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  1. When you gonna spill the beans about this Willumsen’s Prototype business? I’ve been waiting!

  2. Oh, sorry, I didn’t have any information about his sources — I was looking for somebody who did.

    Did you see the update, with the short explanatory text by the curator of the above-mentioned Danish exhibition, in the original post?

  3. Well, then, when’s the curator going to spill the beans?

    Actually I’ve been having a good time thinking about the picture without further direct information about what the curator is going for. That way, I have to force myself to run through what I already know and re-sort it all based on my response to this painting. Trying to puzzle out the artist’s reason for the crazy contrast in styles is very thought provoking!

    I did see the explanation by the curator. I hadn’t heard of Willumsen before this post but now I’ve been to his museum’s website and here and there read what I could. Very interesting artist. He’s like a tour of the most transformative period in early modernism. He’s like a chance to see it all again.

    The painting “Picture of Life on the Quays of Paris” seems like another candidate for a prototype. Top to bottom traditional oil painting becomes poster graphics. It reminds me of the Impressionist’s response to photographs.

    We’re much more familiar with looking at photographs for their formal qualities now but back then I imagine it drew from the artist a real transformative poetic experience. That experience I think is expressed here in his effort to “picture life on the Quays” a life in vivid contrast to the staid buildings in the background.

    Also, I found one other candidate for a prototype but I guess it would be a prototype of the transition from, I don’t know, Rodin to Chagall. It requires a little explanation:

    At the museum’s web site there’s a small image of a major work called “THE GREAT RELIEF” but the link to the larger image is broken. I couldn’t find another image of it until I searched under the curator’s name and found a pdf about programs for kids at the museum.


    On page three of that document you can see just a hint of the great relief peaking out from behind a more recent addition. The covering of an older style with a newer remarkably contrasting one reminded me just a little bit of “the prince’s wedding.” Looks like it was a fun event!


  4. Oh yeah, The Great Relief. It’s a pretty crazy work, extravagant and not a little heavy. Willumsen had plans for it for most of his life, having gotten the idea when he visited the Chicago World Fair in 1893, but he only set to work on it much later, in 1923, when he had funding guaranteed from the Danish state. It morphed from a humorous and inventive art deco piece for — he imagined — a bar in Chicago into a grand statement of life, the universe and everything. It was finished in 1928. There’s a decent image of it here.

    The event to which you refer is of course a recent one and the art in front isn’t by Willumsen, but yeah, the general idea of a palimpsest is parallel.

    I was discussing this with a friend who proposed early technicolor movies as a possible inspiration for the reworking. Disney’s Pinocchio, which opened in Denmark inn 1947, and especially the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood. I think this makes sense, as does the illustrators that inspired/worked for Disney, such as Theodor Kittelsen and Gustaf Tenggren and the tradition in Scandinavian illustration that they represented, a tradition that goes back to such figures as Lorenz Frølich. As for comics, I’m less sure. One could imagine Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, as does the curator, but I don’t know. Willumsen would have been into them, I guess, and he would have made an interesting cartoonist, but I don’t think comics imagery played a major role here.

  5. Thanks for the Great Relief.

    I appreciate your and your friend’s thoughts on the possible inspiration for the reworking. The films you mention do seem a more major influence here than the comics suggested.

    I’d be interested to know if the artist left any writing on the subject.

    I’m still wondering if his rework is entirely straight-forward. I think the disjuncture between the painting’s two styles begs the viewer to contrast them not only visually but thematically as well. And not just in terms of influences, but in terms of the artist’s attitude toward each style. There are obvious interpretations about class available. Just consider the difference if he had “Disneyized” the figures on the right rather than the figures on the left.

    I’d love to know what the initial criticism he suffered was, to have caused such a violent reaction in him: Cutting and covering the picture yet hanging on to it for so long. I’d love to see if his choices in his (much) later resolution of the picture were still a clear response to the initial criticism.

    I’d also like to know if there’s any visual record of what’s under the star shaped covering. To be able to see what transformed into the final figures might be illuminating.

    As I said, I’m mostly ignorant of the tradition of Scandinavian art and illustration, so I’ve only thought of Tenngren as “Rackham influenced.” In the context of the Scandinavian tradition and in connection to stylistic transformations I’d be very interested to hear your view of Tenggren’s transformation into the artist behind the Poky Little Puppy and the Tawny Scrawny Lion.

    I know many people regard his post-Disney work with contempt, but I think the Tawny Scrawny Lion is a marvel. His illustrations make it a perfect picture book, it’s visual style is perfectly modulated to fit the various things the book has to express. He exploits the style’s simplicity to shift reader’s attitudes to the animals in the story.

    The lion itself is a masterful character study and a study in “less is more.” The rabbit is a Disney rabbit but modulated to fit the flatness of the book’s overall visual design. The story is about what the lion will eat: the animals we are supposed to not want the lion to eat are not only clothed (humanized) but are rendered more fully, more in the round. Fish on the other hand, which are supposed to be okay for him to eat, are Paul Klee fish in their abstraction. Tenngren manages to make all these shifts hang together stylistically. No simple feat.

