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0039 Anne Gregersen, Challenging the Precepts of Modernism: The Late Work of J.F. Willumsen

RIHA Journal 0039 | 11 May 2012

Challenging the Precepts of Modernism: The Late Work of J. F. Willumsen

Anne Gregersen

Editing and peer review managed by:

Mikael Bøgh Rasmussen, The Danish National Art Library, Copenhagen


Eva Badura-Triska, Anneli Fuchs


The late work of the Danish artist J. F. Willumsen (1863-1958) has until recently largely been marginalized and deemed kitsch, of poor quality and "odd". As opposed to the canonization of his earlier work, the period 1930-1958 has been difficult to "digest" and increasingly written off in Danish art history. This article takes a closer look at the late work, the reception of it by Willumsen's contemporaries and the artist's own claims about it. Furthermore, the article proposes to relate the status of the work to its resistance to notions that have become the precepts of modernism such as progression, irreversibility and defined "isms". The challenging of these notions is also found in the phenomenon of "Bad Painting" that has been presented and genealogized mainly through a number of exhibitions the last years. The article suggests to associate the work to this phenomenon.


A revaluation of J. F. Willumsen's late "odd" works

  1. Not only have the late works of J. F. Willumsen (1863-1958) occupied an isolated position in his oeuvre. They have also been difficult to place in an art-historical narrative of 20th-century art in which "isms" progressively replace each other. This is quite understandable in view of their mould-breaking character: Willumsen's works from the 1930s and onwards depart from a host of modernist dogmas that were established around the time of their genesis and the immediate impression might be that the works are the antithesis of modernism. By virtue of their insistence on the figurative, the late works break with the understanding of the non-figurative as the modernist art par excellence. With their mixture of styles, they question the division of art in well-defined categories.1 Relating in part to a classical tradition, and in part being reminiscent of the style seen in commercials and magazine illustrations of that time they destabilise the distinction between fine art and popular culture.

  2. Overall Willumsen's late works consist of a series of paintings that in a figurative idiom stage and mythologise the artist and his surroundings. Typical of these works, which in recent years have been referred to as "odd" paintings by the J. F. Willumsen Museum, are a number of stylistic features such as skewed proportions, deformed presentations and garish "poster colours". The motifs are autobiographical and anecdotal stories, often played out between two figures, or they might be portraits containing equal parts of the banal and the grotesque. In addition, it is a point that the reception of these works proclaims them to be "odd". Artists, art critics, collectors, museum officials and the public have all contributed to forming the view of these works. And their reception suggests that something quite special is at play here: Not only have they been rejected as works of poor quality, but they have divided opinion and been viewed as disturbed, exaggerated, self-ironical and extreme – and for these reasons either embarrassing or interesting depending on the eyes of the beholder.

  3. In the catalogue accompanying a J. F. Willumsen exhibition in 1959, Sigurd Schultz, then the director of the Willumsen Museum, writes that it would not be a real Willumsen exhibition if it did not include "a problem, an edge on which to knock yourself". Schultz emphasizes that it is the late works that create opposition, and concludes that the exhibition makes you wonder whether the late period has been correctly evaluated:

Were there not even in his latest works values that have not yet been appreciated? It may well be that the future will value his work from that time, or at least parts of it, differently from what we do now.2

  1. Schultz was far-sighted: 50 years later, a major step was taken towards a new evaluation of Willumsen's late, so-called "odd" works. This happened in connection with the exhibition Et værk uden grænser. J. F. Willumsens maleri "Kongesønnens bryllup". 1888 and 1949 (A Work without Limits. J. F. Willumsen's Painting "The Wedding of the King's Son". 1888 and 1849),3 which for the first time included the works that have otherwise been called odd, skewed and unsuccessful on an equal footing with the remainder of Willumsen's oeuvre. The genesis of the actual exhibition project also resulted in a fresh look at the painting The Wedding of the King's Son (fig. 1), which over a space of 60 years was twice rejected during Willumsen's lifetime. Firstly, in 1888, by the art critic and later director of the National Gallery of Denmark, Karl Madsen, and again in 1949, after Willumsen had modified it extensively. This time actually by the supporters of Willumsen, who thought it would damage the plans of making a museum for the artist to exhibit the work. Subsequently the monumental painting lived in retirement in storerooms, far removed from the canonising spotlight of the exhibition walls.

