J.F. Willumsen – the artist

J.F. Willumsen was one of the most versatile artists in Denmark. Throughout his long life he was passionately occupied by artistic questions. He expressed himself in all the media of the visual arts that were available to him, and he continually made new demands of his work.

A considerable part of his life was spent outside Denmark. At home he felt stigmatised and abroad that he did not receive the recognition he deserved. The truth was, however, that J.F. Willumsen was an artist who attracted much attention. For many years his works at The Free Exhibition were awaited with excitement, people were almost disappointed if the effect was not sufficiently surprising and challenging.

The film is produced by the National Gallery of Danmark in collaboration with The J.F. Willumsen Museum. Read more about J.F. Willumsen på Art Stories – online, The National Gallery of Denmark’s online universe of stories of art.

The first time Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1863-1958) really caused a stir in Denmark was in 1891, the year he sent the etching Fertility from Paris to an exhibition in Copenhagen. Willumsen’s simple, symbolic portrayal of his pregnant wife and his proclamation of ‘new art’ outraged the Danish art audience, who nevertheless stood in line to see the scandalous work. Willumsen has divided opinion with his visually brash, often flamboyant, and at times extreme figurative art ever since.

Willumsen breathed new life into the art of painting. He drew on tradition, but was also in dialogue with the popular culture of his own age. Quick strokes, caricatures, and loud colours were recurrent elements in many of his works as a painter. As a sculptor his works were monumental, the most famous being The Great Relief, now in the main gallery of the museum but originally intended for a bar in Chicago. Willumsen designed several buildings, including his own home in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen. In the 1930s he also designed a museum for his art and collection. The museum did not open until 1957, in the town of Frederikssund where his grandfather was born.

Willumsen was active as an artist for over 70 years. He experienced two world wars, radical technological transformations, the break with identifiable motifs in avant-garde art, and the birth of modern, abstract painting. He travelled to the US, North Africa, and numerous European countries, and lived in the South of France from 1916 until his death in 1958.

Willumsen lived with three different women during his lifetime, all of them active in the arts. The sculptor Edith Wessel, who Willumsen married in 1903 and never officially divorced, played a major role in his life and art, as did the French dancer Michelle Bourret, who he lived with later in life.

Comprehensive Art Collection

Willumsen tolerated perpetual shifts in perceptions of his work, and was prepared to wait for posterity to judge him as the great artist he saw himself to be. He collected paintin. gs he attributed to Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and Cézanne, and had no doubt that he was the latest in a long line of great artists who had gone beyond the limits of the possible during their own lifetime. The museum houses Willumsen’s Old Collection of genuine and counterfeit works, which is key to understanding his artistic world and vision.

Ahead of his Time

Today many of Willumsen’s major works stand as significant contributions to Nordic modernism, but equally many were previously dismissed and have only recently been reclaimed by art history. Throughout his life Willumsen was determined to go his own way, but he withdrew more and more from the public eye as reviewers and other art professionals became increasingly choleric in their descriptions of his late works: “Demonstratively vicious, corrosive in colour and in every way extreme, the dotard’s images eat away at the eyes,” as one reviewer wrote in 1947, ten years before his museum opened in Frederikssund in the midst of considerable controversy.

Some of Willumsen’s most radical and explosively colourful works were made towards its end. This late period has, until recently, been largely underestimated, fulfilling Willumsen’s prophecy that his art would only be understood by posterity.

J.F. Willumsen died in 1958 in Cannes. He is buried in the museum park together with his second wife, Edith.

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