Thursday, 19 January 2012

New books: The iconography of Margrethe II

Denmark is blessed with a monarch who is passionate about the arts, and portraiture is an art form which has had a revival during her reign, the art historian Thyge Christian Fønss points out in his interesting new book Portrætter af en dronning – Margrethe den [sic] II i portrætkunsten 1972-2012, published in October on the occasion of her jubilee, which was celebrated in the usual grand style last weekend.
The author has chosen to include painted portraits, tapestries and busts, but only those for which the Queen has sat and/or which have been acquired by the monarch herself or by public institutions. He states his reasons for excluding photography, caricature and other art forms, but does not explained why miniature paintings are not included (the “family orders” worn by Queen Margrethe’s daughters-in-law are examples of the now rather rare technique of miniature painting). Some of the portraits show the Queen together with the Prince Consort, one shows her in a group and another is more a history painting than a portrait, but such distinctions are not made here.
While some reigns are almost defined by the works of one artist – such as the reign of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein – or at least strongly identified with one artist – such as Christian IX with Laurits Tuxen or Carl XIV Johan with Fredric Westin – no artist has stood out as The Court Painter of Margrethe II. The individual with the greatest influence on the iconography of Margrethe II is probably the late photographer Rigmor Mydtskov.
The twenty or so portraits of Queen Margrethe are thus rather diverse in style. However, there are some painters who have been commissioned to paint the Queen on several occasions, among them Preben Hornung and Niels Strøbek – the latter’s fourth portrait was unveiled at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Palace on the occasion of the jubilee. There are some famous international names among the artists – Pietro Annigoni and Andy Warhol stand out – but the majority are Danes, of various generations, most of them male.
Following an introduction about the history of royal portraits, which may be enlightening to many, the author treats each portrait chronologically. There are large reproductions of the artworks and often also of details. Some are also shown in the milieu where they hang and earlier or alternative sketches for some of them are also included. Fønss analyses the composition of the portrait, the references it contains and frequently he also gives the readers the background history of each portrait and some glimpses of the process leading to the picture’s completion. The author has obviously benefited from the assistance offered him by the artists (or their heirs).
Fønss has done a good job in identifying other artworks of relevance to the portraits he discusses and the historical references they contain. For instance he points out how the Queen’s pose in Thomas Kluge’s second portrait of her is obviously inspired by that of Christian II’s daughter Christina, Duchess of Milan, in Holbein’s portrait of her, painted when she was considered as a possible fourth wife for Henry VIII of England.
Each portrait is thus given a thorough consideration in a chapter of its own, but the book might have benefited from the portraits being seen more in the context of each other. This might perhaps have been solved by including a summarising chapter towards the end, where the author could also have made some concluding remarks about the development of royal portraiture in Denmark through the last four decades. Nevertheless he makes the reader fully aware of the fact that the reign of Margrethe II has been a golden age for portraiture, particularly considering the low standing of this genre in Denmark forty years ago, and that the many portraits of the Queen have been hugely significant for the positive development in this regard.
The author appears quite diplomatic in that he very rarely has anything remotely critical to say about any of the portraits, although it must be admitted that a few of them are not very good. But it seems to me that sometimes, between the lines, one may just sense that some of the portraits are more the author’s cup of tea than others.
Given the absence of critical remarks about the portraits of Queen Margrethe it is altogether more notable that Fønss is generally dismissive of the portraits of other current monarchs. His rather negative view of Lucian Freud’s famous portrait of Elizabeth II comes as something of a surprise, while Håkon Gullvåg’s portraits of the King and Queen of Norway are written off with some remarks about their not being well-received by a tabloid newspaper, which is certainly a very un-nuanced version of the story. And should contemporary art necessarily be uncontroversial?
I am also not sure I agree entirely with Fønss when he states that “English [sic] royal portraiture of the twentieth century has been extraordinarily retrospective and unoriginal”. One may in my opinion well argue that some of the portraits of Elizabeth II or the state portraits of King Harald V and Queen Sonja are more artistically daring than the portraits of Margrethe II, most of which could be described as rather conventional paintings which have not really moved artistic boundaries within the genre.
The book, which is in large format, is beautifully produced, but unfortunately it has been very badly proof-read. As a result there are many grammatical errors, particularly when it comes to punctuation, capitalisation, words being split into two and the difference between “hans/hendes” and “sin”. The author generally writes “England” and “English” where “Britain” and “British” would have been correct, the name of Frederik VIII’s consort is mistakenly given as “Louisa” (she was born Princess Lovisa of Sweden and of Norway and became Queen Louise of Denmark, but she never used the name Louisa), Lucian Freud has become “Lucien Freud” etc.
One also wonders why the author refers to King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland as a parvenu, given that he belonged to a dynasty which had been reigning for some 300 years at the time. The pearl tiara which Queen Margrethe wears in several portraits is erroneously said to have been a wedding present to “Louisa” in 1869, although primary sources show clearly that it was in the possession of her mother at the time of the latter’s death in 1871 (consequently, Louise must have inherited it after her mother’s death).
While Mikael Melbye’s recent portrait of the Queen surrounded by the three silver lions from Rosenborg is the last to be included in the book, the iconography of Margrethe II keeps evolving. A portrait of her with her two heirs, by Niels Strøbek, who also painted the first portrait of her as Queen, was, as mentioned above, unveiled last week, while Thomas Kluge, the artist behind two of her more significant portraits, is currently working on a group portrait of the Queen and Prince Consort with their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, which will hang at Fredensborg Palace and mirror Laurits Tuxen’s famous painting of King Christian IX and Queen Louise with their descendants. I am told that the latter painting will be the subject of Fønss’s next book.
For an art historian of the younger generation this is book is an impressive and convincing debut which makes one look forward to his future publications.

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