images, sound and film. Exhibitions are also typically accompanied by a catalogue that enables visitors to immerse themselves further in the exhibition’s subject.

New narrative devices

However, stories can be told in other ways than through text, sound or film. For example, might it not be possible to convey the exhibition’s subject matter through materiality, sensory stimulation and physical spaces? 

In recent years, we at SMK have experimented with exhibition architecture as a setting for physical, sensuous encounters where colours, shapes and materials contribute to the overall experience. But we would like to explore this in greater detail. Is it possible to engage the entire body and communicate by using specific materials, moods and architectures? When creating the exhibition Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin we set out to explore this question, deliberately forcing ourselves to think outside the box. 

Rodin and his drawings

The star of this exhibition, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), is one of the greatest masters in all of art history. But why is that? Rodin was one of the first sculptors to modernise sculpture. Before Rodin, sculpture had mainly been used for classical, idealising portraits and monuments. Rodin, however, used it to depict emotions, movement and sexual desire. But this exhibition is not about his sculptures, even though six of them are included – it is about his drawings.

Rodin drew prolifically throughout his career – several thousand drawings from his hand still exist today. They are not sketches for sculptures, but works in their own right. In 1910 Rodin himself explained that his drawings are the key to his work, and that he regarded sculpture as a form of drawing in all dimensions. In his drawings Rodin experimented with capturing movement, playing around with space and with materials. In drawings all things were possible, and he transposed the lessons learned here to his work with clay.

Sensuousness and materiality

Rodin’s drawings differ greatly. Some are created as layer upon layer of pigments, executed in ink, pen and gouache, others sport loose contours and flowing watercolour washes. Most of them depict naked female figures. They seem ephemeral and volatile, yet also carefully finished and precise – their colour schemes can be delicate, yet at the same time powerful and passionate.

In order to highlight these qualities, we envisioned the overall presentation and the exhibition architecture as an interconnected whole. We have to some extent sought to let the properties found in the works themselves flow out and spill over into the exhibition architecture. This is, for example, evident in the choice of materials for the walls: their stained surfaces echo the watercolour washes, and the concrete walls interact directly with Rodin’s layers of ink and gouache. At the same time the works stand alone on the walls. The signs traditionally seen next to exhibits are nowhere to be found; instead the information is presented on sheets of paper, with a separate sheet provided for each themed area. The other texts within the exhibition are placed on low tables, keeping them below the level of the works themselves.

Auguste Rodin, Centaur Abducting a Young Man, c. 1880
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white opaque colour. SMK Foto

Exhibition view

The decision to use pure materials instead of simply painting the walls of the exhibition space was quite nerve-wracking for the entire exhibition team: it is difficult to predict what the large sheets will actually look like once they have been pieced together to form large walls. Would they become overpowering, distracting attention away from the works? What do they look like when lit? How will the joins between the sheets show up?

Moving the body

The exhibition design also takes its starting point in Rodin’s relentless work with space, direction and movement. It incorporates glimpses through fissures and cracks, intermissions and pauses, a sculpture dragging you into a room, a table that graphics lead you around. Devices such as these get the body involved, co-creating the narrative presented by the exhibition. The benches and podiums are deliberately designed to be broad and low, pushing audiences out towards the works, prompting them to get close to the art.

The exhibition as a place where stories meet

Taking our starting point in the works, we have endeavoured to translate key concepts from the curator’s research into the materials and spaces used in the exhibition. This means that we tell the stories in slightly different ways than usual. Perhaps audiences will spot this, perhaps not – but one thing is certain: the exhibition will be used in many different ways. Visitors will make the exhibition their own, inserting stories that mix and merge with the ones we put forward. Hopefully, they will feel an echo in their own bodies of how Rodin works with materiality, sensuousness and space.

The exhibition team behind Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin comprises room designer Pernille Jensen, curator Thomas Lederballe and art educator Mette Houlberg Rung.

Mette Houlberg Rung Thu, 22 Sep 2016 09:51:00 +0200
Multivoicedness By Berit Anne Larsen, Director of Learning & Interpretation The National Gallery of Denmark’s... By Berit Anne Larsen, Director of Learning & Interpretation

The National Gallery of Denmark’s framework agreement with the Danish Ministry of Culture states that we must “contribute to redefining the museum as an institution in the 21st century” and as “an agent in society as such”. This requirement is one of the many excellent reasons why we collaborate with Images 16. The partnership allows us to present exhibitions that introduce a greater variety of voices, including unconventional ones, in our exhibitions and activities. In our migration exhibitions we have done this by letting CAMP curate the show, in Two Worlds as One we have done so by letting Pakistani artist Aisha Khalid reflect the encounter between two different visual regimes, and in our SMK Ansat scheme we engage many new voices in dialogue by bringing together permanent SMK staff and temporarily employed new Danish citizens to work with the museum exhibits.

As an organisation, we are curious and keen to explore this field of diversity and multivoicedness, precisely because it is very much about introducing more narratives, about identity and about negotiating meaning. At a lecture held in Copenhagen in connection with this year’s Chart Art Fair, the French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud said: “What is a subject if not narration? It is not being born here or there. What we are is our destination”.

We see an opportunity to move away from the discussion about integration and inclusion, about new voices as additions. Instead, we want to move ahead to discussions about hybrids.

In other words, we see diversity as a fundamental condition today.

