I recently saw a very good seminar by Dr Gry Hedin of the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, in Copenhagen. Entitled “Can landscape painting influence climate change?”, Hedin’s paper explored the development of landscape painting in Denmark from the 18th to the 20th century. (See also Hedin, G. (2018) ‘Anthropocene beginnings: entanglements of art and science in Danish art and archaeology, 1780-1840’, in G. Hedin and A-S.N. Gremaud (eds) Artistic Visions of the Anthropocene North: Climate Change and Nature in Art, (Routledge; New York), pp. 15-40).
This was a period in which ‘deep time’ was discovered, and this narrative was communicated to the public partly through art. It was an excellent paper, lavishly illustrated with images of many of the period’s most famous artists, from Jens Peter Møller and JL Lund in the early 19th century, through the work of Skovgaard and Lundbye in the mid-nineteenth century, and Peter Hansen at the turn of the 20th century, with works such as Ripe Rye (1891):
It was the images of the paintings of this last group that struck me as being familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time. According to Hedin, it was in the 1890s that a genre of Danish landscape painting developed that focussed on fields of cereal crops. These monochrome fields of industrial farming act as a celebration of human control and the practical marshalling of landscape resources epitomised for Hedin, in Peter Hansen’s The Ploughman Turns. Nature seems to be reduced to plain surfaces; a modern and thoroughly engineered landscape of production, clearly portrayed in Hammershøi’s Landscape from Falster for instance:
This is not a ‘natural’ landscape – and nor is it an ‘ancient’ landscape, unchanged for millennia. Rather this seems to be a narration (or ‘curation’) through which the rapidly industrialising landscape of late 19th/early 20th century Denmark can become naturalised, and legitimated as the authentic landscape of the Danish nation. Certainly, this genre of landscape art seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of modern Danish agriculture, which, through the attendant growth of influential agricultural co-operatives, lies at the heart of wider Danish modernisation and economic expansion during the 20th century. Harald Slott-Møller’s Danish Landscape (1891) is typical of this style of painting – the ‘natural’ national Danish landscape is a field of cereal crops:
There are three ‘critical heritage’ points that I would like to make from this:
First, while the landscapes depicted in these paintings appear to be thoroughly modern – give or take some technical machinery, they could have been painted yesterday – one should always remember the side of things that they do not show, but which they are completely connected to. Most obvious to me – at least when I am cycling around the countryside near Aarhus – are the huge pig factories; covered barns and silos (to store all that cereal-based feed), which dominate the Danish rural landscape. Pigs are everywhere; you may sometimes hear them, you always smell them, but you never see them!
Secondly, while these modern landscape paintings depict a thoroughly recent landscape, they seem to have instilled themselves within the psyche as to how the Danish landscape should look – and perhaps even as always looked. Most oddly to my mind, this industrial landscape has come to be seen as the epitome of a Danish landscape even among landscape historians and archaeologists who are working in entirely different eras. The Slott-Møller painting was familiar to me because I had seen something like it on the cover of a book: Fabech et al’s (2000) Settlement and Landscape. Skimming through the 54 chapters of this landmark publication by Aarhus University Press, I see that the vast majority of chapters deal with the Prehistoric era, with just a few chapters on the medieval era, and next-to-nothing on the post 1500 landscape, whether in ‘Denmark’ or elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that the stork seen flying low over golden fields in Slott-Møller’s painting, is now extinct in Denmark – for reasons that I would assume are connected to all that modern industrial farming! It is a nice painting, but it seems odd that it somehow stands for ‘landscape’ to a group of archaeologists who are mostly engaged in Prehistoric subject matter.
Lastly, as I cycled home from Gry Hedin’s seminar, it suddenly struck me why those images were so familiar. Of course, I had seen such an image, countless times, last Summer and early autumn. Mostly in magazines, newspapers or perhaps on bus shelters – connected to a massive advertising campaign by Danske Folkpartiet (the Danish People’s Party). Throw in a church and a flag, and for the Danish People’s Party this modern, recent and industrial version of the landscape is Denmark.
This is Denmark