Lively children bathing in the sea and female mountaineers, Venetian facades flooded in sun-yellow light, theatrical women and striking self-portraits as both superhero and antihero. Over a period of seven decades, the Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1863-1958) created works that refused to be categorized. They repeatedly aroused scandal and shook the Danish public. Deviation from the ordinary mainstream was Willumsen’s driving force, and the image boom in popular culture at the time was a powerful inspiration.
Testing the boundaries through social criticism, extreme explosions of colour and film-like visual narratives were bearing elements throughout his oeuvre. Willumsen’s flair for self-dramatization and his use of mediated images ring familiar bells today as we consume and share mass quantities of images on a wealth of social media platforms. The contemporaneity and relevance of Willumsen as one of the pioneers behind the modern breakthrough in Danish art calls for thorough illumination. In collaboration with J.F. Willumsens Museum, ARKEN unfolds the artist’s radical oeuvre in an exhibition that features all the major works from the museum’s unique collection.
In pop culture’s flood of images
In the summer of 1900 Willumsen travelled to New York. He was thunderstruck and seduced by the pulse of the city, the sticky summer heat, the towering skyscrapers and the blazon of shrill billboards in the streets. In New York Willumsen began scissoring and pasting illustrations from newspapers and magazines into scrapbooks. With a voracious appetite for visual images, he encountered the sensory bombardment of mass-media images, that had been smouldering since the middle of the 1800s.
The volume of printed newspapers and magazines kept growing, and modern photography developed. People experienced a boom in illustrations, photographs and advertising. Like the digital noticeboard Pinterest, Willumsen’s scrapbooks of cuttings take you on a voyage of discovery through his personal inspiration and image bank. Willumsen set up his cuttings in dynamic sequences so that motion and narrative flicker across the pages of the folders. Inspiration from film’s moving pictures recurs in Willumsen’s works, which burst through the surface like frames in a strip of film.
The easily accessible style of the new mass media inspired Willumsen. Even the newspaper comic strips The Katzenjammer Kids and The Yellow Kid found their way into the scrapbooks. Willumsen’s unique way of combining classic and popular culture motifs was ahead of its time. He experimented at an early stage with simple lines, caricatured form and loud colours. ARKEN’s exhibition turns the spotlight on Willumsen’s connections with the popular culture of comic strips, film posters and film clips from the media landscape of his time.
The dope fiend at the limits of ‘good taste’
When the Musée D’Orsay in Paris showed a major retrospective exhibition of Willumsen in 2006, one picture had to be omitted. The monumental The Prince’s Wedding was considered inferior by the director at the time. The painting shows an exalted bridal couple facing a group of wretched poor people who are invited to the wedding feast. All the figures were depicted with harsh realism when the work first saw the light of day in 1888. In 1949, however, Willumsen edited and developed the work.
The change was spectacular: suddenly the prince and his bride were lit up in garish colours – as if cut from a Disney film. The contrast with the ragged wedding guests is enormous. The prince has the facial features of the young Willumsen and looks like a comic strip hero in gaudy pink and bright green.
Until a few years ago, the work had been ignored in Danish art history. It features by and large everything in Willumsen’s art that has over the years been all too much for reviewers, art historians and French museum directors: the caricatured line of the comic strip, kitschy colour combinations and theatrical staging.
At ARKEN’s exhibition The Prince’s Wedding is a major work. It demonstrates the extreme polarities in Willumsen’s transgressive life’s work. The kitschy and the caricatured give the late Willumsen paintings nerve and topicality. In his at times peculiar self-portraits, he is both the eccentric on the stage and the hyper-self-aware stage director with supreme ability to balance pathos and parody. So accomplished and so bizarre that it is impossible to dismiss them as cliché: old Willumsen, hovering in space as a supple tiger, is indeed – as the title of the painting from 1938 indicates – a heavenly riddle.