A new reality
Perhaps the raison d’être of cultural institutions resides in the opportunities they provide for rethinking the images and structures we know only too well? To be open towards the citizens’ contributions to changing established orders, just like artists are known for doing. This perception of democracy describes a movement away from the democratic society as a state of which each citizen is a member, with the main emphasis placed on duties and rights. A movement towards a democratic society where the key element is shared cultural experiences and constructions of meaning. A movement away from viewing the citizen as a disciplined subject towards seeing the citizen as a critical, reflecting co-creator of society.

A key aspect of our formation and growth as human beings emerges out of the narratives we use to find meaning in the lives we lead and the communities of which we are part. The open-ended spaces of art and culture allow us to meet and confront all those aspects that challenge, inspire and evade everyday pragmatics, thereby giving us opportunities to relate to our current era, society and history in new ways.

According to the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, an included individual is an individual who moves freely around the global network, constantly searching for new personal challenges in their encounters with various communities. The relationships within those communities play a central part as morals and values are negotiated through such relationships.

Today, the concept of enlightenment – which gave rise to the museum institution – is undergoing a renewal. Enlightenment is not just about learning a cultural canon, but equally much about creating foundations that allow all citizens in society to ask questions, use their senses in critical ways and enter into dialogue with others: i.e. to act within the framework of the art field.

By collaborating with Images 16, the museum seeks to reflect and evolve in keeping with the society that surrounds it. As SMK director Mikkel Bogh puts it:

“Our collaboration with Images 16 is a perfect fit for our strategic promise to the wider world about continually exploring what being a national gallery means. As the entire nation’s gallery we have an obligation to take an explorative approach to our practice and our collections. This holds true in terms of the exhibitions we make, the works we collect and the languages we speak. We have dedicated ourselves to being particularly aware of how Denmark is more diverse now than ever. It is our task to present the cultural heritage in our care, and to do so in ways that are relevant, vibrant and interesting to wide audiences. The activities we create with Images are symbolic and an important mainstay of our strategy.”

As Denmark’s national gallery of art, SMK’s role is primarily to collect and exhibit European art. But what does this mean in an art world that has become extremely globalised and looks very different today compared to just 20 years ago? This issue is also among those raised by Mikkel Bogh. In its collaboration with Images 16, SMK asks: What does being a national art gallery mean today? And what nation are we an art gallery of? Hopefully, our encounters with the works of Aisha Khalid, CAMP’s exhibitions on migration politics, and our temporary staff of new Danes can bring us closer to answering these questions.

Berit Anne Larsen Wed, 21 Sep 2016 15:14:00 +0200
Online presence: Why museums matter more than ever By Mikkel Bogh, director of the SMK, and Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital... By Mikkel Bogh, director of the SMK, and Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice at the SMK.

Recently, several commentators have quite justifiably pointed out that art and culture is absent from political discussions – not least when a major election is coming up. Politicians do not regard art and culture as crucial pieces of the giant puzzle that is our society; evidently, subjects such as health services, integration and economic growth are given greater emphasis.

Art and culture are often seen as 'soft' values that must take the back seat when funds are allotted. However, studies show that art and culture – and taking part in these things – constitute important foundations for a well-functioning society with active, engaged democratic conversations and happy, capable citizens who enjoy a high quality of life. Why is this perspective absent from political discussions? How can we showcase and raise awareness of the real value that we create as agents on the art scene?

Increased focus on the societal value of museums
In recent years, numerous international studies and reports have focused on the social value generated by museums and cultural institutions. Museums not only have a powerful impact in terms of ‘soft’ values such as social cohesion, democratic thinking and universal access to knowledge and education; they also contribute to ‘hard’ values such as economic growth, urban development and job creation.

Museums help cultivate the conditions for the high quality of life for which Danes are justly famous, and which – exactly how high is something Statistics Denmark will begin measuring this year, will begin measuring in September, just as they are measuring the nation’s BNP. This is in keeping with similar efforts in other countries, such as the UK and The Netherlands, which have in recent years begun measuring how museums contribute to society and even change lives (for instance Museums Change Lives and More than worth it. The social significance of museums).

Museums in the digital age
In our digital age, simply measuring the social value of museums in terms of their physical artefacts and architecture is no longer enough.

Today, the Internet and social media allow us to enter into conversations with the entire world, across geographic, linguistic and cultural boundaries. For museums, this opens up entirely new opportunities for extending our reach and impact on society. We can do so by utilising our digitised collections and by contributing to the information flow that reaches out to billions of online users. A museum’s online presence can be more than a calling card for the physical museum: it can offer a set of valuable tools in the form of images, historical insight and structured data that become building blocks in the hands of people everywhere as they continue their daily journey of personal and intellectual growth – a journey that is now very much nurtured by the web.

Growing demand for digital content
As the Internet continues to overflow with information, one of the distinctive things that museums have to offer is high-quality content. Content from sources which people know they can trust.

There is great demand for digital content from credible sources among institutions of education such as schools, upper secondary schools and universities. But growing demand is also evident among informal learning scenes such as Maker Culture, Fab Labs and Wikipedia, which are gradually becoming major sites for building and sharing knowledge and competencies globally. Such entities increasingly seek open-source digital content that can be used in new contexts without any restrictions – often with startling, innovative results.

