Sunday, 1 November 2009

What to see: Excellent Abildgaard exhibition in Copenhagen

To mark the 200th anniversary of his death the Danish National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) currently has an excellent exhibition on the great neoclassical painter and architect Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), titled “Nicolai Abildgaard – Kroppen i oprør” (literally “The Body Rebelling”, but officially translated as “Revolution Embodied”). It began as a small exhibition at the Louvre last winter, grew into a somewhat bigger event in Hamburg and culminates in a large exhibition in Copenhagen, showing Abildgaard’s historical and allegorical paintings, figure studies, drawings, sketches, architectural designs and furniture.
Abildgaard, who spent five years studying in Rome together with other artists exploring the radical ideas emerging towards the end of the 18th century, started out as a history painter, at the time held to be the finest of genres. Upon his return to Denmark in 1778 he was commissioned to decorate the Great Hall at Christiansborg Palace with huge paintings illustrating the history of the Oldenburg dynasty from Christian I to Christian VII.
The first picture above shows a sketch for one of these paintings, namely “Christian IV aboard his flagship ‘Trinity’”, painted in 1782. The series included one painting for each of the Oldenburg kings, but sadly all but four of them were destroyed when Christiansborg Palace burnt down in 1794. “There my name burns”, Abildgaard is alleged to have said as he watched the burning palace.
Abildgaard was unable to make a living by painting alone and therefore also embarked on a career as a designer and architect. The best-known item he designed is the so-called Klismos chair; the second photo shows such a chair from his own home.
The Christiansborg fire meant that the royal family moved to the noble mansions at Amalienborg, awaiting the completion of the second Christiansborg (they remain at Amalienborg to this day, more than 125 years after also the second Christiansborg burned down). Hereditary Prince Frederik bought Levetzau Mansion (today known as Christian VIII’s Palace) and entrusted the task of rebuilding and redecorating it to Abildgaard. The third photo shows a detail from the Great Hall designed by Abildgaard. His drawings for Amalienborg are also included in the exhibition.
Among the other works included in the exhibition are several of his studies of the human body, including “Standing Nude” (fourth picture), which was done in Rome in 1772-1777, and some of his allegories. A notable example of the latter genre is “Jupiter Weighing the Fate of Man” (fifth picture). Painted in the colours of the Tricolour and executed in 1793, this is a subtle tribute to the ideals of the French revolution. In 1799 allegories were banned in Denmark, meaning that most of such works by Abildgaard were never exhibited in public.
Several of his satirical drawings are also included in the exhibition – Abildgaard, who was himself an agnostic if not an atheist, disapproved of religion’s strong position in society, something which is evident from many of his satirical drawings. But other topics were also addressed – the sixth picture shows “Catherine the Great Departing this World” (1796-1797).
“Nicolai Abildgaard – Revolution Embodied” is on until 3 January and is definitely worth a visit. The book accompanying the exhibition is available in both Danish and English.
Except the third (which is by me) all photos in this post are by SMK Foto.
From the museum’s website:

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