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Art in Denmark

Photograph: Skagens Museum

Text: Dominic J Stevensen

Art spins the world on its axis and sends us to a place where our senses zing and we can feel differently. We can tap into emotions unexpectedly. A small minority of people present the world to the layperson in uncertain, vivid, and challenging terms. They provide a window to escapism. Art captures life in endless, soulful and otherworldly ways, as nothing else can.

I know of the Scandinavians behind Moomins, A-ha, Ane Brun, Erling Kagge, and Edvard Munch, but what about the most famous creative Danes?

Not only are there galleries, museums, and music venues in the capital, Copenhagen but other cities and even smaller towns of Denmark herald celebrations of creativity, if, unsurprisingly, not on the same scale. In fact, I am frequently surprised at stumbling across little pockets that both spill with and invite creativity (I recently discovered a Danish artist’s work in a little pancake eatery near Blåvand). Denmark can be an open-minded place at times. Things feel possible here that did not elsewhere. I can sense the art inside myself tingling, jostling to emerge, flourishing because this land inspires it.

Which brings me to Skagen. A place I have yet to visit in body, if not in mind. Of the famed Skagen painters, the name P. S. Krøyer appears prevalent in the movement, with one stunning beach-related painting often chosen as a highlight – and other gems a little less visible – waiting to be unearthed. Thomas Kluge’s name kept appearing, too. He is currently the most well-known portrait painter in Denmark and specialises in works depicting the Danish royal family.

Denmark is widely known for its Viking heritage and culture. It has obviously informed a great deal of art, dating back to over a thousand years ago, from Viking/Norse art (in its six distinguishing styles and with its key functionality and symbolism – Norse knotwork patterns) itself – including a wide range of jewellery, cups, stones, decorative furnishings, and a plethora of materials beyond its prevalent wood – to all things modern. The National Museum of Denmark contains much about Vikings (known as magnificent shipbuilders and sailors), but you cannot go far without encountering something Viking-related in Danish culture.

Hans Christian Andersen is the ultimate famous creative Dane (How have I got this far without mentioning that wily old legend?). His storytelling is globally recognised, his tales dark, tragic, yet undeniably enthralling. A global master of the macabre, his stories are visceral art. There is a refusal to bow to the ‘happily ever after’ element in his children’s stories. Some might keep their kids from the ugly reality of his stories, but that would be to resist their beauty and almost endless charm.

World-famous Danish design and architecture also infuse daily Danish life, the hyggeligt buildings and the way they have lights strung up and installed both indoors and outside, a sharp, architectural, and absorbingly unique take on what everyone else is doing in – some might say – inferior style. There is no denying the Danish approach to design; architecture is dripping with the artistic. Immediately springing to mind are sharp, modern edifices in Vejle, Aarhus, and Copenhagen, of course, and quirky, unexpected stabs of creativity, trolls, giant men, and much more, can be found just about anywhere, not to mention something as simple a chair. In the hands of a Dane, it becomes so much more.

Obviously, art is more than just painters and the motionless visual element. Beyond that, Tove Ditlevsen, Agnes Obel, Iceage, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and numerous brilliant actors stand out from my past forays into meaningful and spellbinding Danish creative magic.

Art, for me, has always been more than paintings, sculptures, and drawings, and that which is mostly found in museums and galleries. It’s the sonic, the literary, the cinematic, the comedic, the theatrical, and the architectural. It is much more beyond those, too. It is an inherent part of daily Danish life, embedded in its culture, appearing when least expected. What a wonder to consider living in a place in which the sky really does appear to be the limit. Art appeared to leak out of the most hidden little corners, suggesting unpredictability was one of the broad subject matter’s chief criteria.

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