Bo Bjerggaard

Recollections - of Willumsen

02 Nov - 20 Dec 2012

J. F. Willumsen: Nice. June 1940 - Painted in the Most Gruesome War, 1940
Oil on canvas
121 cm x 138 cm
RECOLLECTIONS - of Willumsen
2. Novemnber - 20. Decmeber 2012

Willumsen, seen close-up from the back row

Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1863-1958) loved frames. ALL types of frames interested
him - those he himself cut, painted and shaped for his paintings and those
within which he had to live and create, as an artist and a human being. His home,
the pink house that he built in Hellerup in 1907, with no fewer than two studios,
constituted both the private and artistic framework; but the frame for exhibiting art
also preoccupied him. This resulted in Den Frie Udstillingsbygning in Oslo Plads,
just as he was committed to other museum projects throughout his life, not least
his own museum, intended to house his own collection of older art, but never
completed by him.

J. F. Willumsen was a fearless person, throwing himself constantly and eagerly into
huge new works and projects; nothing was insurmountable or too imposing. He
had no reservations or anxiety about new work areas or techniques. If Willumsen
needed a sofa, table or chair, he would design it and have it made. If he needed a
pitcher and a bowl and a plate to put on the table, he would test the potential of
ceramics to realise his vision. No medium was foreign to him: sculpture, graphics,
painting, bas-relief, photography, etc. were researched with a voracious appetite,
often with strong-willed and monumental results.

In any case, perhaps the most important aspect of these frames was that they
could be broken down, transcended and remade - and this applied to both the
concrete and more abstract frames. The frames around Willumsen's paintings took
on a very personal meaning inasmuch as in his most radical works it was difficult
to determine where the frame ended and the painting began. This question comes
particularly to the fore in his painterly masterpiece Jotunheim, where one must ask
whether it is indeed a painting one is looking at. Isn't it more of a hybrid of relief,
painting, design and perhaps even sculpture, wherein the frame's ornamentation
holds the work's multifarious pictorial elements in a tight grip?

Willumsen was not unconditionally satisfied with the studio framework he himself
had created for producing his works. I would go so far as to say that I do not think
that he was happy being there for long periods of time - in any case, not when
he was painting. Many of his paintings display a certain sense of "obligation". One
feels that there was something that just had to be done before he could get on
with something more important. This is not to suggest that he was indulging in
hack work, but one really gets the feeling that Willumsen's artistic vision at times
exceeded his ability to realise it. This is a schism that could be interpreted as anxiety
over becoming seduced by painting. It is as if the painting process itself led
him no farther than to that place he had imagined beforehand. Willumsen did not
have the calm or courage to let any uncertainty take control of the painting process.
The whole picture was in his head, ready to be noted down and painted in.This should be understood as only an artistic flaw, but as in fact Willumsen's great
knack as well.

For Willumsen painting obviously originated from other art based in his enormous
art-historical knowledge. His lifelong interest for the 400-year older El Greco (1541-
1614), one of history's most radical artists, cannot be denied. Willumsen paints on
that strong art-historical memory and does not let the concrete motif stand in the
way of his vision, nor does he allow a moment's doubt or hesitation make its mark
on the finished picture.

I often think that if one closely studies Willumsen's backgrounds (e.g., the sky in
the Bjerggaard Gallery's Venice painting), it is painted with a theatre painter's skill
- a technique that will ensure that the details are visible at a long distance. Willumsen
really paints so that one can see it all the way from the back row of the hall.
He ignores the official and traditional viewer distance of 1.2 metres; he paints large,
and not for a closed inner circle, but rather as if he imagines that thousands will turn
up in the exhibition halls to see his works. Willumsen's paintings therefore appear
witty up close and are extreme in their urge to catch and embrace the viewer's
attention. His paintings are theatrical, melodramatic, and can almost seem involuntarily
failed, when he thus is working at the same time with a quirky and brutally,
exorbitantly colouristic aspect that is difficult to recognize from other places in art
history. Even odd works by Zahrtmann, Hill, Ciurlioni, or de Chirico's "barber paintings"
can seem mainstream next to Willumsen's. With these dramatic working
methods he forces out a visual narrative that despite its rawness and monomaniacal
will can in no way be considered simple.