Inspired by pioneering institutions in e.g. The Netherlands, USA and the UK, we at the SMK have recently worked towards making our digitised collections available for free and unrestricted use. With this move we wish to support learning, creativity, education and innovation – not only for the approximately 400,000 visitors who anually pass through the museum, but also for the 30,000,000 users worldwide who come into contact with our collections online every year. Now, a generous donation from the Nordea Foundation allows us to upgrade our efforts with SMK Open, which will ensure, over the course of the next four years, that everyone can make unrestricted use of the museum’s digitised resources.

Digitisation generates value for users
It is obviously more difficult to measure the beneficial impact of museums when its influence is unleashed as bits and pixels on the wildly proliferating worldwide web. However, data collection and exchanges with users and communities reaffirm our conviction that making cultural heritage available for unrestricted use generates great value. For students and teachers. For scholars. For volunteers who put their time and insight at the disposal of cultural institutions, enriching their data collections. For creative and entrepreneurial spirits who develop new business models and services on the basis of freely available public data, thereby contributing to society’s growth.

We need to get better at translating these observations into tangible indicators of the museums’ relevance to society’s wellbeing and development. This point is growing ever more important in a political climate where culture is subjected to cutbacks unless it can produce figures to prove that it generates more value than it consumes.

When we speak of digitised cultural heritage, we move up into a very different league in terms of scope and impact. And we need to include and incorporate this in how we calculate the value of museums to society.

Art and museums are important to society
In a recent blog entry, Charlotte S H Jensen from the National Museum of Denmark/The Danish National Archives encourages us to begin measuring the impact that access to digital cultural heritage has on general levels of education and quality of life. We are used to measuring the number of visitors passing through our doors, and how well they feel welcomed, enlightened, entertained and challenged by our exhibitions and communication. We should introduce a crucial supplement to this information by collecting data on the impact when people use digitised cultural heritage to

  • boost their own creativity
  • obtain new tools and skills that improve their prospects on the job market or promote personal growth
  • increase their social network by meeting others online who share their interest in culture
  • experience a general increase in their quality of life as a result of having access to engaging with and shaping culture.

We are not calling on museums to translate what are essentially unquantifiable and unpredictable experiences into rigid spreadsheet formats. But we are convinced that it would be useful to have more analyses and statistics to shed light on the value increasingly being generated by museums and their digital resources.

Art and museums are important to society. We are keen on supplying the necessary documentation to inform future political discussion about the field of culture.

More about
The SMK’s digitised collections
SMK Open
The SMK’s co-operation with Wikipedia

Webmaster Wed, 10 Aug 2016 00:00:00 +0200
Language school students at the museum The director of the SMK, Mikkel Bogh, blogs about what it’s all about: art In this entry, Mikkel...

The director of the SMK, Mikkel Bogh, blogs about what it’s all about: art

In this entry, Mikkel Bogh speaks about how the SMK reinvents the museum’s role and tasks through programmes for language school students at the SMK.

The question of the role played by cultural institutions in Denmark is often up for discussion – what kind of tasks should they carry out? This is exactly as it should be, for the functions served by art, culture and its institutions, for individuals and for society as such, is never set in stone.

At a time when a swathe of cutbacks is sweeping across the Danish cultural sector – with wide-ranging consequences – the question of balance becomes a key issue: should we focus exclusively on core tasks, or should state institutions engage with new and innovative additions to their activities? I keep hearing, as if it were a mantra, the view that in times of austerity we must stick to our core tasks and pare back our ambitions for exploring new territories and testing the boundaries of our institutions. I couldn’t disagree more. We must rethink our tasks, we must evolve and experiment – whether times are lean or not.

Rethinking the museum’s core tasks
Quite apart from the fact that our current “times of austerity” can no longer be described as a passing crisis – after fifteen years of steady decreases in the funds allocated, these lean times seem rather a permanent state of affairs ­– I believe that it is now more crucial than ever that we should take an open-minded, inquiring and explorative position on the question of what a museum’s core tasks are.

It is true that the Danish Museum Act sets out a framework for our activities, but even so there is plenty of scope for interpretation, for example of the terms “interpretation & learning” and “research”. This point is certainly borne out by the many changes seen on the museum scene in recent decades. Always operating within the wide perimeters of the law, art museums have changed greatly in how they operate. Maintaining your relevance, flavour and attraction as a cultural institution demands, more than anything, a willingness to follow and listen to one’s users. It also requires a keen eye for the general developments of society. If you simply stick to outmoded notions about “core tasks” that have been defined for different times and different users that ours, then the institution is at risk of growing stale or losing traction.

The museum as a space for learning
At the SMK, interpretation & learning is a core task on a par with collection, registration, conservation and research. However, the concept of interpretation & learning covers a very wide range of activities – and one that expands very rapidly at present. The museum experience is increasingly becoming a layered, involving experience, and this also makes the museum a complex space for learning. One of our particular focus areas right now is to build on our excellent experiences with staging language school teaching based on works from our collections.

From its very earliest days as a publicly accessible collection, the museum has served a didactic and educational function. That tradition has now been imbued with new life as we work with language school students to improve their Danish skills. It is my belief that with this work, the museum makes a valuable and crucial contribution to the integration of immigrants in Denmark while also venturing out into territories that are largely unexplored by most museums.