  6. Oh, in some ways I actually prefer Tenggren’s Disney and post-Disney work to his earlier stuff, which I find a little heavy. But granted, I’m not a specialist and have only seen bits and pieces here and there. My impression is that he very much belongs to a Scandinavian tradition, despite the obvious Rackham influence.

    There a pretty interesting history of Scandinavian fantasy and mythological illustration into which I think he fits quite well. One of its grandfathers is the aforementioned Frølich, a superb draughtsman who spent much of his life in Paris and was a huge name in France because of a number of slightly sappy, but insanely popular children’s books. His illustrations of the Norse myths, however, are canon. Great stuff. He was a good friend of Degas’ and Manet’s as well, believe it or not, so he was very much up on what was going on at the time. Anyway, I see his masterly control of contour in Willumsen’s characters in “The Prince’s Wedding”.

    I agree with your thoughts on the painting, but unfortunately don’t know hardly anything about it. The curator told me that she hadn’t seen any images of what it looked like originally, which might well mean that such images don’t exist. As for the initial reception and Willumsen’s thoughts about it, I’m awaiting the catalogue of the exhibition in the mail and will post a little more on it once I’ve read it.

  7. As (one of) the curators I can try to “spill the beans” but the painting is an enigma, which is also why a there’s been made a whole exhibition and a catalogue with articles by ten different art historians about it. So there’s a lot to say, but basically Willumsen creates the monumental and allegorical painting in 1888, sends it to Charlottenborg, the official exhibition place of the academy, who refuses it. In 1889 it’s exhibited in a small art dealer’s exhibition place in Copenhagen and one of the leading critics of the time writes a critique saying 1) it’s a scandal that Charlottenborg refused it, since it’s praiseworthy that a young artist takes on such an ambitious subject 2) Willumsen has not succeeded in depicting the prince, he looks like a meticulous merchant’s son (a humiliating description of him which I can’t quite translate is used, but the essence is that he looks stuck-up – according to the biblical parable which is the starting point of the story, the prince should welcome the poor). Most likely this critique is the direct cause for Willumsen covering the painting. Recently the painting was thoroughly investigated by conservators to see if any layers can be seen under the overpaintings, but none can be seen which may mean that W scratched out the figures, which he also said he did to a newspaper in 1948-49 (one can never be quite sure W says the truth though). I still have not completely given up hope of finding photographs of the painting before the cover-up, there exists photos from the art dealer’s place from 1888, there ought to be from 1889 also. But yet we haven’t been able to find any. In 1948 W decides to “re-finish” the painting, cuts out a middle part, prolongs it etc. as I already explained. The reasons for this could be many, but my own idea is that he’s thinking very much of his posthumous reputation : since the 1930’s he is actively working on the creation of a museum for his own art + collection of other’s art, and in a number of cases he for sure has this in mind (i.e. a project to make a sculpture of himself for the park outside this museum). Finishing the painting puts the ring in hook and is a chef-d’oeuvre for the museum.

    I wish I could send you the catalogue, but it’s all in Danish, so it would probably not be of much use. There unfortunately exists very little literature about W in English, but there’s a big catalogue in French and if you’re interested I’ll let you know what exists in English.

    It’s interesting that you mention the Great Relief : besides the references to what must be sculptures by the artist Kaspar Bonnén there is also a clash of styles in the relief and this is the case in many of his works.

    The 1948-49 part of “Kongesønnens bryllup” must be seen in relation to what W makes of other art works in the 40’s : I can send you some images if you’d like. We have no record that W went to the movies, read cartoons etc, so whatever inspiration he received must have come through general trends at the time (also note that he lived in south of France from 1916 until his death in 1958, and only visited Copenhagen once in a while). So the references to batman/superman etc. are unsure. An important aspect is however the interest W showed in strong, heroic male characters throughout his career + the lack of figuration in the avantgarde movements of the time. The popular culture could have served as the one place where a renewal of the depiction of the human body took place.

    There’s much more to say, but hopefully this answers some of your questions.

  8. Thanks for spilling the beans, Anne! What you wrote was a pleasure to read. Thank you, first, for filling me in about the nature of the criticism he suffered. And to have no photos (yet) of the original! It really is an enigma.

    I am very sorry I don’t read Danish! Just to see an entire catalog with ten essays entirely dedicated to this one painting would be fascinating! If each of the ten authors offers their individual insight it would be really mind-expanding to read.

    (Just to see how a book about one painting is illustrated would be fascinating!)

    I was really interested in your idea that he (re-)finished the painting as the chef-d’oeuvre for the museum. It certainly makes his intention with the alterations a pressing question.

    I would love it if you would send me images of Willumsen’s other output from the ’40s. It makes perfect sense that this painting would be more understandable in the context of his development at the time.

    Thank you again for your response and the obvious attention you gave your writing. It was, as I said, a pleasure to read.

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