1 J. F. Willumsen, The Wedding of the King's Son, 1888 and 1949, oil on canvas, 162 x 370 cm. The J. F. Willumsen Museum, Frederikssund, inv. nr. 265 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011)

  1. In extension of the exhibition project relating to The Wedding of the King's Son, the J. F. Willumsen Museum has initiated a new reading of the late works with the object of examining whether they contain values that Willumsen's contemporaries failed to see or which we can only see today with the art of the last 60-70 years in mind. In addition, the new reading seeks an understanding of why these works have consistently been overlooked. The starting point of this has been the museum's archives, which contain letters, magazine and newspaper articles as well as Willumsen's notes and which constitute a rich source of understanding of Willumsen's own view of art and his artistic intentions and of the reception accorded to the late works. This archive research has provided a deeper insight into how the works can be related to the remainder of Willumsen's oeuvre and to the narratives that have aimed to define the art of the 20th century.

  2. The new reading is indebted to earlier initiatives incorporating the "odd" works in various ways. A group of artists known as Arme og ben (Arms and Legs)4 in 1978 extracted from the storerooms in the J. F. Willumsen Museum several of the works that have been seen as skewed, overwrought and of bad quality and exhibited them along with the group's own works in the museum.5 The exhibition Enten-Eller (Either-Or) at Sophienholm 1980-81 focused on parody and irony in Willumsen's trilogy from the 1930s, Titian Dying.6 In 1992, Kunstforeningen in Copenhagen mounted the exhibition J. F. Willumsen – den sene periode (J. F. Willumsen – The Late Period),7 showing many of the "odd" works, and incidentally being the only exhibition in recent times to have been dedicated to the late works, although the works exhibited there were latest from 1943.8 With her book J. F. Willumsen i Europa,9 the art historian Ulla Hjorth made an important contribution in 2006 to research in Willumsen's late works. In this book, she inserts Willumsen in an international context revealing connections between works by artists like Giorgio de Chirico and André Derain and late works of Willumsen that have otherwise been difficult to relate to the art movements of his time. Using the concepts "eclectic expressionism" and "the other modern", Willumsen's works from after 1900 are seen in relation to the classicising styles of the period. In addition, the book presents both the discussions around the establishment of a Willumsen museum and the reception of Willumsen in Denmark in the 1930s to 1950s. Hjorth, however, only discusses a small number of works from the 1940s and onwards, and these are not related to movements, theories and phenomena that were current at that time. So there is still no thorough elucidation of the late works and no explanation as to why they at large were excluded from exhibitions and literature on Willumsen.

  3. As regards both form and content, a new reading puts the late paintings of Willumsen into perspective as works of art that are part of an art-historical narrative, but also sheds light on the way specific paradigms create and establish the artistic styles that ultimately become part of a canon. The new reading is thus of interest for an understanding of Willumsen's art, but also – in a much broader perspective – of the processes and mechanisms that determine how artistic quality and relevance are defined. That is to say – ultimately – how an artist's place is established in the history of art and how cultural inheritance is created.10