Language school students employed at the SMK
The language school students at SMK take part in a language course, but that is not all. A special programme has been set up to employ them at the museum as paid employees. The significance and impact of this initiative should not be underestimated. The six-week employment period creates a real, tangible connection with the Danish labour market – and for most course participants this is also their first real job in Denmark. With this initiative, immigrant Danes become more comfortable with the language by interacting directly with Danish-speaking colleagues in real-life work situations – and by engaging with an art historical heritage that allows them to contrast and compare as they draw on their own experiences with art, images and culture.

This combination of factors yields excellent, documented results in terms of language acquisition. But it is equally important that the course participants find it easier to find a job after having experienced real employment – even if only briefly – which required them to solve a range of presentation and communication tasks.

The museum and its users benefit by getting fresh perspectives on art from people who have recently arrived in this country and are getting their bearings in a culture that is more or less alien to them. When they bring their experiences and perceptions to the table, we see the collection in a new light. Everyone is enriched.

An active contributor to society
With its programmes for language school students, the SMK builds on one of its original objectives, which might be termed a “core task”: to be a space for learning and for the development of creativity and other competences. At the same time we have taken another step towards rethinking the role of the museum in an era where cultural institutions have historic opportunities for contributing to society – not just with its unique collection of art, but also as a concept developer, a launcher of public debate and as an informed rallying point for a wide range of users.

If institutions such as ours are to be active contributors to society, we cannot simply stand still and look inward for “core tasks” that were defined several decades ago. We must direct our attention to the world around us, to the experiences and the knowledge that is relevant and valuable to people today. It is efforts such as these that will give us renewed relevance – to our loyal established audiences and to new users who visit our museum for the very first time.

The museum is growing
The language school programmes may not take up much of the SMK’s budget, and they require external funding if they are to grow in scope – as we hope they will. But they do take on ever-growing importance as inspiration and models for how museums can help fulfil society’s tasks at local or national level. In a time of scarcity, we as a museum cannot afford not to expand our scope. Language school students help our museum grow.

Webmaster Wed, 19 Aug 2015 09:21:00 +0200
A change of view Local knowledge and thorough guidance has given us valuable new documentation about one of the gems... By Merete Sanderhoff
Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice

About a month ago, I had a meeting with colleagues from Europeana at SMK. At the end of the day, I took them on a tour along the SMK collections to offer some variation from the meeting room and a chance to explore what we have here at The National Gallery of Denmark. In the very first gallery, one of the guests, Wim van Dongen who is a historian from Holland, stopped in his tracks in front of one of the masterpieces of our Dutch 17th century collection – Simon de Vlieger’s Ships in the River Maas off Rotterdam from about 1652.

Wim had instantly recognized the motif, and according to him, it was not a view to Rotterdam, as the title indicates, but to the city of Dordrecht 25 km southeast of Rotterdam.

How did Wim know that? Well, he drives past this specific spot every day from his hometown Tilburg to work at the Nationaal Archief in Den Haag. Therefore, he could easily make out that the characteristic building on the low skyline of the city is that of Grote Kerk, the main church of Dordrecht, with its tall square tower.

Wim in front of de Vlieger's painting at the SMK

The view today
After his visit to SMK, Wim sent me a long email carefully explaining and documenting why he firmly believes that the painting shows a view to Dordrecht. He even attached a picture of the city of the Dordrecht skyline nowadays, taken from the train which he uses every day to commute to work.

Today, there is an iron railway bridge standing in the way of an undisturbed view across the river towards Dordrecht. So in order to give a more precise prospect he supplemented it with a link to Google Streetview from the opposite bank of the river Maas where the city of Zwijndrecht overlooks Dordrecht. According to Wim, this must have been just about the spot from where Simon de Vlieger stood when he sketched the motif in the 17th century. He knew that in the 17th century the city of Dordrecht was far more important than Rotterdam, which underpins its appeal as a topic for a large scale landscape painting.  He also provided another Google Streetview link standing right in front of Grote Kerk in the middle of the old city center of Dordrecht, where the distinctively shaped tower stands out in all its splendour.

To top it up, Wim also directed our attention to the building with the small tower which is visible on the horizon of the painting, to the far left next to the ships. He suggests that this is probably the Hotel Bellevue, built around 1607 behind one of the city gates called the Groothoofdpoort in the walls around the medieval center of Dordrecht. And he includes documentation for this too – among others a link to an online source featuring old handcoloured photographs of the Groothoofdpoort, enabling us to compare them with the building seen in the painting.

The many mills
Being a historian, Wim continues to tell the story of the many mills we can see on the horizon in the painting, but which are missing in the contemporary streetview images of the city.

In the 17th century, mills were omnipresent in the Dutch landscape, but although Holland is still famous for its mills, many of them have disappeared. A keen interest in the mills and their history prevails, however, for instance expressed on a Facebook page devoted to these disappeared Dordrecht mills (in Dutch “verdwenen molens van Dordrecht”).

Local knownledge is an important input
Finally, he shares another painting from the period featuring a similar view of Dordrecht, namely this painting by Jan van Goyen who was a contemporary of Simon de Vlieger (and who is also represented in the SMK collection). This particular painting was shown in a 2015 exhibition at the Dordrecht Museum called Faces of Dordrecht (in Dutch “Gezichten op Dordrecht”), once again substantiating Wim’s thesis that the painting he saw at SMK of a similar view is in fact from Dordrecht.

