The 1890s and the Merging of the Arts
Willumsen had his first encounter with modern French art on his first journey to Paris and southern Europe in 1888. Both were catalysts for a radical change in his art, which had previously been influenced by realism and naturalism. When living in Paris from 1890 to 1894, Willumsen found himself in an artistic melting pot. Artists like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon had a formative influence on the young artist.
In posterity Willumsen has been seen as one of the first real exponents of modern art in Denmark. His works from the 1890s are considered key works in Danish modernism. In this period artists experimented with form and colour in entirely new ways. There was an unprecedented degree of cross-fertilisation between painting, sculpture, arts and crafts, photography and architecture. Artists turned to ancient Egypt and Assyria, which could be studied at Musée du Louvre, as well as woodblock prints from 19th-century Japan, which were on sale at low prices in Europe. Simplification and an emphasis on surface and contour lines came to dominate the painting of symbolist art towards the turn of the century.
Willumsen Founder of a New Exhibition
Willumsen absorbed and developed the expressive forms of modern art in his city scenes, landscapes and portraits. He worked with painting, sculpture, reliefs, ceramics and architecture, as well as combinations between them. Willumsen build his own kiln, and fired his ceramic works himself. From 1897 to 1900 he held the position of artistic director at the Bing & Grøndahl porcelain factory.
In 1890 Willumsen was one of the founders of Den Frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition) in Copenhagen. He was also the architect of the wooden building that housed it, which now stands opposite Østerport Station. After the turn of the century, Willumsen became more individualistic and indefinable in style. He could never again be directly linked to any major artistic movement. Despite the vast span and scope of his lifework, Willumsen and his role in Danish art has largely been defined in terms of the influence of modern French art and his early works from the 1890s.
Transforming, Reinterpreting and Painting Over
Willumsen’s late art is especially difficult to define in terms of style. It evades the conventional categories of art history, and the chronological division of an artist’s oeuvre into specific periods. The painting The Wedding of the King’s Son was originally painted in a naturalistic style in 1888. It was poorly received and Willumsen covered one of the main figures with a star-shaped piece of black cardboard the following year. Sixty years later (in 1948-49) he resumed work on the painting. Removing a piece of the canvas, inserting a new piece in the middle and extending the painting on one side. He then repainted the bride and groom. This time as two luminous hybrid cartoon characters that radically changed the painting.
Seen in relationship to modern art, Willumsen’s transformation of The Wedding of the King’s Son can be classified as a modification. The result was a work comprised of highly disparate elements. It is not only in his own works we encounter such cut-and-paste collage techniques.
Restoring in his own style
Among the works in his Old Collection, there are several paintings Willumsen has ‘restored’ by painting sections over. This is most striking in Time and the Small Boy, where the landscape and sky have been totally destroyed. In his inventory, Willumsen writes that he had repainted these elements in his “own style.” We can easily identify the orange-pink sky and angular vegetation of Willumsen’s late works. This makes the painting a jointly authored work – a kind of handshake across the centuries between Willumsen and the original artist.
In his own works Willumsen also transformed motifs, bringing them into the present. For example, he recycled a classical pose in the painting Huntress in the Forest. The past forms a dynamic element in his art, as well as being a way for Willumsen to establish links between himself and the old masters of the past.
The Beach Painting and Photography
In the early 20th century a health and nature movement emerged in the wake of industrialisation and the changes it had wrought on society. The movement paid homage to the powerful, athletic healthy body based on the ideals of classical antiquity. Willumsen’s art was part of the visualisation of contemporary vitalism, which permeated Europe right up until World War II. Magazines, newspapers, advertisements, posters and textbooks from the period abound with images of bodies in motion. This defined and depicted the ‘natural’ body in sharp visual contrast to the ‘degeneration’ caused by industrialisation. Vitalism represented a confrontation with what was seen as the rigidity and decadence of bourgeois culture.
