Denmark’s claim to art fame goes beyond Gaugin

Fuelling the imagination. Motorists in Denmark can fill up at a national monument. Arne Jacobsen’s strikingly modernist petrol station from the 1930s. PHOTO: John Young

First published in Business Day 25 January 2019.

Country is a world leader with its take on Scandinavian design ethic.

Lovers of Paul Gauguin’s art love visiting Copenhagen, which is ironic because he lasted barely a year in the city before heading back to France. Gaugin returned once to visit his Danish wife, just before he headed off to Polynesia to make paintings the like of which the world had never seen.

To be fair to Copenhagen, the task of selling tarpaulins in the busy port city was never likely to inspire this creative spirit. Gaugin fell into that job after a stock market crash destroyed his previous career as a stockbroker back in Paris. By the time of the move to Copenhagen in 1884, Gauguin was starting to take his painting seriously, but this view was not shared by art buyers. With no takers for his colourful canvasses, he ended up selling grey canvasses. Luckily for Copenhagen, most of Gauguin’s work from that early period stayed in Denmark and can be seen today at the superb museum and art gallery in the centre of the city, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

The Glyptotek has a strong collection of Impressionists such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne and Jacques-Louis David. The presentation of Gaugin’s work is particularly interesting because it shows him following the Impressionist trend, before he found his unique view of the world. The Glyptotek’s Post-Impressionist collection includes Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Van Gogh and there is also a sampling of Gaugin’s wood carvings and pottery.

When Gaugin returned to France he found a kindred spirit in Vincent van Gogh. Together they took Impressionism a step further towards personal and symbolic meaning. A painters’ retreat ended badly when Van Gogh brandished a razor at Gaugin, which he later used to slash off part of his own ear. Gaugin left the next morning. He tried to persuade his Danish wife, Metta Gad Gaugin, to join him on his travels but failed and spent the last decade of his life on the islands of Tahiti and the Marquesas where he produced spectacularly colourful paintings in a style that came to be known as Primitivism.

That scary night with Vincent in the south of France (23 December 1888) lives on in an odd piece of pottery at the Danish Museum of Art and Design (Design Museum). ‘Jug in the form of a head, Self-portrait’ is a creepy item of stoneware in green, grey and red that experts say was inspired by Gaugin’s encounter with his razor-wielding fellow artist, his experience of seeing the public decapitation of a convicted murderer and suggestive links to the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Gauguin saw himself as a martyr to the cause of shaking up the art world.

Gaugin by Gaugin. PHOTO: John Young.

Gauguin’s timing was bad. Whereas he found Copenhagen unreceptive to his genius, the modern city positively bursts with appreciation of art and design. The Design Museum where the jug self-portrait is on show opened in 1890, five years after Gauguin stomped angrily back to France. The impressive Glyptotek opened on its current site in 1897, by which time Gaugin was two years into his final exile in the Pacific.


With its own, softer, take on the modernist Scandinavian design ethic of clean lines and rationality, modern Denmark is a world leader. Everywhere you go in the country, good design is integrated into daily life and there is great awareness of how design can be uplifting. The creative legacy of the likes of Arne Jacobsen and Poul Henningsen has ensured that chairs and lamps are both useful and beautiful.

Part of the permanent exhibition at the Design Museum. PHOTO: John Young.

The Design Museum has a permanent exhibition called The Danish Chair: An International Affair, and at the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC) you can buy a book called 1000 Chairs. A shimmering new centre for design, BLOX, is under construction on the harbour’s edge, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Architectural or design tours of Copenhagen are available in almost any form you can think of: walking, cycling, bus and canal boat. Design festivals of one sort or another seem to happen all year long, with May and June the most popular months.

Chic shops abound in downtown Copenhagen. PHOTO: John Young.

Copenhagen’s main walking street (Strøget) is one of the oldest pedestrian malls in the world and hosts a huge Lego shop, another big Danish contribution to design. George Jensen Silver, Royal Copenhagen (porcelain) and Illum Bolig are among the other tempting design-oriented shops. Some items, such as the iconic PH Artichoke lamp by Louis Poulsen, may stretch the budget a bit at R110,000.00

About 10km north of the Copenhagen city centre at Skovshoved, motorists can fill up at a Class-A national monument, Arne Jacobsen’s strikingly modernist petrol station from the 1930s. The nearby Ordrupsgaard art museum celebrates its centenary in 2018. The new wing designed by Zaha Hadid is sharply different to the original building, but the contrast improves both buildings and the whole nestles gently in the forest landscape. Ordrupsgaard’s French collection includes Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne — and Gauguin. A painting of his beloved daughter Aline, The Little One Is Dreaming, Étude, is pretty and haunting at the same time.

Next door to the gallery, and part of the complex, is Finn Juhl’s house where each detail reflects the architect-designer’s intention. Every piece of furniture is his and every wall and opening were crafted to best utilise natural light and the forest environment. Juhl also won fame as a chair designer.

A further 30km north along the coastal road is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art which is must-visit for anyone interested in art or design.  Louisiana’s sculpture park on gently sloping lawns is located right on the water separating Denmark from Sweden, Øresund (the Sound). When I visited, a huge solo exhibition by Sydney Kentridge filled most of the halls with an intriguing mix of sound and imagery but the place is worth a visit for the architecture alone.

PHOTO: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

“One of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen,” is how Phillipe Fouché, a director of SAOTA Architecture and Design, describes Louisiana. The Cape Town-based architect, who visited Denmark to study the Danish approach to Liveable Cities, was especially impressed with the gallery’s “exquisite proportions”, finesse in handling light and use of materials such as solid slabs of stone. For Fouché, Louisiana exudes tranquillity and he sees the distinct Danish character coming through in the use of light timber, the pointing and the use of clay bricks.

One of the rooms is breath-taking. With seven huge glass panels framing a wooded lake, the sparse space contains just a handful of exhibits, a perfect marriage of form and function.

A British Trip Advisor contributor, Louis D, describes Louisiana like this, “It’s a stunning, memorable, one-of-a-kind experience in a uniquely beautiful location, where the buildings and grounds become part of the art themselves.”

Louisiana has 3000 works in its permanent collection and holds between eight and 12 special exhibitions every year.

Other parts of Denmark also offer artistic and design experiences of real originality. The country’s second biggest city, Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula, has the Moesgaard Museum (MOMU). The newest part of the museum, with a sloping grass-covered roof that looks as though it’s been torn from the earth, has greatly increased interest in archaeology and ethnography all around Denmark.  

The Trapholt Museum of Modern Art at Kolding is another noteworthy exhibition space. And just 45km away is the original Legoland in Billund. The town has a population of about 6000, but it has an international airport, proof of just how important the company is to the economy. The popular architectural firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) has created a a 12,000-square meter Lego House there, using 25-million Lego bricks. Like Lego, BIG is quintessentially Danish.

Denmark has come a mighty long way since Gaugin’s unhappy visit. A visitor today will find art and design to marvel at in Copenhagen and beyond.