Wim’s local knowledge and thorough guidance has given us valuable new documentation about one of the gems among our Dutch master paintings. The curator in charge of this collection will add this new information to the SMK collection database, and it will be an important input for her future research and publishing about Simon de Vlieger’s painting.

Webmaster Wed, 04 May 2016 13:32:00 +0200
Wiki Labs – enriching art history on Wikipedia Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice SMK and The Hirschsprung... Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice

SMK and The Hirschsprung Collection are collaborating with Wikipedia Denmark to improve knowledge and resources about art historical topics in Wikipedia. Once a month, a group of art enthusiasts, Wikipedians and museum people meet up at SMK for Wiki Labs in order to learn about how to contribute to Wikipedia. This is to the benefit of all of us – including you.

Statens Museum for Kunst and The Hirschsprung Collection are publicly funded museums. This means that our collections belong to everyone, and that we are taking care of them on behalf of the public. In a digital age, we are working with new ways to be relevant to everyone in society – also to those who aren’t frequent museum visitors, or don’t have a special interest in art. How can our collections become meaningful to other people, and more people, than those who already visit museums?

Why are we working with Wikipedia?

Through the last couple of decades, museums all over the world have been digitising their collections, and many museums have also put these assets online so people can see what they contain. However, for many Internet users, being able to look at images of artworks is not sufficient – they need to also be able to take them and re-use them for new purposes. This applies, for example, to the many volunteers around the world who are writing, editing, and improving articles in the open encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wikipedia draws all of its images from the media repository Wikimedia Commons which, as the name indicates, is a ’commons’ – that is, the images in Wikimedia Commons are owned collectively and may be used by all. Because Wikipedia is an open encyclopedia, it is only allowed to use images that are free of exclusive rights such as copyright.

Wiki Labs

Museums hold vast amounts of digitised artworks which, due to age, are free of copyright restrictions. Traditionally, museums have kept their images behind paywalls. But today, where we have an Internet overflowing with images, more and more museums are arriving at the conclusion that if our images are to stand a chance of being discovered and used, they must be freely available on the Web. A range of museums around the world have in later years released their digitised treasure troves for free use. This opens up the opportunity that these images can also flow into Wikimedia Commons and be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles.

Wikipedia has 18 billion page views and 500 million unique visitors – each month. The open encyclopedia is available in 250 different languages, and contains 37 million articles. Museums that release their image collections have the chance to contribute to this enormous knowledge bank which grows with more than 1,000 articles a day on a global scale.

Museums hold valuable resources for Wikipedia in the form of reliable reproductions of the artworks in our collections, as well as in-depth knowledge about the objects and their stories. Internationally renowned museums like The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and The Getty Museum in Los Angeles have open collections that enrich thousands of Wikipedia articles, and lead to millions of page views featuring images from these museums (see more open collections). This has inspired our work at The Hirschsprung Collection and SMK. We have released high resolution images of artworks in our collections, and since 2014 we have held a series of events and workshops in collaboration with Wikipedia Denmark to learn about how we can best support the growth and improvement of Wikipedia.

User involvement – more than a buzzword

This autumn, we have held monthly Wiki Labs together with Wikipedians, museum people and others interested in writing for Wikipedia. For us as museums, it’s a fantastic way to meet people who are already writing and editing Wikipedia articles or have a passion and knowledge about art that they want to start sharing. Simultaneously, it provides us with the opportunity to talk about topical art historical issues and stories that ought to be created or improved, and to learn about how we can enrich Wikimedia Commons with our digitised collections.

Wiki Labs is just one of the places where we are collaborating with our users in enriching and meaningful ways. When we make an open call to participate in Wiki Labs, it is in recognition of all the people outside our museums who have valuable knowledge about art to share. Wikipedia abounds with proof of this, with its millions of articles on all kinds of topics from Michelangelo to microbiology. As public museums with educational obligations, we understand that we have an important role to play in supporting the knowledge creation taking place on the Web, and doing this by providing valuable raw materials: Trustworthy quality images of artworks, and reliable sources to new knowledge and understanding of art and its many stories.

Wiki Labs

Crowdsourcing is one of the buzzwords that prevail in many discussions of user engagement, and Wikipedia is often mentioned as one of the most comprehensive and successful crowdsourcing projects in the world. The term was coined in 2006, and since then it has been expanded on, as crowdsourcing has spread to all corners of the world and all aspects of society. A short and succinct definition says that crowdsourcing is “an online distributed problem-solving and production model” (see Daren C. Brabham, Crowdsourcing, MIT Press 2013). The problem that is being solved daily by Wikipedians all over the world is that of providing free access for everybody to the sum of all knowledge in the world. This is an enormous ambition, it’s work-in-progress, and it’s an ambition which Wikipedia has in common with the cultural heritage sector. Since the Age of Enlightenment where public museums were first established, it has remained our foremost task to disseminate knowledge about art and cultural history to all, thereby functioning as important educational institutions in enlightened and democratic societies.

The Internet has provided entirely new possibilities to fulfil that mission, with greater reach and impact than ever before. Because Wikipedia is the most comprehensive and commonly used source to knowledge for the citizens of the world, it is a selfevident place for us to put our collections into play. When we hold Wiki Labs, it is to facilitate that people outside the museum can write better articles about the topics that preoccupy them because they gain access to trustworthy images and source materials. In this way, we contribute to making art and art historical knowledge available and useful to many more people than we can ever hope to reach through our own museums and websites. As a colleague of mine recently said, “Crowdsourcing at its best is when institutions facilitate that users can help create something they want and need for themselves”.