Willumsen and his Fascination for the Beach
The association of beaches with wind, waves and sunshine signalled transience and spontaneity. The beach therefore provided the perfect backdrop for the display of dynamic athleticism and strength. Powerful swimming strokes, diving, sprinting across the sand, brisk strolls and playfulness were staged in constructed scenes. Something also seen in the work of Edvard Munch or the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla in the early 20th century.
Beach scenes in the works of Willumsen and other artists of the same period were created in close dialogue with photography. This was the “new” medium that could capture the effects of light and movement instantaneously. With its shimmering and over-exposed depiction of play on the shore, Children Bathing on the Skaw Beach borrows elements from both impressionist painting and the techniques of photography. The small Kodak camera in particular, which had become widespread from the 1890s, made it possible to capture the very instant rays of the sun hit the skin. Thereby imprinting on film what cannot be retained by the human eye.
The Healthy, Athletic Body
In the 1930s and 1940s Europe’s Nazi and fascist regimes mixed the aesthetic cult of the healthy, athletic body with race theories and nationalism. This made vitalism politically dubious. But Willumsen’s bathing and body motifs are evidence of its origins in a broad cultural current. A current we continue to see traces of in the wellness and fitness culture of today.
The Moving Body
In 1889 Willumsen visited Museo del Prado in Madrid where he saw works by El Greco (1541-1614), the Greek icon painter who travelled to Venice and later Spain. El Greco developed a radical, expressive style of painting with figures reeling out of balance and in the throes of powerful emotions. In the late 19th and early 20th century he became a cult figure among a group of young European artists – the German expressionists. But El Greco’s influence can also be traced in the works of Nordic artists, such as Edvard Munch, Nils Dardel, Helene Schjerfbeck and J.A. Jerichau. El Greco was seen as a kind of prophet, who three centuries earlier had anticipated modern art with works characterised by their intense colours and radical perspectives.
Willumsen and El Greco
Willumsen called El Greco his “fellow crusader” and bought works by the artist (of which Adoration of the Shephards is considered genuine). He travelled in his footsteps, and wrote a two-volume work on his youth. During the 1910s, the way Willumsen had absorbed elements of El Greco’s art in his own becomes particularly apparent. He recreates the same exalted tone in his paintings of his family and the apocalyptic work Fear of Nature, a monumental painting that relates to the horrors of World War I. A subject Willumsen otherwise only dealt with directly in his graphic works.
In the 1930s the influence of El Greco was still apparent, for example in Willumsen’s dramatic Venice paintings. They show the phosphorus shine of the moon and the color explosions of fireworks on the surface of the canals. Naked Figures on the Promenade from 1933 is a reinterpretation of sorts of El Greco’s Laocoön.
In 1891 the art critic and later director of the National Gallery of Denmark, Karl Madsen, quotes a French artist describing Willumsen as having “a very singular talent, he is a caricaturist”. Art historians have speculated about whether the French artist was Paul Gauguin ever since. Willumsen got to know Gauguin when visiting him in Brittany in 1890. On this occasion he either purchased a wood sculpture, La Luxure by the French artist, or swapped it for one of his own works.
Gauguin himself was interested in caricature and made caricatures of Willumsen and his wife Juliette. Regardless of whether it was Gauguin or another artist who referred to Willumsen in this way, it rang true about an aspect of his art and labelled it for posterity.
Willumsen was Fascinated by the Peculiar
From the mid 19th century onwards the quest of classical art for beauty and harmony was increasingly challenged. In everything he did, Willumsen was fascinated by the peculiar, deviant and grotesque as a counterpoint to the sublime. As he wrote, beauty cannot be without “character”. Many of his works have an element of excess and exaggeration that links them to caricature.
These caricatured, grotesque elements were not well received during Willumsen’s lifetime. As a result, certain ‘unacceptable’ works were kept in storage or exhibited as ‘aberrations’ of poorer quality than others. Today, however, it is precisely these works that connect him to contemporary art.