Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Cristen Koebke

I'm not gone yet - and yesterday I was able to drop into the National Gallery and have a look at an exhibition in the Sunley Room of some 40 works by the Danish painter (of the first Danish 'golden age' in the early 19th century, the age of Kierkegaard), Cristen Koebke (I've no idea how to do that crossed O on this keyboard). It's exactly my kind of exhibition - compact, illuminating about an artist I barely knew, and full of remarkable paintings. Take the one above, of the plaster cast collection at Charlottenborg. This early work gives an ostensibly grand classical subject the tone - and the tonalities - of a domestic interior by Chardin, the figure of the man with the duster a mute commentary on the alien grandeur of those eloquently arranged fragments of antiquity. (I remember once touring the sculpture hall of a grand Yorkshire mansion and overhearing the blunt housewife next to me remarking to her friend, 'I wouldn't have the dusting of this lot'). Koebke was never at home in the academy, and only discovered his genius when he started painting the scenes and the people around him - initially in the Copenhagen citadel, where his father was the master baker, then out of town at watery Sortedamssoen. I'd seen a few of his startlingly original landscapes before, but hadn't realised what a brilliantly effective and psychologically penetrating portraitist he was. The portrait of his young friend and fellow artist Frederik Soedring (it's reproduced in little in Koebke's Wikipedia entry) is wonderfully fresh and energetic, breathing youthful enthusiasm and the excitement of a 'new age'. Koebke's landscapes are bathed in Danish light, full of sky and clouds and water. Perhaps the most extraordinary is a huge canvas titled Roof Ridges of Frederiksborg Castle, three quarters of which is sky, with the dark line of the roof ridges running along the bottom, the only vertical notes supplied by a beautifully rendered brick chimneystack and one of the castle's delicate baroque turrets. It's a breathtakingly bold piece of work, and was, perhaps understandably, never displayed in Koebke's lifetime - he found it difficult enough getting even his more conventional work accepted by the academy. As with Samuel Palmer, a trip to Italy produced some very fine sketches, but the finished paintings that followed, painted against the grain of the artist's natural inclinations (and palette), were failures. Koebke's career had fizzled out by the time he died, of pneumonia, at the age of only 37. It was for future generations to realise what an extraordinary artist Denmark had lost in Cristen Koebke...
If you find yourself anywhere near the National Gallery with an hour to spare, go and see this exhibition - you won't be sorry. It's on until mid-June.

8 comments:

  1. Would that I could just nip to the National Gallery to empty my head of all the political ghastliness that is swirling around inside. Koebke's pictures look marvellously restful and cleansing. Sadly, I'm stuck in my Fenland eyrie (can there be such a thing?) and will have to make do with Maggi Hambling's sea pictures at the Fitzwilliam instead.

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  2. Fenland eyrie - I like it! The Fitzwilliam a v fine museum...

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  3. Thanks for the tip, Nige. Will certainly check it out, even if the sight of that enormous male nude with the vigorously dusting gentleman makes me wonder what John Inman would have to say.

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  4. That looks brilliant - I've just had a good trawl around wikipedia after reading your words, and I must say that I love Koebke's ability with light and shadows, his paintings really leap off the canvas! Thank you for introducing me to something new and excellent! (again)

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  5. That's wonderful; Koebke is new to me and I love that picture. I shall definitely head for the National Gallery this weekend.

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  6. You have succeeded where all else has failed over the last six months - finally, I wish I was in London.

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