Recently, museums have been criticised for selling out, trying as they are to fulfil growing expectations from the public of digitally enhanced experiences and engagement opportunities. The rethorical question we are hearing from critics is: Has the audience become more important than the art itself? (For insight into the current Danish debate, see for instance - both in Danish). The response to this must be phrased as a new question: If the public is not engaged in the art, why then would they want to support our endeavours to preserve it? User engagement on different levels offers ways to create relevance for the public, to give people opportunities to engage in ways that make art and cultural heritage meaningful to them. And the stuff that means something to you, that’s what you care about and take good care of.

We’ll meet up for the last Wiki Lab of this season Friday 27 November at SMK. Everyone is welcome – please bring your laptop, along with ideas for what topics you want to work on. You can keep track of our shared work and discussions in the Facebook group Wiki Labs Kunst (in Danish):

Webmaster Fri, 20 Nov 2015 15:31:00 +0100
Mikkel Bogh blogs: Wilhelm Bendz's 'The Raffenberg Family' Join us as SMK Director Mikkel Bogh blogs about what it’s all about: art. In this entry Mikkel Bogh... Join us as SMK Director Mikkel Bogh blogs about what it’s all about: art.

In this entry Mikkel Bogh explores the SMK's own The Raffenberg Family by Wilhelm Bendz.


In many ways this is a typical bourgeois family portrait from the first half of the eighteenth century. It looks exactly how you would expect a painting of this kind to look: this was how the affluent middle classes wanted to present themselves.

It has all the trimmings of the genre: fashionable clothes, artfully arranged hair of the kind that can only be achieved by people with plenty of time on their hands and servants at their beck and call; a home suitably furnished with a piano and knitting kits – the socially approved pastimes for women -  as well as with casts of ancient sculpture, art on the walls, and shining examples of closely knit, uncomplicated family relationships neatly seated (or standing) in and around the Empire-style furniture.

So all the basics are in place here for a well executed, but unsurprising example of a type of painting popular among the affluent bourgeoisie – but closer inspection of Bendz’s painting of the Raffenberg family reveals it to be infused by a keen, distinctively personal eye for the opportunities offered by the genre. It stands out from the crowd.

A surprising range of works

Bendz’s brief career hardly had time to fully hit its stride before he died at the very young age of 28, but he nevertheless succeeded in creating a surprising range of works that simultaneously reaffirmed and redefined various genres, such as the portrait – including portraits of artists, groups of artists and family portraits.

Modest in size and easily handled, this small painting of the Raffenberg family has long attracted my attention. Here at the museum it is hung high up on the wall, just above Bendz’s better-known and much larger portrait of the Waagepetersen family, dating from that same highly prolific year. So the work is easily overlooked.

I was most recently reminded of Bendz’s keen sense for deviation at the Medical Museion, where I saw his painted study of a knee with a huge tumour (painted in the same year as the Raffenberg family and possibly made at the instigation of Bendz’s brother, who was a doctor and an affiliate of The Royal Academy of Surgeons).

Cast of characters

So who are the people in the picture? The standing woman is the mother of the seated man: Michael Raffenberg, a young barrister and councillor of state. Between them is his fiancée, Sophie Frederikke Hagerup, shown here during what may have been a slightly awkward first visit to the home of her future in-laws. The picture they are looking at – it may be a painted portrait or a drawing – is (presumably) a portrait of her future father-in-law: even though he had been dead for some years by this time he still merits a place in this family portrait.

At this point in the history of patriarchy, it would hardly have been possible to envision a family portrait without a father figure. In this case the father has died, and it is time for the son to take over his role as head of the family. The councillor’s prominently featured index finger shows the girl who’s in charge. It also transfers authority from father to son: I am like my father, and as he was, so shall I be. There should be no doubt as to the proper order of this family – and of all things in general.

Distinctive qualities

Two issues in particular are of special note about Bendz’s painting. Both are so blindingly obvious that I myself hardly noticed them for a long time. One is that the main protagonist usually found in a typical family portrait is absent. The other, even more unusual feature is the fact that the picture gazed upon by the group is held in one of their hands.

I can think of a handful of paintings whose main protagonist is not present in the flesh (many more if that main protagonist is a god). A person represented in disguise or in effigy, i.e. as a picture within the picture, regardless of whether that picture is painted, engraved or carved – that is not so unusual. However, I cannot for the present recall having seen any other painting where a person is absent from a portrait, but present in a painting of which we only see the back.

Then again, there is of course the Spanish Baroque artist Diego Velazquez’s large-scale painting Las Meninas, 1656, The Prado, Madrid, where we only see the royal couple indirectly in a mirror in the background while we as spectators are looking at the back of the portrait on which the artist is working. It is unlikely that Bendz ever saw this painting (as the saying goes), but he may well have known of it, perhaps via Goya’s reproduction. Ah, well, never mind – the sense of absence in Bendz’s painting is remarkable and unusual in any case.

