SMK – the national gallery of Denmark – houses the nation’s largest collection of art. Comprising more than 260,000 pieces, the collection is the basis underpinning all its work. With origins that date back to the private art collections amassed by Danish monarchs, the collection remains very much alive today: new works of art are added regularly.
Spanning more than seven hundred years of art, the collection tells the story of how Denmark has changed through the ages: initially a major political power, Denmark later transitioned from being an absolute monarchy into a small national state, ultimately becoming a modern democracy in the age of globalisation. At the same time the collection tells us something about the human condition throughout this development.
Melancholy (1532) by Lucas Cranach the ElderSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Lucas Cranach the Elder
The sixteenth-century artist Lucas Cranach has become very popular in recent years, prompting a steady succession of exhibitions featuring his mysterious images.
His style is very clearly painted, with crisp contours and clear, bright planes of colour, and there is something cartoonish about the visual language, like a graphic novel. The painting is super strange, and the question of what the painting is actually about remains open.
Melancholy shows three naked toddlers trying to pass a large ball through a hoop while a winged woman, lost in thought, is whittling away at a stick, perhaps in order to make yet another hoop.
In the background we see a beautiful landscape, but it too is highly mysterious. We see witches riding various types of animal, a very finely dressed gentleman astride a satanic-looking goat, and an entire army toppling over with no visible adversary in sight.
A View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards the Suburb Nørrebro outside Copenhagen (1838) by Christen KøbkeSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Christen Købke is one of the pre-eminent Danish artists of the Golden Age, and his painting contains all the beauty and harmony most people associate with this period.
The water with the reddish colour gives the scene a sunset feel. But it turns out that the scene did not look like this initially. Our conservators have discovered that the water was painted using Prussian blue, a pigment which can turn red over time.
The picture has previously been interpreted as a farewell scene, but seen in the new light and judging by the way the oars are positioned in the water, the interpretation is no longer as clear-cut, making the painting less romantic than previously assumed.
Irrespective of the colour of the water and the sky, we are still left with a painting that helps define the Golden Age and our ideas about Danishness. The flag is flown – not just for the sake of the composition, but also to illustrate how Christen Købke was interested in national identity.
Woman in a Chemise (1906) by André DerainSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Effortless nonchalance and confident mastery. That’s the winning combination which enabled André Derain to create a masterpiece that now ranks among the museum’s ten greatest highlights – and among the visitors’ firm favourites.
His painting shows a dancer from the restaurant and night club Le rat mort (The Dead Rat). Half undressed, the dancer sits with her stockinged legs crossed, slumped on what looks like a bed as she looks directly out at us.
If you look more closely at the female figure’s hand, it is completely deformed, but still it seems exactly right in the picture, giving it a sense of freshness and wildness.
Note the flowing lines. The painting is very nonchalant in its execution, yet insanely confident at the same time. It is utterly compelling as a work of art, and at the same time it sends a strong signal about what French Modernism is.
Per Kirkeby is one of the most important and versatile Danish artists in recent years. Exceptionally prolific in his work, he established himself as an important and original artist in his native Denmark and internationally.
The work is a so-called blackboard painting which is a distinctive type of painting within Per Kirkeby’s extensive body of work: this is where he develops the imagery – or, to use his own term, ‘structures’ – that will come to form the fundamental fabric of his painting
The first of Kirkeby’s blackboards is created back in 1970, and he repeatedly returned to the format throughout his career. Identical in size, 122 x 122 cm, all of these works are done on hardboard sheets primed with blackboard paint.
The Fall of the Titans (1588-1590) by Cornelis Cornelisz. van HaarlemSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem
The Danish king Christian IV bought The Fall of the Titans back in 1621. It was pulled out of storage at SMK in the late 1980s. Since then, this vast painting by Dutch artist Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlems has been one of the most beloved works in the SMK collection.
The painting shows the story of the battle fought by the titans, cyclopes and giants against the Olympian gods, headed by Zeus. As is clearly apparent from this scene, the titans suffered a crushing defeat: Zeus cast them down into the underworld of Tartarus, from whence they cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The painting is also full of strategically placed butterflies. These are among the kind of creatures that people imagined living in Hell. Insects were associated with fire at this time: people thought they were born out of fire because they are attracted to light, flitting into flames.
