Krøyer: An International Perspective

Krøyer: An International Perspective
Marianne Saabye

Exhibition Catalog
The Hirshsprung Collection,  Copenhagen, DE, 2011
367 pp., Trade: Kr. 295,00
ISBN: 978-87-90597-17-7.

In the Light of Italy, A Danish-Norwegian Artist Community 1879-1886
Jan Kokkin, Anne-Mette Villumsen, and Marianne Saabye

Exhibition Catalog
The Skovgaard Museum, Viborg, DE, 2016
295 pp. Trade, 205 SEK
ISBN: 978-87-90597-25-2.

Reviewed by Old
Giovanna L. Costantini
December 2020

As Scandinavian art has become more widely known outside the Nordic region with publications that accompany international exhibitions, two catalogs merit renewed interest for their transnational perspectives.  In particular, Marianne’s Saabye’s Krøyer, An International Perspective is an exceptional work of art historical scholarship of far-reaching interdisciplinary import. The Danish painter Peter Severin Krøyer (1851-1909), who was trained at both the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen and studios of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1870’s, is considered Denmark’s most distinctive modern artist, known especially for his sensitive characterization and vigorous figuration, often of fishermen engaged in strenuous endeavor against the forces of nature. As a plein air artist, he is identified closely with strains of Naturalism to emerge on the eve of French Impressionism through which effects of luminosity enhance the humble authenticity of regional subjects painted throughout Denmark, France, Italy and Spain. Krøyer’s renown rests especially on brilliant effects of light and twilight tonalities that envelop elegant evening strollers on the shores of Skagen, an art colony on the northernmost coast of Jutland where he regularly spent summers.  Recognized during his lifetime in numerous exhibitions throughout Europe and Scandinavia, he was a recipient of many prestigious awards as well as the French Legion of Honor. The aim of the Krøyer catalog is to approach the artist from a new angle within the wider European context of international engagement.

Amid evolving and highly disparate perspectives brought to the writing on art and artists, including art’s intersections with history, sociology, cultural studies and many other areas, the art exhibition catalog occupies a hallowed place in art historical epistemology with wide variation as to content and design. Ranging from catalogs confined to a single artist or collection to stylistic, chronological or thematic approaches, exhibition catalogs can include interpretive essays written by area specialists as well as critical scientific documentation. Data-centered, based exclusively in primary source material, to some degree, the Krøyer catalog achieves a level of specificity and analytic rigor required of a catalog raisonné (yet to be compiled) in addition to substantive exposition through entries written largely by Marianne Saabye, augmented by contributions from Jan Gorm Madsen, Katrine Halkier, Mette Børgh Jensen, Anna Schram Vejlby and Lisette Vind Ebbeesen in both Danish and English editions. Extensively notated, it includes over three hundred full color illustrations, a chronology, expography (exhibition history), list of the artist’s sales and gifts abroad, bibliography and index.

The catalog’s distinguishing value owes in large part to its rare specificity due to the survival of an unusually high quantity of written records kept by the artist over the course of a lifetime spanning the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries preserved and collected by The Hirschsprung Collection in Copenhagen. The tobacco manufacturer Heinrich Hirschsprung, the museum’s founder, was the painter’s principal patron throughout his career. Not only did Krøyer scrupulously maintain travel diaries, journals and ongoing artist sketchbooks, but also a collection of clippings, exhibition notices, account books, receipts and contracts that chronicle his day-to-day activity with extraordinary exactitude. Even more revealing is an epistolary archive consisting of hundreds of multilingual letters both sent and received, written in various hands, between the artist and family members, artist friends, collectors, dealers, foreign dignitaries and institutions. Correspondents include nationals from countries throughout Europe and Scandinavia culled from collections in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Mme. Saabye’s herculean capacity to access, review, compile and assimilate so vast a body of primary data is a remarkable accomplishment in itself.  Even more significant is the nuanced acumen she brings to an inquiry as deep as it is sweeping in scope.

The literature contextualizes a highly complex period of artistic development in Europe corresponding to the onset of modernism in artistic expression and ideology; the progression of the artist’s career; comparative art and artists; and an investigation of representative artworks. Through details such as the locations and dates of ever shifting residencies; where artists gathered and with whom; intercontinental travel and ever-changing travelling companions; what was seen, who was encountered; quips, exchanges, observations, discussions, we are provided uncommon insight into the artist’s inner life. Saabye weaves this information into a coherent interpretive narrative, exploring the qualities of each painting in relation to its context unconfined by theoretical or disciplinary strictures, categorical assignations (genre, portraiture, landscape), nationality or stylistic movement in a manner that is as descriptive as it is cognizant of the porosity of boundaries. She probes in separate essays special questions that merit a more focused inquiry such as the artist’s involvement in Breton art colonies, his participation in official Salons and the Paris World Expositions, his relationship to individual artists. At the same time, Saabye investigates problematic questions of provenance, lost artworks and corrections to records.

Why this exactitude is important is that exhibitions such as these point up the concurrency of rising internationalism and the budding formation of national identities during a period of widespread cultural advancement and vast sociological transformation marked by increasing cosmopolitanism, urban and industrial development, and expanding communication networks. This orientation also characterizes a related bi-lingual catalog, In the Light of Italy, published by the Hirschsprung, Skovgaard and Lillehammer Museums with contributions by Saabye, Jan Kokkin, and Anne-Mette Villumsen.  It surveys the contemporaneous artist colony of Sora and Civita d’Antino in southern Italy that encompasses a wider cross-section of Scandinavian artists.

Through such global perspectives we not only gain a broader understanding of leading artists, but a more holistic appreciation of the universal import of their emblematic pictures. For this reason, the discursive thread that animates Saabye’s narrative is one of elusive artistic motivation gleaned from subtle phrases expressed among confidants:  “Around me, scattered on table, floor, chairs, lie small scribbled-on sheets,” Krøyer writes to an unnamed correspondent, “they are not poetry—Lord, no—but they have a little to do with the world of ideas . . . I have really taken hold of a more idealistic subject, but come to it by a materialistic path. . . .” The path he intimates may have been that of the British materialists John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer whose social consciousness ignited many intellectuals and cultural elites of Paris and Copenhagen from Emile Zola to Georg Brandes during the 1880’s with unitary ideals of social integration evident in Krøyer’s earlier depictions of collective labor. They are ideas reflected in the critic Louis Fourcaud’s observation: “Here & there in the twilight gloaming, the form of a seaman is contoured.  It is life captured as it is—the life of men & the life of things--& I know of nothing more alluring.”