The other striking feature – the hand-held painting – is also quite unique. A possible parallel might be Antoine Watteau’s sublime painting L’Enseigne de Gersaint (The Shop Sign of Gersaint) (1721, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin): it offers a look inside an art dealership where a range of paintings are being packed up, studied, handled and presented – one of them is even seen from behind. Nevertheless, this painting is unlikely to have been a reference used by Bendz, not even as a remote source of inspiration. Bendz is somewhere else entirely. In history. In life. In society. He is telling us a completely different story.

The intimate laid bare

The inclusion of the painting with its back turned out towards us informs us very clearly that the persons in this scene and the picture they look at are connected by close family ties.  A scene of intimate family life is played out before our eyes – the presentable, respectable facets of family life as well as the more intimate aspects that only the inner circle knows and can access.

We see the three persons, but we do not know what they are looking at – and we barely know what they are feeling. Here, then, we face the limit for what can be represented and made visible to others. And this makes us, as spectators, aware of the special emotional ties within this family – without compromising patriarchal hierarchy. The father figure – and, hence, the family legacy – remains present as a focal point to the living, and that figure is honoured as if it were a work of devotional art.

Here, Wilhelm Bendz has created a painting that points towards a model for how a painting can or should be handled. Paintings should be looked at, but at the same time they are private objects that we can touch, move around, take in, bring along and connect with. A merger of the visible and the invisible, the external and the internal.

Facts about the artwork

Artist Wilhelm Bendz
Title The Raffenberg Family
56.3 x 51 x 8.8 cm
Technique Oil on canvas
See the artwork in the exhibition Danish and Nordic Art 1750-1900, Room 262
Webmaster Wed, 19 Aug 2015 09:21:00 +0200
Mikkel Bogh blogs: André Derain’s Still Life Join us as Mikkel Bogh, director of the SMK, shares his thoughts about the beating heart of our...
Join us as Mikkel Bogh, director of the SMK, shares his thoughts about the beating heart of our museum: art.

For this entry Mikkel Bogh takes a close look at the SMK's own Still Life by André Derain in order to decide whether it should be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the SMK.

For some time I have wondered whether this still life by André Derain might have a place in an exhibition I am currently planning here at the museum. The working title for this upcoming exhibition is Intimacies – partly inspired by a series of paintings and prints bearing this name, created in 1897 by the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton.

The exhibition will be about intimate spaces and about how artists from the mid-18th century up until the early 20th century sought to depict the virtually unspoken and, in a sense, invisible intimate relationships between people and between people and things. This artistic endeavour gradually took shape as the traditional art patrons – who expected stories and narratives, melodramatic posturing and general eloquence – were gradually replaced by a more private, sensitive audience. And artists increasingly began to address the question of what actually makes paintings special, what makes them a medium with a distinctive expressive force, a special tactility, a special grasp on time, space, our attention and our nervous system.

A key precondition for the development of modern art

Of course, the story about intimacy in art and culture does not begin and end in exact keeping with the period we have chosen as the timeframe of our exhibition. However, something special happens from the 18th century onwards. Artists begin to be interested in aspects of the realm of private, intimate experiences; in those parts of life that are usually kept hidden away from others, shared only with those closest to us. The exhibition will argue that this discovery of the intimate as an artistic subject and as hitherto unexplored territory for artists constitutes an important prerequisite for the development of modern art. Much more on this point will follow – on this blog, too. Right now, the main issue is to decide on which works to include.

One of the special challenges associated with this particular theme concerns the difficulty in ensuring that the story told by the exhibition is brought to a convincing conclusion in the early 20th century. Not because artists lose interest in the intimate space at this point – quite the contrary. Rather, we find that further into the 20th century this issue becomes so complex and extensive in scope that a separate exhibition seems required to properly account for this development.

From subject and theme to ways of viewing
Overall, my idea is that the intimate – when viewed over the course of a hundred years – undergoes a transition: from being a motif, a theme, something that can be shown and depicted, it becomes a way of viewing the world, a method, or a particular kind of attention paid to otherwise overlooked aspects of the world. This takes place over the course of many years. Edgar Degas takes crucial steps in this direction. Eventually, artists no longer need to depict a naked body, a drawing room, a portrait of the artists’ family or whatever else the case may be – they no longer have to show spaces or places that we would describe as belonging to the intimate sphere – for from this point on intimacy is something that resides in the painting itself and in the interaction between the painting and us as spectators.

Does this all sound a bit abstract? Perhaps it is. I am perfectly willing to admit that it would have been easier if we had allowed interiors or family pictures or self portraits or erotic scenes constitute the main themes. Such exhibitions are familiar fodder – and they certainly don’t have to be dull. Still, I would like to broaden the scope somewhat. And I would like to demonstrate how, in art history, we move from all those interiors and studies of the human body, how we move from this 19th century preoccupation with the private sphere and personal, domestic experience to modernist imagery – for example an almost abstract still life or a composition of circles and squares on a canvas, almost entirely devoid of depth.

The dehumanisation of art

Some art historians would say that the modern artists who created such paintings distanced themselves from the fearful and unworldly interiors seen in musty salon art. According to this view, modern art is anti-intimate, anti-introvert. Modernity is all about light, transparency, structure. In his small essay The Dehumanisation of Art (1925), the excellent Spanish cultural philosopher José Ortega Y Gasset stated that modern art strives, with all means at its disposal, to rid art of humanity, of personality, of the grand passions of Romanticism. The modern in art, he states, is characterised by a complete indifference to that which is recognisably human: art rejects bourgeois private sentiments, refuses to address pain, yearning, dreams, joy in nature and so on. The intimate disappears. Or, at least, it might look as if it does. But things are not quite that simple. And indeed Ortega Y Gasset does not think so.