If one were to compare J.F. Willumsen to other artists of the same generation,
a very superficial view might suggest French painter Pierre Bonard (1867-1947).
Bonnard and Willumsen were born around the same time and lived nearly as long
as one another. Bonnard preferred to stay in southern France for its light and his
wife Marthe's chronically poor health. He lived for many years in Le Cannet, where
Willumsen also stayed at various periods. I do not know whether the two masters
ever met.

The two painters both started out in a kind of symbolism. Their earlier works are
not comparable from a purely visual standpoint, but have some common reference
points in their contents. The 1890s found them both at the crossroads of a personal
symbolism and experimentation with decorative painting. In Bonnard's case this is
characterised by his thinking of his works in an art deco tradition, where he either
painted the frames right into the pictures or made "panels", where the paintings
were mounted into the wall, thus become an integral part of the architecture. A
number of Bonnard's stove and wardrobe screens are also notable for their decorative
style, just as his book illustrations and posters from that period are permeated with art deco. Willumsen was also preoccupied with art deco for a short period,
but with time became more influenced by the English Arts and Crafts tradition from
William Morris and John Ruskin, which he further developed with the Slott-Møller
couple, painter Johan Rohde and others, marking the start of what we now know
as the Danish Skønvirke tradition.

In France, however, Bonnard subsequently left the art deco tradition and decorative
painting and for the rest of his life depicted his immediate surroundings in a
post-impressionist style. His family - wife Marthe and their Cocker Spaniel, Black -
become the focal point, along with the landscape just outside the many houses he
owned. His immediate surroundings gave him the chance to paint the shifting light
and to be intensely involved with the depiction of both indoor and outdoor spaces.
In his book on Bonnard, John Elderfield describes this as a "centrifugal" space on
the basis of Bonnard's preoccupation with ellipses.
Like Willumsen, Bonnard used his memory when he painted, so unlike the impressionists,
he never sat before his subject and worked. Bonnard believed that the
subject disturbed one's concentration. All his painting took place in a half-dark, uncomfortable
studio. (This was another of his dogmas: one should not be too comfortable
when painting.) Here he painted the light according
to a special shading and notation system that he scribbled down daily in his diary. Bonnard spent years adjusting and correcting the colours in his paintings. Françoise Gilot, Picasso's lover and muse from 1944-1953, said that Picasso could not stand Bonnard's paintings because the latter was constantly remembering something else about the weather on a given day and so correcting his paintings again and again. Picasso called
Bonnard's technique a potpourri of indecisiveness. Bonnard, who was a great fan
of Picasso, is said to have replied that it was the "logic of colour" to correct, adjust
and reinterpret almost ad infinitum.

Bonnard painted his wife 385 times in his lifetime (even several years after her death
he still painted her floating in the bathtub in that beautiful afternoon light of southern
France, and not one of the portraits is lifelike. This is a case of consequences
and monomania that can certainly be measured against Willumsen's, even if Bonnard's
loose brushwork might seem conventional compared to the former's iron
grip. Willumsen certainly painted his family as well, but always with a pronounced
self-representation; even when he himself does not appear in the picture, one notes
his presence. Willumsen's preoccupation with the family cannot be compared to
Bonnard's "obsession", but they share the artistic will and ability to nearly live and
create in artistic isolation, "away from the ordinary world".

