Appreciating Art in Copenhagen’s National Gallery Part One: The Royal Collection

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National Gallery of Denmark, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark

Like practically everywhere else in Copenhagen, the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), which I was expecting to be not that interesting, was absolutely fantastic.  The Danes are masters of doing everything wonderfully.  The museum itself is attractive, the art is great, the lighting, the level of information given – everything was perfect.  I love the Danes.

The history of the collection is rather interesting.  It started with King Christian IV, who was an eager castle builder and needed pretty pictures to hang on those cold, vast walls.  He often bought paintings in bulk – he didn’t really know much about art, and he was keen on pictures that showed drama, easy to understand symbolism and solid moral lessons.  While some of the art was given to the Swedes as spoils of war in 1658, a lot has remained in Denmark, and some is still in the SMK.

It was with the appointment in 1750 of Gerhard Morell as the Keeper of King Frederik V’s Art Chamber that art was bought more thoughtfully.  Morell suggested to the King that he really should have an art collection like other European royals.  Frederick V wasn’t that interested in art, but he happily sent Morell off to the Netherlands to buy, buy, buy.  And Morell happily bought, bought, bought – and he showed good sense and taste in his acquisitions: for example he got Andrea Mantegna’s Christ as the Suffering Redeemer (not on show when I visited).
In 1827, the Royal Art Gallery – ‘Det Kongelige Billedgalleri’ – opened its doors to the public.  It was housed in a specially built picture gallery at Christiansborg Palace, even though the art actually became public property in 1849 with the abolition of absolute monarchy in Denmark.  Still, the Palace continued to house the collection until 1884, when on the night of the 3rd/4th October, a terrible fire swept through Christiansborg.  It’s said that the ageing King Christian IX was involved in rescuing the art, but whether this is true or not, the paintings were evacuated with incredible efficiency.  The large canvases were quickly, but carefully, cut from their frames.  The paintings were taken out in order of importance.  The majority of works therefore survived the flames, which is pretty amazing.

In 1896, the paintings moved into the newly built Statens Museum for Kunst. It was designed by Vilhelm Dahlerup, who was a major architect of his time and was also involved in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.  Interestingly, the building didn’t go down well amongst critics, who though the style was old-fashioned and overly heavy.  Most bizarrely, it was also too small to house the whole royal collection that had been made homeless by the Christiansborg fire.

And the museum held a lot of art.  Not only did it have paintings, displayed in the salon style, where every inch of space was filled with a Tetris display of art, but there was also a collection of plaster casts of famous sculptures, and a formidable collection of graphic arts (drawings, woodcuts etc.) by artists like Goya and Dürer.

It was only in the 1960s that something was finally done about the space issue.  There was a major refurbishment of the museum, by architect Nils Koppel, which not only involved big architectural changes, but also led to the plaster casts being taken out (they are now at Vestindisk Pakhus on the harbour front of Copenhagen).

In 1998, a new wing to the museum was opened.  It was designed by Anna Maria Indrio of C.F. Møllers Tegnestue, and it is a modernist structure which runs parallel to the original building.  The two buildings are connected by the glass roof and gangways, which is both attractive and practical.  Quite honestly, I thought this area was really cool – it feels very respectful, as it means you get to preserve and admire the original building.  At the same time, the new design is ageless, classy and ‘ignorable’ in the nicest way.

European Art

Thanks to the 18th century purchases of Gerhard Morell, the galleries dedicated to European art are great to explore.  The fact that there are Rembrandts on show is a bonus.

please click here for Part Two

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