With this interesting concept of ’sub-realism’ Ortega Y Gasset very accurately describes early modernist art’s new sensitivity to aspects of the world that could not be captured in earlier forms of art with their webs of grand passions and monumental shapes: “In order to satisfy this urge to escape ‘the human’ it is not necessary to change the essence of things; it is sufficient to inverse value structures and to create art that will, in the first instance, present the subsidiary aspects of life on a monumental scale.” That is 'sub-realism'. Just think of James Joyce, who, in his novel Ulysses, writes about a single day in a man’s life – and fills 800 pages doing so. Or Marcel Proust, who uses numerous volumes and thousands of pages to describe a young man’s difficult progress towards becoming a writer; a goal that is not achieved until the final pages of the novel.

On the subject of this sub-realism (a contrast to the ‘overrealism’ of the 19th century), Ortega Y Gasset states that it evinces “a dispassionate attention to the finer structures of emotions, social conditions and character”. Such attention to a largely overlooked register of sensory input may be the most consistent continuation possible of the intimate gaze upon the world that was first evinced in 18th century explorations – in literature and art – of affect, emotions, details and desire.

Far removed from cool abstraction and explosive Fauvism
I’m sorry that it took a while to get this far, but now we’re getting close to André Derain. The French artist’s Still Life from 1913 is an extraordinary painting. I often enter the collections to see it again. It presents a very different aspect of early 20th century painting; as far removed from cool abstraction as it is from explosive Fauvism and other forms of colourist art. Insistently figurative, it leaves the spectator in no doubt as to what is figure and what is ground. At the same time it seems as if the bread, the glass and the pitcher are drained of all substance; they appear like abstractions based on objects; all the details that would have fascinated 17th century painters of still lifes are entirely absent here – highlights, shadows, surface textures and similar elements are muted, played down in favour of something other, more general in scope. We are certainly far removed from overrealism here.

André Derain does not sculpt his figures; he fills in fields as if he were applying an undercoat. This causes the figures to appear entirely without volume and heft. He barely even outlines the contours; or he certainly does so only in a cursory manner, and not everywhere. Rather, it seems as if fields of colour have been placed next to other fields of colour so that the objects appear as the result of an interplay between colours and fields, not as the external cause of those colours, those fields. The painting does not mimic this arrangement of table, bread, glass and pitcher. It forms them. The painting comes first, then the figures. In this respect Derain is certainly inspired by the method employed by Cézanne the master: there is plenty of painterly magic here, but you can actually see and feel all the ingredients – nothing is hidden, everything is on the table, as it were.

The idea of the object

The painting has a strange dual effect – on me, anyway. On the one hand it seems material, coarse, tactile, almost object-like, and each brushstroke can be traced in its entirely as it makes its way across the canvas. Yet at the same time the painting has an ethereal, immaterial, intangible quality to it. We do not see objects in a room, but the idea of those objects, the concept of them, or – perhaps even more accurately: we get a sense of them, a presentiment rather than a clear look at their concrete appearance. Perhaps Derain was mainly interested in showing how things emerge and become connected in our field of vision and on the canvas before they become autonomous, fully rounded objects; more so than in showing a world that is firmly fixed in place, appearing in its full, confidence-inspiring solidity.

Derain, who was a Catholic, was undoubtedly also interested in the Christian significance of the motif: the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the merger with the body and blood of Christ, communio. SMK curator Dorthe Aagesen provides a compelling account of this aspect of the painting in her article for the SMK’s major catalogue on André Derain. In this analysis she also points out that Derain is displaying an intimate way of viewing objects here; a gaze that immerses itself in the sensed appearance of things while also seeing through it. A gaze that is simultaneously physical and metaphysical. Somewhere on the horizon the French painter Yves Klein awaits, cradling his physical, yet also metaphysical blue colour.

Tying up the threads

Allow me to go on to tie up all these different threads – albeit a little hastily. We could, I believe, usefully follow Ortega Y Gasset’s train of thought and see a certain sub-realism in André Derain’s Still Life from 1913. Derain shows us an aspect of the work and of the order of things that has not previously commanded this kind of attention. The intimate aspect of this way of viewing things – which is almost in-human and certainly takes us to the very edge of human perception and experience – does not consist in the painter paying close attention and carrying out a classic academic imitation; rather, it has to do with the way in which he seeks to recreate these objects on the terms set by painting. As far as the Christian symbolism is concerned – bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ – we cannot rule out the possibility that Derain believed that we as observers were to replace pure, distant seeing with a different way of viewing: if it were up to him, the painting is not something we look at; it something we share and share in. The painting as a communal matter.

Now I have written my way into thinking that yes, André Derain’s Still Life should be included in the exhibition Intimacies. But is it possible to follow the thread of my argument, or is it too convoluted? Do you understand it? Do I understand it?

(I’d like to thank all contributors for the many inspiring comments that emerged on Facebook when I posted some of my initial thoughts on this painting – most of those comments have been incorporated into this entry)

Facts about the work

André Derain
Title Still Life
Size 61 x 70.1 cm
Oil on canvas
Webmaster Wed, 29 Apr 2015 14:15:00 +0200