Galleri Bo Bjerggaard has been collecting the works of J.F. Willumsen for a number
of years. The gallery's collection includes both drawings and paintings, and for
this exhibition they have selected eight of the works and asked nine of the gallery's permanent artists to respond to them. The eight Willumsen works represent various
recognised subject areas from throughout his oeuvre: three mountain motifs,
a small version of Den grønne pige [The Green Girl] preliminary work for the large
Sol og Ungdom [Sun and Youth] and a sunny motif from Plaza Fernando in Seville.
But one picture immediately stands out: Malt under den allergrusomste Krig [Painted
in the Most Gruesome War] from 1940, a motif from St. Mark's Square in Venice.
Willumsen painted in Venice during several periods, but this is the only painting I
know of from this time. He expressed his desperation over World War II in a little
note in the painting's left corner and painted St. Mark's Cathedral in an almost
ridiculing style as a cross between a failed birthday cake and a closed travelling
carnival. The domes shining in the sun look like daytime fireworks, an architectural
caricature brutally expressing not just Willumsen's inner trauma, but the entire catastrophic situation that Europe found itself in at the time of the painting's creation.
Here you can feel Willumsen's special ability to combine very different visual
expressions into a large, comprehensive and recognizable sense.

The first, immediate impression one has when seeing the painting without having
first read the note, is one of joy - perhaps even fun in the street. But a closer look
reveals a fallen monk or nun à la Walt Disney's Phantom Blot. The figure seems
almost stuck (and floating) in the middle of the empty St. Mark's Square. It is so
impossibly painted that one must hope that it is the unbearable situation Willumsen
is in that results in such a contradictory and poor image precisely reflecting the
unbearable situation in 1940.

Willumsen's 1940 shock seems to have gone directly into Dutch Marcel van Eeden's
collected works. Since 2000, van Eeden has exclusively done black and white drawings
in pencil and charcoal in a kind of film noire aesthetic with the overall
concept is that his motifs are based only on events that took place before his own birth in 1965.

In the two works Marcel van Eeden has made for Willumsen's Malt under den
allergrusomte Krig, the over-exalted carnivalising of Willumsen's Venice painting
has led to an abstract, archetypal modernistic imagery with sharp triangles. One
senses a kind of broken space; pictures are dynamic and almost aggressive in
their colouristic aspect and thus completely different from anything seen before
from Marcel Van Eeden's hand. The modernism appears here as a caricature of
Olle Bærtling, Poul Gadegård or Richard Mortensen, for example, and van Eeden
has indirectly commented on Willumsen's "caricature architecture".

Swedish Bo Christian Larsson enters into a dialogue with a mountain landscape,
a relatively late and perhaps little known Willumsen work from 1949. Nonetheless,
Larsson sees the work as consisting of hard romantic elements and symbols.It may seem as if the mountain is about to turn into water or waves, dissolving
the horizon into almost surrealistic scenery. In Larsson's dialogic work The hunter
1949 one can also notice a transformation, but in this case the mountain masses
act like a kind of animal or human body, moved into a theatre where the prompter
boxes have been turned into fire places. In the middle there is an explosion in comic
book-like style, dissolving into lines and brush strokes. Just as in Willumsen's mediawise
"simple" pencil drawing, a violent atmosphere pervades Larsson's scene,
executed in a slightly understated black/white technique that causes the explosion
to implode. What might at first seem an innocent, dry, recording landscape sketch
from Willumsen's hand in Bo Christian Larsson's vision becomes the entire unfolding
Willumsenesque theatre machinery.

Jonathan Meese and John Kørner alike have chosen two of Willumsen's preparatory
works for Sol og Ungdom. Meese, in the context of this little show, could be
the one who most calls Willumsen to mind. A devil-may-care and temperament
and an unbridled (to say the least) use of visual media and areas of interest have
been his hallmarks right from the start. Nothing seems foreign to Meese, whose
ability to turn everything to his own imagery in this context also rings Willumsenesque.
However, Meese points toward a quieter, more concentrated side of Willumsen,
namely when he sees, observes and records a small, thin boy's body very
close up. In the 1902 watercolour the boy is standing, shielding his eyes from the
strong Italian sun. He is clearly drawn, but rests slightly on his left leg and right
foot, since it probably is uncomfortable standing on the many pebbles, Willumsen
has precisely noted with a thin pencil. In the other preparatory work in oil paint
from 1904, there is a boy (the same? looks like him!) lying in an even more relentless
Italian sun. Judging from the white reflections he is slathered with oil. The body
seems isolated from its surroundings and is hovering more than lying. It certainly
underlines the idealistic body image that Willumsen needed to work with in the
large final painting.