  4. In keeping with recent years' revision of the overarching notion, which encompasses the 20th century's artistic "isms", that is to say modernism, the new reading sets off from – and seeks to contribute to – an expanded understanding of what modern art is. In contrast to a traditional view of the history of style, which is based on progression, irreversibility and defined categories, the idea is to place Willumsen's artistic production in a wider context, where the phenomena of popular culture, 16th century Mannerism and the concept of Bad Painting all play a part in the interpretation of the late works. This approach entails a challenge to the mainstream narrative of modernism, which especially has canonised the avant-garde movements and abstract expressionism, and seeks to establish the late works as an interesting and relevant part of 20th century art. Several exhibition projects in recent years have helped to open the way to an interest in and new interpretation of art that has otherwise been written off or marginalised. Mention must especially be made of two exhibitions: Cher Peintre, which among other places could be seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2002). The exhibition showed a type of figurative painting from the period since the Second World War, the artistic value and relevance of which has been and remains the subject of debate.11 In addition, the exhibition Bad Painting/good art in the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK) in Vienna, which sought to provide a historical account of the Bad Painting phenomenon relating it to a certain strategy of painting, is an important point of reference for the reinterpretation of Willumsen's works from the 1930s and onwards.12 Common to the exhibitions is their questioning of figurative painting as being either traditional, nostalgic kitsch seeking to conserve values or an ironical, iconoclastic and meta-reflective game. The Cher Peintre exhibition's explicit aim was to ask the question whether figurative painting can at one and the same time be provocative and genuine, critical and sentimental.13


Framing the late works

  1. If, in terms of form and content, one tries to define the late works of Willumsen, one easily ends up categorising them as yet another period or style, which is not the purpose of the new reading. Neither is it limited to discovering Willumsen's sources of inspiration or his "true" intentions. The aim is to put into context or "frame" a number of works that have been regarded as isolated, indefinable "curiosities". Thereby it becomes clear that the "odd" quality to some extent is to be found in Willumsen's art as far back as the 1890s and that it existed in the elder art that he was so interested in and collected as well as in the visual culture of his time. Irrespective of what Willumsen was either directly or indirectly influenced by, the late works form part of a larger cultural context by which they are in part determined, but which they also help to form. By relating Willumsen's late works to other cultural trends and expressions, they are opened to interpretation and their relevance to contemporary viewers is increased.

  2. In general, it can be said that the late "odd" works contain a number of features, some of which can also be found in Willumsen's earlier works, but which are condensed especially in the works from c. 1930 until his death in 1958. There is a high-use of effects – whether in terms of colour, form or content – which grated on Willumsen's contemporaries and after his death contributed to isolating them from Willumsen's other works. The works seem open for a literal interpretation, which differs from the symbolical content of earlier periods. Willumsen cultivates this literalness and for example remains silent on the question of possible interpretations of the content of the 1930s monumental trilogy Titian Dying in which Willumsens stages his own death and resurrection.

  3. An intensification of the use of specific effects and a change of expression and to some extent motif can thus be detected in the late works, but they do not constitute a breach, a sudden change of style or a clearly defined category. This is an important premise for the re-interpretation of these works. Some strategies can be traced right back to the 1890s and must be seen as an integral part of Willumsen's artistic method. There are thus similarities in the way in which under symbolist influence Willumsen simplifies the pictorial elements in the 1890s and in the late works. The juxtaposition of two interacting figures in motion in an undefined space is for instance the motif in both Two Breton Women Parting after a Chat from 1890 (fig. 2) and My Father and My Mother Meet for the First Time in Front of Christiansborg Palace from 1947 (fig. 3). In addition, the two paintings have numerous formal similarities: the simplification of the figures, the soft curves, plainly delimited areas of colour, clear contours and colour contrasts in a composition based in diverging lines. All these elements must be considered recurrent features in Willumsen's art, and not as characteristics limited to a specific period. The strong pictorial simplification is also found as far back as in the 1890s, for example in the etching Fertility from 1891 – a representation of the artist's pregnant wife, Juliette, which created a large scandal, when it was exhibited in The Free Exhibition, the year of its making.

2 J. F. Willumsen, Two Breton Women Parting after a Chat, 1890, oil and tempera on canvas, 100,4 x 93,2 cm. KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, Aalborg, inv. nr. NK 811 (photograph © KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg) (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011)