Tan Lines and Tradition

During my recent visit to Copenhagen, our friend and host Sarah suggested we take a day trip to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, located twenty-five miles up the coast from the city. “What’s with the name?”, you might ask (we did). According to their website, the property that was later converted into the museum was originally a country house built and named in 1855 by Alexander Brun (1814-93),  an officer and Master of the Royal Hunt and who married three women that were all named Louise. Museum founder Knud W. Jensen maintained the name when he took it over. My boyfriend and I were faced with deciding whether a trip to Louisiana would be the best use of our time, given that we only had two full days in Denmark. The hyperbolic entry in our Rick Steves Copenhagen & the Best of Denmark guidebook, describing the museum as a “holistic place that masterfully mixes its art, architecture, and landscape” where “poets spend days…nourishing their creative souls with new angles, ideas, and perspectives,” provoked some incredulous giggles, yet piqued our curiosity. A favorable weather forecast the next morning settled the matter: to Louisiana we would go!

103 kroner and 35 minutes later, we had alighted from the commuter train and were meandering down a quaint suburban road in a gentle stream of museum-bound tourists and stroller-pushing Copenhageners. We followed the flow to the edge of a wood, crossed a small parking lot, and encountered a shoulder-height sign posted at an opening in a dark green hedge that indicated the entrance to the museum grounds. As a museum nerd, I could rhapsodize about many aspects of my experience at Louisiana—its panoramic view of the Sound, sprawling sculpture gardens, and three floors of drop-in activities for children, to name a few—but in this post, I’ll focus on an exhibition that really tickled me, even though, when I first walked into it, I didn’t realize I was in an exhibition—no signage or wall text announced it as such.

I had just ducked through what I hoped was the entrance to the museum’s gallery spaces after purchasing my ticket—with its domestic-scaled, unmarked door frame and lack of security personnel policing entry, it seemed more like a friendly suggestion than a prescribed, programmatic starting point—when I encountered Untitled (below). As soon as my eyes adjusted to perceive the pale pink curving marks on the buttocks and upper torso of the figure, who lies in prone position on a velvet chaise lounge, legs straddling crumpled wads of bedclothes and drapery, something released in my chest and I grinned impulsively. This subtle intervention, in which German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann had applied a few strokes of lighter toned paint to an existing painting, radically altering its impact, established a tone of savvy irreverence that invited me to continue my viewing with a similarly playful, yet critical outlook.

Untitled, by Hans-Peter FeldmannUntitled, by Hans-Peter Feldmann. Source: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Peeling my eyes from the Salon-painting-model-turned-sunbather (or tanning booth addict),  I surveyed the small gallery to discover that I was surrounded by other cunning modifications ranging from black censor strips painted over mythological figures’ eyes to red clown noses on fusty portrait sitters’ faces. In the adjacent gallery there hung a canvas installed backward in its frame, wooden supports facing the viewer, and another displayed upside down.


feldmann_200315Source: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

A discreet Danish-English panel explained in small typeface that the pieces were mostly copies of famous works or paintings by “clearly minor masters,” picked up at sales and worked on by Feldmann. As I explored, I couldn’t help but notice other visitors, likely planning on charging through to the William Kentridge exhibition, stop and do double takes, pointing works out to their friends or family and chuckling lightly.

Feldmann’s engagement with the concept of tradition in European art may serve as fodder for an upcoming discussion with museum docents at my workplace. During a docent training on the use of inclusive language conducted by my colleague the week after I returned from Denmark, the docents were asked to identify words related to their practice whose definitions have changed over time.  The group discussed some of the terms and then transitioned to an exercise designed to unpack the term “tradition,” as it’s used in art. For the activity, my colleague had the docents observe and discuss images of three new works from our collection by Imran Qureshi that dialogue directly with the tradition of the Persian miniature.  Struck by both the parallels and differences I noted between Qureshi’s  and Feldmann’s approaches, I shared with her about the pieces I’d seen at Louisiana after the session. She, too, was intrigued by Feldmann’s paintings, and we’ve discussed utilizing his work to continue the conversation around tradition at a subsequent training. I can’t wait to see how the docents respond to his turning Salon painting (in some cases, literally) on its head!


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