Meese has used Willumsen's close studies to come into close contact with the
young model. In fact, he has come so close that he has gone right into the boy's
body and has split it in the middle. Out spill guts in the form of plastic items (maybe
beach toys?), photographs, hair, etc. The model seems to have been laid down,
thus representing both the standing and lying boy. The face has lost all character
traits and has grown out to a tip, with a nose made from an inverted waffle cone.
A yo-yo string is attached to the nose, and the yo-yo itself is mounted under the
boy's knee. Plaster is spread over the boy like whipped cream on a cake (there
it is again), and the figure balances between contemptuous ridicule and innocent
play: a lovely day at the beach with ice cream cones, toys and a torn boy's body.

Per Bak Jensen has also gone close up in his response to Willumsen's Den grønne
pige [The Green Girl]. In fact, he has gone even farther than Meese, since Jensen has, so to speak, taken up residence in the girl's head and sees her dreams. It is as
if he has put on Willumsen's painting like a pair of glasses, looking out at the world
through Willumsen's perspective. One wonders whether it is a matter of defective
vision that can only perceive the green colours one sees in Jensen's photography
(perhaps a salute to Willumsen's idol, El Greco, who is said to have had serious
visual impairment). Jensen's picture swings on several different planes. In one sense,
he swings his coloristic green chord in a less exotic, therefore more authentic,
way than Willumsen and in another the picture literally swings in its hand-held horror
film expression. Despite the modern, digital photo tracks that mimic and repeat
Willumsen's Mondrianesque reflections in the water, all of Jensen's motif operates
with a natural primal force that effortlessly enters into dialogue with Willumsen's
lying green model.

Erik Steffensen and Ivan Andersen have honed in on one of Willumsen's many
mountain studies. The mountain motif was the subject Willumsen was most
occupied with throughout his life, and his small oil pastel from 1914 was probably
drawn in Mürzen. One sees the mist over the farthest mountain on the horizon
come billowing over the ridge - a motif that certainly appealed to Willumsen's love
of drama. The colours might seem somewhat heavy: more sticky, Danish and greyweatherish than German, landscape violence. Steffensen anti-reflects Willumsen's
misty, grey weather mountain scenery in a crystal clear, azure version of quite
another mountain, Kilimanjaro. Where Willumsen's pastel is nearly monochromatic
in its greyness, Steffensen's photography is monochromatic in its azureness. The
pictures are nearly identical in composition; Steffensen's wide-screen format creates
the same feeling of the clouds' slow but sure seizure of the peak. The hard,
unyielding mountain is enveloped by the white vapour, and we can sense that as
viewers we ourselves can be shrouded in the cloud and thus lose the magnificent
view of the mountain. Steffensen, like Willumsen, is working on giant, art historical
memory and in his reflection of the Willumsen mountain he opens onto several
openings - aesthetic as well as formal - for revisiting Willumsen with new eyes.

In addition to the above-named artists, Daniel Richter (DE) and Federico Herrero
(CR) have also created new works that will be in dialogue with Willumsen's eight
works from Galleri Bo Bjerggaard's collection.

Jesper Christiansen, artist

Tags: Ivan Andersen, Marcel van Eeden, Federico Herrero, Per Bak Jensen, John Kørner, Bo Christian Larsson, Jonathan Meese, Pablo Picasso, Daniel Richter, Erik Steffensen