ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum is home to a significant collection of modernist art from the period 1900-1960 – six decades that revolutionised art. The modern world was defined and challenged by momentous, provocative artworks. Modernist experiments set new standards for art in a world that was constantly changing.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the shape of the society in the new century was already beginning to emerge. The world had changed by the turn of the century. Across the whole of Europe, industrialization was well under way, and the period signalled a cosmopolitan belief in the future of the twentieth century. A radically different approach to art was emerging. By the end of the nineteenth century, Naturalism had already been challenged by entirely new approaches to art. This new departure was given the general designation of Modernism.
In Denmark, Modernism made its breakthrough in the second decade of the twentieth century. Artists like Harald Giersing, Karl Isakson, Edvard Weie, Olaf Rude and Vilhelm Lundstrøm were poised to overturn conceptions of pictorial art. They went to Paris to be inspired by the studies that, inter alios, Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse were pioneering. Modernism in a Danish context became a complex body of various movements that adopted the international isms - Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism among others - and subjected them to Nordic interpretations. Visual art's new idiom emerged from a crucible, creating entirely new approaches to how the artist might work with colour, planes, lines and space.
During the inter-war period, in the wake of the classical Modernist artists, a new generation emerged. However, instead of continuing the exploration of the limits of art work of art, the young artists turned their gaze inwards. These artists were called 'mørkemalerne' - the dark painters - on account of the artists' more directly sensuous use of nature's own dark colours, and indeed, the inter-war period was itself a sombre time. Things close at hand became the starting point for a fundamental, existential search for artists such as Oluf Høst, Niels Lergaard and Jens Søndergaard.
At the same time, international Surrealism, which emerged as a reaction against the horrors of the First World War, found echoes in Denmark. Surrealism spotlighted the absurdity of the human psyche, our dreams and repressions, introducing the imagination as a crucial cognitive tool in visual art. Richard Mortensen, Ejler Bille and Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen, their differences in style notwithstanding, were Surrealism's standard bearers, while Wilhelm Freddie was responsible for introducing Surrealism in its figurative version into Denmark.
Surrealism's enshrining of the imagination prepared the ground for the international movement Cobra which emerged in 1948 only to end abruptly in 1951. During the three intense years of its existence, Cobra made an indelible impact on visual art. Asger Jorn took the initiative in founding the group together with a number of Dutch and Belgian artists, whose basic ideas about the imagination, the irrational and elemental emotional energies had a far-reaching effect on art. Their work was anchored in an undogmatic, spontaneous, experimental approach to art, grounded - with the horrors of war still fresh in the memory and the Cold War a present reality - in an idealistic vision of society.
At the same time, Richard Mortensen and Robert Jacobsen were pioneers in the "concrete art" which began 1947 and evolved around the progressive-minded venue Galerie Denise René in Paris. Concrete art would find the way to a cleansed, objective idom of universal validity. Art was to be the sphere from which the rebuilding of the world would take form. Rather than reflect reality, art was to find its own grammar, with this grammar being accorded the status of aesthetic norm. Only concrete elements - line, colour, geometry - would figure in this object-free art.
Cobra and concrete art developed more or less in parallel during the post-war years. Extending between these two opposite poles, an art form emerged during the 1950s that certainly incorporated experiences from Cobra and concrete art. However, at the same time it transformed experiences from the German occupation of Denmark and the increasingly intense Cold War into a personal, expressively based art founded on human experience. This movement was far removed from the avant-garde, and its foremost exponents were artists such as Svend Wiig Hansen and Mogens Andersen, who in a raw, gritty, expressive idiom articulated the collective post-war angst.