The artist took great pains to demonstrate his skill at combining the study of ancient sculptures and of naked bodies, translating them into pictures that matched the period’s ideas about the ideal body.
A Room in the Artist's Home in Strandgade, Copenhagen, with the Artist's Wife (1901) by Vilhelm HammershøiSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Vilhelm Hammershøi was a true master of enigmatic and atmospheric spaces. His interior scenes depicting his own living room in Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen are particularly famous, making him the best-known Danish artist internationally.
The Hammershøi palette most often comprises the colours black, white, grey and brown, but these can encompass myriad shades, and other colours may be mixed in too. A conservator have identified more than forty different kinds of white in the painting.
Approximately sixty-six of Hammershøi’s paintings of interiors are set in the flat in Strandgade 30, where he lived from 1898 to 1908. This corresponds to almost half of his total production during that period.
One of the reasons why these images are so compelling is Hammershøi’s ability to allow scope for the imagination and appeal to our senses to the point where we can almost feel the light and the heat.
At the French Windows. The Artist's Wife (1897) by L.A. RingSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Laurits Andersen Ring
There is always more at stake than what meets the eye in an L. A. Ring painting. One example is this portrait of his young wife, which is also among the ten main highlights at SMK.
The painting shows how portraits of women (and wives) change around 1900, becoming more nuanced. Women are allowed to appear more self-sufficient, to display greater personality and appear much more independent.
This is precisely the kind of summer we all dream of, with a lush garden and a beautiful woman too. Remember, this is the woman he has just married, so he is obviously interested in depicting her as part of a world he sees as happy. A very positive picture.
The disruptive element in the painting is the old tree with the gnarled branches: its skeletal structure adds a discordant note to the idyll, reminding us of life’s impermanence and prompting thoughts of death.
Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann
Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann carved herself a place in European art history with her portraits of oriental women. Compared to her male colleagues, she applied a different kind of gaze on women, allowing them to have strong personalities and self-esteem.
You get the sense that here we face strong personality who is not prepared to simply be a sex object, but who has strong self-esteem. In this respect, the artist’s pictures are very different from what we generally call European Orientalism –a long tradition of male artists painting beautiful oriental women dressed in very little; pictures that were bought by men and looked at by men.
Unlike the artist male colleagues, she was admitted into the Turkish harems. Perhaps this is why her portraits of oriental women show them as sensuous and proudly confrontational figures, often looking directly at the observer instead of averting their eyes.
Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line (1905) by Henri MatisseSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Henri Matisse is a true world-class artist, and his Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line, depicting his wife, Amélie Matisse, is a masterpiece of twentieth-century portraiture and one of SMK’s ten main highlights.
While the painting has many features that are instantly recognisable from the real world, it is not a naturalistic depiction of the artist’s wife. Matisse does not seek to paint what he sees as accurately as possible and is not concerned with displaying specific aspects of his model or with creating a psychological portrait.
Nor is the painting about the relationship between him and his wife; rather, it seeks convey an inner experience. The green line dividing the face into two halves, a cold and a warm one, contributes to a plane-like effect that makes the portrait mask-like and abstract.
08:03:51 (2009) by Danh VoSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst
Danh Vo is one of Denmark’s pre-eminent artists on the international scene, and SMK has followed his career right from the outset. The Vietnam War changed his life, and his art is loaded with references to international politics, historical events and, importantly, his own life.
The chandelier originally hung over a large conference table in the main hall of the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, the place where Vietnam and the United States signed the peace treaty between the two nations in 1973
At the age of four, Danh Vo and his family set out from war-torn Vietnam in a boat. In his works, he carefully selects objects and documents that tell stories of universal and ever-present themes such as colonialism, religion and identity – and about the rise, fall and continuous transformations of cultures
The chandelier is a unique object, pointing simply, yet with great complexity to how major world events criss-cross with personal, individual lives
Read more about our ten highlights at SMK.dk.