Anarchy & order in Copenhagen

June 17, 2011
Thorvaldsen's Hercules. Sculpture that carries a big stick.
Thorvaldsen's Hercules. Sculpture that carries a big stick.

Coming back to Copenhagen from Humlebaek, where we had been to see the Louisiana Museum, we got talking to a man named Emil Bier, who said he was an inventor, and was almost certainly an anarchist. The next day in a side street in Copenhagen, we ran into Emil Bier again. If you look him up, it seems he is a “systemskritik”. Sounds good to me.

At the train station, my wife thought she saw En Young Ahn in the distance. The next day, at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, we ran straight into En Young, who has taken time away from Canberra (and Korea) for a whirlwind world tour. She was even whirling through the Glyptotek, taking in the Etruscans and ancient Greeks in seconds.

Was Copenhagen always like this? When Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen wandered the streets of a much smaller city they must have run into people all the time. In the former’s case, he most probably met a lot people he would have preferred to avoid. No wonder the Danish artists of the Golden Age were always painting each other in groups, they probably couldn’t walk into a tavern without meeting up.

Emil Bier told us we must not visit the Thorvaldsen Museum, which was “just shit”. Naturally, the next day we hastened to the Thorvaldsen. I can understand why a systemskritik would loathe these huge, bombastic marble sculptures. They are the very embodiment of order, and – in the twentieth century – the style became the favourite art form of fascists and dictators. Nevertheless, as Susan Sontag has noted, fascism can be fascinating, even 150 years before it was invented. Not so fascinating if one lives under such a system.

Thorvaldsen comes across as the kind of übermensch that we rarely find among artists today, when there are lots of pretentious egomaniacs but few genuine maestros. To see all of his massive marble sculptures, many still caked in grime from a previous life spent outdoors, is to feel a sense of bathos. Instead of representing high ideals, they now look like overblown ornaments.

Giacometti’s emaciated figures are Modernism’s response to the heroic marbles of the Neo-Classical period. Nowadays we have travelled so far from the ideal that the Australian pavilion in Venice is full of piss-takes on Giacometti, by Hany Armanious. Does Giacometti really need satirising? There’s such a tragic element in his work that anyone sending it up looks desperately superficial. Thorvaldsen was a giant in his own day, but has been condemned to aesthetic failure by history. To embrace failure at the outset, as if it were a luminous feat of intellect, can hardly be called an achievement.

I was actually in Denmark for Sculpture by the Sea in Aarhus, which I haven’t got around to mentioning yet. Next time, I swear.